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Remember the Fun When You Began Collecting?
By Paul M. Green, Numismatic News
August 22, 2013

This article was originally printed in Numismatic News.
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The 1960 small date Lincoln cent in $12 in MS-65 and $16 in Proof-65. To many, that is about as exciting as the old magazines in the doctor’s office, but to those of us who had a great deal of fun with the 1960 small-date cents, it is noteworthy and perhaps belated recognition that maybe while having all that fun we were only partially crazy.

Those prices signify that the small date has found a permanent place in numismatics. But at the same time, it did not make us rich.

One of the great joys of watching the 50-state quarter program was to relive days long ago when looking at change could yield something interesting. Certainly the state program helped get many newcomers interested in collecting and it definitely helped TV stations sell commercials other than for overpriced coins and other offers many question.

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But watching people build quarter collections also teaches us the lesson yet again that a part of numismatics is that we are supposed to have fun with it. It is difficult to conceive of collecting if it is seen as work by hobbyists.

In the modern world and with professional grading services and record auction prices constantly making headlines we can sometimes forget that the best way to attract future generations of collectors is not to try and dazzle them with profit projections, or any number of other reasons for collecting coins.

Reason goes only so far and it probably isn’t among the first thoughts of a new collector. Fun, however, might be.

At times we have gotten away from that and it has never helped interest many in coin collecting on a permanent basis. Investors disappear when their returns diminish.

Numismatics is, after all, a hobby, and whether you make or lose money on a hobby is very simply a secondary idea to having fun.

My uncle has a small plane. Others fish or hunt or work in their garden and whatever it is people do in their leisure time, the goal is not profit. Remembering that helps us to return to those roots, which we sometimes forget.

Certainly had fun not been a major element in collecting, it is highly unlikely that I would be writing articles today. Coin collecting at least in my mind from the very start has included a healthy element of fun as well as equal parts of history and interesting things to learn. It started out that way in the mid 1950s from an unexpected source.

During a game at school I had successfully managed to lose most of the skin from one arm. To someone in the fourth grade, it was a devastating way to start a summer and it meant potentially weeks of waiting for it to heal while doing absolutely nothing. Then one day I went to visit a friend and he started talking about coin collecting.

In part Billy Field was perhaps in training for later life. Even in the fourth grade he was slightly different and unusually motivated. He sat that day after the usual polite questions about my arm and out of the blue suddenly started an inspirational speech on the Mercury dime.

People who are just approaching 10 years of age do not usually give inspirational lectures on the Mercury dime. I sometimes suspected that this might have been the first indication that Billy would attend West Point, which he later did, but after listening to him for over an hour discuss what a great thing it would be to find a 1916-D Mercury dime and how with enough work it might just be possible I was convinced that Billy might have a good idea in this coin collecting thing.

If nothing else, just agreeing with him would end the speech, which was running out of steam anyway when he switched to the 1944-D, so I got up and explained I would investigate this idea of coin collecting further. I have been investigating it ever since.

Part of my friend’s lecture was regarding the fun of searching for better dates and sometimes I think it would be a great deal of fun simply to try to assemble the complete set of 50-state quarters from circulation. Sure, they would be circulated, but anyone who grew up in the 1950s remembers the fun of the hunt to fill holes in Whitman holders.

Back then, even if you did not find any coins you needed, you were seeking the feel of a roll of Lincoln cents in your hand waiting to be opened to see if finally you might see a 1909-S VDB. It was at least as good as an unopened pack of baseball cards where you might find a Mickey Mantle. It was enormously exciting to the point where during the summer I would make as many as three trips to the bank in a single day simply to recycle rolls.

Even if you found nothing for your collection, there were still coins like the 1960 small date or 1945-S “micro S” Mercury dime that were great fun. It was one of the characteristics of the time that almost everyone collecting coins also seemed to have a real feeling that at any moment you just might get lucky and if not in the sets you were trying to complete with one of the better coins you knew were still circulating.

Perhaps we had been reading too many stories about lucky people finding a 1955 doubled-die cent in circulation or maybe it was some other reason, but we were curious and probably wildly optimistic when it came to things like varieties and errors. The 1955 doubled die was a legitimate and perhaps perfect error for the time, but even lesser coins were extremely exciting and interesting.

The 1945-S “micro S” Mercury dime seemed to hold great potential at the time as it was definitely tougher than the regular 1945-S and it was easy to tell if the mintmark was smaller than normal. It never reached unusually high prices except in MS-65 with full split bands. That grade came many years later. Finding one in circulation seemed exciting when I was a kid.

Much the same could be said of the 1960 small-date Lincoln cent. Of course we had help thanks to a few dealers promoting the 1960 small dates, but for a time it seemed truly possible that especially the Philadelphia 1960 small date with its shorter upper curve of the “6” had a legitimate chance to be a very special coin. It did not work out quite the way we might have expected, but the fun was finding even one.

The small-date 1960-D Lincoln cent was suspect from the start as they were too available. Even so, there was always hope and I ended up with more than roll of them simply because they kept popping up. I knew they could not be that tough as if they were, I was going to retire at age 11, but I was taking no chances as everyone was talking about small dates and I kept finding them. In some respects one of the best things for the 50-state quarter program and collectors today in my opinion would be if someone found a truly spectacular error that could result in most of the nation checking their change and having fun. The “extra leaf” Wisconsin was nice, but it did not reach the level of excitement of the small-date cents.

One of the best parts of collecting in the 1950s or almost any time in my opinion was the local coin shop. The local coin shop today may be far less of an institution than it was in the 1950s when it seemed like every town had at least a couple of them. The point was not that you had to go there and buy or sell coins. Actually many times it was not that easy to sell coins as the small local coin shop tended to not have much interest in buying many coins.

It was a place where you could go and talk about coins and learn about them as well. It was a great place to sometimes see the coins you were reading about like a 1916-D Mercury dime or 1909-S VDB cent and where you could learn from others who seemed to always be willing and happy to share their experiences in finding coins. In today’s world, the coin shop is not as significant, but shows, clubs and the internet can still serve the same purpose and there is nothing better than talking with others who share the same passion to keep your interest strong.

My mother always claimed I was an easy although sometimes challenging youngster as I was always capable of amusing myself. Coins and an interest in history helped and they combined perfectly when I saw advertisements for “unsearched” Indian Head cent rolls.

Whether anyone ever found an 1877 Indian Head cent in such “unsearched” roll would be an interesting question, but the roll more than paid for itself simply in the hours I spent looking at each of the many 1907 Indian Head cents in it and considering the age of the coin and what life was like back in 1907. The fact that there was a cent from the Civil War in each roll simply made such rolls spectacular in my mind, meaning it would be stored under my bed next to my rusty Civil War bayonet, stray reptiles and whatever else I currently considered a treasure too important to be further than arm’s reach from where I slept as there was no way I would risk losing my copper-nickel cent from 1863.

On a limited budget I was always in search of bargains and that meant junk boxes were a place where I could easily spend a couple of hours every week. Almost every coin shop seemed to have them. I never believed the story that the one known 1870-S half dime was found in such a box, as they were never that good, but I did find a 1909-S Lincoln cent and I still contend that it ranks as one of the best finds ever in such a discount box where the coins were usually AG-3 and rarely very good. That said, there was always hope and I loved such things to the point of driving my mother crazy with my weekly disappearance on Tuesday night, which was the town garbage night, as I had to cruise the streets just looking to see if anyone’s trash might earn a place under my bed next to the 1907 Indian Head cents.

In fact, the government made an effort to keep me off the streets or at least out of other people’s trash by offering $100 bags of Susan B. Anthony dollars back in 1979. It might seem a little unusual to pay a small premium to simply get coins that should be readily available at the local bank, but with most of the people rejecting the Anthony dollar quickly and the banks following the lead of their customers by not stocking significant amounts, it was a sure way to have a number of Anthony dollars to examine. With a long track record of searching rolls and regular change, the chance to go through $100 in Anthony dollars was clearly an opportunity not to be missed – at least for me.

In fact, there were no special discoveries in my $100 in Anthony dollars but it was fun and interesting as taking a couple evenings to compare the coins you could see characteristics along with the occasional small defect. I was also happy to learn later that I was not alone in liking to examine Anthony dollars as Dave Sundman at the Littleton Coin Company received a good deal of attention many years later with his interesting display of Anthony dollar errors.

In fact, the fun with the Anthony dollars continued as even after the time spent going through them I was able to take time to try to spend them just to see what would happen. We take for granted that any coin of the United States will be accepted, but I can suggest that at least in a couple isolated cases that this was not the case with the Anthony dollar.

More than once when trying to pay with an Anthony dollar I was greeted with, “Don’t you have anything else?” Which while just short of refusal certainly also falls well short of making you feel your Anthony dollar is welcome.

In fact, after mixed results to say the least in trying to use my Anthony dollars, I ended up spending the last ones at the local post office as right over the window where they sold stamps was the sign touting the Anthony dollar as “The dollar of the future.”

Looking through Indian Head cents and Anthony dollars was certainly fun but perhaps the most interesting times over the years have been spent at coin shows.

The coin show in terms of opportunities to look and learn is even better than the old coin shop simply because the selection of coins offered is so much greater especially at a major show. Even though many of the nation’s most important dealers knew I was hardly in the market to purchase an 1895 proof Morgan dollar, or other rarity, they were in most cases remarkably friendly and in some cases actually would come running to find me to share a treasure or show me an interesting coin.

I was always careful not to bother them when they had a real customer as after all they are at coin shows to make money and not to talk to me but at slow periods, which happen in any show, I would sit down at their table and ask what was their favorite coin in their inventory or what was their best purchase at the show. More often than not they would be happy to answer such questions and in both cases I would usually learn a great deal as to why a coin was their favorite or what made a certain coin the best purchase from the show.

Whether it is a major dealer at an American Numismatic Association convention, or Florida United Numismatists show, or the local dealer in the smallest coin shop, it has always been learning from others that ranks close to the top in terms of fun for me.

I can remember cheerfully spending time with a small local dealer and a couple other customers examining three uncirculated 1950-D Jefferson nickels, which were all the same price. I was trying to decide which of the three was the best, giving me my first real experience in actually seeing that not all Mint State coins are the same.

Years later, I remember at a Long Beach show spending hours talking to dealers about a half cent that had been struck many times, speculating how the coin could even have been produced as well as how it could have reached circulation. In both cases the opinions were not the same yet both cases allowed me to see how others more expert than I would in one case grade a coin and in the other explain a coin and it is the sort of experience I could never have too much of as learning at least to me is always fun.

Perhaps the greatest advantage modern collectors have is that with new quarters as well as new commemoratives every year the chance exists to examine new coins.

New designs were always fun for me whether it was the Lincoln Memorial cent in 1959 or the Kennedy half dollar in 1964. I was never content until I had seen at least a roll of the new design simply to study. Of course, after 1954 there were no new commemorative issues to study until 1982, but collectors today do not have that problem.

New coins, whether for regular circulation or commemoratives, are always interesting and fun as you never know just what you might find. After all, someone found the first 1955 doubled die or any other rarity and the only way they found the coin was by carefully looking at it. It always struck as a bit like finding a new comet in the night sky as the odds were heavily stacked against you finding anything, but if you did not try that was the only way to be certain you would never find anything. To me at least the trying to find something was a large part of the fun.

Realistically, at today’s prices it would be hard to convince most that the only point of coin collecting is to have fun, but it needs to be a large part of the hobby for it to continue to appeal to everyone. What is fun for one person may not be fun for another, but happily coin collecting offers many possible ways to have fun. Especially with so many new issues every year the potential for fun today seems to be at close to an historical high and that should encourage everyone to not only continue but to expand their collections in the days ahead as the fun of collecting has never changed. With such an attitude every day as well as every visit to a coin shop, club meeting or major show becomes not just an activity but something closer to an exciting adventure.

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