Willow Tree Coinage: John Hull 2.0

John Hull’s second series of silver coins produced at his Boston, Massachusetts mint were the first dated coins in what would become the United States. This “Willow Tree” design is believed to have been produced from 1653 to 1660. It was determined that Hull’s simple “NE” coins were easy to counterfeit and prone to clipping because of the absence of a border to the design. Clipping was the process of cutting slivers of silver off the edges of coins and passing the now underweight coins at full value.

On October 19, 1652 legislation was passed paving the way for the new design. The “Willow Tree” name was first noted in W.E. Woodward’s sale of the Joseph Mickley collection in 1867. These coins were very crudely struck, perhaps on a rocker press rather than by hand, the “tree” appearing as a mass of lines and squiggles that really doesn’t resemble any specific tree. The coins were struck in denominations of threepence, sixpence, and shilling with the obverse consisting of the tree in the center surrounded by inner and outer rings of dots. These rings are separated by the legend MASATHVSETS. IN. The reverse bears the date 1652 with the denomination in Roman numerals below. Inner and outer rings of dots surround, separated by the legend NEW ENGLAND AN DOM or a version thereof. The dotted rings were to provide some security against clipping.

Throughout the life of the Willow Tree series the date remains the same. For some time it was believed this was to avoid English recriminations for unlawfully producing coinage in the colonies. Only England had the authority to mint coins, so the theory was that by keeping the date as 1652, Massachusetts could claim that the coins were produced when Oliver Cromwell was in power during the English civil war. Louis Jordan in his book “John Hull, the Mint and the Economics of Massachusetts” dismisses this story. He concludes from his research that the Massachusetts mint was not under any political pressure to close. Jordan believes it far more likely that the date simply commemorates the year of the coinage’s authorizing legislation.

Though many experts disagree on several points regarding Hull’s Willow Tree coinage, they all agree on this: all are exceedingly rare. So rare that they are seldom seen even in larger collections. When they are encountered, well worn coins are the norm, a testament to their popularity in colonial Massachusetts.

The NE (New England) Coinage of 1652

On May 27, 1652 an act was passed by the Massachusetts General Court providing for the establishment of a mint. Over the next few weeks the Court hashed out the specifics of the mint’s location and operation. It was determined that John Hull, a silversmith, would become mintmaster, along with Hull’s friend Robert Sanderson assisting.

Controversy surrounds the actual reasons for the creation of a mint at this time. Phillip Mossman states in his incredible book “Money of the American Colonies and Confederation” that, “the mint came into existence as a reaction to the lightweight, counterfeit, and debased silver coins which appeared in New England very quickly after the initial settlements.” This might very well be the case because just a few years earlier it was discovered that the Spanish silver currency coming from the Potosi mint was consistently underweight. Considering that Spanish silver was the dominant medium of exchange in the colonies at this time, it could be very damaging to the early economy if corrective measures weren’t taken.

At some point between September 1 and October 19, 1652 coinage commenced. The coins were to conform to a standard of 72 grains of sterling (.925) silver to the shilling, a shilling being equivalent to 12 pence. The New England coinage consisted of three denominations: threepence, sixpence, and shilling. On one side, now considered the obverse, was a hand punched “NE” at the 12 o’clock position. The reverse was punched with the denomination, represented by a Roman numeral III, VI, or XII. No date appears on this initial design from Hull’s Boston mint, the first of his four issues.

In the July 5, 2010 issue of Coin World, staff writer Steve Roach gives an account of the early mint’s operations: “…people could bring in silver items, pay a refining fee and receive coins in return…” In this way, underweight Spanish silver may have been melted and re-minted, though at significant cost to the consignor.

The simple NE design soon gave way to a more complicated design to deter counterfeiting and edge clipping. As to the longevity of the NE design, ask 3 experts and you’ll get 3 different answers. Some say the Act of Oct. 19, 1652 ended the design’s manufacture and heralded the beginning of production for what would become known as the “Willow Tree” design. Others believe the NE coinage was continued until 1654 when the mint evolved from hammer and punch technology to an actual coining press. 350 years separates us from the answer to that question. And isn’t that uncertainty, that need for speculation, a big part of the fun?

Coins of Colonial America: Beginnings

When we think of early American coinage we have to broaden our definition of what we traditionally call “American”. It’s important to keep in mind that the United States mint in Philadelphia didn’t commence production of coinage for circulation until 1793, yet the North American continent was being populated by European settlers since the mid 1500’s.

Foreign coins made up the bulk of metallic currency available in what would become the United States prior to the establishment of the Mint. In the 17th and 18th centuries, small change consisted primarily of British copper pence, halfpence, and farthings. Since it was against British law to export silver and gold to the colonies, this medium originated from the Spanish American mints of Mexico, Peru, and Chile for the most part. Coins from Portugal, France, Holland and elsewhere were also represented, though on a smaller scale.

In everyday transactions Spanish silver was the most accepted currency. These were denominated in reales, with 8 reales being equal to the Spanish dollar. Divided into eighths (or bits), one reale was equivalent to 12 1/2 cents. Gold was rarely seen in colonial America but when encountered, would most likely hail from Brazil (the joe) or Mexico (the escudo).

Spanish silver was so prevalent that throughout the early 1800’s it was still much more common as pocket change than the Bust and Liberty Seated coins produced by the Federal mint!

The story of our own national coinage began out of necessity in 1652 in Massachusetts. We’ll pick up there in Boston, population 3000.

Methods of Collecting Coins

Photo by Baley, PCGS forums

For years I followed the collecting philosophy of “collect what you like”. What I ended up with was a hodgepodge of random coins from all over the spectrum: moderns, random 19th century type, the odd world coin, etc. It was clear my collection had no focus. So I began “filling holes”. This means concentrating on a specific series and attempting to accumulate each date and mintmark of that series, usually displaying them in a folder or album. These albums consist of individual spaces, or holes, for each coin, thus the term “filling holes”.

If you were to poll 100 coin collectors, you would probably find that these two approaches are the most common. However, I was always disappointed with my “random accumulator” collection. There was plenty of variety but it looked amateurish. There was no theme, no common thread. Likewise, the “hole filler” collection was focused, but boring. Who wants to look at 74 Lincoln cents where the only difference is the date and the presence of a minute “D” or “S”?

Please understand that I’m not condemning either method. Your collection is YOUR collection. Ultimately, the only person who has to be satisfied with it is you. But if you’re like me and have found your collection is lacking in some way, here are a few alternatives for your consideration.

Type Set

The type set is a classic. There are several ways to approach it, depending on the depth of your pockets. You can attempt it on a grand scale, acquiring one coin of each representative type in every denomination. For example, in Large Cents you would have one each of the Chain, Wreath, Liberty Cap, Draped Bust, Classic, Matron, and Braided Hair cents. Then you would move on to a Flying Eagle cent and one each of the different types in the Indian Head cent series, and so on. Many subsets can be accomplished in each denomination if completing the all encompassing U.S. Type set is out of reach. Pick a denomination, break out the Red Book for the different design types, and let the hunt begin!

Grading Sets

These are cool to assemble and very educational as well. For this set you would pick a series, say Buffalo nickels, and then find examples in each grade: About Good, Good, Very Good, Fine, and so on up through mint state. You can rely on your own grading skills or a grading service (preferably PCGS or NGC). Once complete, you will have an excellent reference set with which to compare future purchases.

Year Sets

For this you’ll want to get your Red Book out again. The idea here is to get one of each denomination for a given year. My mom was born in 1950 so I would find a Lincoln cent, Jefferson nickel, Roosevelt dime, Washington quarter, and Franklin half dollar from that year to complete the set. This may seem simple but pick a year like 1868 and you would have to include 10 coins, and that’s if you exclude the gold issues!

Mintmark Set

Mintmarks were a relatively late addition to U.S. coinage, coming about in 1838 with the addition of an “O” to coins struck at the new branch mint in New Orleans. Collectors didn’t even pay attention to mintmarks for the most part until the 1930’s when “penny boards” included the Denver and San Francisco coins as separate representatives of a given year. This particular set would be similar to a type set but only coins from a given mint would be included. It could be large or small depending on the mint you pick. Again, the best reference to guide you would be your trusty copy of the Red Book!

These are just a few suggestions but you can see there are many ways to spice up your collection. Don’t despair if you feel like you’re in a rut. With a little creativity, opportunities to diversify abound.

What A Long Strange Trip It’s Been

It’s interesting to reflect back on how your collecting interests have changed over time. You would assume that, as your income grows, so might the average amount you spend on new acquisitions. Looking back I’ve found this hasn’t always been the case. Like most coin collectors, for me it all started with pennies…

My grandad got me started. We would sit for hours at his kitchen table going through mountains of wheat pennies, ever on the lookout for a 1909-S VDB. After he passed in 1975 I continued to fill those blue cardboard Whitman folders with pennies from circulation. Back then wheat pennies were still plentiful and it took no time to fill a 1941-1974 book, each one a significant accomplishment for an 8 year old.

Jefferson nickels were next. It hurt a little more to part with a nickel than a penny, but it was still easy to fill that blue Whitman folder. Even that tough 1950-D could be found in pocket change with some searching.

At some point I discovered “Coins” magazine. All the different designs from the past 200 years were suddenly at my fingertips. I had no idea there was so much variety! No longer did I have to limit myself to what I could pull from change. My first mail order purchase followed shortly after, a well worn 1864 two cent piece and an 1868 three cent piece from Littleton Coin Company. I think the pair cost me seven dollars. That was a month’s worth of candy and comic books but those two coins were my pride and joy.

After a couple of years randomly accumulating silver dimes, quarters, and halfs I got a summer job doing road repair. A steady paycheck expanded my collecting horizons significantly! I joined the Liberty Seated Coin Collectors Club and began receiving Seated dimes and quarters on approval. For the then extravagant sum of twenty dollars a month I became the caretaker of about 20 or 25 different dates and mintmarks before the money ran out. At today’s prices I really wish I’d held on to those!

Life intervened. College, work, and family became the top priorities and my coin collection was pushed aside. The occasional AU Indian Head cent or Morgan dollar sufficed to keep my interest but there was no specific direction.To say that I was active in the numismatic world at that particular time would be a huge exaggeration.

Once the job turned into a career, my longtime habit again moved to the forefront. I was able to own coins that had always been out of reach. Third party certification had arrived and with it more confidence to collect unfamiliar coin series’. I tried my hand at high grade coins for the first time. A set of MS63 to 65 1878 Morgan dollars with all the mintmarks and different reverses (7 tail feathers, 8 tail feathers, reverse of ’78, etc.) was the first accomplishment. Then I tackled a short set of mint state Buffalo nickels from 1934 to 1938.

Mint state coins were beautiful sets to put together though very expensive. But when I put them next to my old Whitman penny books, those perfect shiny coins had no soul. They hadn’t passed from hand to hand over the years. They had no history, no character.

So I went back to circulated coins. First the early 20th century coins, the Buffalo nickels, Mercury dimes, Standing Liberty quarters, and Walking Liberty halves. No high grades, just very fine circulated coins that saw some mileage. A group of circulated Standing Liberty quarters can tell a lot of stories.

Now my collecting is all about the stories. My 1804 Half Cent, my 1787 New Jersey coppers, the ancient coins from Rome and Greece, they have stories. Some of those coins aren’t very pretty but that doesn’t matter. Like the ghosts of the boys in the old football photo from the movie “Dead Poet’s Society”, each one whispers of a different time, an exotic place, a life all their own.

My First Colonial Coin Purchase

1787 resizedAfter writing my last post and doing some further reading about the state coinage of New Jersey, I began to actively seek examples online. I quickly found out that finding affordable specimens in decent grades is no easy task. But before I reveal the details of the coin I ultimately purchased after my lengthy search, there are a few things you should know about collecting New Jersey coppers and the people who collect them.

The copper coinage of New Jersey came into being in 1786 as a solution to the abundance of counterfeit British pence and halfpence passing as good currency. Three men, Walter Mould, Thomas Goadsby, and Albion Cox, successfully petitioned the General Assembly to produce a coinage for the state, the coins to consist of 150 grains pure copper each and of a final total value of 10,000 British pounds. The coins would pass at 15 to the shilling rather than the usual 12 to the shilling as a legitimate British pence would pass. The coins were produced from autumn of 1786 to sometime in 1788.

One of the draws to this series of coinage is that there are 141 die combinations so far identified. Collectors of early American copper coinage frequently collect by variety. Even if you collect the regular Federal issues of Half Cents and Large Cents, chances are you’re familiar with this philosophy of collecting. The many varieties of the 1794 Large Cent alone have been pursued as a set since the mid 1800’s.

This method of collecting a series has always interested me because I love detail. Small differences between individual dies are significant to me, even though I recognize that many people couldn’t possibly care less. That’s how I found the Early American Coppers Club (www.eacs.org), a national organization consisting of about 1200 members who are just as crazy as I am. Their bi-monthly publication, “Penny-Wise”, is famous for its well researched articles, technical as well as historical. For only $25.00 I just became member #5858!

Armed with my Whitman Encyclopedia of  Colonial and Early American Coins (see my earlier post for a review and a link), I hit the internet and located the above coin on a world coin dealer’s website for only $55.00. This contrasted a lot from the U.S. dealer sites where similar examples of the same variety were priced from 160 to 225 dollars.

The particular die variety of this coin is Maris 39a. Maris refers to Dr. Edward Maris who wrote the standard reference on New Jersey coppers back in 1881. The coin consists of obverse die “39” and reverse die “a”. The key diagnostics for obverse die 39 are the low second 7 in the date and the leftmost ear of the horse to the right of the C in the legend. For the reverse die you basically have to compare the location of the points at the top of the shield with where they are in relation to the letters of the legend.  Thankfully, the Whitman Encyclopedia illustrates each individual obverse and reverse die with high quality photographs.

My wife thinks I’m insane but I can’t tell you how much enjoyment I get being the caretaker of this 220 year old piece of history. I also can’t stress enough the importance of shopping around and educating yourself before making a purchase. This particular die variety is estimated to only have 500 to 999 examples surviving. Try purchasing a regular issue U.S. coin with that low of a surviving population for only $55!

Early American Coppers: Where to Start?

New Jersey BookThe more I learn about the early copper coinage of the United States and the operations of the U.S. mint at Philadelphia in its infancy, the more I am drawn to this area of coin collecting. And not just the Large Cents and Half Cents that we’re all familiar with. Pre-federal coinage and the chaos that ensued from general contractors petitioning individual “states” to secure minting privileges seems to me even more fascinating.

There are many remarkable connections between the personnel responsible for some pre-federal coin series’ and the young Philadelphia mint. Damon Douglas in his book “The Copper Coinage of the State of New Jersey” presents evidence that the mint not only employed laborers that had worked in these pre-federal mints but on one occasion a die engraver was hired as an assistant who had earlier provided die work for New Jersey and Connecticut state coinage.

Then there is the interesting Mr. Walter Mould. He, along with a couple of other equally interesting gentlemen, was the founder of the mint that produced most of the New Jersey coppers, the popular “Nova Caesarea” coins depicting a horse’s head and plow on the obverse and a shield on the reverse of 1786-1788. There is the very real possibility that Mould was convicted of counterfeiting in England in 1776, obviously prior to immigrating to what would become the U.S.

Throw in a failed brewer (Samuel Atlee) and some other colorful characters for which their chronic inability to pay their debts is extensively documented in the newspapers of the day, and you have the originators of our early circulating coinage.

Coin Auction Catalogs

CatalogsI had anticipated a nice coin purchase upon receiving my tax refund this year but, as you can tell from my silence this past week or so, my laptop decided to take its own life and so my coin purchase turned into a new computer purchase. Despite the lack of funds, my local second hand book store did turn up an interesting and inexpensive find.

Some of you may recall a few posts back when I mentioned that picking up a reference book or auction catalog is a great way to keep your hobby interest burning when you find yourself low on cash.Well, after being all bummed out from losing my coin money, I went down to a little hole in the wall book store that let’s you trade in your used paperbacks. After some digging I came up with an old auction catalog from the ’80s. It was from a series of four sales conducted by Bowers and Ruddy Galleries featuring the incredible Garrett collection.

This catalog is the fourth in the series and contains photographs and in depth descriptions of some of Garrett’s more esoteric holdings, including a huge collection of Washington related coins and medals, 1792 dated coinage, Confederate States coinage, and early Indian Peace medals, just to name a few. Pair that with all the great historical background information and I’d say I clearly got my $5 worth!

Auction catalogs are usually overlooked as a reference option. But many catalogs are a great read. They allow you to have access to some of the greatest collections ever assembled, often illustrating the best examples known of rare and not so rare coins. Specialized collections have even produced catalogs that become THE photographic reference for their particular series.

Look into putting together a reference library of great auction catalogs. They can be had for little money for the most part and can provide for hours of interesting reading. Check out this website to get you started.

Whitman Encyclopedia of Colonial and Early American Coins

You’ve probably noticed over the last year that I am very partial to the books of Q. David Bowers. As a matter of fact you’re probably sick of hearing me talk about him and his incredibly vast knowledge of American coinage. If you have been to my Resources page, you’ve no doubt also noticed that he is represented very heavily across many denominations and topics. So if you haven’t figured it out yet, he’s just that good!

Rewind to a few days ago. I find myself at the local Barnes & Noble and there it is, the new Whitman Encyclopedia of Colonial and Early American Coins by, you guessed it, Q. David Bowers. Now I won’t even pretend that I have a bank account that could support my building an incredible collection of U.S. colonials. But I can enjoy the diversity and history of these coins with this book.

In true Bowers style, you not only come away with an education on the different coin series’ that drove the commerce of the infant U.S. nation, but he also differentiates between all the different die varieties of each series, citing all the classic references from the respective experts in each field. From the New England coinage  of 1652 through the Congress authorized coinage of the 1780’s, every series is described in detail.

As usual, simple coin descriptions aren’t enough for a Bowers reference. The economy of the time period, the processes used to strike these coins, the methods of distribution, and different ways to collect are all chapter topics. He also deals with contemporary counterfeits, the many foreign series’ that are included in the colonial section of the Red Book, and the extensive Washington portrait coinage of the 1795 to 1820’s period.

Now check out the Colonial section of my Resources page again. You’ll notice it’s pretty short. I’m not saying you can forego all the classic references for this book, but this should be the starting place for your future research. If you don’t find it here, you’ll find it in the Bibliography at the back of the book. Happy reading!

Cherrypicking 101

Let’s go back to the coin shop and find out how you can gain a huge advantage over most coin dealers by focusing on every aspect of your favorite coin series.

Luckily for us collectors, there aren’t many dealers who are experts on every coin series. Very few have the time to master the nuances of assessing grade, strike, and originality for every item in their inventory because they’re too busy running a business!

For example, while I was looking at the coins in the display case of the coin shop from my last post, I noticed a 1911 Barber dime in a cardboard 2×2 holder that the dealer had graded as VG (very good) and had priced at $3.00. Now even though I’m not an avid collector of the Barber series, I’ve always found them easy to grade. A VG Barber dime won’t have a full LIBERTY on the tiara. This coin had a full, fairly sharp LIBERTY.

The next thing I looked at was the strike. When a coin die becomes overused the design elements become mushy and lack detail. Buffalo nickels are notorious for poor strikes. Barber dimes are generally well struck but the wreath on the reverse suffers the most when the strike is poor. All I could see when I examined this dime was good honest wear, and not the amount of wear I would expect to see on a VG coin.

Finally, I looked at the coin’s originality. This is probably the most difficult aspect of a coin to master. Mainly through the ignorance of previous owners, the vast majority of Barber coinage, dimes, quarters, and half dollars, has been cleaned at some point in their existence. Coins with original toning are very difficult to locate. It’s far more likely that the Barbers you encounter will show circulation wear but be cleaned or “dipped” in some harsh chemical that has stripped away the original color that silver acquires after 100 years of oxidation. Silver shouldn’t be bright and shiny after a century. This 1911 dime was a nice even gray with no “hairlines” in the fields.Hairlines are an indication that a coin has been rubbed with a cloth.

So here was a 1911 Barber dime with VF (very fine) details, a nice strike, and original color in a VG $3.00 holder. The 2010 Red Book gives a value of $7.00 for a VF grade. Thanks to a little reading (and a coin dealer unfamiliar with Barber dimes) I just picked up a bargain! And that’s what we call “cherrypicking”.

“And now for the rest of the story…”

Back in October I posted a story by a fellow coin collector, Tim Mayberry, about a purchase he had made and how it affected him when he realized it represented a lifetime of enjoyment for the previous owner. Shortly after Tim revealed this story on the forums at pcgs.com, another member added a second chapter. Thanks Jeff, for your kind permission to reprint what follows.

“And now for the rest of the story …

Imagine my surprise when I read Tim’s story about this set of coins, since I was the person that handled the consignment of these coins along with the grading and lotting of all of the coins in this particular auction. I contacted Tim after seeing this post and told him that I would be updating the story.

The owner of the coins was a gentleman that passed away earlier this year at age 77. I was contacted by an older brother of his whom I know well about liquidating his collection, of which the auction items were just a portion. After seeing Tim’s post, I printed a copy for his brother who was obviously moved by it. I then asked if I could respond with a brief synopsis of his life as well.

Bobby was born in 1930 in Minnesota where he attended school through high school until joining the Navy. During his stint in the Navy, he fell off the wing of a Corsair and suffered head trauma that affected him for the rest of his life. Later on, he ran delivery routes for a local food manufacturing plant until he was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, which ended his days making deliveries. He moved into the plant and ended up as the head purchaser before retirement.

He and his wife lived in an apartment above a dairy that ended up burning down in 1974. (Several of the coin lots in the auction were fire-damaged.) His wife divorced him shortly after the fire and he never had any children. The MS eventually took its toll, and he spent many years in a wheelchair. He also had many heart problems and heart attacks over the years.

I had the pleasure of meeting Bobby, but never really got to know him. His coin collection was very eclectic, ranging from over 6,000 wheat cents to bags of common coins, silver & gold bullion, gifts that were given to him over the years, and other strange items that always seem to be found in collections. He was also taken advantage of by some very unscrupulous dealers over the years as there was a large collection of key date coins that were all fake or altered dates/mintmarks. We have been unable to locate any sales records to determine where he got the coins from, unfortunately.

Of all the items in the collection, the collection of cents that Tim refers to was the only thing that I would describe as something that was worked on for a long time, so it was probably where he started and he continued over time, even when he could afford better items for his collection. The cent set was actually split into two parts – the one Tim has and another collection of proof-only cents from 1938-1990 which I bought out of the auction. It was in an old black binder that was falling apart, so I put both halves into two binders for the auction. If I kept the old binder, I’ll send it to Tim if he wants to keep it all together.

By the way, there was no ’55 Double Die in the set (I suppose he kept the place holder just in case), but there was a 72DD #1 in there. It was sold as a separate lot in the auction. He did have two 55DD’s but they were part of the counterfeit coins.

Hope this helps to put some perspective behind the story.”

Bobby derived a lot of pleasure from this hobby. It was the one constant in his life. And chances are he never knew he had been taken advantage of. Those key dates in his collection, even though many were altered or counterfeit, were no doubt the basis of many a happy conversation with friends and family. Unknowingly, Bobby passed on his legacy to another generation that will enjoy it as much as he did.

Top 10 Christmas Gift Ideas for the Coin Collector

christmas-tree-giftsChristmas is just about upon us and everywhere you look someone has a “Top 10 Hottest Gifts for 2009” list. A quick search will yield up Top 10 Toys for Boys, Toys for Girls, Top 10 Electronics, Movies, CDs, etc. but what about Top 10 Gifts for the Numismatist?

In the world of coin collecting, knowledge of your subject is key. Trying to buy a coin collector a coin probably isn’t the best idea. Every collector has their own set of standards. To avoid disappointment, a book is the best gift for the beginner up to the most advanced collector. Here are my picks and, best of all, every one is under $20!

1. A Guide Book of United States Coins

Otherwise known as the Red Book, this is the the U.S. coin collector’s bible. Published annually since 1947, the Red Book contains photos,historical information, and average retail price listings for every U.S. issue from colonial times through the modern age. Recently sections on patterns, tokens, and Philppine coinage have been added. The Red Book is an essential volume in every numismatists library and for $16.95 in hardback it’s a huge bang for the buck.

2. Photograde: Official Photographic Grading Guide for United States Coins by James F. Ruddy

The coin collector on your Christmas list will use this book to the point where it falls apart. My own current copy is in rags. Descriptions of both the obverse and reverse of all U.S. coin series from 1793 to present in all grades from About Good to Uncirculated along with illustrations of each make this book the best tool for every coin purchase. There are also chapters on detecting cleaned or counterfeit coins. If your collector doesn’t have a copy he (or she) needs one.

3. The Expert’s Guide to Collecting and Investing in Rare Coins by Q. David Bowers

If your collector enjoys a good read then this book will probably be number one on their list. In 650 pages Bowers gives in-depth collecting & investing information on every U.S. series along with market analysis, coin collecting history, purchasing tips and every other aspect of the hobby you can think of. This book truly is the authoritative resource that it claims to be.

4-9. Whitman’s “A Guide Book of…” series

A few years ago Whitman Publishing tapped several well known numismatic authors to create reference books on specific U.S. coin series’. The books in this series are extremely comprehensive. They contain date by date analysis of rarity in different grades, strike characteristics, and a wealth of historical information that places the reader in the time period in which these coins were produced. If you know what series of coinage your collector is interested in these will make a great gift. Here are just some of the volumes available in order of collecting popularity:

10. Handbook of Ancient Greek and Roman Coins by Zander Klawans

This is a great introductory reference book on the fascinating field of ancient coin collecting. It provides information on reading coin inscriptions, identifying the emperors and dates on Roman coins, and other methods of attributing coins of this era. If you’ve got a budding ancient coin collector on your Christmas list, this will give them a great foundation on the topic.

That is my Top 10 list for the coin geek. Every one of these books can be purchased for less than $20 and is guaranteed to get a lot of use. Where else can you get so many hours of enjoyment at that price?

Happy holidays!

The Heart of Coin Collecting

With the schedule I have to keep as an assistant manager for a large retail chain, my “me” time is generally from midnight to 2 or 3 A.M. since I pull a lot of closing shifts. One of my favorite things to do is socialize a little with my coin collecting brethren (who are also apparently insomniacs) in a message forum on pcgs.com. A few nights ago I came across this story by Tim Mayberry, a fellow collector out of Tennessee. After contacting him, he is graciously allowing me to recount these events from a couple of years ago. The fact that Tim’s story is a topic of conversation on these busy forums years after initially posting them should tell you something about the story AND the writer. Thanks, Tim, for allowing me to share this wonderful story.403-1s

“This past weekend I had noticed a link on the message board to an auction on Proxybid. Out of curiosity I went to the site, registered for the auction and started to browse the listings. After a while I noticed a set of BU / Proof Lincoln Cents, 1937 to 1998. The description said it was mostly complete. The picture in the auction showed a blue three ring binder full of pennies in 2×2 holders. I went ahead and bid on the auction, winning it for $81.00, plus the 15% buyers fee and shipping.

Today I got the set in the mail and started to look through it. What I found I never expected.

As I opened the folder I could see bright red pennies, starting with the 1937 Philadelphia strike. Going along, each and every spot was filled with the regular issue P, D &S that you would expect. As I turned to the next page I could see more bright red pennies, and the gleaming Steel Cents of 1943. I noticed a spot next to the 1955 where a coin had been. Was it the 1955 Doubled Die? I will never know. Someone had removed it. Turning the pages I found the same empty spot next to the 1972.

Still I thought, “What a set!”, and I began looking closer. This was no ordinary set. Someone had taken a lifetime to collect these pennies. I looked closer and found the clean crisp writing of the dates and mint marks in the earlier years. I noticed that over the years the staples had changed type. For a few years in the late forties and early fifties he used a date stamp made for collectors that had the mintmarks on them. I saw that he had carefully marked the 44’s and 45’s as Shell Case cents. In the 60’s he started to include the Proof cents for each year.

Then in the mid 80’s I noticed that the writing was not as crisp, his hand was a little more shaky, the dates written on the coins not as smooth as previous years, each year getting a little more distorted. Once in a while I would notice in the early 90’s a fingerprint here and there. 1997 was missing all together, then 1998, you could barely read the writing on the holder, his hand no longer able to write clearly. And the set ends. He had included some extras on the last page, a nice BU 34, and a few others.

Over the next hour I started to realize just how much work he had put into this set, always trying to put together the best he could get. I began to wonder about this person, and how he must have treasured his set of pennies. I would imagine that he passed not too long after putting in his last cent and wondered if there was anyone that would ever appreciate his work.

Well sir, I never met you, but as I write this the hair on the back of my neck is standing on end, my eyes are beginning to water, and I want you to know, I appreciate your set, and I will never sell it. I can only hope that when I go someone will get this set and feel the way I do about it. I will pick up where you left off, and keep each coin together in the set. Your work was not in vain.

Lot 403…Is not for sale.”

Coin Collecting- 1857

It’s been a while since I’ve written an educational post but some recent reading has inspired me to revisit that style. So I thought it might be interesting to look at the early days of  collecting U.S. coins. United States coin collectors can trace the birth of our hobby as we know it today to February 21, 1857. On this date the Coinage Act came into effect which abolished the production of the copper half cent and large cent and also revoked the legal tender status of many foreign gold and silver coins.

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The Act also provided for the production of a new small size cent made of 88% copper and 12% nickel, the Flying Eagle cent.1857_FlyingEagle

On May 25 the first new cents were made available to the public at the Philadelphia Mint in exchange for the old heavy coppers and Spanish silver. Rick Snow reprints a contemporary newspaper account from the Philadelphia Bulletin in his “A Guide Book of Flying Eagle and Indian Head Cents“. The wave of nostalgia for the old copper cents of everyone’s childhood gave birth to a passion for coin collecting that had been the pursuit of only a few Americans previously.

The events of 1857 and the economic hardships that arose as a result served to fuel the cent collecting fire even further. In August the Ohio Life Insurance & Trust Co., a real estate investment and lending firm, closed its doors. The demise of so venerable a company caused some banks to begin suspending specie payments (exchanging hard coinage for paper money). Newspapers spread the economic jitters and soon the Panic of 1857 was on. By October, the public found themselves holding a lot of worthless paper money and, because of the hoarding of silver and gold that resulted, the lowly cent would soon be the only hard currency readily found in circulation! If you were bitten by the collecting bug in May, chances are by October cents were all you could afford to sock away.

Today we can hardly imagine a time when $2.00 was the daily wage for the average man, when our senators physically attacked each other in debates over the morality of slavery. Newspapers of the day carried stories such as the sinking of the S.S. Central America (Sept. 12) with its cargo of gold from San Francisco, and the refusal of the U.S. Supreme Court to allow fugitive slave Dred Scott the opportunity to plead his case for freedom. But with the passing of the large cent a new fascination with “the good old days” arose to become the hobby we know today, even in those uncertain economic times, or perhaps because of them.

Sometimes It All Comes Together

It”s not often that hobbies overlap in such a way that you are consumed by an urge to research all aspects of the overlap for several months. But after numerous trips to the library and endless hours combing the internet, here is the story of what I’ve been doing since my last update to this site.

As you can tell from my previous posts, not only do I enjoy coin collecting but I also have quite a love of history. I’ve found genealogy can make that love of history come alive in a personal way and so it has been a pursuit of mine as well. But all of these interests crashed together one day while I was looking at a dealer website that specializes in obsolete currency.

Obsolete currency is a term used to describe paper money issued primarily by banks and local governments prior to 1866 when the U.S. government took over the job. Q. David Bowers wrote an excellent reference book, Obsolete Paper Money, that deals with the topic exhaustively. Being a fan of the author I decided to give the book a try even though it wasn’t really a collecting interest of mine. Having read many of  Bowers’ books before, I knew it would be entertaining nonetheless. Many fascinating hours later, I was hooked.

I began looking for sources online about the topic and ran across a couple of dealer sites. The two best I have found as far as price, variety, and quality of illustrations are donckelly.com and vernpotter.com. I couldn’t believe how reasonable the prices were on some of these notes! Like ancient coins, collectors of obsolete currency enjoy a hobby where the general collecting public isn’t well educated on the topic. How many of your friends are even aware that these bills exist, not to mention how affordable they are?

While looking through the inventory on these sites I noticed that banks of Easton, Pennsylvania were represented frequently. From my genealogy research I knew that my family, the Yohes, had settled in Northampton County shortly after arriving in America from Germany in the mid 1700’s. Off to the library.

After burying myself in the Pennsylvania Archives, Census’, and tax records I found Michael. Michael Yohe was born July 25, 1782 in Easton, Northampton County, Pennsylvania. It was his father, Johann Michael (Michael Sr.), who came to America in 1749 as a child. Around 1824 Michael Jr. moved his family to Stark County, Ohio. His father and mother came to Ohio shortly after but his uncle Adam apparently remained in Easton continuing to run the family business, shoemaking. I am descended from them in a direct line through my father.

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Knowing this I thought it might be fun to have a few notes from Easton just so I could imagine they may have passed through the hands of one of my ancestors. Then I made an amazing discovery. While shopping around I found a couple of notes printed by the American Bank Note Co. for the Borough of Easton. They were in the denominations of 10 cents and 15 cents issued Dec.1, 1862 to be receivable as payment for Borough taxes. Then I looked at the signatures, handwritten in ink. A man by the name of Sam Yohe had signed his name on the line reserved for the president of the issuing establishment! Could Sam be a descendant of Michael’s uncle Adam?

That’s where I am now. Back to the library!

Deja Vu All Over Again

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Last Sunday night I had one of those moments with my 7 year old son that, when it happens, you know the memory will last a lifetime. Like most people my day ends when I throw my change in a big pickle jar on my dresser and get undressed for bed. Sunday night I took the pickle jar into the living room and gave it a shake to see if it was worth hauling down to the Coinstar kiosk. My son, Ethan, remarked on how many pennies I had and stated that pennies were his favorite.

Just like that I was reminded of all the times I sat at the kitchen table in my grandparents’  house and fed pennies into Grandad’s Accu-View magnifier. Grandad would get his Whitman penny albums out and we would sit for hours looking for that elusive 1909-S VDB, the holy grail of Lincoln pennies. Almost 40 years later I look back on that experience as one of the happiest times of my life.

So I dug around and found two H.E. Harris Lincoln Memorial Cent albums and grabbed a magnifying glass. I showed Ethan how to look at the dates and explained the D’s and the occasional S’s that followed. Pretty soon Ethan was armed with the magnifying glass, calling out the dates and mintmarks or lack thereof. When we exhausted all the pennies I showed him how to look at them and pick which ones had more eye appeal.

When he found a new date or a better example we would high five. “I’ve got good eyes, don’t I Dad?” We came close to filling those books and I managed to occupy a 7 year old for several hours. Ethan never got to meet my grandad but they have a connection. Grandad still lives on in the gift he gave to me, a gift I can pass on to Ethan.

Ever Heard of a Half Cent?

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The Half Cent is a fascinating little piece of early American history. This particular coin is an 1804 Draped Bust Half Cent, all of which were struck in Philadelphia. The Draped Bust variety was minted from 1800 to 1808. Many die varieties exist for the 1804 – a common date – and many collectors make a specialty of it.

In 1804 the Half Cent had about the same value as the modern day dime, but you would have seen very little U.S. currency on the streets of Philadelphia during this time. It was much more likely that your pocket change consisted of coins from England, Spain, or France. To compete with the denominations in use from these other countries, it made sense for the U.S. to issue the Half Cent.

For example, the British not only had the halfpenny but the farthing, or 1/4 cent, as well. But by far the most popular coin in use at the time was the Spanish 8 Reales, a dollar sized coin made of high grade silver. Because fractional coinage of this series (1 reale, 2 reale, 4 reale) was not nearly as available, the 8 Reale was often cut into pieces to make small change (pieces of eight). Since a single piece (1 reale)  had a value of  12 & 1/2 U.S. cents, the Half Cent denomination made it handy for transactions involving the coinage of these other countries.

Many events transpired in and around Philadelphia in 1804. Thomas Jefferson wins a landslide victory in his bid for his second term as President. Jefferson’s vice president from his first term, Aaron Burr, must flee New York and eventually settles in Philadelphia after he shoots and kills Alexander Hamilton, former Treasury Secretary,  in a duel on July 12. The previous year, the size of the United States is more than doubled by the acquisition of the Louisiana Territory from France for $15,000,000. From 1804 through 1806 the Lewis & Clark expedition explores much of the territory and continues to the Pacific Ocean.

I love this coin because it saw America’s infancy. So many national legends arose during this period and have become an integral part of our culture. This well used representative of the smallest denomination our country ever produced saw it all. For a definitive book about Half Cents, Roger S. Cohen’s American Half Cents: The Little Half Sisters is a must. To get really technical, Ronald Manley’s “The Half Cent Die State Book: 1793 – 1857” is a specialists’ dream.

In the Beginning…

Old coins from Grandma's Change Purse

I believe everyone has coins in their collection that are only there for sentimental reasons. How many of us became interested in numismatics because of a gift from a grandparent, an obsolete coin in our change, or a chance find while exploring an old barn?

My grandma’s house was full of things that an 8 year old would find fascinating. The best thing was a china cabinet full of old glassware. At any given time this collection of candy dishes and punch bowls would hold any interesting change that had come across the counter at the post office or hardware store where my grandparents worked. Because I had shown an interest in my grandad’s coin collection, I had free reign to dig through the cabinet to my heart’s content.

One day Grandma showed me a change purse her mother had given her when Grandma was a little girl. My great-grandma got it from her grandfather, Thomas Mayes. Inside were coins like I had never seen before: pennies the size of half dollars, dimes and quarters with funny designs.

Many years later, Grandad’s coin collection passed on to me along with the change purse from the china cabinet and its contents. The oldest of those coins, two Braided Hair Large Cents dated 1847 and 1851, have been in my family now for six generations. The Barber dimes and quarter were a later addition to the change purse by my great-grandma. A dealer might give me 30 or 40 dollars for the whole lot. I wouldn’t take a million. These coins and my family are tied together in my mind. My grandparents passed on a lifetime of enjoyment and curiosity with this little stack of mementos from a bygone era.

You can’t buy that in a coin shop.

The Culprit

1883 Morgan Dollar
1883 Morgan Dollar Reverse

NumiStories is the result of a flame war that I inadvertently caused on a collector forum I used to frequent online. One of the old graybeard collector/dealers was crowing about some new purchase he had made for his registry set and asked for opinions. He posted a photo of his acquisition in its ridiculously high mint state grade and the other members oohed and aahed as was to be expected.

I scanned and posted a Morgan dollar my Grandad had carried around in his pocket for umpteen years and said, “I like mine better.” The furor that erupted from those four words is what gave birth to this website.

Mr. Graybeard ranted and raved about my lowbrow collecting habits. How could anyone prefer my VF at best widget to his profoundly preserved pristine product??

My response was as simple as Grandad’s dollar. That scratched and beaten and polished dollar made its way from 1883 San Francisco to 1950 Illinois hand to hand. It served people’s needs. It bought food for a supper table. It was given as a birthday gift to a child. My Grandad found the old coin in the post office change drawer and carried it around for 20 some years, looking at it, thinking about where it had been.

Mr. Graybeard’s coin sat in a vault for 120 years.

I like mine better.

This site is about coins with stories. It’s about history. It’s about the role these coins played in everyday life, where they were used and what was happening at the time.

Mr. Graybeard can keep his high grade, never been touched slabbed stuff. I like dirt, tone, honesty and a good story.