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Appreciating decaying coins

By Mike Thorne, Ph.D.


This month’s review is devoted to a very different coin book: Lost Cents, Dead Owners: Appreciating Coins in Decay. Rather than looking at the best of the best, which you typically find in numismatic tomes, Dr. Michael S. Shutty, Jr.’s new book focuses on what you might call the worst of the worst.

The author of two previous numismatically related books (One Coin Is Never Enough, Communion Tokens), Shutty is a clinical psychologist with a Ph.D. from Virginia University.

My first reaction to Lost Cents, Dead Owners was the thought that it perhaps represents the ultimate extension of Professional Coin Grading Service’s low-ball Registry Sets. PCGS’s low-ball sets are collections of coins in extremely worn condition. To form a low-ball collection, the collector strives to obtain one of each coin in a series in the lowest possible grade.

On further inspection of Shutty’s book, I realized that most of the coins he’s writing about will never be certified, as they aren’t worth enough to warrant the expense of submitting them to a certification service. Further, they’re usually too far gone on their journey to oblivion to benefit from conservation.

As Shutty puts it in the Preface, “This book is about corrosion: the death knell of coins.” Rather than being turned off by a coin that’s badly corroded, “We celebrate it…because we are true collectors who have stumbled on to something engaging. Loving the unloved is not meant to be a declaration boldly shouted to rile our fellows; rather, it is just collecting.”

Of course, most collectors view a terminally corroded coin with disdain, desiring to keep it as far away from their other coins as possible. If it’s a common date, with no bullion value, they’re likely to say, “Spend it.” Shutty offers a psychological reason for the collector’s disdain: “Perhaps we find battered and corroded coins terrifying, as they remind us of our mortality.”

A term used throughout the book to characterize badly corroded coins is “awful beauty,” which Charles Dickens used to describe his first encounter with the ruins of ancient Rome. “This beauty finds its energy within the darker emotions evoked by loss, decay, and death. Herein lies the allure of battered and corroded coins.”

Most of the coins pictured in this book are either cents or nickels (or copper-nickel cents), because these coins are made from metals that are highly reactive and prone to quick deterioration when they come in contact with the earth. The first line in the book reads, “A coin unearthed is called a grounder,” and Shutty proceeds to detail what most collectors will experience when they come into contact with it. Suffice it to say that the reaction is unlikely to be positive unless the coin is incredibly rare and only found in terrible condition.

According to Shutty, “…corrosion is the hallmark of a grounder, and grounders typify the most direct path to ruin. The earth eats coins and the people that made them.” Although undeniably true, that’s a depressing thought.

A grounder is a relic from the past. “It tells a story of death. Its previous owners are dead [and] this is all that remains.” But even coins do not last forever, and Shutty ends the paragraph, “This is frightening and enchanting all at once: awful beauty.” A relic coin is likely to trigger reflections on the past: who owned it, how did they come to lose it, did they try to find it, and so on.

Chapter 4, “Coins in Decay,” begins a basic chemistry lesson on corrosion. As Shutty puts it, “Nothing is stable. A harsh world wears on us from the screams of birth trauma to our last fall on the front steps.… Buildings begin to fall down once the ribbon is cut, and coins begin to corrode the moment they drop from the press.”

If you collect circulated cents, whether Lincolns, Indians, or large cents, you treasure those with a nice patina. In this case, Shutty tells us, “…the corrosion layer is thin with no discernible metal loss; consequently, the patina is viewed as attractive.”

Attractive or not, patina is corrosion. “But, let’s not be fooled, toning (or patina, if you prefer) is corrosion just as tanned skin is damaged skin.” Patina represents one of the three types of corrosion, “uniform corrosion.” The other types are “pit corrosion” and “intergranular corrosion.” The types are defined and well illustrated.

The next two chapters, “Cyprium” and “Old Nicol,” discuss the two coinage metal types most reactive and subject to corrosion: copper and nickel, respectively. Shutty begins each chapter with a history lesson of the origin of the metals and their usage in coins. He then discusses what happens to the metal in contact with the environment.

Shutty advocates contextual collecting, “…that is, collecting that is anchored to a place, an event, or a moment. Consequently, a relic coin can be a springboard for historical improvisation.” It’s hard to initiate such improvisation when you’re looking at a gem mint state Morgan dollar.

According to Shutty, “There are no books that specialize on relic coins.…” In other words, you’re basically on your own to sort through corroded coins until you find ones that appeal to you. With this type of collecting, you definitely won’t wind up with a bunch of coins that are just like every other collectors’ coins.

Lost Cents, Dead Owners is well written and profusely illustrated. Just don’t expect to see any coins of the sort that you’re used to seeing. It’s published by Wasteland Press, with a list price of $24.95 for a slender, paperback book.

This article was originally printed in Coins Magazine. >> Subscribe today.

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