It’s easy to forget that the idea behind coin collecting is not to get rich quick, but to enjoy yourself. Of course, having the coins you buy go up in price is good, too, but sometimes in the quest to find good deals and to fill holes it is easy to forget that coin collecting is a hobby. That means the primary purpose is to spend time in a pleasant way.
In some respects I had an advantage in growing up with the hobby at a time that anything seemed possible and everything was interesting. I continue to look at things through the prism of those formative years.
In collecting coins from circulation, the prime purpose was always to fill holes and to have fun doing it. I probably had as much fun one day restoring dates on Buffalo nickels as I had in almost any other day in my childhood. A Buffalo nickel with a restored date was not going to be worth any more than its face value, but simply filling an entire set in one lazy summer afternoon while a nervous mother hoped nothing would explode was a glorious way to spend a day.
It might well have been the best way to start collecting and perhaps it is a good reason to try to collect the 50 state quarters from circulation as there never seemed to be any real pressure in terms of whether your coins were going up or down in price.
The fact was, having not spent more than face value for any coin in my collection for a couple years, there was no pressure. The only direction they could go in price was up. That would change over time, but the simple joy of filling holes was more than enough for me.
It was much the same way with when I turned to gold. Today it is hard to imagine the idea of a gold coin collection being essentially a case of nothing ventured, nothing gained, but in 1970 the gold coin situation was very different.
Back in 1970 almost no one collected gold coins. There was a simple reason: the gold price changed very little if at all. Moreover, many were still uncertain about the legal status of gold. It was illegal to own gold bullion. It was illegal to own many gold coins dated after 1933 and virtually all gold coins dated after 1959, but it was perfectly legal to own gold coins struck and issued before 1934.
The gold recall order of 1933 really cast a shadow over gold ownership. The combination of factors saw very few if any hobbyists collecting gold, and that would only change slowly.
From all my previous years of collecting, which by 1970 numbered more than a decade, I can barely ever even remember seeing a gold coin in a coin shop, and I had almost taken up residence in some coin shops over the years. About the only time you would even see a gold coin was if you went to a coin show or major coin dealer or department store that had a numismatic department – which some did at the time.
Otherwise, the closest thing I remember to a gold coin was a gold-plated 1883 “No Cents” nickel and a couple pieces of California fractional gold that might well have been tokens and not coins as they were mixed in with my favorite coin display, which was in the front window of a barber shop by the old train station.
By 1970 I was relatively confident that I had my college obligations figured out, with the exception of the foreign language requirement, and I could take time to do some reading I had been meaning to do. Some of that reading involved numismatics and some involved gold. Suddenly, for the first time in my life, I began to consider the idea of owning a gold coin.
The first obvious thing I noticed was that gold coins were expensive. Fortunately, I was making money by working on the school paper, so I could consider the top of the line, which looked to be a Saint-Gaudens double eagle. Actually, I could have opted for a Coronet Head double eagle, but how can anyone resist the Saint-Gaudens double eagle design at essentially the same price?
By the time I had figured it all out, my Saint-Gaudens double eagle was going to run me about $75. That would put a strain on my finances, but I was still determined I was going to have a double eagle.
In my life, I have spent a lot of nervous time waiting for important packages to arrive. A mixed roll of Indian Head cents was high on that list once, but nothing was any worse than waiting for my Saint-Gaudens double eagle. It turned out to be worth the wait.
It is really hard to put into words just how good your first Saint-Gaudens double eagle in your hand makes you feel. That is one reason I was happy with my about uncirculated example.
Without fear of it losing value, I could hold it and enjoy it. I could also show it off and I did so. My girlfriend being a coin collector, and an even more accomplished coin spender, immediately wanted one.
My European History professor, who was also my advisor, called me in for a serious heart-to-heart conversation, not about my fiasco with the French language, but rather about his interest in obtaining gold coins depicting some of the past kings and queens of England.
The worst was a friend who clearly spent far too much time watching movies. At the time, dressed all in black and riding his motorcycle, he seemed like some sort of movie character. After examining my double eagle carefully, he tried to bite it, leaving an impression on the coin. “It’s real!” he announced triumphantly, as though he had tested gold coins with his teeth all his life. I had no response although I did have a secret hope he would need major surgery on his tooth.
Even having had my new double eagle violated in such a manner, nothing could dampen my joy over the new coin, which I was carting around everywhere. The grade had already been lowered from its original less-than-lofty AU, so I really had nothing to lose. It was a joy simply pulling it out and looking at it any time I wanted. As it turned out, my professor got the bug, too, and promptly I was ordering a set of gold British sovereigns for him. I did not make any money on the transaction, although I think to this day it played a major role in what was viewed as my miraculous passing of the required French examination.
Ordering coins for my professor was satisfying, but I still wanted more and decided that the logical approach was a gold type set. I would have been happy to collect Saint-Gaudens double eagles. I had to be realistic about my finances, however, and there was no way I could afford double eagles on a regular basis.
It was a major sacrifice simply to acquire a Coronet Head double eagle. While it, too, was a great coin, there was something about the Saint-Gaudens design that could not be topped. That is why it was no surprise about 15 years later in 1986 when that design was selected for the gold American Eagles as it is perfect for a large gold coin.
Having taken care of my two double eagles, I decided to turn my attention on the rest of the basic eight-piece gold type set. I had no problem ordering by mail, but one week in early November I decided to take a tour of local coin shops to see what they might have in stock.
I did not have a lot of money, and back in 1970 it did not cost a lot of money to buy a Coronet Head quarter eagle, half eagle or eagle, and the Indian Head versions of the three denominations were roughly the same price. The Saint-Gaudens Indian Head gold eagle was usually just a little more.
It was getting late in the afternoon when I started my tour and, being early November in Wisconsin, it was already getting dark. My first stop produced a surprising reaction. I asked the owner if he had any gold coins and was told bluntly, “They aren’t legal.” It was too late and he was too serious to get into that discussion, but it shows that even 37 years after the gold recall order of 1933 there was still misunderstanding and suspicion when it came to gold coins.
The process of completing my eight-coin gold type set went slowly, largely because of my finances. Still, every coin was interesting. There were always little facts that would surface as I studied each, such as how the Indian Head quarter eagles and half eagles had touched off a lively debate over whether the coins were unhealthy because of their incuse motifs. I found it as interesting that even a few years before James Earle Fraser’s Buffalo nickel, Bela Lyon Pratt had opted to use a real Native American as a model, so for the first time an Indian Head design actually looked like a real Native American.
I don’t know which meant more, the college diploma or the eight-piece gold type set I completed at about the same time. As it turned out, I guess the two went together. What I learned in obtaining my history degree has come in handy in writing about coins.
I did not really see my post-college job at the Neenah-Menasha Chamber of Commerce as entering the cold hard world, but rather an opportunity to boost my income. As it turned out, my new office was only a few blocks from the major Menasha coin shop, which was run by Dick Anderson who also just happened to deliver our mail every day.
It was perfect. I would get an update on what was new in inventory every day, and the store was on my way home every night. It was easy to get them to stay open a few minutes if I wanted to look at something.
If Anderson had had his way, I would probably never have purchased things like rugs or a TV for my apartment. He always had far more ideas for coins I needed than my budget would support. That said, he and his wife loved coins and so did I, so we hit it off well, periodically going to dinner. Eventually they even invited me to a couple shows as their guest.
Among the many ideas Dick had was that I needed to expand my eight-piece type set to include the three different gold dollars as well as the expensive gold $3. That was one of his ideas that I took up, and the Type 1 and Type 3 gold dollars were quickly added to the set, if not quite in the grade Dick would have liked.
I explained to him that I had a long history of filling holes with whatever coins I could reasonably afford and that paying much more for a better grade at age 22 was still not quite possible. My income had to catch up with his taste for top grades.
The Type 2 gold dollar was going to be a problem. Issued for just a few years and with no date having a mintage of even a million, there is really no common Type 2 gold dollar. That is just a fact of life. I was reconciled to adding an 1854 or 1855 to my set until one day Dick greeted me with “Why don’t you add a really rare coin to your set?”
With that greeting, I suspected there was trouble. Sure enough, Dick was explaining the importance of the gold dollar in the holder in front of him before I even had a chance to examine it. The coin at best was a VF-20, but it was an 1855-C, mintage 9,803. That mintage certainly got my attention. I had never even imagined owning a U.S. coin with a mintage of less than 10,000.
“Think of what the price would be if it was a Mercury dime with that mintage,” Dick cheerfully observed. He had a point, but it was not a Mercury dime so the demand was much less, which meant it would never come close to the sort of price a Mercury dime would bring had it had such a low mintage.
I told Dick I would have to sleep on it. While doing that, Dick was already outlining a convenient payment plan. If I played my cards right and ate at Chamber of Commerce functions almost every night, I could potentially have the coin paid off quickly, simply by not buying food.
I had told Dick I would sleep on it, but in fact I could not sleep thinking about how rare that 1855-C gold dollar was. Its mintage was so low and its chances for survival so poor that there could not be many in any grade.
I decided I had to have it although the payment terms would have to be a little longer than Dick’s “live free off local business meetings” approach, which had been at least half in jest anyway.
Once I had the coin, I could not put it down. I examined it repeatedly, wishing it could talk so that I could learn where it had been since 1855. If there was any negative other than its low grade, it was the fact that it probably took away some from my final purchase of an 1854 $3 gold piece, a legitimately tough coin that when compared to an 1855-C gold dollar does not seem as special as it might normally.
Suddenly, however, I had a real void in my life – my gold type set was now basically complete. Dick was quick to point out that there were earlier gold issues not normally considered to be part of the set. I agreed but said I needed a while to think about it or other options.
I came close to adding to my set a number of times. There was an 1801 $10 at a Milwaukee Numismatists of Wisconsin show, and I came close to making a deal through Dick on that coin. The coin was just an F-12 and was at a reasonable price that almost seemed worth the financial sacrifice. The fact that I remember it decades later shows how interested I was.
It might have been another case where the 1855-C hurt the other coin by comparison as with a mintage placed at 44,344, the 1801 eagle would have seemed great in many situations, but compared to the 1855-C it looked more common. What it had was age, but in the end I passed on the eagle and bought a Bust dollar instead.
The other gold coins that had me seriously tempted were the William Kneass Classic Head quarter eagles and half eagles that began in 1834. In fairness, the Classic Head quarter eagles and half eagles are more expensive than a Coronet Head quarter eagle or half eagle, but they are almost certainly worth the price. I have always felt they basically fall between the cracks of interest, making them great values as they are not the scarce early gold issues of the United States and neither are they included in usual type sets.
The Classic Head quarter eagles and half eagles were really issues of a pivotal time. The amount of gold they contained was reduced slightly, enabling them to circulate where the old issues would not. The Classic Head coins, because of their higher mintages, are assumed to be available, but remember they were only produced for a few years. The Coronet Head design was in production by the 1840s.
The total number of Classic Head coins produced was not that high and they had to survive a long time to be in the market today. As a result, I always thought they were probably inexpensive. Even being partial toward acquiring an example, though, I never really found one at the grade and price that made it impossible to resist.
To this day I still have mixed emotions about not adding to my gold type set. I also question why I did not make a few different choices, such as adding a potentially better date $3 gold as opposed to the more available 1854. A better date would have been only a couple hundred dollars more. While a lot of money for me at the time, it would have been money well spent in terms of increasing my enjoyment of the coin.
Such second-guessing has never taken away from the enormous fun I had with my gold type collection. I showed it to countless startled non-collectors who were suddenly confronted with my gold collection whether they wanted to see it or not. The Saint-Gaudens double eagle more than paid for itself in such experiences, even with that unfortunate bite mark. The 1855-C gold dollar was very much the same. It had been a lot of money for me at the time, but the hours I spent with that coin made its purchase one of the best I have ever made.
Certainly my gold type set was not in the highest grade and it was not evenly matched in grade – it probably reflected my slightly scattered personality of the time. It had been enormously interesting to assemble and to own. It also rose in price as gold moved to over $800 1980 but that was secondary, even though no coins I have ever owned have ever gone up so much in price in such a short period. The enjoyment was priceless then and remains priceless today.