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Draw visitors to coin collecting with a magnet

When I went to the Smithsonian Institution many years ago, the collection of U.S. coins was still on display.

There were so many coins in so little space that it felt weird standing in a vast area not moving just so I could take in all the individual pieces.

Last November, I was in a museum in Beijing looking at numismatic items.

Again, I was in a vast gallery trying to take in all the tiny little pieces.

Once again, it felt weird not moving.

I would be afraid to take a test to see what Chinese numismatic information I have retained after nearly a year.

I am a coin collector.

I am a numismatic professional.

If I feel weird, how do ordinary people feel when confronted by tiny coins on display?

This question popped into my head after an American Numismatic Association press release arrived by email.

It announces a display of a copper 1943 cent worth $1 million.

The rare error is on loan.

Anything with a million-dollar price tag will attract attention.

I hope the number of public visits to the ANA’s Edward C. Rochette Money Museum in Colorado Springs, Colo., increases as a result.

The ANA also said in the release that it has other multi-million dollar coins on display.

These include two of the five known 1913 Liberty Head nickels, the Rittenhouse 1792 half disme, and two of 15 1804 silver dollars.

There is no question that the ANA museum is an Aladdin’s cave of numismatic treasures.

But does this fact aid the public in taking it all in, or simply overwhelm them?

What can be done to individualize the experience and take any sense of weirdness out?

With a copper (technically bronze) 1943 cent, perhaps the museum could give away circulated examples of the regular steel 1943 cents.

This would show noncollectors why the copper alloy version is so rare.

Without the comparison, the 1943 copper cent looks like all ordinary cents.

It is the steel coin that makes the error stand out.

Also, a quick numismatic education might take visitors with their 1943 steel cents by a magnet.

They will notice that the steel cent is attracted to it.

The magnet test is a well-known method to detect the many supposed copper 1943 cents out there that are simply plated steel or altered 1948 cents.

This kind of activity would be educational, but it would not overwhelm noncollectors.

By planting a little seed of numismatic knowledge with a souvenir steel cent, we might just break through the mind’s many defenses against feeling weird and overwhelmed.

Every time the recipient looks at it, he or she will be reminded of the experience at the museum.

Buzz blogger Dave Harper won the Numismatic Literary Guild Award for Best Blog for the third time in 2017. He is editor of the weekly newspaper "Numismatic News."