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Nowhere else can you spend old coin

Every collector knows that age is not the determining factor when a coin’s value is being assessed. It is rarity, condition and level of demand.


Age is important in identity and historical context. It also is important from a personal perspective.

What collector does not think of what was going on when seeing a coin of a certain age? It might be mental images of George Washington, or of Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendering to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant.

But there is the personal angle also. I recall seeing Indian cents or Morgan dollars and thinking my grandfather was born in a year they were current and my grandmother in another. When it came to the late 19th century, that was how I personalized the experience.

But now I have been a collector for so many years that I can truthfully say that I have received and spent coins that are now more than 100 years old. That is mind boggling.

I remember when I found a 1909 cent in change. Sure, it was not a 1909-S VDB or even a 1909 VDB, but it seemed very old when I was a child. Now it is 108 years old. I can still spend it. It would be received as a cent by whoever I gave it to and they would probably not even notice its age. A collector would spot the wheat ears right away. But a noncollector probably would not.

There is no other country on earth where you can spend a 108-year-old coin in a routine manner. There are countries where you could get value for it, or redeem it, but you not be able to actually spend it.

That speaks of stability. Yes, I know there has been a lot of inflation in my lifetime. The cent has little value left in terms of what it can buy, but everywhere else in the world inflation has been higher over the last 108 years and the wheels of change have turned.

Some countries have had multiple currencies, not just two, but multiples in the last 108 years.

While I know that all U.S. coins retain their legal tender status, none but the Lincoln cent could routinely pass as change. You might get away with spending a 1938 Jefferson nickel, but that is only 79 years old – still a reasonable indicator of stability. For dimes and quarters, the cut-off date is 1965, which is 52 years ago. That’s still not bad, especially when once in a rare while an old silver dime or quarter finds its way into the mixture. It is the relative stability of American coinage that allows such a mix-up to occur that someone would spend a silver coin and not realize its added value.

There are legitimate criticisms of the American monetary structure, but somehow we have managed to have one that lasts long enough that we can say there is nothing in circulation even as we use 50-year-coins routinely.

I won’t spend that 1909 Lincoln cent. I am too sentimentally attached to it. But even recognizing that spending it is a possibility is a tribute to the American monetary system.

This article was originally printed in Numismatic News Express. >> Subscribe today

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