My column has been missing from Numismatic News regular features on two accounts. First, Kathy and I took a month-long trip to Africa, starting on the east coast, making our way to Cape Town, and then cruising up the western coast of Africa to Lisbon, Portugal, and finally to London. (There was a lot of numismatic “stuff” that you’ll hear about in the future).
The second reason is that the trip coincided with a deadline for a new book on gold, silver, platinum and palladium that I’ve written for Krause Publications (my 29th book). While I worked on the manuscript during the sea days on our cruise, in fact having a 70,000-word draft by the time London Heathrow meant we were almost home – it was 53,000 words when we left – it took a month after we returned to whip the book into shape for Debbie Bradley, my editor.
It was a fun book to write and a fascinating field to try and cover definitively but also in a way that even those making the plunge into gold, silver or platinum bullion coins are going to find that they have a neat numismatic component that will mean that coin collectors are going to enjoy it.
When you do a long book like this, a “slug line” is usually put in the upper left-hand corner to keep it manageable. Though the book has a working title and probably an official one by now, my laptop (this turns out to be important) and its storage unit (back-up, not so important) simply called the slug line “BULL” – no bull here, though, but I will let you be the judge when it is published in November.
I started coin collecting in 1960 when I found a 1906 Indian Head cent in pocket change. My Mom encouraged me to investigate its origins, took me to the library to read about what I thought was a foreign coin and to research the dozen books then in the Rockville Centre, N.Y., public library.
As this latest book of mine drew to a close, while Kathy and I were in Africa, more than 50 years after she encouraged me to read about coins, my Mom passed from the scene at age 87 after a long life and a year and a half of illness. Before we left, she saw the book manuscript and asked that the book be dedicated to her, which I readily agreed to.
How ironic then that just the other day, just before I turned the manuscript in (electronically, of course), I received in pocket change a 1944-P war nickel in p.c. condition (pretty crummy) – OK not an official grade (probably VG-8 or Fine-12), but (in the spirit of the book) worth a whopping $2 for its silver content.
Not long after the disaster at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, Congress began work on a war powers bill – comprehensive legislation that would affect the lives of every American living in the United States. (Funny how they are looking at another one today).
Among the many proposed regulations that would be imposed on the American people was a fundamental change in the coinage system. Ultimately, for the first time since 1815, production of the one cent piece was suspended. When it returned, copper had been entirely eliminated from its alloy content.
Also affected was the five-cent piece. Its nickel composition, actually only 25 percent of the total alloy, and its copper content (the remaining three-quarters of the piece) became casualties of war – temporarily.
As Representative McLaughlin explained in debate on Feb. 24, 1942, Title XII of the war powers act “changes the existing composition of the five-cent piece and makes it half copper and half silver.” Formerly, the coin had a composition of 25 percent nickel, 75 percent copper.
Why was silver used? For one thing, the government had a massive stockpile of the metal, much of which cost less than 50 cents an ounce. Some of the silver in government depositories had actually been purchased for as little as 31 cents an ounce. And, the metal was not critical to the success of the war.
The resulting coin ultimately ended up being 56 percent copper, 9 percent manganese with silver actually being just 35 percent of the alloy. Nevertheless, the war nickels of 1942-1945 had .05626 troy ounces of silver in each of them; at $35 an ounce for the silver, the 1944-P nickel that I received in pocket change at face value had $1.96 worth of metal in it. Not a bad profit for the day. Remember, the coin also is noteworthy because Philadelphia used a mintmark on war nickels and all three mintmarks then used were greatly enlarged and put over Monticello’s dome.
In contrast, the 1906 Indian cent that I found years ago was worth 25 cents – a huge profit and a big score for a guy whose allowance was a whopping 25 cents at the same time.
So I have to confess as I wait to read galleys of the new book that I think this means it’s already off to a great start – with a great story about my circulation find, a true bullion coin (Dennis Baker’s Numismedia values it right now at $2.04, or about eight cents of numismatic worth. You’ll have to read the book, coming later this year in November to find out more about bullion and some other topics. I think you will find it well worth your time and attention.
And, yes, there is a formal title. My new book will be The Insider’s Guide to Investing in Precious Metals. Watch for it.