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Dumb questions? Not really

Experienced collectors and dealers have pretty much all been asked what might be construed as dumb questions about coins or paper money by non-collectors.


There are hundreds, if not thousands, of such questions, but here are a few examples:

“How much is the gold worth in these gold dollars?” (referring to the Native American and U.S. Presidential dollars issued this century that are yellow in color but do not contain a speck of gold content despite the U.S. Mint’s marketing campaign calling them Golden Dollars).

“What is this really old coin worth?” (which could be a currently circulating coin that was minted in the 1980s or 1990s, something that might actually seem really old from the perspective of the child asking the question).

“Can you give me $1,000 in currency for this $1,000 coin?” (which could be a coin from Mexico dated before that country dropped three zeroes from their money in 1993, where the coins use the dollar sign to signify pesos, hence coins that depict “$1000” now have an exchange value just over five cents in U.S. money).

Most of you reading this have been asked what might be considered dumb questions to a knowledgeable numismatist. However, an important thing to keep in mind is that the person who asks such questions is actually doing something intelligent! In other words, these are not dumb questions.

If you find you own something that you don’t know what it is or what it might be worth, the sensible thing to do is seek more information before deciding whether to discard it, give it to a child, or put it in a vault and buy insurance on it.

Seeking online information is one smart step to take. However, I constantly hear stories from people who say they have tried to research something on the Internet that looks like a coin or piece of paper money and either had no success or saw something sort of like what they have but was not an exact match.

People who are frustrated at not finding what they want to know on the Internet are likely to then try reaching out to a collector or coin dealer.

Take a moment and think about the best way to respond to what might be considered dumb questions if someone asks you one.

Sure, it would be easiest to give a quick answer of the item just being current spending money, a fake, a replica or counterfeit, a token or medal, or a minor coin or currency of virtually no value (whichever may be the circumstance).

But what difference would it make if the collector or dealer were to take a little more time to acknowledge that the person was being intelligent by seeking information on the item and its possible value, then go on to share some background numismatic information that just might spark the interest of a new collector?

Taking the three questions listed earlier, think about how the following answers might be received:

“There are a lot of people who wonder the same thing. There is no gold at all in what the U.S. Mint marketed as Golden Dollars. However, the Mint wanted to make the coins distinctive by using a different-colored alloy than was used for its other denominations. The Mint did issue a dollar coin of this size in the late 20th century made out of copper-nickel, just like quarters. But because coins were so close in size and design to quarters, people found them confusing. Did you know these are the only coins in circulation right now that contain manganese? If you went to a bank or store to ask if they have some of these Golden Dollars that you can get for face value, you could have a lot of fun with them and still be able to spend them if you wanted to. By the way, I have a real gold coin struck by the U.S. Mint about a hundred years ago that you can examine.”

“That’s a smart question to ask, so that you would know if you have something of extra value. This coin may be older than you, but it is still current spending money. But did you know that if you look at the coins you get in change or from the bank that you might find pennies and nickels more than 70 years old, or dimes and quarters more than 50 years old? Some people collect the different dates and mintmarks of coins from the change in their pocket to see how many they can find. By the way, did you know that some coins were made that are up to 2,500 years old? I have some I can show you, or you might see some if you ever visit a coin shop or coin show.”

“With that dollar sign in front of 1,000, it would make me wonder if it might be really valuable. This is a coin from Mexico before they changed their coins and currency in 1993. There are other countries beside America that use the denominations of dollars and cents, such as Australia Canada, Hong Kong, Jamaica and New Zealand, but those are not spendable in this country and have different spending value. There are other countries that used the dollar sign to signify their local money, which is not dollars and cents, such as Mexico, where the symbol means pesos. Mexico changed their money a quarter century ago. Unfortunately, this coin in Mexico today is worth just over five cents in American money – if you can still spend it. But have you seen coins and paper money from many other countries? How are they different from American coins and currency?”

By taking a bit of time to share some of what makes numismatics so interesting to you, you just might instill a desire for someone else to become a collector.

Dealers, you have an even stronger incentive to respectfully and thoughtfully respond to these kinds of questions. If you spark an interest in numismatics and create a new collector, that means a potential new customer. And, if you demonstrate that you are knowledgeable and helpful when you explain that what someone has today won’t make them rich, these people are more likely to come back to you or to refer other people to you when they do possess genuine treasures.

If you think about it as I have outlined above, you will realize that people who ask dumb questions about coins, currency and related items are actually showing signs of intelligence.

Patrick A. Heller was the American Numismatic Association 2017 Exemplary Service and 2012 Harry Forman Numismatic Dealer of the Year Award winner. He was also honored by the Numismatic Literary Guild in 2017 and 2016 for the Best Dealer-Published Magazine/Newspaper and for Best Radio Report. He is the communications officer of Liberty Coin Service in Lansing, Mich., and writes “Liberty’s Outlook,” a monthly newsletter on rare coins and precious metals subjects. Past newsletter issues can be viewed at Some of his radio commentaries titled “Things You ‘Know’ That Just Aren’t So, And Important News You Need To Know” can be heard at 8:45 a.m. Wednesday and Friday mornings on 1320-AM WILS in Lansing (which streams live and becomes part of the audio and text archives posted at

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

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