This article was originally printed in Numismatic News.
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It seems as if everything is collectible. Popular television programs like “Pickers” and “Pawn Stars” are all the rage. We hold our breath during “Antiques Roadshow” when the experts reveal how much an attic find will bring at auction. For the rest of us without attics, we are told that new is as good as old, as modern nick-knacks are trumpeted in the marketplace as “limited edition” rarities soon to be tomorrow’s classics.
The United States Mint has joined the fray by offering a vast catalog of collectible coins and medals. It has become fashionable to commemorate everything: from water fountains and mountains to boy scouts and presidents. Coin collectors no longer need to look back to yesteryear to discover coins that depict our national character with symbols of liberty, fortitude, and agricultural wealth.
Instead, we can wait for the Mint to produce new and improved versions of all that came before – in limited editions, of course.
With all these new coins vying for our dollars, it is easy to forget that collectors were among the original eccentrics who saved stuff that others freely spent or used up. This was a period when collectors, and only collectors, determined what was worth saving and what was not. We turned common objects – like pocket change – into something special by forming sets that allowed us to interpret history and experience nostalgia.
Nowadays, marketers do this for us. Coins come in special packaging and cost more than face value – even new cents, useful only for paying sales tax, are sold by the Mint at a premium. In this regard, the initial costs determine what is special, as who would spend these glorified cents after paying a premium for them? I fear that the same corporate engineers who want us to buy limited edition boxes of Wheaties with Michael Phelps on the front have hijacked our hobby. Should I save the flakes or just the box?
My concern is that many wonderful coins are being ignored while collectors chase after these newbie collectibles. As far as I can tell, many of these collectors are disappointed with the high prices demanded and the lack of quality in the coins received. In fact, when it comes to new coins, anything less than perfect is cause for discontent. Consequently, these coin programs have nurtured an obsession with condition. All this makes me wonder, what happened to the excitement we felt when we first encountered a timeworn Mercury dime in pocket change? Does anyone remember this?
I know quite a few antique buffs that enjoy scouring yard sales, estate auctions, and shops for neat, old toys. The thousands of limited edition, look-alike toy replicas that litter the marketplace do not distract them; rather, they forge ahead – undaunted – in their quest for the dime-store toy that is special. It does not matter if it was heavily played with, as a well-worn, die-cast roadster is survivor against all odds. It is not about investment either, since finding and having it is all that matters. When I accompany these antique hunters, I realize that they are having the time of their lives!
We have been there too, but our memories are short. Many of us spent summer afternoons hunting for survivors in bankrolls – we were energized by the wish to discover something “really old and cool.” In the late-1960s, a Mercury dime was a great find! Everyone elbowed in to see and touch it! Herein lies the soul of collecting! We define what is special to us and seek it out, no matter how long it takes. Indeed, having a passion for objects that others see only as utilitarian or used us is the mettle of the true collector. This is where the fun is!
I think we need to rediscover the true collector that resides within each of us. We should be having as much fun as my toy collecting friends. Those who complain that the golden era of collecting is over have not been paying attention. Those timeworn Mercury dimes are everywhere, and they have not changed one iota. Instead, many collectors have lost touch with their youthful enthusiasm for wholesome coins that once jingled in the pockets and purses of our parents. We have allowed ourselves to be shaped by slick marketers who entice us with super-sized quarters and Mercury dimes made of platinum.
Buy these hybrid concoctions if you must, but I urge you to set some money aside to start a collection of circulated cents, nickels, and dimes that were actually saved and spent. Perhaps I am being overly nostalgic to want a dime that was used to purchase a root beer float or saved for a red roadster, but I am certain that we are overlooking some of the most beautiful – and durable – coins ever produced. Frankly, I am surprised that we have allowed ourselves to ignore the allure of a coin softened by a thousand fingertips.
An aged coin is fascinating to ponder, as it reflects how life is. Old coins stand out precisely because fewer of them survive. A super-sized quarter is a novelty – it reminds me of something you win at the circus for busting three balloons with two darts. They will not fit in your pockets and cannot be spent. Consequently, they will never get old or be collectible in the same way that Mercury dimes are; in addition, these whoppers perpetuate our perverse obsession with mint luster! They are commodities and everyone knows it.
It is no wonder why kids are not that interested in coin collecting these days. They hear us complaining. After all, chasing after commodities is like having a job. In contrast, a nice set of circulated coins can provide hours of enjoyment for a few dollars. All sorts of treasures can be found in a dealer’s junk box! A set of timeworn Mercury dimes still has the same effect as they did 50 years ago: display them, and all your houseguests will want to elbow in to see and touch them. “Go ahead,” I tell them, “that is why I set them there, right next to the roadsters!”
This Viewpoint was written by Mike Shutty Jr. of Middlebrook, Va.
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