Introduction to Coin Collecting
Why are there collectors?
No doubt reams of learned papers have been written on the subject and, in the end, probably ending in bafflement. We do know that collecting is a natural instinct for many, if not most. Children are especially noted for their inclination in this direction but if you ask such young collectors why they do it, the answer is almost certainly going to be along the lines of: “I dunno. ‘Cause it’s fun.” And that’s quite possibly what it’s all about: because of the enrichment in our lives that collecting gives us.
Collecting of nearly any kind is a sort of gentle sport with its own built-in benefits. With moderate prudence, patience and a little luck, what you spend may well be returned to you down the road – you may even turn a substantial profit. Talk about having your cake and eating it, too! Contrast that with skeet shooting or spending your disposable income on season tickets; what you’ve spent is gone. It’s never coming back, enjoyable and all as they are.
Then, too, collecting conforms to your individual time constraints. You may get stuck with overtime for weeks, go on vacation, have demands on your time from other needs for months at a time – but when things slow down, you can pick up your coin boxes, folders, books and magnifying glass and continue on where you left off. There can even be a hiatus of years. Nor will it matter one little bit whether the sun is shining outside or snow slashing up against the windows. Compare that with nearly any of the non-collecting pastimes, especially the outdoors ones.
But why coins? The ground is much more solid here. There is absolutely nothing in the way of human artifacts as regards age, availability, affordability or even visual pleasure (sometimes) that compares with the pieces of metal (and lately, paper notes, too) that mankind has chosen to serve as a form of transferrable wealth. Nothing!
It goes beyond that. For some two-and-a-half millenia – and more – , money has been so closely linked to the human condition that virtually every change, for better or worse, has been faithfully mirrored in the coinage. We can watch the heavy, quality coinage of a wealthy nation deteriorate as they descend into bad times. We can watch the crude coinage of the early Roman Republic blossom into the realistic portraiture of the Empire, only to collapse into the small, mean crude coppers of the Dark Ages as the barbarians sweep over Rome. There is very little in the way of beauty on coins from Dark Ages and medieval times but this abruptly flowers in the 1400s as Europe is gripped with the burgeoning effects of the Renaissance. Hammered coins give way to machine-struck pieces in direct lockstep with the development of technology. In Canada and the U.S., we watch silver circulation coins give way to base metal in the 1960s. Off to the side, wars, revolutions, occupations, sieges and like are more likely than not to have been reflected in some sort of special currency.
The magic word here is “artifact”, meaning something that physically shared in the events denoted. That little dirty note from the Philippines during WWII, practically worthless in the collectors’ market, was nevertheless there, handled by people in fear of their lives. The worn Elizabethan sixpence could possibly have been handled by Queen Bess herself – or even Rawleigh or Drake. As for some of the biblical coins – not terribly expensive as copper “widow’s mites” – perhaps this was the very coin mentioned in the Bible. All of them certainly were there. All of them can tell you something. If you listen closely.
Take this to the bank: Where ever in the coin collecting game you are most comfortable is right – for you. Let no one tell you different. There is a big spectrum in coin collecting (or “numismatics”) that ranges from the pure collector to the pure researcher, with practically all of us located someplace in between. Let’s take a couple of good examples from Canadian numismatics:
During the early decades of the 20th Century, the top collector in Canada was generally conceded to be W.W.C. Wilson of Montreal. He had deep pockets and an acquisitive zeal that resulted in the finest collection of Canadian coins, medals, tokens and the like, both as regards breadth as well as quality. He had literally everything. He had even more than that; if only two or three of a given piece were known, he would buy them, too, if he could.
The collection was so large that it required four yearly auction sales (1925-8) by Wayte Raymond of New York to dispose of it all. Today, these auction catalogues – heavily illustrated – form a sort of “Corpus Nummorum Canadiensis” up to the mid-1920s and are themselves very expensive now.
Yet, with all this material for Wilson to draw upon, we look in vain for a single article in the contemporary press authored by him; we find no new discoveries made by him. From a research point of view, he seems not to have made a single step. He was a “pure collector”.
At the other end of scale was his contemporary, Professor Adam Shortt, who more or less invented the discipline of “political economy”. His research in this area was unflagging through most of his life, his “summer vacations” spent in the National Archives digging into original documents on Canadian banks and currency. These he assembled in three giant works (Canadian banking and currency to 1880; financial documents of the French regime in Canada and the same for Nova Scotia to 1758). At his death, he was still assembling even more with a view to publication. His works are invaluable to the Canadian numismatic researcher – especially since his accuracy in interpretation is nearly 100%!
Yet, so far as we know, Adam Shortt did not collect coins at all. He was the “pure researcher”.
Personally, I fit to the Shortt side of center on this scale. Prejudiced, I lean toward him. If I had to choose which of the two men did the most for Canadian numismatics, I would unhesitatingly choose Professor Shortt.
I would be wrong. From the “collector” side of the spectrum, Wilson has always been a figure to emulate. In the attempt to recreate his accomplishments, many decent collections have been formed. Happily, many of these top collectors also turned to writing of their findings in numerous articles and announcements of their discoveries. Wilson may have been a collector only but his numismatic progeny did much to spread the word. It can’t be denied.
Happily, many pure collectors became knowledgeable collectors, an area where most can find enjoyment without boredom.
As you might expect, a coin club fits into this “desiderata” very well indeed. First of all, it’s just plain fun to hang out with those whose interests are similar to our own. Secondly, it’s a good place to acquire new pieces for our collections by buying or auction – as well as move our own duplicates. Then there is the acquiring of knowledge in a particularly painless fashion – talks, video programs, show-and-tell and so forth. Perhaps best of all, whole new interesting areas of collecting – areas of which we were heretofore unaware – may open up. We also start to become educated in the dealer world out there: who deals in what we like, those that tend to have the best prices, those who are best to sell to, and so forth.
All of this we tend to miss as “lone wolf collectors”.
Many years ago, someone (probably a dealer in coin books) gave what is nevertheless solid advice: “Buy the book before the coin”.
Let’s start with the easiest: the only non-association coin publication in Canada is currently “Canada Coin News”, newspaper-format and appearing every second week. Available at your local bookstore (presently $2.95 + tax) or through subscription. It contains current coverage of the Canadian numismatic scene, background articles, lots of dealers’ ads and present “Trend Prices” for nearly all Canadian coins from 1858 onward as well as government notes (sometimes) and pre-Confederation tokens (also sometimes). The values are given in several different grades of preservation.
Step Two: Grades. These are photographically illustrated for each of the five monarchs in the forward of “Charlton’s Standard Catalogue of Canadian Coins”, current edition. Price will be in the $10-15 range, probably close to the latter since the lower prices are usually offered through the mail and postage has to be factored in.
If you’re really serious about grading, you can’t do better than “The Standard Grading Guide to Canadian Decimal Coins”, originally authored by Jim Charlton & Robert Willey in 1965 and recently reprinted by Unitrade Publications of Toronto. Price, $19.95 + tax + postage. Nevertheless, it’s a one-time buy good for decades. Each Canadian, Newfoundland (New Brunswick, P.E.I. and Nova Scotia as well) coin – by denomination and type – is illustrated by really good line drawings in five or so different grades, plainly showing what features (or lack of same) denotes a given grade. It’s the standard widely used by most dealers. And when you’re paying good dollars, grading is everything.
Charlton’s Standard catalogue, noted above, also contains a tremendous amount of background information. A competing catalogue, “Coins of Canada” by Jim Haxby & Bob Willey (current edition – price similar to Charlton’s), does as well. But each contains things not covered by the others; the Haxby/Willey work, for instance, also covers pre-Confederation tokens. For this area, the Charlton group has its own special catalogue – as well as one for Chartered Bank notes and yet another for Government banknotes.
For those whose interests lie outside Canada, there is Yeoman’s “Guidebook of U.S. Coins” (called the “Redbook’), published yearly and costing somewhat over $10.
For the rest of the world, there are Krause’s big telephone-directory-size catalogues: “Standard Catalogue of World Coins” with one for the period 1601-1701, another for 1701-1800, another for 1801-1900, another for 1901- 60 and a slightly smaller one 1961-now. They also cover world paper money with the same format, one on specialized issues (private banknotes or anything but government issues), another one covering government issues from the beginning to about 1960 and a third smaller one 1960 to the present. All of them are pricey, the cheapest new one close to $50 and others up to $85. However, if you’re after background information and knowing what exists, you can forego a new edition and settle for one a few years old at a fraction of the price.
This ends the general overview. Hopefully, some of the leads and tips will prove useful. When the real journal appears, its layout will have changed somewhat, perhaps with a listing of the offerings in the upcoming auction a standard feature. There will also hopefully be something in the way of articles or questions answered, &c. Contributions and input is, of course, solicited.
Guide to Coin Collecting – Index