By Richard Schwary - California Numismatic Investments
Well if you have not heard of this group don’t feel too bad because it does a great deal of work in one of the more obscure areas of rare coin interest but one of the most interesting. To set you on the right foot however you should understand the public usually makes a mistake when describing the family treasure that Uncle Joe put away during the Neolithic era. Anything that is round is called a coin, when in fact only a sovereign government can mint a coin and so create legal tender.
The rest of the stuff might look like a coin but falls into the broader numismatic area called Exonumia and contains such things as tokens and commemorative medals:
(1) The Europeans love to produce commemorative medals for every occasion and developed the technology into an art form over the past 200 years. Any subject is fair game like kings, queens, weddings, assassinations, murder, birth, and conquest. The rarest are usually made from gold, followed by silver and then copper although there are exceptions. There are more copper medals than any other and because there are so many subjects most are inexpensive, falling in the $25 to $300 range for the most part but there are important historical medals which can be quite valuable. Silver and gold medals especially in high grades should be checked thoroughly by a professional because some are quite rare and valuation is better served by a reputable auction company.
(2) Private tokens are also an exceptional area and especially suited to the history buff. These mostly copper jewels are the size of both large and small cents depending on the year they were struck and everyone got into the act so they were minted by the millions. Many have something to say and have been used for everything from a small change substitute to political statements ranging from popular or unpopular presidents to civil war battles.
Some of the more common types are called Hard Times tokens which include satirical pieces with relevant commentary for their day (1837 – Not One Cent for Tribute), commercial store cards which served as great local advertisements and political tokens which are always worthy especially if you think only today’s politicians are a joke.
Also of keen interest are Civil War tokens (my favorite) and other interesting statements of their time like So-Called dollars or Bryan and Lesher dollars. There is even a large collecting fraternity which specializes in Columbian Exposition stuff.
In 1837 and 1864 Dr. Lewis Feuchtwanger created 1 cent and 3 cent trial tokens using a German silver combination of copper, zinc, and nickel and tried to sell Congress on the idea that these should be substituted for copper cents. I’m not sure he disclosed his ownership in related mines at the time but the project failed to gain traction because his “combination” could not be duplicated with consistency. Like I said, this is a short list and includes just a few of the famous, infamous, and sometimes overlapping areas the Token and Medal Society spend a great deal of time studying, cataloguing and pricing.
What makes the entire token area fascinating is that while our old pocket friends are not legal tender many were used as real money in the United States.
These substitutions happened for a number of reasons and are seen most often when our government was not minting enough real coinage or there was a political axe to grind or a private citizen wanted to make a statement about legal tender. And so research opens a window into how exasperating daily commerce might become and how clever Americans are in divining new ways to solve the problem and poke fun at the process.
For the most part this history in your hands is inexpensive when compared to high grade rare coins of the same era. Most civil war and store card coppers trade for between $20 and $75 which is cheap considering their historical importance and include examples using the Monitor to remind us of the first battle of the ironclads. So the next time you wonder about that old coin like token or medal which has been around the house since you were a kid consider doing some research and support The Token and Medal Society (TAMS).
There is no one book with information and prices because this subject is too large but A Guide Book of United States Coins (Yeoman) will provide a beginning and standard references include anything written by the Russell Rulau (The Standard Catalogue of United States Tokens (1700-1900).
So-Called Dollars by Hibler and Kappen was out of print for many years but the excellent 2nd Edition is now available with updated prices and analysis. Also keep in mind that while most of this matreial is not expensive there are a number of big exceptions which could put thousands in your pocket if you have the right one in good condition.