by Al Doyle
The current economic slump has forced many collectors to cut spending to the bone. Even with their allure, coins can’t compete with buying groceries and paying the mortgage or rent. So what can the cash-strapped numismatist do to stay involved in his favorite pastime?
Perhaps it’s time for a little creative or “out of the box” thinking. In this case, the “box” may be date sets of U.S. coin series or single certified U.S. issues. Get into key dates or high-grade examples, and it often means the person with the blue-collar budget finds themselves priced out of the game. Perhaps it’s time for a different game.
Compared to many U.S coins, world coinage of comparable age, metallic composition, condition and rarity can often be had for much less than the cost of “buying American”. How did this happen?
Local buyers are almost always going to be the biggest outlet for the scarce and not so rare coins of any nation. Since the United States has the globe’s largest number of affluent and middle-class collectors, those factors naturally drive prices for U.S. material higher than what the market would sustain elsewhere. Overseas hobbyists match their American counterparts in knowledge and enthusiasm, but their pockets usually aren’t as deep.
For those who have an interest in other nations or a natural sense of curiosity, the world coin scene can provide a satisfying way to stay involved with numismatics on a thrifty budget. The variety of designs and artwork is truly impressive, and here are 10 low-cost masterpieces.
1. 1913-40 Netherlands 5 cent pieces:
The diamond shape of these coins is enough to make them intriguing, but the artistic flourishes and intricate design takes this series to the upper levels of inexpensive “cool”.
Take a look at the scallop shells on the left and right sides of the reverse. The shell on the left contains the “19” portion of the date, while the other two digits are placed on the other side. Those small circles between the shells are pearls. This copper-nickel example of miniature artistry is also quite affordable, as circulated common dates can be obtained for $5 or less. Diamond-shaped 5-cent pieces have also been issued by Curacao and the Netherlands Antilles
2. Very affordable commemorative silver:
Many nations have issued circulating “commems”, which is the opposite approach from what the U.S. Mint has taken for more than a century. Japan’s .600 fine 100 yen of 1964 was created to honor of the Summer Olympics held in Tokyo. This will never be a rarity, as 80 million were struck, but numerous examples have been lost or melted over the decades.
Even with the current high price of silver, the Tokyo Olympics 100 yen (which contains .0926 ounce of the metal) can be found for $10 or less in all grades. The short-lived silver 100 yen of 1957 and 1958 are also worth purchasing. These coins have the same metallic composition and dimensions as the 1964 commemorative, and the stylized crane on the obverse is an eye catcher.
3. 1922-36 Canada 5 cent nickels:
If there was a contest for the most attractive reverse design on a coin, this would be among the contenders – and the obverse is also a fine piece of work.
A pair of maple leaves screams “Canada!” and are placed just below a large number 5 on the flip side. The date appears at the 6:00 position, with the words “FIVE” and “CENTS” flanking the digit. The obverse portrait of George V is a dignified and nicely detailed profile of the king. All of the elements combine to make this pure nickel piece a prize for those who appreciate eye-appealing coins that sell for blue-collar prices in circulated grades. The 1922 and 1936 are the most common dates in the series.
4. 1898-1921 French 5 & 10 centimes:
Except for the denomination and size, this pair of coppers are identical – but getting a second helping of this design is a bonus.
Collectors who prefer the classic styles of old over the more modernistic approach of the 21st century will rejoice when they see the “Republic protecting her child” reverse. This could have been the kind of numismatic art that Teddy Roosevelt had in mind with he expressed his displeasure at the banality of U.S. coinage in the early 1900s.
Although the 10 centime tends to cost more than the 5 centime version, “expensive” is a relative term here, as both series are loaded with dates that cost well under $10 apiece in the higher circulated grades. In some instances, Mint State examples are also available for a sawbuck or less.
It’s a happy coincidence, but the 5 centime, Dutch 5 cent, George V 5-cent nickel and the U.S. Buffalo nickel were all in circulation at approximately the same time. It was something of a golden age for low-denomination coinage.
5. Fish from the Bahamas:
The .800 fine and copper-nickel 50-cent pieces of 1966 to 1980 feature a leaping blue marlin on the reverse. 1971 to 1980-dated issues were struck by the Franklin Mint for inclusion in proof and mint sets, and the silver version contains .2667 ounce of the metal. The soaring billfish is a stunning – and inexpensive – sight in silver or base metal.
Collectors who are attracted to odd and unusual coins often have to pay dearly for such items, but the Bahamas 10-cent piece is a delightful exception to that line of thinking. Check the scalloped edges on this copper-nickel coin. An obverse portrait of Queen Elizabeth II occupies the obverse, with a pair of bonefish on the reverse. It would be hard to spend more than $2 for a type specimen. A number of Franklin Mint products from the ’70s were struck in quantities of 1,000 or less, and the cost for these low-mintage dates is almost negligible.
Although it deviates from the fish theme, the Bahamian 15-cent piece of the same era also deserves a mention. Combine a very unusual face value with a diamond-shaped planchet and low price, and this becomes an impulse buy at the least and possibly a date set to pursue.
6. Peruvian “Seated” coinage:
American numismatists may get a sense of deja vu when they see the 1/2 dinero and 1dinero of the late 1800s and early 1900s for the first time. The reverse is a South American take on the Seated Liberty issues of the same era, and the fineness and weight are identical to the U.S. half dime and dime.
Is your budget closer to Ralph Kramden than Ralph Lauren? No problem, as the Peruvian pieces sell for rock-bottom prices. The 1/2 dinero series offers a lifetime of research for variety specialists, as overdates and other quirks abound.
7. Hail, Britannia:
Older British coinage conveys a certain understated elegance, and that feel carries through even to the lowest denominations. The seated figure of Britannia appeared on half pennies and pennies until 1936 as well as the large copper pennies through the demise of that series in 1967.
Cost-conscious buyers can choose more than 100 different coppers in circulated and mint state grades and never spend more than $10 on a single coin. In exchange for a few dollars at a time, a person can build a pre-decimal British coin collection dating back to the 1800s and Queen Victoria.
8. Old Reliable The Swiss 1/2 franc:
This coin comes to mind when the saying “Some things never change” is mentioned. That’s because the design and diameter have remained unchanged since 1974. Aside from the very similar Swiss 1 and 2 franc pieces, how many other circulating coins can boast such a long record of service?
Struck in .835 fine silver until 1967, the 1/2 franc weighed in with .0671 ounce of precious metal, placing it between Canadian and U.S. dimes in silver content. The copper-nickel version of 1968 to date is very inexpensive, as are many of the silver versions.
9. South African wildlife:
The nation’s early (beginning in 1961) decimal coinage displays a number of native species, and current prices are downright cheap. Check out the Cape sparrows on the 1/2 cent and 1-cent pieces along with the wildebeest on the 2-cent, which is the largest of this trio of bronze coins.
A standing blue crane is featured on the pure nickel 5-cent of 1965 to 1989. Is a gold Krugerrand out of reach? Check out the .500 fine silver 50-cent piece of 1961 to 1965, as the reverse portrait and layout of a springbok is very similar to what was placed on the “K-rand” reverse beginning in 1967. Although it doesn’t display an animal, the .500 fine silver 2 1/2 cent is a short-lived (1961 to 1964) series with an odd face value that appeals to some collectors. With just .0226 ounce of silver, the 2 1/2 cent is identical in size and weight to the 3 pence series it replaced.
10. Small nation, small coin, small price:
At 1,103 square miles, Luxembourg is almost identical in size with Rhode Island. The duchy has issued relatively few coins during the past century, and one design conveys a pleasantly nostalgic image.
The 1930-dated 50 centimes is a one-year type coin that shows a small farmer hoeing a field by hand. The same theme appears on the 1 franc of 1924, 1930 and 1935. These pure nickel pieces are somewhat more expensive than the copper-nickel 1 franc coinage that was struck from 1952 to 1964. If the old-time farmer appeals to you, the ’50s and ’60s version is something that is within the reach of even the most meager collecting budgets.
Don’t feel defeated if your current coin buying funds are a skimpy roll of $1 and $5 bills. Consider the situation to be a challenge instead and go out in search of these and many other eye-appealing coins that sell for blue-collar prices.