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Happy Holidays, and How I got my start in this hobby

By Jim Bisognani – NGC Weekly Market Report …….

Numismatists are a hardy lot. Once we have found a series or type of coin that we enjoy the hunt begins to either build a set, series or locate a nicely matched collection or accumulation.

Winter and the holiday season are upon us and it’s time to bring the curtain down on another exciting year. For hobbyists it is also a time to reflect and appreciate their numismatic treasure.

- NGC Weekly Market Report

Numismatists are a hardy lot. Once we have found a series or type of coin that we enjoy the hunt begins to either build a set, series or locate a nicely matched collection or accumulation.

Winter and the holiday season are upon us and it’s time to bring the curtain down on another exciting year. For hobbyists it is also a time to reflect and appreciate their numismatic treasure.

There is a saying that old age is always 15 years from today and I was thinking how true that is. Fortunately in my lifetime I’ve seen, cataloged and priced most major US rarities as well as chronicling the week–to–week market for both US generic type coins and complete series. But coins are first and foremost a hobby, one that I came to love and has been an active part of my life for over 45 years. Serious collectors and other hobbyists have asked me don’t you get bored; haven’t you seen it all? My answer is no. While it may not be the cosmos, there is still so very much for us to learn and observe.

lincoln cent thumbs Happy Holidays,  and How I got my start in this hobbyFor each US series, especially the earlier Federal type coins, there are so many varieties, so many subtle differences that it would take a lifetime of study to truly appreciate the nuances and idiosyncrasies that each coin and series reveals. Numismatists are a hardy lot. Once we have found a series or type of coin that we enjoy the hunt begins to either build a set, series or locate a nicely matched collection or accumulation. It doesn’t matter to a true collector. Based on budget or desire, the choice could be Flowing Hair Type, esoteric patterns, Morgan dollars, modern commemoratives or a registry set of Silver Eagles. Every coin and every series has its followers.

A series such as the ever popular Lincoln Cents never seems to go out of vogue. Probably every casual hobbyist or serious numismatist got their start attempting to fill a book of Lincoln head cents. We all encountered those immediate roadblocks with the 1909–S, 1909–S VDB, 1914–D. These coins were out of reach for most young collectors. At least for me my greatest early achievement along this series was purchasing a 1909–S Lincoln back in 1972 at a local coin show for $20. I had worked and saved for nearly three months to buy that piece. The coin was a strong VF, with lovely natural light wood grain toning. It was indeed a proud possession. I remember spending many hours gazing at the coin appreciating its wonderful state of preservation and how it must have been plucked from circulation perhaps sometime in the late 20s or early 30s, perhaps during the Great Depression, and was protected for numismatists such as myself to enjoy. The other key coins were obviously a challenge and were out of my league at that time. Actually, it was with this series that I got my start in this hobby. Please forgive me as I wax nostalgic.

It was the summer of 1966 when I was 9 years old. My mother summoned me and my older twin brothers from our rooms interrupting an otherwise carefree summer vacation day of doing nothing for a project. My mom, who had been a waitress for many years, had saved all of her tips and placed the coins in a large glass Lincoln figural decanter. She relayed to us that she had heard about a certain 1955 Lincoln penny that she was intent on locating and was certain that she had received one of these coins in change and placed it along with all the other copper coins in that great glass container.

I remember the container was huge; it came up to my waist. There must have been thousands of coins in that thing. Mom the eternal optimist, instructed us to look for a 1955 penny with a “blurry date.”

She then proceeded to pour all the Lincolns out on our slightly spiraling staircase that overlooked our living room. My brothers, Mom and I then began to search through piles of coppers. I quickly found a 1955 and asked mom if that was it. She took a glance and said no. My brothers weren’t having much luck either and after about 3 hours in a hot humid house in mid–July every coin I picked up looked blurry. We all spotted 1955 dated coins but not the right one according to Mom.

I was about halfway up the staircase and there was still a considerable pile of change in front of me to go through. During my search I located many coins that were dated in the 20s and 30s; even a couple of those worn down Indian Head pennies all of which I thought were neat and set them aside in another pile. I excavated another 1955 coin from the hoard of never ending copper and I gave it to my mom. After examining it she said, “That’s it, you found it!”

Well, I was glad that I found it and this exercise had come to an end. My brothers and I then went outside to play for a while. As usual my Dad came home around five o’clock. My Mom went out to meet him as he was getting out of the car. After a brief exchange my Dad said, “Come on kids, come on and get in the car.” With that my brothers and I promptly piled into the back seat of the blue and white Mercury. We were a bit excited, hoping that we would be heading off to get an ice cream or some other type of treat on that warm summer night. However, after a 15 minute drive Dad parked in front of an old gray building down by the waterfront in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. My brothers and I looked at each other miffed as to why we were here. Mom and Dad got out of the car and gestured to us to come out. We followed them across the street and entered a shop. I remember as we opened the door a little bell signaled our arrival. As we ventured in we were greeted by a musty smell, similar to an old basement. My brother John eloquently summed it up when he said, “This place really stinks!”

There were a lot of books, tools, colorful glassware and a long glass showcase displaying assorted figurines, jewelry, watches and some coins. I had never been in a place like this before. I was actually quite excited. I was leafing through a couple of old magazines and my brothers were looking at a couple of old tools. My Mom and Dad were standing in front of the showcase. Then, as is if he were a magician, a bald bespectacled older gent appeared from behind a curtain. A few words were exchanged and then the man reached behind him pulling a small red book from the top of a rather rickety bookshelf. My mom handed something to the old gent. He then examined it using a rather large magnifying glass. The old shopkeeper then referred to this red book and said, “I’ll give you $50 for it.”

I was about 30 feet away and I started to slowly gravitate towards what was going on. I glanced over my shoulder and my brothers were still scoping out some other artifacts oblivious to the conversation going on in front of the showcase.

I heard mom respond “I don’t know” to the shopkeeper’s offer. I remember my dad getting rather flushed in the face and saying, “Come on Stella, for God sakes it’s only a penny!” I quickly put two and two together and realized that they were talking about the 1955 coin we were searching for earlier! My mom still wasn’t convinced by the bid for the coin and I fondly recollect both the shopkeeper and my dad, in unison, shouting back, “You’ll never get more for it.”

I then noticed my Dad’s face and the top of his head develop an even deeper shade of rosy crimson red. I had seen this look on Dad before and it usually meant my brothers or I were in trouble. Dad somehow contained himself but was obviously trying to convince Mom through gestures and grunts to sell this penny. By now I had made my way over to where the action was. I was situated at the other end of the showcase as my Mom looked up and refrained, “I don’t know” to the shopkeeper. Mom then turned and saw that I was at the edge of the showcase and said, “I think I’ll save it for Jimmy!” Well she did and I still have that coin today. As you may have already guessed, that penny was the famed 1955 Double Die! Nearly uncirculated, that coin was the cornerstone of my Lincoln Cent collection. As it turned out that coin is worth considerably more than the $50 which was offered back in 1966! I still enjoy holding that coin and reflecting on that exciting search back in my youth.

A few years later my brother John was working as a bellhop at the old Rockingham Hotel in Portsmouth. In the course of a day in addition to local patrons, many world travelers would come in for a stay. Supplementing his regular “domestic” tips my brother would accumulate some foreign coins and would give them to me at the end of his work day. There were coins from Europe, Asia, and South America; everywhere it seemed. I can remember the excitement when I first picked up a Mexican Peso. We were studying about Mexico in school. All the excitement of the Aztecs, Cortez, and Juarez came to life and here was a coin that had been there and now it was in my hands. I had already started my Lincoln Cent collection and now I had a whole new appreciation for the wide world of numismatics. Once my parents knew that I had the coin bug, they began picking up a few needed coins for me out of circulation. I can remember the excitement of going into the local Newberry’s Department store as they had a little coin section which was predominantly stocked with foreign coins. The sets were alphabetically arranged inside a glass case which had a rotating display. Each set of the actual circulating coins of that country were in a cardboard holder enclosed in a plastic sleeve. I remember buying the sets from Austria and Belgium first.

Well that was the start of my indoctrination into numismatics. The holiday season has always been very exciting to me as I associate it with my family and especially my holiday stocking bulging with oranges, candy canes and a shiny Franklin Half or Morgan Silver Dollar tucked into the toe or a new world coin set or coin book to scour from cover to cover. To all, enjoy each other, enjoy the hobby, and let’s all hope for a healthy and prosperous 2013!

Until next time, happy collecting!

Jim Bisognani has written extensively on US coin market trends and values and was the market analyst and writer for a major pricing guide for many years. He currently resides in Southern California and frequently attends major coin shows and auctions.

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