That First Magical Coin – How Coin Collectors Got Their Start

magicalcoins

By Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez for CoinWeek .......
 

I remember that fateful day in November 1992 like it was yesterday. It was the day a well-worn, chocolate-brown 1941 Lincoln wheat cent happened into my small 12-year-old hands on allowance day. Dozens, maybe even hundreds, of wheat cents had been in my hands before, but it was that ordinary 1941 Lincoln cent that for whatever inexplicable reason opened an extraordinary door. It's a coin I still have today, still retoning all of these years later after a harsh baking soda bath I gave it days after I found it (a fleeting moment of youthful numismatic indiscretion).

That magical 1941 wheat cent sparked my curiosity about old coins, and I wanted to learn more. Within weeks, I was rooting through my mom’s change purse, my dad’s coin jar, and even my little sister’s piggy bank (she forgave me).

I found a 1937 Lincoln cent, a 1946 wheatie, and a 1956-D penny... but I wanted to find even more. By the spring of 1993, I was a full-fledged coin collector, complete with Whitman coin folders, Edmund’s price guide and my own copy of A Guide Book of United States Coins. I was even wearing in tracks at a coin dealer whose shop was just a mile down the street – he’s the local guy I still patronize today.

We all have that “magical” first coin – our own 1941 Lincoln wheat cent that, for some reason, captivated our interests, stirred our curiosities, and cracked open the door to the numismatic journey we each enjoy today. I wanted to know what that first coin was for some of our hobby’s most notable individuals, so I reached out to five luminaries in the field to see what coins helped them chart their courses on the adventures they are now on.

Here are their stories...

Q. David Bowers

Numismatic Author and Stack’s Bowers Chairman

1909svdb“My ‘magical coin’ was a 1909-S V.D.B. Or, more accurately, the desire to own one,” recalls Bowers. His adventure in the hobby started in 1952 when he was 13 years old and an “avid” collector of rocks and gems. He learned about a man in his small town of Forty Fort, Pennsylvania named Robert Rusbar, who collected two things: the local taxes and rocks.

“I called, made an appointment, and bicycled over to see him,” Bowers says.

“After a session with rocks and minerals, Bob asked me if I collected coins, to which I replied in the negative. He brought out from a safe a small green-covered album of Lincoln cents, pointed to one of the first openings, and told me he had paid $10 for that particular coin,” Bowers relates. “He carefully explained that it was a Lincoln cent made in the first year of issue, 1909, with the initials of the designer, Victor David Brenner, V.D.B., on the reverse – but that alone did not make it valuable. With only these features, it would be worth just a few cents. However, beneath the date was a tiny “S” signifying it had been made in San Francisco.”

Rusbar had bought the coin from the now-defunct Gimbels department store in New York City for $10.

“I felt absolutely certain that as soon as I left his office and looked through some pocket change I would find several 1909-S V.D.B. cents – after all, a copy of A Guide Book of United States Coins that he showed me revealed that 484,000 had been minted. Certainly, in the town of Forty Fort alone there must be hundreds just waiting for me!”

A young Bowers went to his Forty Fort bank to exchange a $10 bill for 1,000 mixed Lincoln cents and began searching for the dates he learned to look for, such as the 1909-S VDB, 1914-D, and 1931-S pennies.

“The first 1,000 were looked through, then another 1,000, then another 1,000. Soon, my two Lincoln cent folders were nearly full - with no 1909-S V.D.B., 1914-D, or 1931-S - but with most everything else. Unfortunately, during the next several months I found just one Indian Head cent – hardly enough to merit buying a Whitman folder to hold them. I found many 1909 V.D.B. cents without an ‘S,’ and set them aside. After I had accumulated over a hundred, I spent them instead of tying up capital in coins that seemed to be very common.”

Bowers remembers thinking something peculiar about the 1909 V.D.B. Lincoln cents he came across in circulation.

“Nearly all were in grades of VF to EF. In contrast, cents of 1910, 1910-S, 1911, 1911-D, and others of a few years later were apt to be VG on average.” He soon learned why: “When Lincoln cents were first released in 1909, millions were saved as novelties. A generation or two later the owners spent them – and they entered circulation for the first time in the 1930s and 1940s. On the other hand, no one bothered to save 1910 and 1911 cents when they were minted.”

He continues: “Within a few weeks the coin bug bit me and wouldn’t let go. No sooner than I learned to pronounce 'numismatist' I was at least a beginning one.” Bowers would eventually author dozens of numismatic books and operate some of the most prestigious coin auction firms in the industry.

“The rest, as they say, is history.”

Scott Travers

United States Gold Expert and Numismatic Author

“Back in 1975, my uncle gave me a Buffalo nickel, and later he gave me a couple more,” Travers recounts. “I loved the intrigue of the bison and detail of the mound on the reverse and head on the obverse – and the details were clear on my coins because I was looking at nice Mint State examples.”

1913sbuffaloWhile Buffalo nickels captured the eye of a teenaged Travers, something brewing in the numismatic world of the mid-1970s had piqued the curiosity of the budding coin expert. “I soon became intrigued by the cent shortage,” he says.

Skyrocketing copper prices in the mid 1970s led to a nationwide penny hoarding craze that led to the absence of more than 30 billion pennies from circulation. Merchants rounded transactions to the nearest nickel, gave one-cent stamps in change, and even offered penny candy in change to circumvent the challenges of the crushing penny shortage.

“The value of the metal was rapidly becoming higher than the cost of making the cent. So people were hoarding cents,” Travers explains. “I started to hoard those cents, and the combination of those first Buffalo nickels I received and the occurrence of the cent shortage helped me get my start in the hobby.”

Perhaps Travers would have gone on to become one of the millions of relatively anonymous coin collectors in the United States if not for an unfortunate though auspicious event that happened to him in 1976. “I placed an order for a 1922 plain cent in Good for $30 – and it never arrived,” he says. “I wrote to seven different government agencies and learned how easy it was to become a coin dealer – which I did.”

One year later, Travers, who already learned the hard way about some of the unscrupulous practices of some renegade dealers, aspired to enter the realm as an ethical numismatic professional. “In 1977, I began selling coins,” he says.

In 1977, at the age of 17, Travers won a scholarship to the American Numismatic Association (ANA) summer seminar, and during the following year he was awarded “Outstanding Young Numismatist” by the ANA. He published his acclaimed book, The Coin Collectors’ Survival Manual, six years later in 1984 and has since written many other publications and appeared as an advocate for the hobby on national television.

Mike Fuljenz

Numismatic Author and President of Universal Coin & Bullion

“My grandfather gave me silver dollars for making A’s on my report cards,” Fuljenz remembers. “Back then, you could buy uncirculated silver dollars directly from the bank for face value,” he adds. For a young Fuljenz growing up in small-town Louisiana, the introduction to silver dollars led the young man to a curiosity for the hobby of numismatics.

“I soon bought coin books and coin folders, and I had a ‘Red Book.’ I looked forward to making As!”

Fuljenz frequented his local coin dealer in Lake Charles, Louisiana, checking the coins that passed through his hands on a daily basis. But it was during an outing with his grandmother that another chapter unfolded in his budding numismatic career.

“My grandmother used to take me to a bingo hall where there was gambling in the backroom,” he laughs. “I won $50!”

morganflipThe 12-year-old Fuljenz took his money to the local coin shop and bought an About Uncirculated $5 gold Indian Head half eagle. One day, when he was strapped for cash and needing to make some quick money, Fuljenz learned a stark but valuable lesson about the coin business.

“I went back to Woody’s [the coin shop] to sell the half eagle thinking I’d get my $50, but Woody gave me only $42 for it. I was surprised that he wasn’t paying me the amount I spent on the coin and asked him why. Woody explained that he needed the money to pay for rent, electricity, and other overhead,” he recalls. “I also learned that if I’m going to buy a coin I better hang onto it for a while if I want to make any money off it, because dealers have to make money, too.”

Does Fuljenz still have his first silver dollars?

“No, I sold them when I started dating my wife so I could afford to take her out.” He grins, “it was the best investment I ever made.”

Anthony Swiatek

Numismatic Author and Notable Coin Dealer

What was coin expert Anthony Swiatek’s first introduction to the hobby?

“A Christmas gift I received when I was about 10-and-a-half years old – it was a 1952 proof set that my uncle and aunt gave me,” he answers. “I still have that proof set.”

That Christmas, he also received another coin – one that would help fuel Swiatek’s love for the traditional United States commemorative coins of which he is a widely noted scholar. “My father gave me a 1921 Pilgrim Tercentenary half dollar,” he recounts. The 1921 Pilgrim half dollar and 1952 proof set, the latter purchased at Gimbels department store at 34th Street and Sixth Avenue in New York City, “planted the numismatic seeds,” as Swiatek says.

“My numismatic seeds really didn’t germinate until later,” he claims. “In 1957, I had my first summer job and made $35 a week.” He also started looking for coins through jobs in which he came into contact with change. Swiatek, too, was armed with his own copy of the Red Book.

“I used to visit a coin shop by a guy named Moe, who looked like Jabba the Hutt [a character from Star Wars --CW] sitting in his chair,” he jokingly recalls; Swiatek’s repugnance for the dealer stems from some of the unsettling transactions he would have with “Moe,” including the one Swiatek mentions next.

swiatek“Moe once displayed a 1919 Standing Liberty quarter,” he recalled. “It may have been a slider, but it was offered as a Gem [Uncirculated]. I had what I would call a moment of numismatic levitation,” he wistfully recounts, remembering the beautiful coin that sat in Moe’s case. The young Swiatek offered to trade circulated rolls of 1916-1919 P-D-S Lincoln cents for the 1919 Standing Liberty quarter, but it wasn’t meant to be. “He said ‘Are you serious? There’s no way I’ll be able to sell those pennies.’”

Moe sent the disillusioned 20-something out of the store.

“It really hurt when that happened.”

Swiatek’s early days of dealing with coin dealers didn’t all go so badly, however. He fondly remembers another dealer – Lester Merkin of New York. “He was the exact antithesis of Moe,” he says. “He really taught me a lot.”

Swiatek was a good student, too. He rose through the ranks in the coin industry and, since publishing The Encyclopedia of United States Silver & Gold Commemorative Coins, 1892-1954 in 1980 has gone on to become one of the leading authorities in his area of numismatics.

Geoffrey Cope

Numismatic Author and Ancient Coin Expert

“My story as a collector began 60 years ago,” says Cope. “I have enjoyed visiting antique shops since I was 12 years old. One day after school I was rummaging in a shop and came across an 1887 [British] half-crown that seemed to me to be in incredible condition for its age. I later found out that it was previously mounted and graded no better than Fine, but this piece still lies in my collection as a memento."

Cope’s numismatic journeys took foot in the early 1960s, and by 1979 he'd found his way into the realm of ancient coins, with Roman bronzes among his many loves.

1887halfcrownjewelryCope became a commercial salesperson and spent much time on the road – and his travels always took him to the nearest “junk shop.” He was in pursuit of a relic that would elude him for years: the Henry VIII Testoon – a coin hammered during the period 1509 through 1547.

“I never did find one."

By the early 1980s, Cope was attending coin auctions, where he was taught by German numismatic luminary Dr. Leo Mildenberg to "put your hand up and do not put it down until the coin is yours.”

For Cope, old coins can tell great stories, and the art and history behind each piece holds a great allure. “The art of numismatics is a continuing love, [and] it has a quality that characterizes all great art – coins are the finest in miniature art.”

While Cope’s numismatic interests have helped him become an expert in the field of ancients and a notable writer on the subject, he feels his greatest accomplishment is passing on his love for the hobby to the next generation.

“What I did achieve is that both my children are continuing with the hobby.”
 


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