USA Coin Album: Coin Ghosts of Christmas Past

Posted by David W. Lange, NGC Research Director on 12/3/2012

Because the holiday season is rapidly approaching, I’ll finally break precedent and do something I've never done before — write a holiday-themed column.

It’s not that I dislike Christmas or any other holiday, but I’ve long resisted the temptation to write anything too obvious or predictable. I usually prefer to write on technical matters regarding coins, but I also don’t want to be branded a curmudgeon. So, in the seasonal spirit of being obvious and predictable, here are my Christmas coin reminiscences.

The first inkling that my coin collecting hobby had left an impression on my parents came as a stocking stuffer one Christmas. This was a small paperback book about coin collecting. It was a very basic treatment of the sort one used to find at the supermarket checkout counter, along with collections of horoscopes, crossword puzzles and romance guides on how to snag Mr. Right. Though seldom found today, such coin books were extremely common in the 1960s. The authors were almost never names recognizable to a numismatist, and the books often included sensational tales of the valuable coins still to be found in pocket change. I remember being excited at getting a coin related gift but somewhat disappointed with the quality of the book itself. Even as a child I had a fascination with the age of things, including books, and I distinctly remember it carrying a 1966 copyright date, which almost certainly marks the year of receipt.

Two years went by before Christmas again brought an acknowledgement of my continuing interest in coins. By that time my parents must have reconciled themselves to the fact that coin collecting was more than just another boyhood fad which would quickly pass, such as Batman and The Monkees. It was not my parents, however, who came through with the loot. My grandma gave me an assortment of obsolete coins of the sort I had never imagined I’d own. The three I remember include an 1826 large cent in cleaned Very Good condition, a severely polished 1929-D quarter dollar in Very Fine and a lightly etched 1902 nickel grading nearly VF. The last one was the sweetest, as this was my grandma’s birth year. Sometime later I callously sold the quarter and the nickel to buy coins of higher quality, something I now deeply regret, but the large cent was sacrificed to a more worthy cause. In a previous career I gave it to one of my co-workers who had shown an interest in my hobby. Though I haven’t seen this person in more than 20 years, I hope he still has the coin and will pass it on to his children.

1968 was indeed a banner year, as my aunt and uncle likewise gave me coin gifts that Christmas. I received my very first Red Book (A Guide Book of United States Coins), which put me in the big leagues of numismatics as far as I was concerned. They also gave me an absolutely gorgeous 1881-S silver dollar which, I’m quite pleased to say, I do still have. This coin was later graded and encapsulated by NGC and now serves as a learning tool at the ANA’s Summer Seminar. I co-instruct a class on USA type coins with Frank Van Valen of Stack's Bowers, and this silver dollar never fails to generate some discussion. To the untrained eye it seems to be near perfection, with unmarked surfaces and prooflike fields, yet this coin provides an education of a different kind altogether. In my childhood ignorance I managed to put a wipe mark in the obverse field, this being a series of fine, parallel lines that impaired the coin to such as degree that it grades only MS 64.

I went two Christmases without further coin gifts, but 1971 saw another bonanza. In my collecting of Mercury dimes from circulation, I had managed to get all the issues from 1940-45 and just a smattering of earlier pieces. The Emporium department store in San Francisco had, like so many retailers back then, a coin and stamp department, and it sold plastic bags filled with different dates and mints of each particular coin series. For that year’s Christmas I received from my parents a bag holding 50 different Mercury dimes which, when combined with what I’d found on my own, gave me nearly a complete set. I even had some duplicates to trade with my collecting friends.

One episode, however, stands out as a somewhat sad memory of Christmas past. The negative aspect was entirely of my own doing, as I’ll explain. For Christmas 1972 I received one of the key date Walking Liberty halves I needed to nearly complete my first collection of these—the 1921(P). I had made my needs known to my parents, who purchased the missing entry at The Emporium (a much loved store which is now just a memory). Being the teenager that I was, I immediately pointed out to my beaming parents that the coin had two letters ‘X’ carved into the field and was thus not suitable. I felt bad about my bluntness almost immediately, and I’ve remembered that shame to the present day. I suppose that the lesson here is that the real value of any gift is in the act itself, but that’s certainly not an original thought on my part.

Happy Holidays to all.

David W. Lange's column, “USA Coin Album,” appears monthly in the Numismatist, the official publication of the American Numismatic Association.