Jim Bisognani: Collecting Foreign Currency
Posted on 9/22/2022
Like millions of others around the world, I was consumed with a feeling of loss and sorrow in the days following Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II’s death on September 8 at the age of 96.
Initially, I couldn’t quite put my finger on why. I never met her Royal Majesty, nor was I a subject or resident of the United Kingdom or any other Commonwealth country. Yet I felt as though I knew her my entire life. Then the realization hit: It was through numismatics that I had this strong feeling and connection with Queen Elizabeth II. I have been collecting coins with Elizabeth’s effigy nearly all my life!
I was raised in New Hampshire less than 200 miles from the Canadian border. This close proximity to our northern neighbor allowed the coinage of Canada to circulate closely with US coinage in my neck of the woods. I was reminded and lectured at an early age by my parents: “Don’t take Canadian coins in change. They aren’t worth as much as US coins.”
That was true then and still is. However, it didn’t stop Canadian pennies, nickels, dimes and even quarters from trading on an even par with US coinage. It didn’t bother me when I would occasionally receive Canadian coins in change unless I tried to use them in a vending machine.
I liked the difference in designs from our US coins. The maple leaf on the cent, the beaver on the nickel, the sailing ship “The Bluenose” on the dime and the great caribou on the quarter. Then I quickly discovered that each coin always had the likeness of Queen Elizabeth II on the obverse. This was the “young head” — the Laureate bust designed by Mary Gillick. I recall looking at the Queen on the obverse of the coinage. I was impressed because we didn’t have any coins in circulation with women. So I decided to read about her, the royal family and her reign as monarch.
Soon my mother discovered that I would occasionally squirrel away a few “exceptional-looking” Canadian coins that I came across. Mom said she would keep an eye out for anything “special” for me. This was the official start of my foreign coin collection!
During the late summer of 1965, my mom, who had a part-time job as waitress at a diner in downtown Portsmouth, pulled out a coin she got in her tips that particular day. “Jimmy, I have something for you,” she announced as she came home from her shift. I immediately dashed over to find out what she had for me. It was a Canadian quarter — but not just any quarter. This coin was oozing with eye appeal the likes of which my young eyes had never seen. The Queen was there and the caribou was there — yet the coin, which was dated 1955, was endowed with spectacular color! My mom knew of the coin’s special nature and had pulled out a small semi-satin-lined jewelry box to place it in for protection.
I attempted to photograph this marvel at various angles for my fellow coindexters to see. The obverse is bordered by seas of emerald with flashes of deep gold and blue. The reverse is an autumnal feast with the caribou flanked in harvest gold and fiery pumpkin!
Yep, this was my first real foreign coin, and I have had it with me for nearly 60 years!
In the spring and summer of 1967, the new Canadian Centennial issues began to trickle down to a few local establishments in the New Hampshire seacoast area. For me, as well as many other collectors, this wildlife-themed Canadian Centennial set was in extremely high demand.
I was fortunate enough to pick up a handful of the Dove Cents and a few of the Rabbit Five Cent coins in change. Elizabeth, of course, still donned the obverse. Yet, beginning in 1965, the Mary Gillick “Young Head” was replaced by Arnold Machin’s “Still Youthful” rendering with Queen Elizabeth wearing a regal gown and a diamond tiara. The crown was gifted to Elizabeth for her wedding by her grandmother, Queen Mary.
I soon discovered that many local merchants were glad to rid themselves of the Canadian coins that resided in their tills — and at a discount, no less — since the exchange rate at that time made the Canadian Dollar only worth about three-quarters of the US Dollar. Coins at a discount! Through my gentle pestering, certain retailers even set aside a few dollars’ worth of Canadian coins for me on a regular basis.
One fortuitous Friday afternoon, an assistant manager at the local Woolworth’s called our residence to inform me that she had set aside a full roll of the Mackerel Dimes! I was thrilled; my networking of local merchants had certainly paid off. My dad agreed to front me the $4 I needed to get the $5 roll of Mackerels in exchange for some extra chores.
This was my first roll of silver coins, and I still have most of it (a few coins were given to my friends). Eventually, I located the Lynx Quarter and Wolf Half Dollar. Alas, I was missing the famous and majestic Canadian Goose Dollar.
Then there was the untouchable one — the $20 gold piece. I wasn’t really able to afford it anyway, and there were restrictions regarding the import of modern gold coins. (That pesky ban would not be lifted officially until January 1, 1975.) I knew that I had no chance of getting the $20 to complete my Centennial set.
Our good family friend, “Uncle” Gilley, frequently traveled to Canada to visit family and purchase various liquors — namely whiskey — for himself and, occasionally, my parents.
During one such visit in 1967, there was a modest discussion and funds were handed over to Gilley. About one month later, fresh from his junket to Montréal, our Uncle Gilly stopped by to deliver a couple of bottles of prime spirits to my dad.
After that “spirited” transaction was complete, Gilley gestured to me and said, “I have something for you, Jimmy.” He pulled two little brown craft envelopes from his pocket and handed them to me. I was excited because I could feel there were coins in those envelopes and, based on the size and heft, I figured they were half dollars or maybe even dollar-sized coins.
I carefully opened the first envelope, and I was right. It was a dollar coin — the Canadian Goose Dollar! It was gorgeous and totally Prooflike. I quickly gave Gilley a hug and thanked him.
As I was gazing wistfully at my Goose Dollar, my dad reminded me of the other envelope. After I carefully placed the Goose Dollar back in its envelope, I opened the second envelope’s seal. As the coin slid neatly into my hand, I’m sure my mouth flew open as wide as it ever had and probably ever will.
There, in all of its glorious golden splendor, was the $20 Centennial gold coin! As I stood there, shell-shocked, Gilley said, “Don’t tell anyone where you got it!” I never did. In fact, I only enjoyed viewing that coin in the privacy of my bedroom with the door shut until the gold import ban was lifted. For those wondering: Yes, I still have that coin! There was most definitely a constant since every one of my Canadian coins bore the effigy of Queen Elizabeth II.
After that, I began to branch out by collecting coins from Great Britain, the mother country. Though the decimal system transition — from the Pound to the Dollar — had already taken place in Australia and New Zealand, Great Britain was a bit slower implementing the decimal changeover.
I found mildly amusing that instead of referring to the unit as a “dollar,” the new decimal system would be based on the 100 new pence, which would be equal to the old British pound.
|Britain's First Decimal Coins from Jim's collection.|
In early 1968, Great Britain issued a series of the new pence coins in little blue vinyl folders with “Britain’s First Decimal Coins” imprinted on them. These were issued prior to the conversion, so I had to have one for my collection. There were five coins in that wallet featuring Queen Elizabeth II: the Half Pence, 1 Pence, 2 Pence in bronze and the 5 and 10 Pence in cupro-nickel.
While both larger cupro-nickel denominations (dated 1968) were already accepted in circulation, with the 5 Pence replacing the Shilling and the 10 Pence replacing the Florin, the three bronze issues (dated 1971) would not be “legal” in circulation until “D-Day” (or Decimal Day) on February 15, 1971 — another three years!
I had great fun bringing that little blue folder to school and telling some of my classmates that this folder contained coins from the future!
There were more skeptics (my teacher was one) than believers. There were subtle jeers and some of my fellow youth offered up some small wagers of coins or snacks to prove me wrong. Of course, after the great unveil and passing around the little folder, I won.
My teacher, Ms. Nutting, became quite engaged with the coins since her family was from England. She encouraged me to have an impromptu “Show and Tell” about the outgoing British currency and the new coinage. My first numismatic conference! After my talk, several of my classmates became interested in coins as a hobby!
Soon I began collecting coins from Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and other countries. As Elizabeth II’s coronation was in 1953, I started to collect coins from her first year of reign, too. I was quite surprised that there were no circulating silver coins in Great Britain featuring Elizabeth II; the last 500 fine silver coins were struck in 1946 and featured her father, King George VI! That left Canada, Australia and South Africa as the only remaining Commonwealth countries whose circulating coins featuring Queen Elizabeth II still contained silver.
I held a particular fondness for the Kangaroo Half Pennies. Choice Red Mint State Pennies from Australia are quite difficult to come by but are still reasonably priced. Then there are the Proof versions, which all have very low mintages. Finding Full Red Proofs is indeed a challenge, but it’s worth it, and they’ve been a favorite of mine for over 40 years.
Since I’m an old codger, I often look for coins from Great Britain and Commonwealth countries from my birth year of 1957.
I recall attending a Long Beach Expo when I was about half my age in 1989. One of the most memorable highlights of that show was when I picked up a 1957 British Gold Sovereign. I kept this coin as a “pocket piece” for many years; it was always kept in a saflip. Later, as gold spot escalated, I thought it would be safer somewhere else.
I was so excited to have a 1957 gold coin dated from the year of my birth. This year also marks the first year that the Gold Sovereign had been produced by the Royal Mint for “circulation” since 1925.
Today, as we all await the new coinage featuring King Charles III, there are so many ways to collect Queen Elizabeth II coins. Unless you are over 70 years of age, you can start collecting coins from your birth year. Just think of it: Collectors who were born starting in 1953 to the newborn collector of 2022 will have the opportunity. There are virtually limitless options for coins struck at the Royal Mint in Great Britain and those throughout the Commonwealth which you can build a collection around.
The wealth of countries and island nations that picture the effigy of Queen Elizabeth II seemingly number in the billions. There is literally something for everyone’s budget, whether you’re collecting the old British currency, the 5 Shilling silver from South Africa or even the spectacular kangaroos from Australia.
If you want something more whimsical, how about the 2019 50 Pence commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Gruffalo. So, for collectors of our generation: Enjoy, be diverse and God save the Queen!
Until next time, be safe and happy collecting!
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