Jim Bisognani: Starting a Numismatic Journey

Posted on 8/31/2023

Whether collecting US or world coins, everyone starts somewhere. Jim reflects on his own journey and interviews a friend on how he started his.

It is the last day of August. For some of you, that may not mean much. But for me, having been raised in New England, my memory tracks back to my youth. The last day of August meant it was just a few days before Labor Day — and then, back to school. Now, as I reflect on the upcoming “ber” months (referring to September through December), I am in disbelief and distraught that summer is virtually over. I’m beginning to mentally prepare for the transition of the seasons. Cooler days and nights will soon prevail.

Luckily, there is a saving grace for old coindexters like myself: those little metal discs make for cozy warm friends throughout the year. To take liberty with that charming Irving Berlin tune, “I’ve Got My Coins to Keep Me Warm.” Since it was in the upper 40s here last night, I will quietly hum that refrain today!

The numismatic market is still very strong, as it has been on an unwavering trajectory for almost four years. If we collectors have learned anything during this unprecedented run, it is that quality (as always) is courting heating action on the bourse. Quality coins, whether rare or just an exceptional type, are finite entities and demand is chasing an ever-dwindling supply.

Suggestions? It truly depends on what you want to collect, as long as it’s within your budget. Should it be a new series or country? Or is it time to revisit and rekindle the passion held for a series you were enamored with in the past? The choice, my friends, is up to you. What will be your inspiration?

Give Credit to the Flea

As I have mentioned before, I am a sucker for world coins. My first contact with world coins were the Canadian coins. Yet, because they circulated freely in my native state of New Hampshire, I never really thought of them as foreign.

So I must give credit to my older brother, John, because he introduced me to world coins in the summer of 1968. My big brother John — nicknamed, somewhat unflatteringly but accurately, “the Flea” — was working as a bellhop at the old Rockingham Hotel in Portsmouth. This hotel was in a good part of downtown. Almost immediately situated to the left of it was the historic John Paul Jones House.

Anyway, in the course of the day, there would be many world travelers who would come and stay at the Rockingham in addition to local patrons. Supplementing the Flea’s domestic tips were foreign coins from these travelers’ journeys, and my brother would often give them to me at the end of his workday. There were coins from Europe, Asia and South America — everywhere, it seemed.

I remember the excitement I felt when I first picked up a Mexican Peso with the bust of Morelos on the obverse. We were just studying Mexico in school at the time, and all of the excitement from the Aztecs, Cortez and Juarez came to life. Here in my hands was a coin that had actually been circulating in Mexico!

Another coin was a 1947 shilling from England. I thought, “Wow, this coin is ten years older than me!” I really liked that proud lion straddled atop the royal crown on the reverse. I had already started my Lincoln Cent collection and now I had a whole new appreciation for the wide world of numismatics.

Having been bitten by the world coin bug — just before school was back in session — I bought my first world coin type set at Newberry’s department store. That’s right, my fellow coindexters — back in my youth, most department stores had a coin and stamp section to explore!

The coin section was on the first floor, situated a little ways back from the aromatic snack bar (they had the best hickory-smoked hot dogs there). The coin section was predominantly stocked with foreign coins, with sets alphabetically arranged inside illuminated glass showcases that had a rotating display. Each set of the actual circulating coins of that country were in a cardboard holder produced by ANCO, and each set was enclosed in a plastic sleeve. Each board gave a brief description of the issuing country’s history, industry and coinage.

I remember buying the sets from Austria and Belgium first for $2 each. Both had silver coins! Over the next few years, I picked up more as my limited allowance funds allowed. I still have a fascination for those “modern uncirculated type sets.” Below is a group of these wonderful mementos from my youth and today.

A Maine Collector

As always, I’m curious about what my fellow coindexters are up to and how they got their start on the numismatic bandwagon. Interestingly and probably not all that surprising, when my family physician found out that I was a coin geek, he said, “Jim my father-in-law loves coins, too. You should probably talk to him.” And I did today. Len is semiretired and still practicing law in Maine.

So, Len, how did you get your start with coins?

“My father, who is not really a coin collector, out of the blue one day said, ‘Do you want to go to a coin shop?’ (In his youth, Len was living in the New York City area.) There was this coin shop in White Plains. Coins were relatively inexpensive in those days (late 1950s to early 1960s) and we picked up some Proof sets.”

Coins Go Better with Coke

Then, as Len got older, “I had a couple of summer jobs in which I was obligated to fill Coke machines. They were 10 cents per bottle, so I got to look through all the change out of the Coke machines. That got me going on Mercury Dimes.”

Around this time, he had acquired several of the old blue cardboard Whitman folders to accommodate his growing collection. “So, I had nickels, dimes and quarters. I liked Walking Liberty Half Dollars, yet I didn’t see many of them in change even then. The silver lining was during the Tooth Fairy days. When the tooth was picked up by that little pixie, there always seemed to be a deposit of a Walking Liberty half dollar for me.”

Len never got the motherlode of Mercury Dimes: the 1916-D. “But I did have a pretty complete set,” he said. “Some of them were on the rough side, but it was a pretty good set.” He also had accumulated a small hoard (or herd!) of Buffalo Nickels. Many of them were date worn. As Len put it: “It seemed like just having a handful of full-dated Buffalos was a worthwhile goal in those days.”

What were the first coins you actually bought?

“It was the Wartime Jefferson Nickels (1942-1945) and the Wartime 1943 Lincoln Steel Cents. My dad was a naval pilot and he told me some stories. We talked about the difference of coinage in the war years, because of what they were using the materials for, among other things.”

What was your first big purchase?

Len’s first big purchase was a 1932-D Washington Quarter, acquired in the late 1960s. My friend reminisced about visiting that little shop, tucked away on a side street in White Plains, New York.

“The Dealer was very interesting and would be willing to chat with you. It was fun to go in and just talk and learn.”

1932-D Washington Quarter from NGC Coin Explorer
Click images to enlarge.

Len said that his numismatic aspirations pretty much came to a halt as he neared college age. He didn’t have the time nor money, and the hobby was pretty much put on hiatus until he was in his early 50s. “The kids were getting older; now I’m back to reading coin magazines and whatever else I can find.” He tried to get his kids interested in coins, but unfortunately, that didn’t seem to take hold.

Are you still interested in coins today?

“I like the classics; I’m looking at the Morgan Silver Dollars in the 1880s range. It’s when my grandparents were born; it seemed to me that it would be fun to have a set of Morgan Dollars from the years they were born.”

What’s your favorite coin or set that you’ve acquired?

“I do have a complete set of Mint State American Silver Eagles. I think they’re just beautiful coins; I like to look at them. I like the large coins and I always loved the design when they were the Walking Liberty Half Dollars.” Len said they are all graded MS 69.

The thing that my Maine friend bemoans is the lack of coin shows in the Pine Tree State, and the very limited number of real brick-and-mortar coin shops. I understand. So much of the coin business is online today. If I can offer any piece of advice to Len or other aspiring coindexters, take advantage of the NGC website. It boasts the US and World Coin Price Guides, census reports, Auction Central, great articles and the NGC Registry, where you can build and share your own Registry set of Silver Eagles and more — and it’s all free!

Until next time, be safe and happy collecting!

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