Jim Bisognani: It All Started with "Silver and Gold"

Posted on 12/12/2019

A numismatist was born — the holidays are a perfect time to inspire a new collector.

Well it is here. I was greeted by it early this morning, in fact almost 8 inches of it with more of it on the way — it, of course, being snow. (As I get older, one of the most dreaded four letter words.) After spending nearly all of my life in New England, I should be used to it by now. Yet each year, instead of greeting snow’s first arrival with the oohs and aahs of distant youth, I feel mortal dread realizing that for the next four-plus months my Beth and I will have to be dodging it and shoveling it.

Time to get over it

Today, however, after a bit of pre-dawn shoveling and snow blowing, I must admit it does look nice, that lovely mantel of white and, after all, ‘tis the season. It is part of the traditional holiday fabric, and I am not a holiday curmudgeon. Whether watching holiday classics on TV or listening to Christmas music, I still revel in the holiday season. Part youthful nostalgic joy and equal shares of adult appreciation meld while watching and listening to youngsters and those young at heart this time of year.

To the tune of “Silver and Gold”

I vividly recall the 1964 holiday season when the big talk in my second grade classroom was about this new Christmas special debuting on Sunday, December 6, called Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. (Gulp! That was 55 years ago.)

The broadcast was in color, yet our first color TV was a few years away, so I enjoyed it in glorious black and white. I was a tyke of seven years old, and that stop-motion animated program was the hot topic at Whipple Elementary School the Monday morning following the broadcast. I loved the show and all the characters and the marvelous tunes. “Silver and Gold” became one of my favorites:

Silver and gold, silver and gold
Ev’ryone wishes for silver and gold
How do you measure its worth?
Just by the pleasure it gives here on earth...

That Monday after school, it was mine and my classmate Tracy’s turn to clean the school's blackboard erasers. So with dirty erasers in hand, we dutifully made our way to the basement of the Whipple school. We then began clapping away at the dirty erasers with unabashed gusto.

As a cloud of chalk dust billowed everywhere, we began to sing tunes from Rudolph. We went through as many lines as we could remember, and then we started to refrain the lines from “Silver and Gold.” That melody stuck, and I would hum and sing bits of it at home. My parents went along with it and would join in. All this vocalizing about silver and gold got me thinking: I really wanted silver and gold of my own. Santa are you listening?

‘Twas the Night Before Christmas

On Christmas Eve, everyone hung their respective stockings on the mantle in the living room. As always, closing my eyes was easy, but actually falling asleep was a bit more of a challenge. Eventually though, I drifted off to sleep. Seemingly, no time had passed when my eyes opened. I glanced at my clock and saw that it was almost 4am. I could hear my brothers snoring in their bedroom, so I put on my slippers and quietly crept downstairs

Santa had come, as gifts were all under and around the tree. I made my way over to the mantle to retrieve my now very stuffed stocking.

Santa’s silver stocking stuffer

My Christmas stocking that year greeted me with the usual mix of candy, oranges and small toys, but as my hand made its way toward the toe, there was something else… I could hear a clinking sound, and at the bottom were two large silver coins!

When I held the pair of hefty silver pieces under the light given off by the Christmas tree, I could see that they were not like anything I had seen before in my pocket change. They were even larger than the Franklin Half Dollars I would occasionally get for an allowance. Then I read the date on one: 1891! Wow, the coin was ancient, nearly 75 years old!

The 1891-O Morgan Dollar from Christmas 1964
Click images to enlarge.

The other one was even older, dated 1884! As I examined them further, I could see that they were both US dollars! I had to learn more about them: Who was that lady on the front? For how many years were they made? I then discovered there was an “O” mintmark on the 1891 Dollar. It was minted in New Orleans! And so right then and there, on Christmas morning, a numismatist was born.

For years after, my holiday stocking was always a numismatic treasure hunt, as there were Indian Head cents and various silver coins to enjoy. Two years later, I was gifted my first Red Book!

Give the gift of numismatics this holiday season

So I ask the readers of this column to do your best to inspire and nurture a new collector this holiday season, a youngster or a contemporary. It should be easy to scrounge up a few foreign coins or perhaps a roll of Lincoln Wheat cents from your respective existing collections. It doesn’t have to be much.

Then, pick up a blue Whitman folder for, say, the 1941-1958 Lincoln Cents and help someone fill those holes! It should be fun and certainly inexpensive! Give the gift of the Red Book, “A Guide Book of Untied States Coins” and by all means direct a new collector to the wonderful NGC website for US and world coin pricing, census reports, auction data, and informative articles — all free!

For those wishing for silver and gold, well, gold may be too expensive for a casual gift, but silver is a different and highly affordable option. A few NGC-certified US Silver Eagles would be a welcome gift and a great start to a beautiful collection! A quick check of one of the electronic trading networks revealed that one well-known dealer is offering 17 different dates including many designated NGC Early Releases or NGC First Releases, and three years with the popular NGC San Francisco Mint Label, all for under $30 each!

Santa Claus currency for the spirited collector

For the well-established numismatists looking for an adventure and something to satisfy the persnickety collector, try locating obsolete state-chartered banknotes featuring Santa Claus! All notes featuring the jolly old resident of the North Pole are enormously collectable and quite rare.

One of my favorites is a rather heavily worn example from New Hampshire’s Lancaster White Mountain Bank. This popular, themed $2 note from my home state features a rather Revolutionary Era George Washington-esque Santa with a pipe, donning what appears to be a tri-corner hat and glancing over his shoulder while guiding his eight reindeer above the snowy housetops.

The $2 Santa note from Lancaster White Mountain Bank of New Hampshire
Click image to enlarge.

Another St. Nick-themed piece of currency is from my neighboring Pine Tree State of Maine: an 1854 $50 note issued by the Bucksport Bank. The Santa Claus depicted on this note, recognized as “Santa Type III,” was created by noted engraver George D. Baldwin. This truly exceptional rendering is visually more in character with the Dickens/Clement Moore-style holiday aberration we often think of — a jolly, whimsical St. Nick, joyfully guiding his obedient team of reindeer over the town’s snow-covered rooftops.

The 1854 $50 Santa note from Bucksport Bank of Maine
Click image to enlarge.

There are several other notes issued by state banks predominantly in New York and New England that feature Mr. Claus. So popular are the Santa Claus notes that they rank #23 in the 100 Greatest American Currency Notes by Bowers and Sundman. However, because they are beloved by collectors, these notes do not appear with any regularity at auction. So you better be really good if you’re putting one of these on your wish list.

While we revel in the holiday spirit now, this great hobby truly knows no season. As we old coindexters know, this is something special that the young collector will soon discover and appreciate more and more as years pass. A few books, a topical collecting theme and you’re on your way.

Until next time, happy collecting!

Jim Bisognani is an NGC Price Guide Analyst. He has written extensively on US coin market trends and values.

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