Jim Bisognani: Stand-in or Star?

Posted on 4/15/2021

Pocket change and mega-rarities have been embraced on the small screen.

Mid-April is bringing a wonderful transition of the seasons to those of us in New Hampshire. What I mean by that is, this time of year almost always finds the ground conditions wet and soggy with more-than-ample pockets and mounds of crusty, dirty snow clinging for life. Yet, for the first time I can ever remember, we actually had a very dry changeover. I am amazed!

In New England we are very conscious of weather and I, being an observer of all things, duly take notice. Of course, being a coindexter, I am always checking for different trends, sales data, populations, etc., and I have been for 84.4% of my life… but who’s counting?

Coins are everywhere. And not just in pockets or between seat cushions. Certified coins now permeate numerous cable home shopping networks, more than ever it seems. Individual million-dollar coin sales are not only making history, but the continued media exposure is making numismatics a very hot and viable topic.

Of course, coins such as the iconic and storied Brasher Doubloon have not only made their mark in numismatic circles but also in novels and a movie or two. Coins have reached us via the small screen on our favorite weekly TV shows for decades, and they even appeared as prizes in the original “Let’s Make a Deal.” “The Case of the Captain’s Coins” and “The Case of the Wooden Nickels” are a pair of notable storylines that come to mind from the long-running “Perry Mason.”

Yet the granddaddy, for me, was in a plot in late 1973. I recall I was a spirited teen numismatist watching the conclusion of a family favorite show: Hawaii Five-O. My jaw dropped as the preview of the next week’s episode revealed it was going to center around a 1913 Liberty Nickel!

My parents always enjoyed the show, and Dad chimed in: “Hey Jimmy, this is going to be right up your alley!” I can’t deny that my anticipation was indeed palpable. The episode of Hawaii Five-O, which aired a few weeks before Christmas of 1973, was titled “The $100,000 Nickel.”

Considering that Aubrey Bebee had just paid the record price for any coin, which was $46,000 for one of the five 1913 Liberty Nickels six years before, it was an eye-opener for me. It meant the famed 1913 Nickel’s value had already more than doubled! Other great coins featured in that episode included an 1879 $4 Stella, Round and Octagonal $50 Pan-Pacs, a 1795 $10 and a few others. Wow!

Click image to enlarge.

The 1913 Nickel showcased in the episode was later graded NGC PF 64. Pedigreed to Olsen and, of course, known as the Hawaii Five-O specimen. (If you haven’t seen the show, it is a numismatic must!)

Ever since that episode, I have kept an eye out for other TV coin appearances. Of course, a plethora of mysteries, crime dramas and Western-themed shows feature lots of coins, but mostly in card games or as cash on the table.

Before the advent of VHS/Beta videotape or DVD, I could only say, “Hey, that looked like a Washington Quarter” or “That was a prop,” or notice a coin just didn’t belong in that time period. As electronic and video technology has advanced, so has my sleuthing for those metal discs on the not-so-little big screen TV. It’s for continuity and authenticity, I say!

While my wife, Beth, will be pleased to just enjoy the show, she knows that if there is a scene with coins or currency involved, I must perform a quick review of items on the screen. A quick press of the pause button is mandatory — you know, to determine which items do and don’t fit the narrative and time frame in which the screenplay is trying to convey.

Many times, coins are used as props, with some made to appear as period coins. The same is true with currency. Yet other times, I guess the producers and directors didn’t foresee that technology would evolve, allowing for scrutiny.

Here is an example of such folly that caught my eye just a few weeks ago. The episode is from the long-running show “Gunsmoke” (1955-1975). This particular episode from season 9, which originally aired in early 1964, centered around a poker game and a murder.

The key to the story is one of the Mexican Silver Dollar buttons found at the scene of the crime. When I first saw the episode, I quickly caught many numismatic incongruities. For my own edification and confirmation, I was compelled to buy the DVD.

At the poker table, the first thing that caught my eye was a few small stacks of Morgan dollars, which coincides with the show’s 1890s time period. However, the 1917 $2, the well-worn 1899 Eagle $1 and the Washington 1917 $1 certainly don’t belong in this poker pot…

Then, as the pot increases, a stack with a Peace Dollar (1921-1935) inexplicably appears on top!

As the hand continues, one of the players attempts to stay in the game by offering his Mexican Silver Dollar buttons on his vest as stake. The character, Bucko, proclaims: “These Mexican Dollars are pure silver and are as good as ours or anybody’s money!”

Not quite, Bucko! The close-up of the coin confirms it is actually a Mexican Peso, which is only 10% silver and dated 1961!

Here, Marshal Dillon is carefully examining the Mexican Silver Dollar button at the crime scene. (Perhaps the director told him it was best advised to keep a thumb over the date.)

As marshal, Dillon examines and turns the button, you can see the obverse and profile of Morelos, confirming the “Silver Dollar” is actually the Mexican Peso type from 1957-1967 — nearly 80 years in the future!

Click images to enlarge.

In the end, Bucko is saved. I guess, for me, this is an extension of enjoyment of this great hobby. Another outlet in which numismatics has reached us all! Perhaps next time you are enjoying an episode of your favorite series, keep an eye out for coins. Take time to investigate, but just a bit. You don’t want to slow down the show!

Until next time, be safe and happy collecting!

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