Jim Bisognani: Coin Collecting Can Be All About the Numbers

Posted on 2/24/2022

Your collection may be about what’s happened in the world or just in your life.

For my fellow coindexters, especially those of you who are numbers aficionados, I hope this elicits a nod of appreciation: I am typing this at precisely 2:22 p.m. on 2/22/22. To stretch that repetitive deuce further, this fell on a Tuesday, the second day of the week!

As a youth, armed with mintage data and such, I checked dates on treasured coins I had picked up in circulation, and I still do. I hold out hope that even in periodic searching through rolls of Lincoln Cents, I might pull a key or semi-key from commerce. Hey, it could happen. Yet regardless of value, each date prompts me to remember world events that happened in the years the coins were minted.

Through the years, as numismatist and price guide guru, I have always been attracted to coins, not just keys and rarities but those whose dates jog my gray matter, whether the events had significance to the world or were just important to me.

For example, 1912 is not a year that instantly jumps out to the masses. For me, though, I immediately think of the Titanic sinking on April 15 and, five days later, the opening of Fenway Park. It was my personal recognition of this date that led me to purchase my first gold coin, a $5 Indian Head coin, in 1969. Also that year, the Miracle Mets won the World Series and man walked on the moon for the first time.

A 1912 $5 graded NGC MS 63, similar to one Jim Bisognani bought in 1969.
Click images to enlarge.

The year before, in 1968, I was leafing through my first “Red Book” during Christmas vacation when I fell in love with the $5 Indian Head gold piece. Even at that early age, I truly appreciated the significance, artistry and execution of this coin.

Making a plan

It was on Christmas Day that I formulated a plan to get one. I decided after winter vacation, I would save a portion of my lunch money each week with the hope of buying of one of these coins in the spring.

I figured that if I’d saved a $1.50 or more each week, by early May I would have about $35, which would cover the cost of one of these coins. This was a secret operation. I told no one of my plans — not schoolmates, brothers, dad or especially my mom, who would think that I was going to starve or, at a minimum, suffer the consequences of malnutrition.

As 1969 rolled in, I religiously squirreled away between $1.50 and $2 each week from my lunch money. The winter seemed to last forever, as is often the case in New England. Eventually, however, it was time for Major League Baseball spring training, and I remember listening to the Red Sox games from Winter Haven, Florida, on my transistor radio while in bed. I was excited to think that not only was baseball season just a little more than a month away, but my coffer for that Indian Half Eagle contained $25!

I remember that after school I would pick up my trusty copy of the Red Book and scout out other series to occupy my time and become acquainted with. Yet each time my eyes seemed to gravitate back to that great $5 Indian Head.

I was getting excited, and I could sense that soon I could be in a position to buy one of these great coins. I had even picked up a copy of the “Handbook of United States Coins,” known as the “Blue Book,” to check on “wholesale” prices. Minted from 1908 to 1929, there were a pair of standout rarities: the The 1909-O was listed at $140 in XF and the 1929 at $750 in like grade. Some of the other mintmarked coins were also listed at higher prices in the Blue Book, but most of the other “common coins” in XF were within the same price range, about $32.50 back in 1969.

Finally, the time had come. It was nearing the end of April and on the last Friday afternoon of the month, when I got home from school, I picked up the phone directory and decided to check around and make inquiries as to where to find my Half Eagle. I called a few hobby shops and one coin dealer, but struck out there. I quickly remembered the name of the antique shop that my mom and dad had gone to a couple of years before with a “blurry” 1955 penny. I figured I’d try that old guy down by the waterfront and see if he had any gold coins.

The old gent answered the phone, and I asked him if he had any $5 gold pieces for sale, preferably a $5 Indian Head. I held my breath as the fellow said he’d check. I heard the phone receiver clunk down, most probably on a long glass showcase. About a minute later, I could hear the shopkeeper shuffling back and was told that yes, he did have a couple of gold Indian Head $5 and $10 pieces. I was ready to do a backflip.

I asked the shop owner his hours and was told he’d be there until 8 p.m. I enthusiastically said I’d be there tonight.

With that, I ran up the stairs and pulled out my secret cash stash in my bedroom and counted it out again. There they were — 37 $1 bills. It was quite a roll. I folded the bills and put the cash in my pants pocket, going over my plan in my head. It should work, as Friday night was my parents’ bowling night. They were part of the couples’ league at the local Bowl-O-Rama, which started around 7 p.m., and both of my older twin brothers were going out with friends after supper.

I couldn’t wait to hear the “come and get your supper, kids” call. When Mom finally bellowed out the dinner cry, I flew to the table and quickly ate what was in front of me. After my brothers finished up, they both left to hang out with their friends. That left Mom and Dad. It was around 6 p.m. and Mom was ready, too, waiting for Dad to shave. I remember her saying to me, “Be good and we’ll see you around 9 or 9:30.” With that, they left by the side door near the kitchen.

As they were getting in the car, I was waving goodbye from the dining room window, which was always my ritual. Then, as the car was backing out of the narrow driveway, I ran to the front of the house, peering out the living room window just in time to see the red taillights trailing off down the street.

That’s when I sprang into action. I ran outside, picked up my bike and began to pedal as fast as I could toward the waterfront location of that antique shop for my meeting with destiny. I recall covering the four-plus miles to that shop in something of a record time. In my excitement, it was all really a blur as to how I got there.

I was clammy with a bit of perspiration from my Olympian effort and brought the bike into the little vestibule doorway of the shop. I opened the door and the little bell at the top signaled my arrival. I made my way over to the glass showcase. The old gent was busy with a box of books in front of him. I coughed a little so he would know that I was there. He then looked up and peered over his glasses.

He said, “Hello there, little fella.” I told him that I was the one who called earlier about the $5 Indian Head gold coin. The shopkeeper scratched the top of his head, looked at me and said, “Yes, let me get those for you to look at.” He then went behind the showcase and pulled out a brown vinyl wallet and brought it out front for me to look through.

1912 was a special year

I remember leafing through this booklet: $5, $10 and even $20 gold coins. Wow! Then, my eyes happened upon the $5 Indian Head. I was in love! The shopkeeper handed me his magnifying glass. I looked again at the coin. It was glorious: a shimmering gold, a buttery shade of yellow. There was the Indian Head I had dreamt about!

The coin was dated 1912. Wow, what a great year. My mind raced. This coin was minted the year of the Titanic disaster and the same year that Fenway Park opened! My heart was racing, I was so excited.

Then, as I put down the magnifying glass, I looked at the white cardboard two-inch-by-two-inch holder and saw the price — $50.

Right then, my euphoria ceased. I couldn’t buy this coin. I only had $37. It would take me another month and a half at best before I could come up with the difference. Perhaps the shopkeeper could sense my shock, or maybe my white face gave me away, because right then he said, “Pay no attention to that price. You can have it for $30.”

With that, my senses came back and blood seemed to circulate more freely through my body. I pulled out my cash and gleefully paid out the $30 to the shopkeeper. He then pulled the coin from the little vinyl wallet and put the coin in my hands and said, “It’s a real good one.” I thanked him, went outside and hopped on my bike to speed home.

It was about 8 p.m. when I got home. I quickly went upstairs and sat on my bed and looked at that beautiful gold coin. The Indian Head $5 gold piece was mine! I think over the next few months I became acquainted with every subtle nuance of that coin. It was a wonderful Mint State coin. A few months later, I purchased a small red velveteen-lined silver trinket box to house my $5 gold piece.

Rarity or collecting by the numbers

Through the years, that coin has given me much pleasure. It’s not necessarily a rare coin, but it’s truly a sentimental and tangible link to that time in my youth.

For others, perhaps 1929 (the beginning of the Great Depression) or 1918 (the end of World War I) hold personal significance. I know, now that I am of Medicare age, that I like to acquire world coins that end in 57, the year I was hatched. It is all relative because when I started collecting coins, anything dated around 1905 would have been quite old to me.

I guess the bottom line, especially in troubled times, is that we can all enjoy collecting something that holds personal significance and satisfaction. It doesn’t have to cost the proverbial arm and a leg to build a collection of historic and, yes, personal significance.

Until next time, be safe and happy collecting!

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