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THE START OF A LIFELONG LOVE AFFAIR

By Ed Reiter


 Harry Truman was in the White House. The Yankees and Giants were in the World Series – an anticlimactic Series, following Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard ’Round the World.” And yours truly was in Homeroom 209-A at Aquinas Institute of Rochester, N.Y., struggling with freshman high school algebra.

 The year was 1951, the month was October – and at 13 years of age, I had just begun a love affair that would last for the rest of my life.

 With the future Mrs. Reiter? Hardly. The future Mrs. Reiter was just 3 years old at the time. The flame being kindled in my heart was my 60-year devotion to the coin collecting hobby.

 The two of us were introduced by Dick Leary, a classmate and friend at Aquinas who was vice president of the Rochester Junior Numismatic Association. Sadly, Dick died in October 2010 at the age of 73.

 Back in 1951, Dick would regale me at lunchtime with stories of recent acquisitions: a very fine Liberty Head nickel received from a merchant in change ... a 1922-D Lincoln cent found in a roll from the bank ... or a better-date Barber half dollar purchased for double face at a meeting of the coin club.

 Dick let me borrow his Red Book – it must have been the 3rd or 4th edition – and almost at once I found myself immersed in its facts and figures.

 The world of dates and mint marks intrigued me, as did the notion of finding something valuable in ordinary, everyday change. Everything about the hobby fascinated me – and soon, in the words of a popular song from the Fifties, my simple fascination turned to love.

 Looking back today, I realize how fortunate I was to enter numismatics when I did. Interesting coins abounded in circulation, and finding them was just about as easy as catching a juicy trout in a well-stocked stream. Today, by
contrast, finding such coins in your everyday change is almost like trying to net a solitary minnow in the sea.

 I was twice blessed, for besides having happy hunting (or fishing, if you prefer), I also had some happy hunting grounds. Several friendly merchants permitted me to rummage through their cash-register change, and this proved to be a rich source of circulation finds.

 Liberty Head nickels and all the other Barber coins still turned up with some regularity then – often in superior condition. Buffalo nickels, “Mercury” dimes and
Walking Liberty half dollars were commonplace, though Standing Liberty quarters already were somewhat scarce. And, while I encountered few, if any, Indian Head cents, I did find many low-mintage early Lincolns.

 Without much doubt, my most satisfying find was a 1909-S VDB cent, plucked one afternoon from the cash drawer at a neighborhood fruit stand. The coin was poor to fair, and I doubt that it would register more than a 1 or 2 on the
quality-is-everything Richter scale of grading that’s used today. To me, though, it was dynamite, and I’ve never been as thrilled by any other coin find before or since.

 Regrettably, I didn’t keep the coin. Dick Leary fancied it and talked me into selling it to him. The price, as I recall, was $1.25 – but then, you must remember that in 1951 the Red Book valued the S-VDB at less than $10 in good condition. Also, to a lad my age in 1951, $1.25 was a not inconsequential sum of cash.

 My coin collecting waxed and waned throughout the 1950s. There were, after all, other demands on my time – starting with that algebra class and going on from there to three more years of high school and four of college. And, while I found more than my share of interesting coins, including quite a few with modest premium value, I sold or spent the lion’s share to meet more pressing needs.

 By the early 1960s, with school and the Army behind me, I had more time for coins – and, I soon discovered, the hunting was still quite good. The Barber coins had all but disappeared from circulation, but Buffalo nickels, Mercury
dimes, Walking Liberty halves and early Lincoln cents remained plentiful.

 My merchant friends had given up their businesses by then (not, I hope, because they suffered losses to coin hunters like myself). But, while I regretted their departure, I found a more than adequate substitute: the cordial head teller at the bank where I cashed my early paychecks.

 For several years, I called at this teller’s window once or twice a week and purchased rolls of coins – mint-state rolls of current coins and random rolls of older ones. I’d set aside the mint-state rolls and spend my leisure hours checking the coins in the “used” ones.

 This process paid healthy dividends. Among other things, I turned up a very good 1914-D Lincoln cent, dozens of semi-key Lincolns such as the 1922-D and ’31-D, an assortment of better-date Mercuries and roll after roll of full-date Buffalos. I also squirreled away dozens of mint-state rolls of late-date silver coins – not because they were silver, but rather because they were new.

 In retrospect, it’s hard to believe how radically – and quickly – the face of the hobby changed, transforming yesterday’s trash into veritable numismatic treasure.

 In the early 1960s, while scanning rolls of dimes, I gave most Roosevelts a casual glance at best, and lingered over Mercuries only if their dates or condition were exceptional.

 It wasn’t uncommon to find early Mercuries, from the 1920s and teens, in VF condition or better – and semi-key dimes such as the 1931, ’31-D and ’31-S showed up with surprising regularity. It never occurred to me that every single one of these coins, scarce and common alike, would soon command a premium based on their silver content and thus become the object of a nationwide scavenger hunt.

 Wartime Jefferson nickels seemed like trash. Upon finding one of these coins in a roll, I tended to react with revulsion, as if close contact might cause me to come down with leprosy.

 Who could have guessed that in just a few years these scummy, unsightly coins – because they were part-silver – would be transformed from ugly ducklings into much-desired swans.

 Nowadays, of course, I’d welcome the sleazy sight of a silver wartime nickel in my change. I’d practically turn a handstand if I came across a Mercury dime of any date or grade. And finding a Buffalo nickel – even without a date – would a cause for celebration.

 The greatest joy, of course, would be to regain the state of preservation that I myself was in during that magical month six decades ago.

 If only that were possible, I’d gladly suffer the slings and arrows of elementary algebra all over again.

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