Coins And A Life: How It All Adds Up

By Eric Timar
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, June 16, 2008

After my father died and my mother moved into an apartment, I wound up with his coin collection. Calling it a "collection" is generous; many of the U.S. coins were kept in bags or tubes, barely sorted. Foreign coins were in a global melting pot, with shiny sailboats on Bahamian quarters becalmed amid postwar German pfennigs. Among a handful of dull and virtually worthless Austrian coins was a nearly solid-silver 100-shilling commemorative of the 1976 Innsbruck Olympics.

In addition to many more important concerns in his last days, my father mentioned the coins several times, or I might not have paid them much attention. I am glad to have some buffalo nickels and Morgan dollars to look at and show my children, but real coin collecting -- spending years tracking down every date and mint mark of a series, and looking for perfect, uncirculated coins -- does not appeal to me, or to my brother. The very bulk of the collection put us off; we began guessing how much it weighed. My brother had estimated 60 to 80 pounds before we took out the newer U.S. coins and I brought the rest home. (These more recent coins -- worth their face value and nothing more -- added up to $120 and lightened the load considerably.)

I gave myself a rushed course in numismatics to be sure I get a fair price for the coins I sell. I've learned that many Canadian and U.S. coins from the early 20th century are mostly of silver; that U.S. pennies from 1943 are steel gray because they are indeed made of steel; that rare coins are just that -- rare. It is easy to find nickels that sell for $100 or more on eBay, but tough to find them in a collection like my father's -- one put together primarily just by keeping an eye out for old coins he received as change.

One thing I have discovered I appreciate about coin collecting is that it keeps history alive -- that of nations and that of my family. I have 1940s U.S. centavos from the Philippines that show we already have under our belts at least one long, difficult occupation from which we could have learned, had we cared to. I find it almost physically difficult to divest myself of the older coins, even though most are worth only four or five times their face value. I sell the Kennedy half dollars and think about how much my father liked JFK; I look at mint marks -- D for Denver, S for San Francisco, P or blank for Philadelphia -- and remember my father explaining this to me in a long-ago conversation. A coin from 1938? That was the year he was born. Wheat cents from 1953? Those would have been new to him when he immigrated here from Europe. Mint sets from Denver? He bought them on our grand, month-long trip out West -- in a VW camper -- when I was 12. Those I will keep.

Coins that were unorganized are emotionally easier to part with, since my father did not spend much time on them. But others he obviously did handle quite a bit: pennies and nickels sorted and pressed into folders designed to hold all the years and mint marks from a series. I cruise through rolls of wheat cents that have coins from 1918 mixed in with those from the 1950s, but then I hit a string of 1929s all in a row. I stop, and picture my father stacking them in his basement office, years ago. What would he think of me selling these?

I think he recognized that some of the interests he hoped to pass on to me just did not stick, including hunting and perhaps these coins. Other likes of his did take -- soccer, playing with children, pickled herring. He would understand the financial sense of selling the old silver coins, which have grown in value. And finally -- although I know this is walking into a minefield -- I think I know some things about organization that my father did not. I can better decide how to pare down possessions. I helped clean out his house, and I saw that he had two more chainsaws than any one person can use at once, and a disassembled organ that had languished in the attic for 30 years, and a stamp "collection" even more chaotic than the coins.

I write this with all respect to my father -- respect I hope I'm showing when I sort carefully through the coins and count my memories.

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