Back when I was a kid, before girls were part of the equation and Jim Laponis and me was still mainly interested in the speed and ramming capabilities of our red wagons, coin collecting was a big thing in the 'hood.
Us and the other kids would go through our pocket change, when we had any, and the pocket change of our parents when they'd let us, looking for valuable coins. It was exciting.
There were plenty of Indian Head nickles still in circulation, and those cool pre-Roosevelt dimes with the winged Mercury heads. When you found a good coin you looked it up in a handbook that listed the value of each depending on whether it was in good, very good, fine, etc., condition.
Then you thumbed that baby into a slot in one of those little blue coin collection folders and felt a glow of satisfaction, fueled by the hope that someday you'd fill every date for that type of coin.
I never did, not for any of them.
But life went on and other pursuits replaced coin collecting--war, children, career, divorce, to name a few. And it wasn't long before I'd left far behind that childhood world of the 1950s in Ontario, Calif., where absolutely the best thing that could happen to you would be to find the elusive and fabulously valuable 1909 S-V.D.B.
That's a penny--1909 being the first year for the Lincoln cent--and the "S" meant that it had been produced at the San Francisco mint. V.D.B. stood for Victor D. Brenner, who designed it to commemorate Lincoln's 100th birthday.
We found plenty of 1909 pennies, but nary an S-V.D.B., and in the intervening years I gave the matter nary a thought, either. The other day, however, cruising around Silver Spring, I noticed a tiny old shop, Bonanza Coins, and went in.
There behind the counter, resplendent in suspenders and squinting magnificently through a jeweler's loop, stood Julian M. Leidman, 53, coin dealer. Immediately, I felt some of the old thrill.
There in his glass-topped cases were treasures indeed--a 1931 S penny ($44), 1869 nickel (50 cents!), 1951 Booker T. Washington half ($17.50), a 1994 U.S. Mint proof set ($38), boxes of the old all-silver coins ("5X Face Value, No Picking"), and scads of those glorious halfs dated 1916-47 with Miss Liberty striding in her flowing, diaphanous robes toward the sunrise.
Naturally, I looked for a 1909 S-V.D.B and there it was! Only $470.
"It's only in fine condition," Leidman explained. "They only made 484,000 of them, and in real nice condition they're worth $800."
As we got to talking, it turned out that Leidman--who's just about my age--had the same kind of fascination with coins I did as a kid, but kept right on going. He even dropped out of the University of Maryland to get into the biz, and is now a nationally known dealer.
"I stuck with it," he said simply. "I started as a collector when I was 11 or 12 with an impetus from my mother, who'd been given a bunch of coins by her parents. I'd tried stamps and it didn't grab me quite as well."
The family moved from Troy, N.Y., to the Washington area when Leidman was 15. He kept on collecting, eventually buying the Bonanza shop from a friend. A 1979 Washington Post article--the last time he was mentioned in the paper--describes his acquisition of a 1907 Indian Head double eagle $20 gold piece for approximately $500,000. According to dealers, it was the most expensive coin in the world at the time, and Leidman was hoping to sell it for $695,000.
I asked him how he did.
"I lost money," he chuckled, "got stuck with it during a downturn. It's still one of my favorite coins, and it's still the world's most expensive coin. It's salted away in a private collection now; I'd estimate its value today at $3 to $5 million."
While the Wall Street Journal reported last month that the market for collectible coins is "suddenly booming"--an 1804 silver dollar brought $4.1 million at a recent auction--Leidman confided that the nitty-gritty, down-home coin market that might interest everyday folks isn't exactly booming.
"Unfortunately, there are fewer collectors than there used to be," he said. "There are just too many things to do, and not enough time. Kids are on the Internet these days, there are just so many things pulling at them. And coin collecting is a hobby, a leisure activity."
Not a trivial one, though. Leidman, for example, has a large cent from the 1790s that he enjoys touching. "Who's to say that George Washington or Thomas Jefferson didn't handle it?"
I roamed around the shop while he helped a customer. There were some of the old blue coin folders, ratty with age--and empty--for 75 cents apiece. I couldn't resist, and also bought a copy of R.S. Yeoman's Handbook of United States Coins, the latest edition of the book I'd first eagerly consulted nearly half a century ago.
"Coin collecting in America did not develop to any extent until about 1840," the book reported in a passage I somehow must have missed as a kid, "as our pioneer forefathers were too busy carving a country out of wilderness to afford the luxury of a hobby."
Also, this nugget: "Prior to the adoption of the Constitution, the Continental Congress arranged for the issuance of copper coins under private contract. These are known as the 'Fugio cents' from the design"--a sundial with the Latin word "Fugio," indicating that time flies. "The ever appropriate motto, 'Mind Your Own Business,' is also on the coin."
Hmmm. That bears thinking about. But how would I make a living?
The Suburban Washington/Baltimore Coin and Currency Convention will be held Nov. 12-14 at the Baltimore Convention Center. For information call 301-424-1876.