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Ralph Gardner Jr.: Is coin collecting making a comeback?

Pennies in a bag

A small part of the writer’s wheat penny collection. Wheat pennies, Buffalo nickels and silver quarters still bring a thrill when discoved in ordinary pocket change. 

GHENT, N.Y. — Scratch, an illustrated column about money that runs in the Sunday New York Times, last week addressed a subject close to my heart: coin collecting.

My daughter Lucy brought the column to my attention. She follows Julia Rothman, its illustrator, and was familiar with my childhood interest in coins.

Ms. Rothman initially reached out to millennial and Gen Z members for a story about stamp collecting but was informed the hobby was on life support. I could have told her that.

I inherited my father’s stamp album. When I took it to be appraised at Champion Stamp in New York City I discovered that interest in stamps and collecting them had fallen so precipitously that the album was worth only $700. A few decades back it would have been valued at several multiples of that.

However, Ms. Rothman and her co-author, Shaina Feinberg, discovered that there was an adjacent hobby that might be enjoying signs of a renaissance among a demographic that has years to go before they’re eligible for Social Security: coin collectors. Not Bitcoin collectors. But those who pursue rare pennies, nickels, dimes, quarters, etc. The news did my heart good and not just because I’m sitting on irrational quantities of wheat pennies.

One collector, James Castillo, 34, of Porter County, Ind., acknowledged that collecting coins is a terrible investment and that his passion for the hobby likely won’t gain him any followers on TikTok. But he purses it nonetheless because he considers his silver dollars “little art objects you can hold in your hand.”

I still experience a rush of excitement, admittedly a very small rush but a rush nonetheless and any rush these days is worth celebrating, when I receive a sparkling mint condition penny in my change. The experience triggers synapses that were formed around sixth grade when I began hunting my change, and my parents, for uncommon coins.

I suspect that one reason coin and stamp collecting hold little allure for today’s youth is because they’re distracted by shinier objects. Finding a World War II steel penny in your change and pressing it into the designated hole in your coin album can’t compete with fighting off zombies and saving the world on an online video game.

But there’s another reason. I started collecting coins because there were surprises to be found in everyday change. Back in the '60s there was a small but still reasonable chance that if you scoured your change you might find something remarkable — a buffalo nickel from the 1930s, a penny from the dawn of the 20th century, a Standing Liberty quarter that somehow survived the decades — even if it was so worn down that it was almost impossible to recognize the denomination. The date and the mint mark where it was struck — Philadelphia, Denver or San Francisco — also had long vanished.

Another collector, Rex Goldbaum, 23, of Sarasota, Fla., told the New York Times that people who made money in cryptocurrency, ostensibly before cryptocurrency crashed in recent weeks, are looking to funnel their profits into more tangible assets and as a hedge against inflation, even though he collects coins for their history.

I suspect that if I sold all my coin albums they might fetch enough for one decent meal. If they have any value it’s only the silver content in the pre-1964 quarters, half dollars and silver dollars that I acquired over the years or that my father, presciently, saved when U.S. currency converted to composite metals after that date.

But even today you can’t be sure that your change won’t cough up something special. A few years back I gave one of my daughters money to buy candy at a gas station. When she handed me the change I noticed that it made a funny clang. Upon examination it was three silver quarters.

Who knows how the coins came to sit in an Xtra Mart cash register. Had someone discovered a cache of their grandparents’ old coins not realizing they may have had some value? This week, with an ounce of silver valued at approximately $24, a single silver quarter is worth over $4.

Or maybe the person was like me. I occasionally seed my change with wheat pennies in the hope that they offer some child a frizzon of excitement when they discover them in their pocket, the way I once experienced, and causes them to stand in gentle awe of time and history.

My father used to do the same for me, even though I didn’t catch on. On his way home from work he’d drop by Stack’s Rare Coins on West 57th Street, buy a battered old Indian head or Flying Eagle cent and toss it into his pocket for me to discover when he got home. By the way, condolences to the Stack family. Their patriarch, Harvey G. Stack, passed away on Jan. 3. He was 93.

I’m prepared to admit that I was pretty dumb not to catch on until years later. But I have a good excuse. I’d suspended disbelief. Coins seemed sprinkled with magic dust so why shouldn’t a 100-year-old penny show up in my dad’s pocket?

One of my peak coin collecting experiences came in 1964 when I visited Washington, D.C., with my mother the week that the John F. Kennedy half dollar was released to the public.

If you’ll indulge me I’d like to quote from her diary of March 25, 1964. “We had dinner at Duke Zeibert’s restaurant, which is right across the street from here.” Duke Zeibert’s was a legendary Washington, D.C. watering hole across the street from the Mayflower Hotel on Connecticut Avenue. “The waiter there, a very friendly fellow called Maxie, gave Ralphie one of the new Kennedy half-dollars which came out today. They were all sold out and we couldn’t get them anywhere so Ralphie was absolutely thrilled with it.”

I still am. It’s sitting in my coin box alongside the 1891 Morgan silver dollar the tooth fairy brought me when my first tooth fell out.

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