We always dream of finding a treasure and coins can seem like a rare find, especially when they are examples of coins you have never seen before. Unfortunately most so-called rare coins that are found are not the coins that make dreams come true.....
Trash or Treasure
By Marie Goe
Not a day goes by in our store that at least one caller doesn't ask, "What is my coin worth?" Over the years we have developed comeback lines and polite responses to this open-ended question in an attempt to not sound rude. We reply to the caller with various analogies, often beginning our word picture like this: "Say that you call a realtor and tell her that you have a three bedroom house, and ask, "what's it worth?" Everyone knows there are far too many questions that must be answered before value can be established.
For starters: where is the house located, how big is it and what condition is it in?; Then, there are other considerations that could greatly affect the value of the property; like its yard size, its landscaping and whether it has a pool. And what kind of appliances are in the kitchen? Or, does it have hardwood floors, tile or carpet? And most people are influenced by something called "curb appeal" before they even begin to consider what's on the inside.
Another example we employ is the used the car analogy, which has some pertinent comparisons; like the difference between a 1970 original Mustang in mint condition and a 1975 rusted out Pinto with 180,000 miles on it (See the movie, "Planes, Trains, and Automobiles" and visualize Steve Martin and John Candy’s rental car after the fire!). Rusty has made us laugh when comparing some coins to shreds of a blown out tire or a car with only the steering wheel and dashboard left. When we are shown "coins" that look like they came right off the scrap heap, we refrain from laughing out loud, although sometimes it's a challenge.
Sometimes people get it when we use these analogies; but some still press us with manipulative questions like: "I just want to know if it's worth bringing down, or, "Just give me a range." I love this one, because after you tell a person that the price could range between $15 and $5,000, you can guess what end of the price range the person will pick for the value of their coin.
Silver certificates, 1921 Morgan and 1922 Peace silver dollars, Circulated common-date Indian cents, Buffalo nickels, Walkers, and Franklin halves, are always being found in some drawer by a relative of an accumulator recently deceased. This provides the impetus for the person to get on the phone and call a local coin shop to find out how to cash in on this incredible find. More often than not, these old coins are always described as "rare," and the caller is certain that the condition is "excellent" because they can read the date. But 99 out of 100 times, assortments of coins and/or paper money brought into our store in small piles are nothing more than the accumulation of a packrat relative who has passed away and offer the heirs no hidden value. As a rule, collections assembled by experienced numismatists, passed down to family members, are usually well cataloged, often including invoices detailing purchases, making it much easier for the heirs to liquidate.
Replica Confederate paper money and the famous 1840 $1,000 U. S. banknotes are always being discovered, often found in old books or among accumulations of coins.
These large-sized bills, usually on antique-colored paper, can impress most novices. Some of the bills have the words "Facsimile" printed in tiny letters on the back which helps us to provide undisputable evidence when we have an exuberant person on the phone, sure of a big windfall. The 1840 $1,000 banknote, on the other hand, has the word "COPY" printed on it, which should make it easier for us to convince a person that it is not authentic; but for the overly optimistic, this disclaimer tends to blend in and can easily be ignored. A common rejoinder we hear is, "My grandmother saved this bill since she was a little girl," intended to overcome our evaluation (Maybe Granny simply used this souvenir novelty piece as a bookmark).
Another hope burner we get asked about is the series known as California fractional gold. Due to a scarcity of small silver coins during the California Gold Rush, tiny quarter dollar, half dollar and dollar gold pieces were minted in the private sector. Genuine specimens have denominations stamped on them and are made out of .900 fine gold, or close to it. Modern day replicas, on the other hand, may or may not have a denomination, and many have an image of a bear or or the word Cal on the reverse, immediately indentifying them as fakes. But unless a person knows, finding a few of these tiny "treasures" in a drawer or an jewelry box can be an exhilerating experience. I can't tell you how many times after we have evaluated an assortment of coins, the heir to this "fortune" will pull a replica or two of these California fractional gold coins from a pocket or a purse in an attempt to impress us. Within a minute or two, however, the person is crushed to discover that their treasure is really trash because that California Bear on the reverse signals fakery, dashing all hopes of a rich find.
Sometimes the "heirs" who have called rush down with their "collection of rare coins," only to be informed that every piece has been cleaned, mutilated and/or corroded. These coins were often described over the phone as being "Proofs" or "Brand New-looking," because of how shiny they are. At this point we must proceed with caution, since even though we are not interested in buying "collections" such as these, we try to break the news as courteously as possible, because we know people's dreams die hard. We use terms like "no collectible value"; and we cling to our trusty Bluebook, because at least with this Handbook on U. S. Coins, the bad news is coming from a third party source, shielding us from bearing the brunt of a person's hostility and disappointment. We have a term for this part of our job at Southgate Coins; it's called "Dream Smashing"; and it is one of our least favorite aspects of the coin business. How satisfying it would be to give everyone the answer they are craving: "You have just found a $1,000,000 dime!!!!" Yahoo!
I've saved one of the best examples of this side of our business for last. It concerns a letter we received from Thailand several years ago, which read:
Dear Southgate Coins,
I have one 1804 coin. The coin is shown in photo on backside of this letter. The coin has set price of 1,000,000 U. S. Dollars by U.S.A. Embassy in Burma since 1988. I need to sell the coin back to Motherland. Please you are to consider.
The picture of the coin in this letter was created by the old trick of laying the coin under the paper and penciling over it to get the image of it. Rusty went into his office and brought out the same replica of an 1804 Bust silver dollar that our Thai seller was asking $1,000,000 for. After a brief thought, Rusty went back into his office, and came out with one of our souvenir $1,000,000 bills. We considered sending it to the address in Thailand to consumate the deal but thought better of it because we were afraid the guy might try to spend the bill and get in trouble. Besides, his letter makes for a great wall hanging in our store, alongside our fake 1804 dollar and million dollar bill.
Well, we hope all you friends out there keep on the lookout for the Big Find: after all, dreams do come true every now and then; so why not yours? If you call, and it doesn't materialize, we'll try not to smash you too hard.