- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 23, 2003

In the library of Our Lady of Mercy Elementary School in Potomac, 79 summer campers feign interest as coin enthusiast Jack Schadegg shows them a film about how coins are made.

Some of the youngsters struggle to stay awake. But Mr. Schadegg, secretary of the Montgomery County Coin Club and a longtime collector whose visit today is sponsored by the club, knows how to pique their interest: All he has to do is show them the money.

He does, handing each child a sealed envelope with a coin inside. Their eyes open wide as silver dollars: It’s a chance to hold bits of history.

“Money’s a good thing to collect,” says 13-year-old Karol Kelley as she examines a 242-year-old Spanish “piece of eight,” the coin on which the U.S. dollar was based.

Nichole Isola, 11, is fascinated by Mr. Schadegg’s display of early coins mentioned in her Bible studies — a Roman silver denarius (the forerunner of our penny) from the time of Jesus; a “widow’s mite,” which is a tiny bronze coin; and a Jewish shekel. “You hear all about them and now you get to see them,” she says.

That’s how the interest begins. It’s the way it started for Mr. Schadegg himself three decades ago when he was 13, after his grandfather in Kansas began to give him unusual coins — “wheat” pennies, silver dimes and quarters and the occasional buffalo nickel or Indian head penny (an unusual find in the mid-1970s because the last Indian head penny was made in 1909) — that turned up in the cash register at the family’s steakhouse restaurant.

And these days a growing number of Americans have caught the fever. They’ve begun to search their own pockets and piggy banks for change to keep just as others search the sky for shooting stars.

Now all the romance of numismatics, as the coin collectors’ hobby is known, comes to Baltimore next week at the World’s Fair of Money, an annual convention sponsored by the American Numismatic Association, a coin collectors group.

The hope is that the displays at the convention, which runs Wednesday through Aug. 3, will inspire the new generation to become interested in collecting coins, says spokesman Stephen Bobbitt. Some 9,000 people are expected to attend the various events, which include educational programs, exhibits of coins from mints around the world and a giant bourse, or trading center, with more than 1,000 dealers.

At the convention the British Royal Mint will release to the public for the first time a series of commemorative coins, made for New Zealand, honoring author J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” books and the recent films made (in New Zealand) from them. Conventioneers will get a first look at the U.S. Mint’s coins commemorating the 100th anniversary of the first powered airplane flight. The First Flight centennial coins are a half dollar, a silver dollar and a gold $10 coin.

The Bureau of Engraving and Printing — which makes U.S. paper money — is bringing a sample of the new, colorful $20 bills scheduled to appear in circulation in the fall, and a $100,000 bill, the largest denomination ever made in this country.

And the biggest draw of all: Making their appearance at the convention will be four of the five known 1913 U.S. Liberty Head nickels, among the rarest and highest valued coins in the world.

The potential audience for the show is vast and growing. The U.S. Mint, which makes the nation’s coins, estimates that 130 million Americans are building collections from among the billions of coins it produces each year. Officials say that figure has grown by more than 100,000 in the past year.

“The reason people collect coins is often because they want a connection with their country,” says U.S. Mint Director Henrietta Holsman Fore. “A coin is a bit of history in your pocket.”

Numismatics also is big business. Sales to coin collectors earned $100 million of the $1.38 billion in profits returned to the U.S. Treasury by the Mint in fiscal year 2001, according to the Mint’s most recent annual report. Examples of the rarest coins have sold for millions of dollars in recent auctions, setting price records once thought impossible.

Somewhere in that stratosphere of price twinkle the five 1913 Liberty Head nickels, perhaps the most famous U.S. coins. The Liberty Head design was standard on nickels from 1883 to 1912; 1913 marked the introduction of the Indian head/buffalo nickel. The five 1913 Liberty Head nickels, then, are the only Liberty Head nickels to bear their date.

They were created under mysterious circumstances at the Philadelphia Mint some time before 1919 — most likely late in 1912 or early in 1913, and probably from dies prepared late in 1912 before the decision was made to start making the new Indian/buffalo design.

Their existence came to light only in 1919, when a former employee of the Philadelphia mint, Samuel W. Brown, placed an advertisement in a coin magazine offering to buy examples of the coins for the then-unheard-of price of $500.

The next year, 1920, Brown turned up at the American Numismatic Association’s annual convention with five of the nickels. Next week’s display at the World’s Fair of Money will mark the first time since Brown showed them off that the four remaining coins — one has been lost— have been shown together.

The 1913 Liberty Head nickels aren’t the rarest or most valuable U.S. or world coins, but their allure is enduring because of the mystery that surrounds them.

“These are not official coins created by the Mint. It seems fairly clear that these were created in off-hours by a mint employee,” says Douglas Mudd, manager of the Smithsonian Institution’s coin collection in the National Museum of American History.

Brown is the most likely suspect to have made them, because he worked at the Philadelphia Mint and they ended up in his possession, but he is not the only suspect. Mr. Mudd, and Mr. Bobbitt of the ANA, both note that there is no proof he did it, and no one knows how they came into his possession before 1920.

Also, there’s no evidence that more than five were made because no others have ever surfaced. The suspicion is that Brown’s offer to buy other examples was an attempt to cover up the act of creating an instant rarity.

One of these coins is owned by a New Jersey coin dealer who was sold on it in the same way the youngsters at Our Lady of Mercy School had their interest piqued in coins: She touched it.

Dealer Laura Sperber got to hold one of the 1913 nickels at a national numismatic convention in 1976.

“That was the highlight of my life at the time,” she says. “This particular coin is what got me to become a dealer.”

Now, nearly 30 years and some $2 million later, the coin is hers. Ms. Sperber’s firm, Legend Numismatics of Lincroft, N.J., bought the coin a year ago after an unsuccessful attempt to buy another specimen.

“It was destiny on this one,” she says.

Here is what is known today of the five Liberty Head nickels:

• The Smithsonian has a 1913 Liberty nickel once owned by King Farouk of Egypt, who spent a good portion of his nation’s wealth enhancing his collection before being overthrown in a military coup in 1952.

• Another, in the American Numismatic Association museum in Colorado Springs, Colo., was passed around in taverns by a previous owner in a risky form of outreach to draw new collectors into the hobby.

• Ms. Sperber’s specimen, featured on an episode of the popular television crime drama “Hawaii Five-O” in 1973, is one of two in private hands.

• The other is owned by sports agent Dwight Manley, who bought it in an auction two years ago for $1.84 million.

• The fifth has been missing for more than 50 years and was believed to have last been in the possession of a coin dealer from Roanoke, George Walton, who died in a 1962 car crash in eastern North Carolina.

Many collectors hope that missing fifth 1913 nickel also will make an appearance at the convention. Bowers and Merena Galleries, the convention’s auctioneer, is offering a $1 million reward for the coin.

“In fact, we’ll pay $10,000 just to be the first to see it,” company president Paul Montgomery says in a statement.

“My belief is that it’s in someone’s safety-deposit box or safe and that they don’t know that they have it or they know and don’t want the publicity,” Mr. Bobbitt says.

Many collectors and Mint officials trace the recent growth of coin collecting to changes in U.S. coin designs, particularly the 50-state quarter program. Since 1999, five new quarters have been released each year with designs honoring U.S. states in the order in which they entered the Union. The program is scheduled to run through 2008, and some lawmakers want to extend it to add quarters for the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and U.S. territories.

“That’s been an incredibly popular program — more popular than we ever imagined,” Mint spokesman Michael White says.

The production of quarters more than doubled after the program was introduced, from 1.7 billion in 1998 to more than 4.4 billion in 1999, as Americans began saving them.

“This is affordable for children. You can collect a quarter,” Mrs. Fore says.

In many states, designing the quarters has become a communal search for identity, with ideas solicited from elementary-school students as well as professional artists.

“They are the themes of America,” Mrs. Fore says.

The Mint has capitalized on the interest in the state quarters, airing television advertisements promoting coin collecting as a family activity that spans generations. Mrs. Fore says the ads have contributed to a dramatic increase in the sales of 2003 coin sets.

The Mint also is using the Internet to educate Americans about their money, with online games, quizzes and lessons aimed at children on its Web site at www.usmint.gov.

Meanwhile, the Mint is looking at ways to refresh other U.S. coin designs, some of which have not been changed in more than half a century. For example, the penny has borne the same portrait of Abraham Lincoln since 1909 on its obverse, or “heads” side, though the reverse, or “tails,” was changed in 1959 to depict the Lincoln Memorial in Washington.

Since taking office in August 2001, Mrs. Fore has traveled around the country meeting with collectors and recently set up a program to recruit outside artists for fresh design ideas.

“I really do think that we are in a renaissance of design,” she says. “In the last couple of decades, we’ve been receiving lots and lots of suggestions.”

Efforts to change coin designs ran into resistance in Congress last year, however, when Virginia lawmakers objected to suggestions that portraits of Thomas Jefferson and his home of Monticello be removed from the nickel, which has borne those designs since 1938.

A bill by Rep. Eric Cantor, Virginia Republican, which breezed through both houses and was signed by President Bush in April, included a provision granting both Jefferson and Monticello a permanent place on the nation’s nickel, beginning in 2006. In the meantime and starting this year, the Mint plans to have a different portrait of Jefferson on the obverse, and some kind of changing commemorative reverse honoring first the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, then the 1804-06 Lewis and Clark expedition.

The bill also created a Citizens Coinage Advisory Commission to weigh in on future coin design changes in the hope of avoiding future controversies. The commission’s 11 members first met May 16 and are scheduled to hold their third meeting July 31 at 2 p.m. at the Baltimore convention.

“I think it’s been a very good collaboration,” Mrs. Fore says.

But in spite of the popularity of the state quarters and the excitement generated by coin design changes, the number of dedicated collectors is probably much smaller than Mint estimates. The ANA has about 30,000 members, with a median age of 54, and probably another 30,000 to 45,000 in some 500 coin clubs across the country, Mr. Bobbitt says.

Ms. Sperber is more optimistic, saying her business leads her to believe there are about 1 million serious collectors, including younger ones new to the hobby.

Legend does more than $10 million in business per year, she says.

“I’d say our average customer is between 35 and 40 years old, and those are the ones who spend the big money,” she says.

Ms. Sperber says the Internet has dramatically expanded access to coins for collectors, bringing new people into the hobby. She says her company’s Web site gets thousands of hits per day.

“People are learning about coins now. The public loves coins.”

One reason why it’s hard to get a clear figure on the number of coin collectors is that many prefer to remain anonymous so as not to tempt thieves. The owner of the most expensive coin ever sold — a 1933 U.S. $20 gold piece — has not been publicly revealed since the coin was purchased for $7.59 million a year ago.

“A lot of collectors have soured” because of theft, says Frank Palumbo, president of the Washington Numismatic Society, a local coin club.

In coin collecting, anonymity also can bring bargains for those who can uncover what others have overlooked. For the past 50 years, Wayne Wilcox, a retired engineer and a member of the Washington Numismatic Society in the District, has been collecting proposed designs produced by the Mint for nickels, some of which never were made for circulation.

He was attracted by the relative obscurity of such coins, some of which are rarer than the famed 1913 nickels, but cost much less. Among the failed experiments are nickels with holes in the middle and coins made from aluminum in the 19th century, when the metal was rarer and more valuable than it is today.

“You can get something very rare for a very reasonable price,” Mr. Wilcox says.

Fair schedule

The American Numismatic Association’s World’s Fair of Money is coming to the Baltimore Convention Center, 1 West Pratt St., Wednesday through Aug 3. For more information, contact the ANA at 719/499-3591 or see its Web site at www.money.org. Here is a listing of some major public events at the convention.

July 30:

10 a.m.-6:30 p.m.: Bourse and exhibits open

Noon: Official Launch of “Lord of the Rings Collection” Program; British Royal Mint

3 p.m.: Krause Coin of the Year awards

July 31:

9 a.m.: British Royal Mint news conference

9:45 a.m.: Japan Mint news conference

10 a.m.-6:30 p.m. Bourse opens to the public

10:30 a.m.: Monnaie de Paris news conference

11:15 a.m.: Singapore Mint news conference

Noon: U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing news conference

12:45 p.m.: Athens 2004 Olympics coin program news conference

2 p.m.: Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee meeting

Aug. 1:

9 a.m.-7 p.m. Exhibits open to the public

10 a.m. -7 p.m. Bourse opens to the public

11:30 a.m.: U.S. Mint Collector’s Forum

2 p.m.: ANA Coin Collecting Basics

Aug. 2:

9 a.m.-7 p.m.: Exhibits open to the public

10 a.m.-7 p.m.: Bourse opens to the public

10 a.m.: Jay W. Johnson: “The Mint Director vs. Coin Collector: When Worlds Collide”

2 p.m.: ANA Boy and Girl Scout merit badge clinic; ANA Coin Collecting Basics

Aug. 3:

9 a.m.-2 p.m.: Exhibits open to the public

9 a.m.: ANA Board meeting

10 a.m.-2 p.m.: Bourse open to the public

10 a.m.: ANA Coin Collecting Basics


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