So I’m a bit of a numismatist, or, as my wife likes to put it, I pay money for money. My focus is mostly foreign coins, mainly because they’re varied and interesting, and I feel they put me in touch with the wider world, with places I’d like to visit but will probably never see. One of my favorite pieces I’ve collected is a mint set of coins for the tiny island nation of Tuvalu. Only five thousand were minted but the population is so small there are more sets in the hands of collectors than there are coins in circulation. In spite of that it’s not a particularly expensive set, which is also part of the appeal of foreign coins—they’re cheap. At flea markets if you find a coin dealer they’ll usually have a box of loose foreign coins priced at four or five for a dollar. Sometimes I’ll pull out a British pound or even a Euro and, being honest, I’ll mention that the coin is worth more than what they’re charging.
“Take a few more,” they’ll say, pushing the box toward me.
Like a lot of people I cringed when I read a recent story about a guy who stole a collection of rare coins, estimated to be worth at least $33,000, and dumped it into a Coin Star machine. The article says he got “just enough store credit to buy a couple of 12-packs of beer”, and I assume they mean cheap beer and not some fancy microbrewed stuff, a case of which could easily go for $33,000.
Here’s the part that most people probably won’t think about but that really makes the numismatic me cringe: even if those coins are recovered their value has been significantly diminished. When it comes to coin collecting quality matters. Scratches, nicks, abrasions, and even simple wear affect the quality of coins. A friend’s aunt found some gold coins in her attic and took them to a coin dealer. For some reason she was holding them in her hand and rubbing them together when she asked the dealer, “How much are these worth?”
“About five hundred dollars less than they were worth before you did that,” he replied.
Something else I thought about, though, is that I understand the joy of collecting, and I feel bad for the guy who lost the coins—many coins are also historic artifacts, in addition to being tokens of exchange—but if I had the money to invest in a large and expensive collection of rare coins I’d probably spend it on something else instead. You can’t take it with you, as the 1938 Oscar-winning Frank Capra film taught us, although I do a pretty good Lionel Barrymore impression, especially after a few thousand-dollar beers, but that’s another story. If I had the money I’d probably spend it on travel, on creating memories that no one could ever take.