Q. David Bowers: Explaining the lure of collecting tokens and medals

Tokens and medals attract a more artistically inclined group of collectors
By , Coin World
Published : 11/22/16
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The Joys of Collecting column from the Dec. 5, 2016, issue of  Coin World:

For nearly all of my numismatic life I have been deeply interested in tokens and medals.

In 1961 I was one of the founders of the Token and Medal Society. Dynamic today, the society publishes the TAMS Journal under the editorship of William Hyder. (Visit the TAMS website here.)

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Quite apart from certain aspects of federal coinage that attract thousands of investors, whose basic interest in the art and science of numismatics is slight if any at all, tokens and medals have always attracted, shall I say, the cognoscenti and literati of the hobby.

Valuing sources

There are no single sources for updated rarity and price information for medals and tokens. Accordingly, you are on your own. This yields marvelous, indeed ideal, advantages:

1. Prices are often very inexpensive. In some series great rarities including unique pieces can be purchased for less than $100.

One of my favorite series is nickel-size tokens from the early 20th century with inscriptions referring to coin-operated music, such as GOOD FOR ONE TUNE or GOOD FOR ONE TUNE IN THE PIANO.

I have several hundred different, including unique pieces, most of which cost me less than $20 each. My study of these, “A Tune for a Token,” won an award from TAMS in 1975. I am thinking about updating it.

Other tokens with wider audiences, such as Hard Times tokens and Civil War tokens, can be expensive, but they still cost tiny fractions of the prices of federal coins of comparable rarity and grade. Check the TAMS website, and while you are at it, check Medal Collectors of America as well, at http://www.medalcollectors.org/.

2. Most pieces have very interesting histories. Stories and illustrations can add to the enjoyment of collecting them.

3. Over the long term, prices for nearly all tokens and medals have increased. Although I have never met anyone who collected these strictly as an investment, most collections if carefully formed and held over the long term have done superbly well in this regard.

4. There are no boom-and-bust investment cycles, so the market has never been soft or in a slump. Today in December 2016 it is as strong as ever, and I predict this will continue.

The above said, one nice thing about tokens and medals is that the bar to entry is reading and study. This keeps the collector population small. Otherwise, prices would be 10 to 100 times higher than they are!

In the slideshow above I illustrate a selection and their approximate values.

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