US Coins

We are but ‘custodians’ of coins, and we have responsibilities

Michael S. Turrini just concluded his second term as the California State Numismatic Association president.

He had purchased it in 1934 or thereabouts as a sophomore in high school while also working toward his Eagle Scout badge, which he would later achieve. It was a 1909-S Lincoln, V.D.B. cent, already, in the struggling years of the Great Depression, an American icon and king of coins. 

He only paid 25 cents for it, which then was actually a premium, for the same coin in the same grade — it is at least a Fine and maybe a Very Fine, with a good solid reverse — could be bought through the mail for fifteen cents; but, when you added postage and money order charges of the time, the quarter price was an excellent price.

Eighty years later, Sydney M. Kass, now 93, of Stockton, Calif., decided to sell, to part, with his youthful purchase, and I bought it. Of course, it cost me certainly much more than the original price of a quarter, and the amount paid did not include any mailing or handling charges! We concluded the sale during the Delta Coin Club’s Annual Dinner and Installation this past January in Stockton. 

What does this simple and personal transaction — one that is clearly remote from the national auctions with their thousands of lots and mega-millions in prices realized, and from eBay sales, and so on — show or state? Maybe not much, but there are lessons to be learned from this transaction.

The lesson is not the rarity — a 1909-S Lincoln, V.D.B. cent is the enduring icon in the series but it is not a rare coin — or the youthful purchase returning a fairly nice investment after 80 plus years. No, there are far greater lessons.

One, the 1909-S V.D.B. cent now passes into the hands of someone who appreciates its value and, more importantly, its provenience and pedigree. One could remark that the “coin is kept in the family.”

Decades ago, Stephen M. Huston, noted California numismatic scholar and respected ancient coins numismatist, wrote that we are “custodians of our coins” and as custodians this means we have the duty, the charge, to care and to preserve. It is concrete that Syd protected and kept the cent in the same 2-inch by 2-inch holder for decades, the same holder it was in the day he walked out of a now long-gone small coin show. Syd was a “true custodian.” 

Two, this 1909-S Lincoln, V.D.B. cent — as do numerous coins, from the Everest of rarities down to the lowest “doggie silver dollar” — had a story and has witnessed history, the march of time. Syd’s cent passed through the Great Depression; stayed safe at home while he served as a member of “The Greatest Generation” in World War II; was there when his 70-year-plus marriage began with his wife, Mary, and with the birth of their children, now all in the 60s and older; was there when he joined nearly 60 years ago the Delta Coin Club; and was there as he began, worked and retired from his commercial printing career.

Coins travel in time. Coins cannot speak. Coins witness history and times. Coins cannot write. But, if there are real time travelers, then it is coins. If Syd’s 1909-S Lincoln, V.D.B. cent could speak or write, what tales and stories it might share of three-quarters of the 20th century and now into the 21st century.

Three, this cent states one other lesson: the great and valued asset of our hobby, friendship. Syd, by his own admission, could have easily and even earlier sold his 1909-S Lincoln, V.D.B. cent to anyone; rather, he chose me, one who looks upon him as a friend and mentor. 

It was not the dollars possible in transactions that brought Syd and me together decades ago. It was the passion and devotion to our hobby, and our hobby nurtured our friendship.

A towering proponent of organized numismatics, Robert F. Fritsch, and I periodically talk on that modern device, the cell phone, and we repeatedly share that our hobby is a community, a band and bunch of friends who enjoy not just those round metallic objects but the people. People collect coins; coins do not collect people.

Four, this 1909-S Lincoln, V.D.B. cent does confirm investment potential. Enough articles, websites, and discussions have already verified that fact. But, did Syd sell it for the investment return or did he, as a 10th grader, buy for investment? No.

Finally, the enduring lesson from this insignificant transaction in Stockton, Calif., on a cold, damp, wintery Friday evening is that coins have a power: a power to teach, to bring people together, to create and to hold friendships, to spark the imagination, and to make happiness. Certainly, in that last respect, Syd was glad when he deposited my remittance! 

Decades ago, a speaker spoke before the august American Numismatic Society, on the occasion of its centennial. His comments concluded that there is power in coins, traversing millenniums, generations, and the sum of history and the march of time. This 1909-S Lincoln, V.D.B. cent still has that power.

Yes, it was just another 1909-S Lincoln, V.D.B. cent, not in high grade, and protected in a cheap cardboard holder; yet, it has this story and these lessons. 

It changed hands, and the new custodian is now charged to preserve and to secure it until that time when it is passed, as it shall be, into the hands of another enthralled and excited numismatist. Such is the marvel and grandeur that is numismatics.

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