Friends and colleagues turn to home hobbyists to assess the value
of family coins. This is one of my favorite pastimes. I recount the
history and artistry of each item, usually stored in old cigar boxes
or tin containers.
Mostly these “appraisals” are of common coins that might have been
saved for their silver, such as a wartime Jefferson 5-cent coin, or
used as a pocket piece because of the coin’s portrait, as is the
Kennedy half dollar.
Often I find base-metal coins to mark a family trip. Those have
sentimental rather than numismatic value.
Recently I heard the story behind a coin that fascinated me.
Michael Dahlstrom, an Iowa State University colleague, brought his
family collection to my home for an appraisal. Apart from a few
well-worn pieces of paper money, he had the typical collection of
base-metal and silver coins.
One coin intrigued me. It was so worn that its devices were almost
At first I thought the portrait on the obverse was of George
Washington. Then I realized it was King George the III, who waged war
against Washington. I could barely decipher the date, 1799.
The coin had a shipwreck effect to it and also green residue from
a soft plastic flip. The reverse had a countermark.
Dahlstrom said the coin marked a 1989 trip to Venice, Fla.
“I was 10 years old, and it was to be my first trip to the ocean.
I remember being told that the ocean was so big that you couldn’t see
across it, but I’ve always been proud of my sharp eyesight and I
thought I might just be able to do it.”
Turns out he couldn’t. But the young Dahlstrom had fun anyway,
spending days on the beach digging up shells.
“I was amazed that I could hear the waves of the ocean when I put
the big shells up to my ears. I picked up a whelk (snail shell) and
heard it rattle. I shook it and out slopped that black coin amongst
slurries of sand.”
He said his family considered it “the best souvenir of our trip.”
With photos downloaded from the Internet, we were able to identify
the coin as an English farthing (one fourth of a penny).
Afterward, Dahlstrom and I spent an hour trying to imagine the
origins of the coin.
Did it belong to a British sailor who fought the United States in
the War of 1812?
Was his man-of-war shipwrecked on the Sarasota shoals, his coin
spiraling to the bottom of the deep only to land by its rim in the
abandoned shell of a mollusk?
Our hobby always manages to enchant me! Do you have similar
stories to share?
Michael Bugeja, a coin collector since childhood, is a professor
at Iowa State University and also a member of the Citizens Coinage
Advisory Committee. He is a nationally known author, journalist and educator.