My Father's Obsession
My father introduced the hobby of coin collecting to me many years ago. I think in one form or another, it interested him and so he wanted to get his kids started in it. He came home one day with seemingly random gifts for each of us four siblings: a cardboard folder for collecting pennies. He even emptied his pockets to get us started. It became something of a fascination for me but not really an obsession.
Things That Are Unique and Rare
Years later, I discovered that my dad had invested in many "mint collections" of coins that came to us when he died. The problem with those mint collections was that they were mass-produced and therefore had little appreciated value. Even now, 40 years after their minting, they are barely worth more than the coin’s face value. The most valuable coins are those with errors or small minted numbers that make them rarer. Isn’t that the way with everything? Things that are unique and rare have the most value. It should be a lesson in life to all of us because everything about you from your hair to your fingerprints is unique and rare; one of a kind. You are of more value that you could possibly know because of your rarity.
My Father's Friend
My father had a friend who got him interested in coins. This friend saved quarters that were minted before 1964. You see from 1932 to 1964, Washington quarters were minted with 90% silver and 10% copper. However, in 1964 the cost of silver rose so much that a silver quarter cost more than a quarter to mint. So instead, starting in 1965, the government created a “copper sandwich” quarter with 60% nickel and 40% copper. A few silver quarters were created for the 1976 celebration of the Bicentennial, but for the most part silver quarters became a thing of the past. So pre-1964 silver quarters in your collection had value beyond their face value. My dad’s friend boasted that he had quarters that were worth $20 and more each (and that was in 1972… who knows what they are worth now). This made my dad’s eyes sparkle and he was hooked.
The Difference Between a Numismatist and a Coin Collector
So after my father started my penny collection, I began looking at money more closely. You see there is a difference between coin collecting and numismatics. A numismatist studies coins and currency but doesn’t necessarily collect coins. On the other hand, a coin collector doesn’t usually care much about the study of currency but more the VALUE of currency. For centuries people hoarded coins for their bullion value. Coin collectors want to know how much the coin they have is worth on the open market and not how beautiful and rare it is. With this in mind, by sheer definition, I became a numismatist and not really a coin collector. I collect coins and currency for the relative beauty of studying faces and designs. I really don’t care if they are well worn or mint condition, rare or not.
Obverse and Reverse
The face of a coin is called the “obverse,” even though we like to call it “heads,” and the other side is the “reverse,” not "tails." After all when was the last time you saw a tail on the tail side of a coin? Probably never. Even though the head side often has a head but sometimes has other pictures like leaves and flowers or animals.
Currency and Coin
While traveling in Europe, my husband could not understand why I would rather keep a sample of the currency from each country rather than wanting to BUY some random tourist trinket. Even after all these years, I would rather pull out the money I keep in binders and look at the fun coin and currency faces than the photos we took. There is art there in each coin, in each bill, front and back. Some artist somewhere designed each piece of currency for each country to produce for the economy of the whole population. Usually, these artists were unsung unacknowledged talent quietly doing their assigned tasks. It makes me admire their handiwork even more.
The Artist's Signature
Today in America most coin and currency has an artist’s mark. From what I understand in most other countries the artist went unacknowledged but in the US nor so. If you take any coin minted recently especially and look closely at the bottom corner of the face you will see three initials. They are very small and usually, you need a magnifying glass to see them. I pulled a quarter out of my pocket, for example, and found the initials at the very base of the relief of George Washington. On a Lincoln penny, you can find the initials VDB at the base of the relief of Lincoln, which stands for the designer Victor David Brenner and has been in use since 1909. Some 100-year-old Indian Head pennies have the initials small but raised above the date on the coin. I find this kind of acknowledgment of the American designers exemplary. I’ll bet you didn’t know about that.
Coins on Strings
In some cultures, coins have holes in them so that the owners can string and wear their family fortune for special events or weddings. So a bridegroom literally married his wife and her dowry all in one swoop. Isn’t that fascinating?
In my collection, I have coins from many countries from Korea to China to France and Australia. I think some of the most beautiful and colorful bills in my collection come from France and Australia. The watermarks are especially fascinating. There is much I don’t know about the coins in my collection but that’s okay. I feel like I discover new things every time I take them out and look them over. One very small coin from Norway was given to me when I got married. The elderly man told me it was good luck to have this tiny, fraction-of-a-penny-valued coin in my shoe when I took my vows. I don’t know if he was right or not but I’ve been married now for 35 years. Perhaps there’s something to that.
An Art Lesson for Kids
Because I’m an artist and an art teacher, I wanted to find a way to add my love of coins and currency to my list of classes I created for and presented to kids. I loved passing around my coin samples for the children to see different currency from different countries. I found in most cases the coin designers would create the coin relief on a large scale, which would later be reduced for the minting process. So I cut a large 4- to 5- inch circle out of paper and passed it out to the children to design their own coin.
- Paper and pencil for design
- Aluminum tooling foil
- Bamboo skewers
- Wooden cuticle sticks
- Wooden Popsicle sticks
- Old magazines for cushioning
Design Coins for a New Country
I told them to imagine they were designers for a new country. The coin needed to have a slogan or country title on the face. It should have the date somewhere, usually in a lower quadrant. It should have some sort of relief: that could be a flower, a bird or animal, a famous face or anything you want your country to stand for. You have to explain that the coin needs a rim. When I failed to explain that rim, the children created their design right up to the edge. Lastly, they should include their initials somewhere near the bottom of the design.
Tooling Foil in Aluminum, Copper or Brass
After designing the coins on paper with pencil, we used artist’s tooling aluminum foil (comes in 36 to 38 gauge). It comes in rolls in art stores and art specialty stores online. The last time I checked you can get tooling foil for about $14. It is much thicker than kitchen-use aluminum foil and certainly costs a bit more. This artist’s tooling foil also comes in copper (38 gauge) and brass (36 gauge) but those metals are almost double the cost of the aluminum.
Trace the Design
Once you have the foil, you can cut it with scissors, so cut circles to match the size of the circle used to create the design. Tape the design over the foil and place those on something cushioned like a magazine or a stack of paper. With a pencil, then trace over the design, pressing hard enough to leave a dent in the foil underneath.
Once the tracing is done remove the paper design and use a bamboo skewer or wooden cuticle stick to go over the design again to press it into the foil better.
Turn Over and Rub on the Other Side
To make the relief so that it stands out from the surface to turn the foil design over and use a wooden popsicle stick or the wooden cuticle stick to press between the lines. The pliable foil will stretch and pillow and create a great relief image.
Fun for Kids! Enjoy
Children from grades 2 through 7 created these samples. Most of the children had a great deal of fun creating these coins and a new interest in how coins were minted. I hope you do too.