How Searching for One Particular Penny Started a Life-Long Coin Collection

Now that we have taken the curtain down on another year and started a new one, for numismatists such as myself, it is a time to reflect and really enjoy the hobby of coin collecting. As Old Man Winter settles in and the days have gotten shorter, it’s a great time to catalog and research coins in your own collection or make note of coins you wish were in your own collection!

For me, there is nothing that is as enjoyable as pulling out a reference guide while sitting comfortably in the corner of the sofa, with an auction catalog or a few coins in hand sitting down with a cup of tea. How great is that? It is even more enjoyable to take on this task in the midst of a winter storm, something which we are all too familiar with in New England. It is fun to lock out Old Man Winter while in the comfort and safety of my living room, gazing out the window as the scene turns to a whirling and swirling icy mantle of white. As the holidays rushed past us, I wax nostalgic back to the halcyon days of my youth.

In 1966, my mom told me and my brothers that she had heard about a particular Lincoln penny from 1955, a coin she was intent on locating and was certain that she had received at least one of them as a tip while working as a waitress. Searching for this coin started me collecting coins and I haven’t stopped since.

It was back in the summer of 1966 when I was 9 years old. My mother summoned me and my older twin brothers out from our rooms interrupting an otherwise carefree summer vacation day of doing, well, nothing. My mom, who had been a waitress years before, had saved all of her tips and placed the coins in a large glass Lincoln figural decanter. She then told us that she had heard about a particular Lincoln penny from 1955, a coin she was intent on locating and was certain that she had received one of these coins in change as a tip from Jarvis’s Diner, placing it along with all the other copper coins in that great glass container.

I remember the thing was huge; it came up to my waist. There must’ve been thousands of coins in that thing. Mom, the eternal optimist, instructed us to look for a 1955 penny that had a “blurry date.”

Mom then twisted off the lid of the jar—which resembled a smaller version of President Lincoln’s “stovepipe” hat—and begin to pour all the pennies out on our slightly spiraling staircase which overlooked our living room. My brothers Frankie and Johnny (yeah, that’s right), Mom and I then began to search through piles of coppers. I quickly found a 1955 and asked mom if that was the coin. She took a glance and said no. My brothers weren’t having much success either and after about three hours in a hot, humid house in mid-July, every coin I picked up looked blurry. We all persevered; we all spotted 1955-dated coins but not the correct and coveted, one according to Mom.

I was now getting tired and I was about halfway up the staircase. Then, while no one was looking, I was hoping to climb a few steps further away and ultimately make my escape to my room. However, before I could make my great escape, my mom glanced up and said “how’s it going up there, Jimmy?” I then shuffled down a few steps and became reacquainted with that considerable pile of change in front of me.

During my search I had located many coins that were dated in the 1920s and ’30s, and even a couple of worn-down Indian head pennies, all of which I thought were neat and set them aside in another pile. At this point, I began making a game of it; I figured I might as well enjoy it. I excavated another 1955 coin from the horde of never-ending copper and I gave it to my mom. After examining, it she said “that’s it, you found it! “

Well, I was glad that I found it and that this odd exercise had come to an end. My brothers and I then went outside to play for a while. Then, as usual, my dad came home from work around 5 o’clock. I remember my mom darted out of the house before my dad could even get out of his car. After a brief exchange, my dad said “come on kids, come on and get in the in the car.”

With that, my brothers and I promptly piled in to the back seat of the blue-and-white ’57 Mercury. We were a bit excited, hoping that we would be heading off to get an ice cream or some other type or treat on that warm summer night. However, after about 15-minute drive, Dad parked in front of an old gray building down by the waterfront in Portsmouth, N.H. My brothers and I looked at each other, miffed as to why we were here. This certainly wasn’t where we wanted to be. Mom and Dad then got out of the car and gestured to us youngins to come on out. We dutifully followed them across the street and entered a shop. I remember as Dad opened the door a little bell signaled our arrival. Then, as we ventured in, we were greeted by a musty smell, similar to an aroma one would encounter in an old basement. My brother John eloquently summed it up when he said “this place really stinks!”

Inside, there were a lot of books, tools, colorful glassware and long glass showcase displaying assorted figurines, jewelry, watches and some coins. I had never been in a place like this before. I was actually quite excited. I was leafing through a couple of old magazines and my brothers were looking at some old tools and hats. Mom and Dad had made their way in front of the showcase.

Then, as is if he were a magician, a bald, bespectacled older gent appeared from behind a curtain. A few words were exchanged and then the man reached behind him, pulling a small red book from the top of a rather rickety bookshelf. My mom then handed something to the old gent. He then examined it using a rather large magnifying glass. The old shopkeeper then referred to this red book leafed through a few pages and said “I’ll give you $50 for it.”

I was about 30 feet away and I started to slowly gravitate towards what was going on. I glanced over my shoulder at my brothers, who were still scoping out some other artifacts, oblivious to the conversation going on in front of the showcase.

I heard Mom respond “I don’t know” to the shopkeeper’s offer. I remember Dad getting rather flushed in the face and saying, “come on, Stella, for God sakes. It’s only a penny!” I quickly put two and two together and realized that they were talking about the 1955 coin we were searching for earlier. My mom obviously wasn’t convinced by the offer for the coin and began to scratch the top of her head. I then fondly recollect both the shopkeeper and my dad, in unison, shouting back, “you’ll never get me more for it.”

I then observed Dad’s face and the top of his bald dome develop an even deeper shade of rosy red. I had seen this look on Dad before and it usually meant my brothers or I were in extreme to life-threatening trouble. Dad did somehow manage to contain himself but was obviously trying to convince Mom, through gestures and grunts, to sell this penny. By now I had made my way over to where the action was. I was situated at the opposite end of the showcase as Mom looked up and said “I don’t know” again to the shopkeeper. Mom then turned and saw that I was at the edge of the showcase and said “I think I’ll save it for Jimmy!”

Well, she did and I still have that coin today, as you may have already guessed, that penny was the famed 1955 Double Die! Nearly uncirculated, that coin was the cornerstone of my Lincoln Cent collection. As it turned out, that coin is worth considerably more than the $50 which was offered back in 1966. I still enjoy holding that coin and reflecting on that exciting search back in my youth.

A few years later my brother John was working as a bellhop at the old Rockingham Hotel in Portsmouth and in the course of a day, in addition to local patrons, there’d be many world travelers that would come in for a stay. Supplementing his regular “domestic” tips, my brother would accumulate some foreign coins from their journeys and would give them to me at the end of his work day. There were coins from Europe, Asia and South America everywhere, it seemed. I can remember the excitement when I first picked up a Mexican peso. We were just studying about Mexico in school and all the excitement of the Aztecs, Cortez and Juarez came to life here as a coin that had been circulating there was now in my hands. I had already started my Lincoln Cent collection and now I had a whole new appreciation for the wide world of numismatics.

Once my parents knew that I had the coin bug, they began picking up a few needed coins for me out of circulation. I can remember the excitement of going into the local Newberry’s Department store, as they had a little coin section which was predominantly stocked with foreign coins. The sets were alphabetically arranged inside a glass case which had a rotating display. Each set of the actual circulating coins of that country were in a cardboard holder enclosed in a plastic sleeve. I remember buying the sets from Austria and Belgium first.

Well, that was my indoctrination into the hobby of numismatics and, while there may not be any Santa Claus in our hobby, the old gent certainly helped to satisfy my numismatic hunger by giving me a Red Book “A Guide Book of U.S. Coins” for Christmas when I was 11. I remember leafing through that book, devouring the contents during Christmas vacation. There were so many exciting-looking coins, yet I fell in love with the five dollar Indian head gold piece. Even at that early age, I truly appreciated the significance, craftsmanship and execution of this coin.

The Bela Lyon Pratt design was truly American. A proud Indian chief on the obverse and on the reverse the symbol that is synonymous with the United States, the bald eagle. I really wanted to own one of these gold coins. Actually, it was on Christmas Day that I formulated a plan to get one. I decided after that winter vacation I would begin saving a portion of my lunch money each week in hopes that I could fund a purchase of one of these coins in the spring. I figured that if I’d saved a $1.50 or more each week, by early May I would’ve saved around $35, which should have covered the cost of one of these coins. This was a secret operation all the way, I told no one of my plans—not schoolmates, brothers or especially my mom, who would think that I was going to starve or suffer the consequences of malnutrition.

When I first saw the 1911 five dollar Indian head gold coin it was glorious; its shimmering gold a buttery shade of yellow. It was the Indian head I had dreamt about!

The reveres featured the symbol of America, the bald eagle.

As 1969 rolled in, I religiously squirreled away between a $1.50 and $2 each week from my lunch money. I remember the winter seemed to last forever, as is often the case in New England. Eventually, however, it was time for Major League baseball spring training and I remember listening to the Red Sox games from Winter Haven, Fla., and was excited to think that not only was baseball season just a little more than a month away, but my coffer for that Indian half Eagle contained $25!

I remember after school I would pick up the Red Book and scout out other series to become acquainted with. But each time my eyes seem to gravitate back to that great five dollar Indian head. I was getting excited and I could sense that soon I could actually be in a position to buy one of these great coins. Minted from 1908 to 1929, there were a pair of standout rarities; the 1909-O and the 1929. Some of the other mint-marked coins were also listed at a bit higher levels in the guidebook, but most of the other “common coins” were within the same price range in mint state back in 1969.

Finally, the time had come. It was nearing the end of April and on the last Friday afternoon of the month, when I got home from school, I picked up the phone directory and decided to check around and make inquiries as to where to find these coins. I quickly remembered the name of the antique shop that my mom and dad had gone to a couple of years before with that 1955 penny. I figured I’d call the old guy down by the waterfront and see if he had any gold coins.

I looked up the telephone number and dialed the shop. The old gent answered the phone and I asked him if he had any five dollar gold pieces for sale, preferably a five dollar Indian head. The old fellow said he’d check and I heard the phone clunk down, most probably on that long glass showcase. About a minute later I could hear the shopkeeper shuffling back and was told that yes, he did have a couple of gold Indian head coins five-dollar and 10-dollar pieces. I was ready to do a backflip.

I asked the shop owner how late he would be open that afternoon and was told he’d be there until eight. I said I’d be there. With that, I ran up the stairs and pulled out my secret stash in my bedroom and counted them out again. There they were 37 one-dollar bills. It was quite a roll. I folded the bills and put the cash in my pants pocket, going over my plan in my head. It should work, as Friday night was my parents’ bowling night. They were part of the couple’s league at the local Bowl-O-Rama, which started around 7 o’clock, and both of my older twin brothers were going out with friends after supper.

I couldn’t wait to hear the “come and get your supper, kids” call. When Mom finally bellowed out the dinner call I flew to the table and quickly ate what was in front of me. After my brothers finished up they both left to hang out with their friends. That left Mom and Dad. It was around 6 p.m. and Mom was ready to, waiting for Dad to shave. I remember her saying to me “be good and we’ll see you around 9 to 9:30.” With that, they left by the side door near the kitchen.

As they were getting in the car, I was waving goodbye from the dining room window, which was always my ritual. Then, as the car was backing out of the narrow driveway, I ran to the front of the house peering out the living room window just in time to see the red tail lights trailing off down the street. That’s when I sprang into action. I ran outside, picked up my bike and began to peddle as fast as I could towards the waterfront location of that antique shop for my meeting with destiny. I recall covering the four-plus miles to that shop in something of a record time. It was all really a blur as to how I got there, I was so excited.

I was clammy with a bit of perspiration from my Olympic-type effort and brought the bike into that little doorway of the shop. That familiar bell signaled my arrival and somehow that old musty smell seemed to be a sweeter bouquet this time. I made my way over to the glass showcase and the old gent was busy with a box of books in front of him. I coughed a little so he would know that I was there. He then looked up and peered over his glasses.

“Hello there, little fella,” he said. I told him that I was the one who called earlier about the five dollar Indian head gold coin. The shopkeeper scratched the top of his head and looked at me and said “yes, let me get those for you to look at.” He then went behind the showcase and pulled out a brown vinyl wallet and brought it out front for me to look through.

I remember leafing through this booklet at them; $5, $10 and even $20 gold coins. Then my eyes happened upon the five dollar Indian head. I was in love! The shopkeeper handed me his magnifying glass. I looked again at the $5 Indian coin. It was glorious; shimmering gold a buttery shade of yellow. There was the Indian head I had dreamt about!

The coin was dated 1911. Wow, what a great year. My mind raced, this coin was minted the year before the Titanic disaster and the same year of the groundbreaking for Fenway Park! My heart was racing, I was so excited. Then, as I put down the magnifying glass, I again looked at the white cardboard two-inch-by-two-inch holder and saw the price marked $50.

Right then my euphoria ceased. I couldn’t buy this coin. I only had $37. It would take me another month and a half at best before I could come up with the difference. Perhaps the shopkeeper could sense my shock or maybe my white face gave me away, because right then he said “pay no attention to that price. You can have it for $30.” With that, my senses came back and blood seemed to circulate more freely throughout my body. I pulled out my cash and gleefully paid out the $30 to the shopkeeper. He then pulled the coin from the little vinyl wallet and put the coin in my hands and said “it’s a real good one.” I thanked him and, when outside, I hopped on my bike and pedaled quickly and triumphantly home.

It was about 8 o’clock when I got home. I quickly went upstairs to my room and sat on my bed and looked at that beautiful gold coin. The Indian head five dollar gold piece was mine! I think over the next few months I became acquainted with every subtle nuance of that coin. A few months later I purchased a small red velveteen-lined silver trinket box which housed my five dollar gold piece.

Through the years that coin has given me much pleasure. It’s not necessarily a rare coin, but it’s truly a sentimental and tangible link to that time in my youth.

For all the collectors and hobbyists out there, now that you have enjoyed the holiday season, why not revisit that collection of yours? For those of you who don’t have a collection, why not start one?

Until next time, happy New Year and happy collecting!

Jim Bisognani has written extensively on U.S. coin market trends and values and was the market analyst and writer for a major pricing guide for many years. He currently resides in New England and frequently attends major coin shows and auctions.

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