Scarcely a day goes by when I am not asked about my own foray into the coin business – was I always interested in coins, and what lead me to choose coin-dealing as a career? I am always happy to briefly share my story with those that are interested, but must confess it never really occurred to me to put pen to paper on the subject – at least not until I was able to enjoy my “freedom 85” retirement projects. Recently, however, I was inspired by my good southern colleague Warren Mills, of Rare Coins of New Hampshire, who has recently shared his own story with followers of their newsletter. In reading of his experiences, I suddenly realized “hey” – some of our experiences are quite similar, while others have been markedly different. The common thread we do share is that we have both chosen to pursue very specialized and arguably unusual careers in our love of coins, and after 27 years in the field, I realize that perhaps it is indeed time to reflect on my own numismatic life’s journey.
The “formative” years
Yes, I have always been interested in coins, at least from the age of 5 or so, which is about the earliest memories I have. My parents had done some traveling, and my collection was started with a small handful of coins that introduced me – at a basic visual level – to the wonders and diversity of the larger world. On my sixth birthday, my mother and I left Toronto for Cobourg, Ontario, where my collecting passion really developed. There were no coin shops, of course, but young and enthusiastic collectors tend to attract the support and kindness of friends and family around them, especially in a small-town setting. A wonderful elderly lady that used to mind me – essentially, my surrogate grandmother – managed the part-time Cobourg office for the Peterborough Examiner newspaper, affording me the occasional privilege of sorting through the mounds of collection box coinage, looking for something special. Like every other collector, I began to work on date-sets of Nickels and Pennies, but also had a growing special fondness for the coinage of other countries and of other generations.
Perhaps my kindest benefactor at the time was a delightful former London vaudeville dancer named Bill; then in his eighties, no visit to his home would end without the requisite show-tune performance, as he danced around his living-room with the energy and vitality of someone half his age (accompanied by ditty lyrics I would only later come to recognize as being semi-risqué). Bill had sent an early 1833 Five Pound promissory note to Spink of London for an evaluation, and when they returned it with their always-formal letter explaining it had limited value due to condition, he very kindly gave the note to me. I still own and treasure the piece, together with an 1867 Silver Franc – from Bill’s youth in the family pub – which was my first introduction to the stately bearded portrait of Napoleon III.
Thus, my collection continued to slowly grow and diversify, and with it my interest in history and geography rather than the simple aesthetics of shape and design (ironically, the latter subject of geography would prove to be among my worst as I later progressed through elementary and high school, although I attribute this to the great emphasis then placed on geology and topography, rather than people and places!). Raised as a single child (my two sisters were considerably older and off on their own), I was somewhat introverted and quite dedicated to my hobbies.
After a few formative years in Cobourg, we embarked on several further moves, eventually taking us back to the edge of Toronto’s orbit. My mother had become a professional Irish folk musician, and tours with her on the road (or alternatively, waiting for her to return from gigs) instilled in me both patience and the ability to entertain myself. Coins were the perfect companion.
Somewhere in this period I had graduated from the age-old storage system of envelopes and tobacco tins, and been introduced to the “2×2” packaging system. Thus, my collection became organized, and I remember many a trip with my entire treasured collection housed in a couple plain black binders, zipped safely within a white vinyl travel bag hung over my shoulder. I looked over my coins whenever I could, began to equip myself with some rudimentary grading skills by simply looking at and comparing as many examples as possible, and began to contemplate my two ideal future occupational choices – forest ranger or detective. Yes, coins were a smoldering passion, but I had no concept that their study or trade could actually constitute a career choice.
My first hands-on exposure to a true numismatic “collection” came at the rural Cobourg home of my mother’s beau at the time. An engineer by trade, he had inherited a world collection from his father in 20 or so binders. To a 12-year-old collector, being invited to review it was like being handed the keys to the Smithsonian. Old and new, Silver and Gold, circulated and mint. Many days were spent going through the beautifully-organized pages, comparing and contrasting grades, etc. Perhaps the most spectacular item of all was my first encounter with the fabulous 1971 Gold & Silver Proof Set of Iran, struck to commemorate the 2500th anniversary of the Persian Empire. I simply did not have the market knowledge to provide an accurate evaluation on the collection for the owner (who, sadly, did not share his father’s interest in coins), however it was certainly in the many thousands of dollars. I do not know what ever became of the collection as a whole, though in a remarkable twist of fate, that very same Iranian Proof set would come into my Kanata home office 20 years later, with the former owner’s daughter and I not even recognizing each other until the set’s origins came up in parting comments.
Thus was the nature of my collecting path in those pre-teen years: independent, frugal, and worldly in scope. Not till early 1980, and a watershed decision on my mother’s part, did a first glint of my numismatic destiny appear on the horizon.
Next Month: My move to Ottawa, and the discovery of a Numismatic Fraternity.