Our next Weird & Wonderful Auction – Canada 150 Listings!

We are delighted to launch the next instalment of our popular “Weird & Wonderful” eBay Sales, with more than 80 diverse tokens, medals and coins going live in the early hours of Canada Day.

Highlights include a very rare Lauzon Ferry Token of 1821, several Hudson Bay Company brass Trade Tokens, as well as a diverse selection of material pertaining to the Northern Ontario mining industry.

Don’t miss out on this latest batch of excellent material!

Join in on the fun at our eBay auction page Alliance Coin.

Sean Isaacs

The Return of our “Weird & Wonderful” Sale!

We are delighted to announce the launch of a new round of our “Weird & Wonderful” offerings of medals, tokens and assorted collectibles, starting at midnight this Friday May 26th on Ebay.

Follow our Ebay sale for a diverse selection of material from two important collections of Canadian transportation tokens and Diplomatic Medals, highlighted by a pair of rare early Quebec bridge tokens – the first examples we’ve handled in almost two decades.

Future impending lots will feature the remarkable diversity you have come to expect from Alliance Coin & Banknote, including a delightful early copy of “Anne of Green Gables”, autographed by Lucy Maud Montgomery herself!

Join in on the fun at our eBay auction page: Alliance Coin.

The Road Less Travelled – My own meandering path from collector to Numismatist: Part 3

Coins from the “other side” of the counter

In my first two columns, I wrote of my early emergence from the solitude of coin collecting with the discovery of a larger numismatic “fraternity” in Ottawa, after moving to the city at the age of 13.  In recalling my encounter with a tyrant or two, I realize I neglected to give a nod to some esteemed members of the local collecting community who supported and enhanced my activities. Most I met through the [then] City of Ottawa Coin Club, and included the familiar names of Graham Neale and Allan Davies – both of whom were seasoned vest-pocket dealers. I appreciated their guidance, and some of my very first early English coins I acquired from Al in those days.  Both gentlemen I consider friends and colleagues to this day.  A third name to add here – and one that would have a profound influence on my transformation from collector to dealer – would be Paul Nadin-Davis.

I had already met Paul a few times.  An English-born former lawyer, he had embraced the field of numismatics after traveling across Europe in the 1980s, spinning small coin deals into ever-larger coin deals. He first hung out a shingle about 1985 or so, in an upper floor of a Metcalfe Street office building in downtown Ottawa.  Essentially an office to accommodate his mail-order business, it also offered a walk-in opportunity for local collectors.  I made occasional trips down by bus and purchased a couple of very nice (once again) early British pieces, in the process being introduced to the fairy uncommon concept of trust between customer and dealer. For example, I purchased a lovely 18th century Half Crown on lay-away, and was invited to take the coin with me while I continued to make payments. I also attended one or two of Paul’s local public coin auctions, and seldom left empty-handed.

Thus, I was only somewhat surprised when I attended the grand re-opening sale of a new west-end shop called Lincoln Heights Coin & Stamp, and found Paul standing behind the counter.  This was the early fall of 1988, and Paul had seized the opportunity to have a full retail presence in the city by purchasing the existing business from Peter Degraaf, a long-time coin dealer who once had four outlets in Ottawa (including the venerable Sears Coin & Stamp locations).  It was a fateful day for both of us. I think we chatted about the new business for a few minutes, I looked through some of his inventory, and then he simply asked me if I wanted a job.

I remember being somewhat stunned; having years earlier given up pestering the Ottawa dealers for a job, it hadn’t even occurred to me that such an opportunity would actually present itself. I said yes, of course, and spent the next day or two trying to figure out how to combine some new coin-shop hours with my existing Eaton’s schedule.  That is, of course, until I suddenly slapped myself in the head and realized this was the open-door I had so long been waiting for – there would be no ‘accommodating’ my job in the coin shop, it was now hopefully my future.  I gave my notice at the Bayshore Eaton’s, and showed up the Lincoln Heights shopping center for my first day of work in the coin business.

Stepping behind the counter was an exciting moment, but also brought with it the sobering realities of being part of a retail business.  For all my enthusiasm and self-taught knowledge of the hobby itself, I had virtually nil business experience in terms of appreciating fairly basic concepts such as cash-flow, overhead, and the time-value of money, etc.  Indeed, it would take some frustrating time to fully appreciate how taking a collection purchased at twenty-five dollars, investing two or three hours of time into it, and then selling it at fifty dollars would still result in a money-losing devotion of resources.  In this respect, the ‘business’ part of the ‘coin business’ was my Achilles heal, however fortunately the expectations of Paul and his staff were in keeping with reality when it came to my abilities on this front.

When I speak of ‘staff’, I refer to the ladies that Paul ‘inherited’ as part of his take-over deal with Degraaf.  And, ironically, as I foreshadowed in my earlier writings, Lorna and Marina were already seasoned sales veterans of the coin and stamp business, having worked with Peter at his Sears Carlingwood location (yes, the same coin shop and pair of ladies I had pestered every Saturday for most of the 1980s).  As a result, there was some awkwardness in the early days of my new job, as I learned to temper my precociousness and become part of a team at Lincoln Heights. Eventually we all grew to respect each other’s strengths, and Lois Hedley soon joined the team as the defacto admin and shipping backbone of the company.  We were quickly a happening company, with both a national and international presence.  Paul mentored his prolific production of price-lists, we provided numismatic components to some of the largest direct-marketing companies in both Canada and Europe, and I was soon introduced to the pivotal trade-show circuit.

Much could be written about Paul himself, but suffice it to say he was an imposing and almost exhausting personality.  Quite brilliant, and always ahead of the curve, his personal DNA was also seemingly hard-wired with an inextricable layer of deep narcissism.  I suppose I should have clued into this during one of our very first discussions on the future, in which he expressed encouragement for the development of my own world view and business philosophy, “as long as it was the same as his”.  It goes without saying, however, that in terms of a high-adrenaline introduction to the coin business and all the exciting facets it comprised, there would have been few individuals indeed who could have offered a comparable apprenticeship experience to that of Paul Nadin-Davis.

I spent the next three year or so working out of the Lincoln Heights location, as the scope and level of business activity grew steadily in terms of both volume and diversity.  Just over a year after first starting my new numismatic career, Paul invited me to join him for a trip to the New York International Coin Show – my first major show outside the country.  It was December 6th, 1989,  a date I sadly remember so clearly only in that we were driving through the mountains of New York State when news broke of the Montreal Ecole Polytechnique tragedy.

The New York show was both a collector’s and dealer’s dream, right in the heady days of the late 1980s coin market. Dealers from all over the world descended on the show with their retail and wholesale goods for barter. In those days, you could actually buy ancient coins by the bagful, and I clearly remember being entertained while watching as Paul entered into loud and aggressive haggling with the Germans over a thousand-piece sack of Roman Silver Denari. Remarkably, they were only 50 Pfennig apart on each coin (then equivalent to about .30 Cents!), yet neither side seemed keen on backing down.  I don’t recall which side ultimately caved in, though we returned home with a thousand pieces of ancient Roman Silver in our trunk.

As exciting and stimulating was the show, equally exhilarating to me was the Big Apple itself.  It was my first visit, and the frenetic pace of the sights and sounds made even Toronto look subdued.  I was also introduced to the venerable Carnegie Deli, home to absurdly large meat sandwiches and the world-renowned rudeness of their staff.  In fact, looking back on those many years, perhaps my fondest memory of Paul being properly put in his place occurred at the Carnegie. After our excessive feed at their plain wooden tables, Paul lined up at a counter to pay the bill.  Some minutes later, he got to the till and was told that he had to go to another counter to pay. He lined up again, got to the counter, and then was told to return to the original counter since he wanted to pay by charge. Paul lost his weaselly cool, and huffed that he was never coming back to the place.  Leaning over the top of the high counter, the male cashier stretched out his arm, gesturing to the long line of patrons waiting at the front door for seats, and responded in classic Bronx arrogance, “Do we care?

The resulting look on Paul’s face delights my memory to this very day.

Sean Isaacs

Next Month:  Intercepting Canada’s largest philatelic heist, and playing Good-Cop/Bad-Cop in Old Havana

Watch for the next instalment in July. Until then, a couple of photographic teasers:

eBay Weird & Wonderful sale opens April 4th

We’ve got 100 special lots ready for our latest Weird & Wonderful sale.

Lasting just one week, the sale opens on Monday, 4 April and will include some truly fantastic finds that we’ve been squirreling away.

Join in on the fun at our Ebay auction page Alliance Coin.

Sean Isaacs

The Road Less Travelled – My own meandering path from collector to Numismatist: Part 2

The move to Ottawa, and discovery of a Numismatic Fraternity

In my previous column, I detailed my childhood induction into the hobby of coin collecting as a solitary pursuit, driven both by my keen interest as well as need for grounding throughout a series of moves from one Ontario community to another. Our eventual move to Ottawa would evolve and forever change my cosmology (or “world view”) on the hobby, with the realization that there was actually an accessible fraternity that even a young collector could be a part of.

I cannot say that I came kicking and screaming to Ottawa, but I certainly wasn’t enthusiastic. The move made sense, though, as my mother’s musical agent – Elaine McKay – was not only based in the city, but also owned “Elaines” on Bank Street, one of the last of the great Irish taverns. The long-gone Churchill Arms at Carling & Churchill – with its renowned 3-storey-high outline of the British P.M. – was also a regular source of gigs for mom’s Irish-Folk talents, and thus we made Westboro our new home. Looking back, it was a great neighborhood in which to grow up, and my few life-long friends I very soon encountered in those early days.

My very first encounter with a “Coin Dealer”, however, occurred before we had even chosen an apartment to move into. I believe it was our first or second day of home-hunting when I persuaded my mother to take me to the “Coin Center of Canada” on Bank Street, across from Billings Bridge Plaza. I’m not sure what drew me there (perhaps the impressive name?) rather than to the other choices available at the time, but it was my very first encounter with one Mr. Thomas Swadron.

Imposing and intense are my memories of the visit, amid a virtual dreamscape of shelves and cabinets brimming with coins and banknotes. While initially welcoming, his interest and attention to my mother and myself very quickly changed to disinterest, once we declined an offer to rent an apartment he had somewhere in Lower Town and my limited teenager’s budget for coins became apparent. Only later in my life and career did I learn the full extent of Swadron’s “legacy” in the hobby, revealed through archived sordid news snippets of stints in the courts and behind bars for larceny, possession, molestation of his own staff, etc. While I firmly believe in speaking no ill of the departed, this individual’s profound damage to the integrity of numismatics continues to resonate in some quarters to this very day. Certainly it would cloud my own success when, over a decade later, I would open Billings Coin & Currency directly across the street from his old store.

Fortunately, on settling in Westboro, I was then at an age where it was possible and safe to make my own way around the west end, either by bus or bicycle. This limited independence, together with the relative safety of the City, quickly led me to further numismatic encounters of a much more positive nature. Somehow I heard of a hobby display event taking place at Lincoln Fields Shopping Center, and with my mother’s help, I rented a table to display a couple framed collages of my world coins and banknotes (the notes being attached to velvet matting using sewing-pins, in my blissful ignorance!).

Nearly 35 years later I still clearly remember a gentleman somehow involved in the event soon coming up to me with genuine interest and words of praise in what I was setting up. This was my first encounter with Frank Fesco, whom I would come to know as one of Canada’s greatest numismatic minds, and – in later years – my mentor. Through Frank, I was introduced to the venerable City of Ottawa Coin Club, which included a wonderful group of “old-school” numismatics such as Johnny Johnston, Ed Burt, Andy Wynn (already retired, but the former long-time owner of the venerable “Wynn’s Coins & Stamps” on Bank Street) , and others.

As is the challenge with many clubs, young blood was a problem so I was at the extreme end of the age-scale, and the “taking of the minutes” formality wasn’t especially inspiring. But it was a fraternity, I was welcomed, and it was great. I attended as often as I could, although later in my early twenties (when I had my first vehicle), Frank cleverly primed me to take over the presidency of the club. I served for two or three terms, and looking back, credit this experience with helping (ok, forcing) me to shed the terror of public-speaking.

Needles and oral presentations were my earliest phobias, and I had been remarkably accomplished at avoiding both until that point. The needle issue solved itself through common-sense and necessity, while the secret to becoming comfortable in speaking before others was all about sharing something in which you are genuinely impassioned. In my tenure as President, I also strove to promote the writing of newsletter articles by members – with mixed success – although for me, the monthly bulletin provided a great outlet to explore my own love of writing.

Eventually I also discovered the Canadian Numismatic Association, the even larger “national” fraternity of collectors (of which the Ottawa club was a founding member), with their monthly Journal and 1,500+ members. I joined as a junior member, would go on to later serve a couple terms as Ontario Director, and will soon, I suppose, be receiving a 30-year certificate.

Beyond the pleasure of connecting with the wider numismatic community, however, the true thrill of the hobby for me was only a bike or bus-ride away. This, of course, was the trip to a coin shop.

Ottawa: a coin collector’s haven

In the early 1980s, Ottawa was very much in its hey-day for coin and stamp collectors, with no fewer than eight retail venues throughout the city. So much was collecting a part of popular culture in those days, even Eaton’s had a coin counter in their downtown Rideau Centre store! I still have the 14th Century Venetian Silver coin I bought from them as a teenager, after saving up my gardening money.

Just a few blocks down Rideau Street could be found Capital City Coin, within whose fortified iron gates could be found the proprietor, Terry Frost, and arguably Ottawa’s finest selection of ancient and world-wide coinage. True, many if not most of the more interesting pieces were not actually for sale in what many teased was “Terry’s Museum”, but Capital City Coin was an important fixture in the Ottawa numismatic market for many years. He could easily come across as gruff, and let his health eventually suffer through the stresses of steadfastly remaining a one-man-show, rather than opening up his business to some supportive staffing.

Around 2001 or so Terry began contemplating retirement, and warmly welcomed me into his shop to discuss the possible sale of his business. Two issues quickly came up, however: the first being that he placed a very high value on his existing inventory, yet would not permit anyone to actually conduct an evaluation on it before purchase, and – quite naively of me – I mentioned the fact that I didn’t actually have any financing. The door could not have hit me quick enough on the way out. Shortly thereafter, his store closed and I heard his inventory hit the auction block. Remarkably, his final years were spent finding peace among the great caribou herds of the North (his wife, I believe, serving as a counselor in the NWT government), and his friends gathered to bid him farewell at an Ottawa service in 2008.

And yet I digress. Back to my early days adjusting to life in Westboro, my most significant coin store epiphany was the discovery of the Sears Coin & Stamp department in Carlingwood Shopping Centre. Just a short bus ride away from home, this became “my haunt”, to which I would make regular weekend visits. Money was very tight for us, so I had to spend both wisely and frugally. In the summer-time I worked the garden of a very crotchety elderly lady around the corner from our apartment (peace be upon her), who was not amused at my constant panic around bees, and who seemed to favor her garden above all others.

I would earnestly save up my gardening earnings and keenly look through the albums at Sears many Saturdays – anything pre-Victorian in the English section would just thrill me – and in the winter, I had the occasional snow-shoveling gig. To my discredit, I clearly remember abandoning one lane-way in the middle of a snow-storm, so strong was the desire and excitement to get to Sears before they closed to buy my very first “Krause” Standard Catalogue of World Coins – for which I had saved up a huge $45 or so. I got the book – but was fired from the snow shoveling job. In hindsight, a useful lesson in judgment – in my case, balancing one’s enthusiasm with responsibilities.

I became a regular at Sears, no doubt pestering Lorna and Marina to the point of breaking sometimes (two fine and knowledgeable ladies whom, in a later quirk of irony, I would spend more than a decade working closely with). With many years now as a dealer myself, I can identify with the fine edge that separates precociousness and annoyance. Those with common sense, patience, and an appreciation of future business health learn to appreciate and manage this – not always an easy task. Eventually in my mid-teens, I began asking about the possibility of a part-time job – whether this was spawned by a genuine interest in the business of things, or simply a desire to get my hands into the material that people on my side of the counter never got to see, I don’t frankly remember. What did become clear is that a young keener without any material working experience or business knowledge likely had a better chance at becoming an Archbishop than landing a coin-shop job, and eventually I gave up asking.

At age 15 I landed my first real job at the McDonalds a few blocks up, and learned discipline and punctuality. I became the “breakfast specialist”, and put in crazy hours, driving my bike to work each day down the middle of an empty Carling Avenue at 4:30a.m. This, naturally, gave me some good spending money, and permitted great flexibility in my favorite hobby, even allowing me to explore a bit of the mail-order and auction worlds.

Getting out into the world

At the age of 17 I took leave from my job when my good mother sent me on a “voyage of discovery” to England, Ireland and the Channel Islands for a month – my first significant cultural experience. Coins on the journey captured my interest as they always did, however on a shoe-string budget most numismatic souvenirs would come from the variety of coinage that passed through my pockets (with the exception of a 1928 Irish Half Crown I bought in Dublin coin shop). Half-way through my adventure I received the surprising and exciting news that I had been accepted as a participant in a Canada World Youth exchange to Indonesia. Exciting because I had been through all the stages of selection earlier in the year, only to be told at the very end that there were no spots left for me. And surprising, because I had originally applied to go to Sri Lanka – and had only vaguely heard of Indonesia.

I returned to Canada in July, resigned from my lengthy 18-month career with the Golden Arches, and left the next month for the first four-month component of the exchange program which saw our diverse group of young Canadians and Indonesians living in Nanaimo, B.C. To put it succinctly, the overall program – most especially the four months we spent in a remote village in Sumatra – was a profound cultural experience, and very much shaped my world view of things. Yes, I managed to find coins – the lingering Dutch colonial influence led to pleasing finds of 19th and early 20th century Silver coinage, as well as one of the most “fish out of water” pieces in my current collection – a large 1776 Silver Bolivian 8 Real piece found in a famous market village high in the Sumatran mountains, and covered with multiple Chinese chop-marks from having circulated through the Orient. Most profound of my take-aways however, was the friendship I developed with one of my two counterparts – whose lovely sister would, several years later, become my wife.

Returning to Canada with an awkward sense of both enlightenment and continued naivety, I obtained a job in the men’s shoe department of the Rideau Centre Eaton’s department store, which I enjoyed for the next two years. Not being a “downtown” dweller, the Rideau Centre was a happening place, and my customers included the political elite (House Speaker, Ed Broadbent, The Prime Minister’s wife, etc.), diplomats, as well as interesting common-folk. One of my most poignant memories involves seeing a veteran in handsome uniform, standing at the edge of my department, looking somewhat confused. In speaking with him, I learned that he was a WWI Flying Ace, and that he was lost. I helped him to find where he needed to go, and now reflect that there are no longer any flymen of his generation left in our world. Some day down the road, there will also be no-one remaining who can tell their children that they actually had the chance to meet one.

During this time I completed my high school education through the then-fledgling “Adult High School” system, and began studying history at Carleton University. What I would actually do with history I don’t recall having the foresight to contemplate at the time. With no obvious direction, however, my life and interests were still very much “numismatic-centric”, and thus what else would one logically study other than history? I excelled at selling shoes, both enjoying and understanding them, and eventually was offered the one and only full-time position in the department. In a fairly rare moment of clarity, I chose school over the position (I did not have the discipline or fortitude to do both), and soon-after transferred to the Sears at Bayshore Shopping Centre in the west end of the city, for reasons I can’t actually recall.

I quickly realized this to be a mistake, as this new shoe department incorporated all three shoe classes – men’s, ladies, and children’s – within a single department. At the then age of 21, however, I determined to stick it out while I worked my way through school. I still lived with my good mother in Westboro, and quitting on either front was neither a responsible nor viable option.

In one of the great ironies of my life, however, in the fall of 1988 I noted a small ad in the rarely-used “Stamps & Coins” section of the Ottawa Citizen classifieds, promoting a clearance sale on world stamps at a newly-opened shop in Lincoln Fields Shopping Centre. Though not especially interested in stamps, with my newly-invigorated interest in all things Indonesia I thought it worth seeing what they might have in the way of philatelics at their advertised “huge discounts”. I didn’t have a clue that responding to that small ad would profoundly change the course of my life.

Next Month: Crossing the Counter

Holiday Hours

2015 Holiday Season Hours

Our Holiday Hours for the next week:

Monday Dec 21…… 10:00 to 5:00

Tuesday Dec. 22…… 9:30 to 7:00

Wednesday Dec. 23………… 9:30 to 5:30

Thursday Dec. 24……… 9:30 to 5:30

December 25-28…………… Closed

Our 3-Day Boxing Blow-Out

The Biggest Coin Sale in 15 Years !!

Tuesday Dec. 29th……….. 9:00 to 7:00

Wednesday Dec. 30th…… 9:00 to 7:00

Thursday Dec. 31st……… 9:00 to 5:30

 Snowflake Transparent Background
Snowflake graphic from Cliparts.co

Mystery Cent

The Remarkable Centennial Journey of a Numismatic Pretender

1936 Dot Box Interior

1936 Dot Box Interior

It has been said that a journey is often more significant than the destination itself, and indeed, while most of us can identify with the adage, I had never contemplated this in the context of an inanimate object. That is, however, until I received an intriguing telephone inquiry in the fall of 2012.

As is often the case, I was contacted by a legal firm in the Ottawa area, and asked to provide a numismatic estate appraisal. Unusually, however, this estate consisted of a single coin, which was being described to me as none other than the fabled 1936 “Dot” Penny. Arguably Canada’s most famous coinage rarity, special strikings of this otherwise common date were prepared with a raised dot beneath the date – signifying their actual striking in 1937, while awaiting new dies after the unexpected abdication of King Edward VIII. Naturally I was highly skeptical.

While I once had the privilege of being present for the public sale of one of these extreme rarities, only three Specimen strikings of the purported several hundred thousand struck had ever been discovered. Indeed, of the many wishful claims over the years that I, and many other dealers have fielded, not a single known circulated example has ever been discovered. The variety of imposters I have seen are limited only by the human imagination, and range from “dot-added” forgeries to clever obverse-drilled examples which produce a semi-natural “hump” in the general vicinity of where the dot normally would be.

Mystery Cent

Mystery Cent

Due diligence demanded I respond to this inquiry, however, and I followed through with a visit to the firm’s office. As expected, I was presented with a coin that evidently was a small Cent of George V, but that was it. Rarely had I seen a Penny that was as structurally impaired as this estate piece, and whether or not it was actually a 1936-dated piece was even inconclusive. It was indeed a one-in-a-million piece, but unfortunately not in a positive way. The actual market value of this numismatic estate? Less than the value of the envelope in which it was housed.

1936 Dot Royal Mint Letter

Click to enlarge

In fact, had I not taken a casual second look at the envelope itself, I might never have come to appreciate the remarkable journey this coin had taken in its quest for recognition. What first caught my eye on the cream-coloured linen envelope was the “On Her Majesty’s Service” imprint, then the custom “Royal Mint” embossment, and finally both London and Ottawa Registration stamps from the spring of 1967 (yes, the envelope was posted when I was just five weeks old). Revisiting the accompanying paperwork, a delightful story quickly unfolded before me.

The coin entered the first leg of its journey through the Canadian postal system, as the Ottawa-based owner forwarded it to England’s Royal Mint with a request for authentication as a 1936 “Dot” striking. This in itself is ironic, as – per the Royal Mint’s responding small typed letter of April 28th, 1967 – England had not struck Canadian coins since the opening of the Royal Canadian Mint (originally, the Ottawa Branch of the Royal Mint) in 1908. Thus, where the owner could have taken a 10-minute jaunt to Sussex Drive and likely obtained an authoritative opinion from the coin’s actual manufacturer, it was instead sent on a transatlantic journey. To the likely disappointment of the owner, the above-referenced letter, eminently thoughtful and concise, confirms the uncertainty of the piece and refers the sender back to the “Ottawa Mint”.

1936 Dot Envelope

Click to enlarge

Thus, on April 28th, 1967 (again, the same day the letter was dated), the coin was once again packaged up and dispatched via Registered Royal Mail where it was received into the Canadian postal system two weeks later on May 12th – just weeks before Canada’s Centennial.

Also found in the envelope was the obvious catalyst for the owner’s inquiry – a newspaper clipping of a short article written by the late numismatic luminary James Charlton, detailing the intriguing story of the 1936 Dot coinage.

1936 Dot News Article

Click to enlarge

Once back on Canadian soil, a subsequent letter from the Royal Canadian Mint marks the final stage of this coin’s epic journey, while also relieving the owner of any dreams of early retirement. Once again, this thoughtful and formal letter reminds of us a pre-email past, where professional courtesy demanded more than just a quick hashtag or telephone message.

In the end, I offered the estate twenty-five dollars for the envelope and contents, not with expectations of seeking a profit, but rather out of appreciation for the historical context within which this extremely humble coin took its most interesting journey.

Sean Isaacs