Four Key Watersheds in the History of Coin Collecting

In my dual role as both a collector and dealer of coins, I often pause to contemplate the remarkable 2,500+ year history of “Numismatics”, and the evolution of coinage from utilitarian instrument of commerce to aesthetic historical collectible and work of medallic art. Indeed, CoinWeek author Geoffrey Cope perhaps best summed it up, when he wrote:

Art in the form of coins is not only what we study but the emotion when we hold a piece of history.

Rather than focus on the motivations for collecting, however, I put pen to paper here in support of my own hypothesis that there are four key revolutions/watersheds that fundamentally shaped the origins and growth of coin collecting as we know it today.

1. The Invention of Coinage

It goes without saying that we would have no coin dealers without the Numismatic “big bang” of approximately the 7th century B.C., when the concept of metal currency appears to have arose somewhat simultaneously in three different regions, each with their own unique characteristics. The Kingdom of Lydia (modern day Turkey) saw the first use of Electrum, a naturally-occurring alloy of Gold & Silver. Meanwhile, in the Indus Valley (Pakistan), Silver Bars became a medium of exchange. And, finally, China saw the emergence of practical bronze “Spade” and “Knife” money. Cultural and intrinsic differences aside, all three forms of currency shared a common revolutionary function – the compact representation of value that previously necessitated the actual physical transport and exchange of material goods (i.e., livestock and/or agricultural surplus).

The first “Western” coins were later introduced by Alexander the Great in 4th century B.C., and both the art and fine-tuned function of coinage reached new heights in the Greek and Roman empires. Not only a transformative medium of exchange, coins were also used as a medium to convey Political, Religious and Military propaganda messages. Indeed, some of the only conceptual portraits that exist today of ancient rulers derive from the surviving coinage of the day.

2. The Renaissance (1350-1525) – rebirth of interest in the Art, Literature, Science and Numismatics of Antiquity

Widely-considered to herald in the birth of a serious interest in coin collecting, the Renaissance also saw the beginning of “Royal” coin collections assembled by European Monarchs. The development of the first Coin Cabinets facilitated the storage and presser vation of these new collections. Additionally, a fascinating series of larger-than-life “Paduan” bronze coins became popular, essentially copies of the finest Roman bronze coins that helped to fill increased demand for the originals.

Coins continued to be struck by hand, although the first milled coins were produced in England in 1561, using a horse-powered screw press by a French Mint master. Another notable development during this period – the 13th century report by Marco Polo of Chinese “Paper Money”, later replaced by the world’s first widely-successful notes of the Ming Dynasty.

In summary, although firmly entrenched as a “hobby”, coin collecting in the Renaissance generally remained the domain of the wealthy – and the tradition of the wooden European coin cabinet remains with us today among traditional collectors.

3. The Whitman Coin Folders (c.1938) – bringing Coin Collecting “to the masses”

Example of a Whitman Coin Folder

Example of a Whitman Coin Folder from the Whitman Coin website

The introduction of the [now] familiar blue Whitman Coin Folder was, in my opinion, the single transformative event in the evolution of coin collecting in the 20th century. Above all else, for the first time an inexpensive coin storage system was finally available to everyone. In addition to organization, the folders fostered a sense of “completeness” for the beginning collector, and further spurned the growth of a mail-order coin industry. Perhaps most importantly, however, was that fact that these new folders detailed both dates and mintages of all coins! Thus, for the first time, scarcity became properly associated with mintage. These folders became a staple in the childhoods of virtually every American and Canadian youngster, and spawned many other coin collecting supplies and references during the grown of the Whitman empire. Though initially very U.S.-centric, the folders soon expanded to cover both the Canadian and British coinage series.

Two other key events during this period include the development of the first numerical Grading System in 1949, together with the founding of the Canadian Numismatic Association in 1950 (now the Royal Canadian Numismatic Association).

4. The introduction of ICCS/PCGS Grading Services (c.1986)

The introduction of “Certified Grading” had profound implications in both the selling and collecting of coins. With the 1985 founding of PCGS (Professional Coin Grading Service) in California, and in 1986 of ICCS (the International Coin Certification Service) in Toronto, collectors could now submit their coins for third-party grading and authentication. This solved two critical issues facing the average collector:

  1. was his/her coin authentic?, and
  2. what was the actual technical grade of the coin?

Not only were both issues beyond the expertise of the average collector, but making an error on either front could have (and often did have) dire financial consequences. Now, however, with the introduction of these certification services, coins would be returned to their owners in sealed protective holders, and the often contentious issues of grade and authenticity were made academic. Now, regardless of any expertise imbalance between buyer and seller, the only key topic for negotiation remained selling/purchase price. Sure, subjective issues such as eye-appeal and toning might still cause hesitation in “sight-unseen” transactions, but at least an inexperienced collector could now purchase certified coins for his/her collection or portfolio, and be reasonably certain of getting reasonable value for their money.

In addition to the increased flow of good collectible coinage in the marketplace, these certification companies also facilitated a somewhat unexpected though no-less-profound contribution to numismatics, through the eventual publication of Population Reports. These [mainly] annual statistical reports, which detailed the number and nature of coins certified to date, yielded highly important data on two fronts:

  1. It allowed for increasingly realistic estimates of the surviving populations of many coins, both common and rare, and
  2. Revealed to the hobby that mintage figures did not always determine surviving populations

This last revelation was very significant, as previous to the compilation of certified population stats, we had mainly mintage figures to reflect on the relative scarcity of a given coin. True, this often provided an accurate reflection of rarity – for example, with a total mintage of just 3 pieces, it is obvious that the 1911 Canadian Silver Dollar will always be the most extreme of rarities. With a comparable mintage of approximately 200,000 pieces, however, one would expect the 1921 Half Dollar to be quite common. In reality, however, this fabled “King of Canadian Coins” is also extremely rare, with a surviving population of less than 100 pieces. Yes, we are to expect this, with knowledge of the great melting that occurred at the Canadian branch of the Royal Mint after the striking of the 1921 halves, however the ICCS population report clearly confirms this with currently more than 25 years of compiled certification data. With many other issues, however, population stats have been truly enlightening, often revealing that – for whatever reason – certain years and/or grades of decimal coins have proven to be considerably scarcer in our current market than these mintage figures would suggest.

On one final note – the advent of coin certification services has also generated a keen demand for “Finest-Known” coinage, in other words those specific examples at the top (or at least among the top 10) of the grading charts for a given year and denomination. This, in turn, has pushed up prices for these “condition-census” coins, which then brings fresh material into the market as owners/collectors look to take advantage of heated demand and competition. Perhaps the most brilliant manifestation of this is the PCGS Set Registry, which allows collectors to post their collections online – all in mandatory PCGS holders, of course – and be ranked against other sets within the same competitive category. At time of writing, a whopping 71,369 individual sets have been entered into the registry, representing every conceivable theme from typical United States and Canadian date-sets, to registry sets of Fiji, Peru and Sarawak. Even a partial change in grade of a single coin can alter the “ranking” of such sets, and if such statistics were available, one would no doubt connect a notable increase in the overall business performance of PCGS with the super-keen competitive tendencies of the Registry’s participants.

In summary, there are an almost endless number of innovations and evolutions to note in both the history and collecting of coinage – these particular four watersheds are my own perceived highlights, while each and every collector will have his or her own thoughts on the matter. Artistic aesthetics, historical allure, or intrinsic appreciation – whatever grabs you, just run with it, and the hobby of numismatics will never let you down.

Note: This article was adapted from my presentation to an Algonquin College Museum Technology class, c. 2002. Copyright Sean Isaacs.

Lest We Forget: Divergent perspectives on the 2014 commemorative Silver Dollar

2014 Canadian fine Silver Dollar - Reverse

2014 Canadian fine Silver Dollar – Reverse (click to enlarge)

The 2014 Canadian fine Silver Dollar commemorates the beginning of the First World War, and the mobilization of the Canadian military to respond to the first truly global conflict. The reverse depicts a poignant and often-repeated farewell between a departing Canadian soldier and (presumably) his spouse, as he prepares to board a train waiting to take him and other troops to ships bound for Europe. As with the 2013 issue, the current Silver Dollar is being offered in four distinct finishes: the standard Proof and Brilliant Uncirculated strikes, together with the gold-enhanced version available only in the fine Silver Proof Set. Lastly, the “Silver Dollar Specimen Set” features a fourth striking with a unique matte-Proof finish (note: the 2013 striking in this last finish has escaped the radar of many collectors, and is destined to be a “sleeper” coin).

I found the coin to be attractive and appropriate, not giving it much thought as we incorporated the core 2014 products into our inventory, together with the many additional specialty products released in the first quarter of the year. Thus, I was somewhat taken aback when a good customer stopped into our store in late March, and energetically protested the theme of the Silver Dollar. In his view, it served only to “glorify war”, and had no place as a theme on Canada’s flagship numismatic commemorative. I was surprised at his conviction, and found myself playing devil’s advocate before – as I increasingly try to do these days – later pausing to contemplate the possible legitimacy of his position.

I can certainly see his point on the sensitive nature of commemorating any past armed conflict. The Roman Silver Denarii issues with their unabashed depiction of slaves/enemy captives under the boots of imperial soldiers certainly served as effective propaganda tools through their circulation in everyday commerce, however they didn’t come close to registering on the sensitivity scale. And in my couple decades of coin-dealing, we’ve all encountered more than enough modern “commemorative” issue that are far more about promoting the bravado of war as a commercially-appealing product, rather than a thoughtful reflection on the multi-tiered relationships altered and created in a major armed conflict (more on this shortly).

In looking over Canada’s comparatively brief numismatic history, there can be little debate that our circulating coinage has been characteristically modest when it comes to marking our involvement in war. Indeed, in our first 140+ years of decimal coinage, only a single circulating coin – the “Victory” nickels of 1943/44 – reflected a theme of war, in this case a necessary patriotic message to a population deep in the throes of overseas conflict. Indeed, I have to confess that I fully expected the recent notable bicentennial of the War of 1812 to pass quietly and unmarked (numismatically), given the particular political nature of the specific parties involved and our current relatively sensitive relationship. How wrong could I have been! With almost a dozen circulating commemoratives alone for the War and its key Canadian players, we celebrated the bicentennial in an unprecedented fashion (and my hat is off to our government on this).

It is critical to point out, however, that even on this occasion we lauded – in true Canadian fashion – not the “glory” or military superiority of our role in the War, but once again the relationships that were altered and/or forged in the common defence of Canadian sovereignty. For here we had three distinct tribes, if you will, joining together for a greater common cause than their own individual self-interest. A truly remarkable feat, when one reflects that throughout history these three groups – the French, English and First Nations – have probably fought as many distinct wars among each other as any traditional foes we know of! True, the French and English (as well as First Nations) would yet again hack away at each other in the decades following the War of 1812, however the evolution of not only their inter-relationships but also the relationship between the United States and what would eventually become Canada had critical seeds in the War of 1812.

My point (not intending to present my own lecture on the War of 1812 here), is that there is always a valid reason to commemorate a major, societal-altering historical conflict, and Canada’s War of 1812 commemorative program got it right. Celebrating the people involved and the current-day strong relationship of the former foes is the perfect fusion of pride and tact. Those who follow my limited twitter feed may recall the afternoon a few months back where I ended up driving in the center of Prime Minister Harper’s motorcade (quite uninvited, I should stress). His entourage had just left a commemoration ceremony at Chrysler’s Farm, on the Canada-U.S. border, where he echoed in his speech these same themes of victory through cooperation and unity, and also the transformed relationship that eventually evolved out of the 1812 conflict with our now largest trading partner.

Victory in military conflict is nothing shameful to commemorate, as centuries of often superb European medallic history will attest. And yes, Canada has now joined the rest of the modern minting world in producing a significant number of war-themed non-circulating commemorative coins. These cover the spectrum, marking not only the people involved in our past conflicts, but also the vehicles and aircraft that allowed our men and women to accomplish what they did. Almost without exception I respect each of these various issues, though I do catch myself lamenting from time-to-time the overall number of issues we are expected to keep up with. Courage and respect, however, are even more critical themes to acknowledge in coining than simply victory over a threatening enemy. We are never more clearly reminded of this than when reflecting on Canada’s poignant Vimy Ridge and Beaumont-Hamel commemoratives. Far from celebrating the glory of battle or cheer of victory, these coins more properly mark the devastation of loss of life and (yet again) the painful evolution of relationships; in these cases the relationship of an independent Dominion of Newfoundland, who sacrificed such a proportionally profound number of their men to the war, with the larger Canada, and the relationship of a maturing and increasingly autonomous Canada within the British Empire.

2014 WWI Dollar Gold enhanced both sides

Both sides of the coin

Thus, in a very round-about yet deliberate way, I return to the subject of our 2014 commemorative Silver Dollar. With the greatest of respect to critics and pacifists among us, this coin is simply not a gratuitous glorification of World War I. Rather, it is, as the coin’s very issue title aptly suggests, an entirely appropriate commemoration of the centennial of the great war-time mobilization that would permanently transform both the relationship of Canada with respect to the many other nations of the world, as well as the many complex relationships within the Canadian population itself.

Whether it be the single couple depicted on the coin itself, whose respective roles would quickly undergo significant transformation (were the soldier fortunate enough to return home from the war, he would do so to a wife who could now vote!), or the general population who would soon experience mandated limitations on what key commodities they could purchase and/or consume: every man, woman and child in Canada would come to be affected by the profound transformation from peace-time to war-time economy, and the evolutions of relationships within this (and the post-war) society are without question one of the key watershed periods in Canadian history, albeit ushered in at the terrible cost of so much Canadian blood.

sean-isaacs-on-holiday“Let us Forget”, and boycott this WWI commemorative coin as inappropriate and counter-pacifist? Not a chance, as to do so would be both a denial of our own history and, quite frankly, a disservice to collectors in preventing an opportunity to own and enjoy this attractive and poignant numismatic issue.

Sean Isaacs