The Road Less Travelled – Playing “Good Cop, Bad Cop” in Old Havana

In the first four segments of these “memoirs”, I detailed my rather profound transition from keen collector to apprentice of Paul Davis, and full-time dealer of coins. In these next couple chapters, I will choose to pause the overall progression of time and instead share with readers a few of my favourite anecdotes and experiences from the earlier years of my apprenticeship.

The first involves a rather memorable visit Paul and I took to Cuba  in late 1994.  This was an interesting time for Cuba, both in terms of politics and numismatics, with relations between the country and the United States frozen solidly in time. Trade of virtually any kind was forbidden between the two, and United States citizens were not permitted to visit Cuba.  At the same time, however, the state of the modern Cuban numismatic industry was remarkably advanced.  Not only were they proliferous producers of domestic commemorative coinage in both base and precious-metals (i.e. Silver and Gold), they were also the key minters of collector coinage to many other “veiled” socialist countries including the Congo (People’s Republic), Laos, Vietnam and Kampuchea. Add to this the fact that the United States was perhaps the world’s largest market for such coins – made acutely challenging by an absolute prohibition of importing these issues into the country – and a clear opportunity became apparent for any Canadian coin dealer willing to explore the development of a relationship with the Cubans. And yes, Paul was quick to recognize the potential of such trade, perhaps after having chatted with a represent of the Cuban Mint who would, on rare occasions, quietly visit the Toronto coin show scene in the late 1980s in order to try and promote their wares.

Thus, we began to import fairly copious quantities of the inexpensive Cuban 1 Peso commemorative coins in cupro-nickel, which featured a fantastic variety of themes ranging from mosquitos to ships to fish and fauna (together with, of course, the multitude of issues honoring the “fathers of the revolution”).  All of which, of course, had to be paid for in United States Dollars that could not pass through the U.S. banking system, in accordance with the strict sanctions of the day.

These sold quite well for us, and Paul soon decided that it was time to take our trading relationship to a new level. To Havana we would go, and press the Cubans on whatever more enticing numismatic goodies they might have stashed away.

Thus we set off on a chartered Air Transat flight from Ottawa – a plane that not only had a “non-smoking” section that ended one row behind us, but which also seemed to be okay with people actually standing in the aisle chatting while we were literally taking off.  Eventually we landed in Fidel’s Cuba, and after a bit of initial sight-seeing around Old Havana, I believe it was on the second day that we attended our appointment at the Cuban Mint.

Recalling this experience after 25 years, I do not recollect many elements of our overall visit to the country, yet my impressions of the resilience and self-sufficiency of the Cuban Mint remain sharp.  In spite of having been completely cut off from much of the western world for most of a generation, and the much earlier loss of their Soviet supporters to their obvious economic detriment, their Minting operations were remarkable. From the production of their own planchets, to the design, striking, packaging and shipping of a multitude of well-executive coins – both business-strikes and non-circulating commemoratives – and even to the manufacture and repair of their own minting equipment, the overall quality and volume of their output was (again) remarkable. Perhaps my most vivid memory was looking in on a laboratory-like room of ladies, all sitting at desks while hand-enameling the often stunning coloured Cuban coin issues (usually higher-denomination issues in pure Silver).

Eventually, after our full tour, Paul and I were led to a meeting room where we were to meet and negotiate with Mint senior management. I should note at this point that I spoke not a word of Spanish, and none of the Mint officials could speak a word of English. Paul, in his ongoing quest to better his grasp of foreign language skills (usually inspired by interest in a woman, in must be duly noted), had developed a functional understanding of Spanish, and was to be our facilitator. This I had understood from the outset. What I had not anticipated, however, was his unspoken plan for us to adopt a modified “good-cop, bad-cop” approach to the discussions, with myself as the decision-making chairman of the company, and he the negotiating underling.

Thus began a protracted and somewhat bizarre discussion where, periodically, they would pause while Paul gave me bits and pieces of their conversation, and then ask for my “approval” – at which point I would feign stern contemplation – and then respond. Looking back on the meeting after all these years, I sometimes wonder if I was actually a patsy, with their actual discussions having nothing to actually do with me. Who really knows!

What did come out of the negotiations, however, was very much a landmark numismatic agreement, for it had come to light that the Mint had built four “archival” collections containing one each of every modern Cuban coin struck in the building since the 1970s. These ranged from the hundreds of base-metal, Peso commemoratives referenced earlier, to rare and fabulous multi-ounce commemoratives and piedforts in both pure Silver and Gold, including patterns and test-strikings. One of the collections was mandated to be held by the Cuban government in perpetuity, and a further two sets were previously sold to the State Museums of other South American countries.  The fourth and remaining intact collection was now on the table.

The ultimate prize, however? The fabled “Lenin” 100 Pesos, a pure gold issue struck in 1977 with a total mintage of just 10 pieces. Certainly among the world’s most valuable modern issues at the time, with an envisioned retail value of  U.S. $10,000. An example of the coin hadn’t entered the market in more than a decade, and here was the only known potentially-available specimen put forward in offer to us , with one minor stipulation – it would only be available as part of a “package deal”, together with the other thousand or so coins making up this remarkable archival collection. We concluded our memorable “Bueno-cop, grumpy-cop” performance with a hand-shake agreement, and spent our remaining days in Havana sightseeing before leaving for Varadero, our ultimate departure point.

Sitting in the airport awaiting our flight, a lovely incident of happenstance occurred as I looked up and saw Canadian Senator Jacques Hebert strolling through the small terminal. The late Senator will perhaps be best remembered for his founding of the Katimavik youth program, which later spawned the much larger CIDA-sponsored Canadian World Youth program. It was the CWY program that had taken me to Nanaimo and Indonesia several years earlier, and I had long wished to shake his hand and thank him for the transformational experience – without which, I would not have met my wife Nana.  We spoke for a few moments, I at last shook his hand, and a bit of positive good karma came full-circle at that particular moment and place.

Back in Ottawa in the ensuing weeks, we prepared to welcome the Cuban Archival Numismatic  collection to its new home, after completing some complex payment arrangements for the six-figure purchase price.  The collection eventually arrived, and was fabulous. We produced inhouse a bound catalogue “Cuban Commemorative Coins” that immediately became the definitive reference on all modern issues of the Havana Mint, and which included a remarkable 44 coins that were entirely unknown to the collecting world prior to publication. The Gold Lenin immediately found a quiet home with Canada’s foremost collector of Cuban coinage, and the next few weeks and months saw an eager feeding frenzy among hungry collectors on both sides of the border.   I have never made it back to Cuba in the ensuring decades, and wonder how the time-capsule of “Old Havana”, together with their remarkable and historic Mint, may now change in this bold new era of Cold War dissolution.

Sean Isaacs

Next Time: “Right place, wrong time” – intercepting Canada’s most valuable stolen stamp collection

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:

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

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

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.

Sean Isaacs

Next Month: My move to Ottawa, and the discovery of a Numismatic Fraternity.