You can't take anything at face value when it comes to coins.
Take a grimy 1939 silver dollar as an example, says collector Ron Thompson. It's worth a buck on the surface, but due to its rarity and silver content, it could sell for $750, despite its black, oxidized edges. "If you took it home and polished it, it's worth $10."
This coin is a piece of history, he says, and it's your duty as a collector to preserve it — grime and all. "If you had some coins from your grandfather from another country and you brought them home and cleaned them, God would be yelling at you, 'Stop cleaning those coins! You're ruining history!'" he jokes.
Thompson, a St. Albert resident, was one of the many coin enthusiasts at last weekend's Edmonton Money Show at the Mayfield Inn. He and hundreds of other coin fans spent two days counting crowns and perusing pennies, exploring the past through what was once change in people's pockets.
A steady stream of people flows by Thompson's table. The display cases on it hold countless pennies, dimes, quarters and dollars — some silver or gold — each labelled in its own Mylar sleeve. Depending on how you used them, these coins could buy you anything from lunch to a car.
Thompson says he got his start when his sister got him a coin guide in 1957. "I went running to my piggy bank, dumped it on the table and looked up all the coins in his book." To his delight, some of them were valuable. "They were paying maybe 25 cents for a nickel," he recalls — exciting when you're a seven-year-old. "I said, 'Where's the coin shop? Let's go sell it!'"
Ten years ago, he retired from his marketing job with DuPont to start his own coin shop. He's now talking and swapping coins seven days a week. "You do it because you have a passion and love of coins, [plus] you can make money off of it."
Albert Meyer of St. Albert tells a similar story at a nearby table. "When I was a 10-year-old, I started looking at pennies and decided it would be challenging to find one of every year," he says. It escalated from there — he now has one of every Canadian penny ever made, plus hundreds of other rarities from around the world.
Coin collectors are called numismatists, Meyer says, which comes from numisma, the Latin word for "coin."
Coins have been around since at least 600 BC, says David Bergeron, curator of the Bank of Canada's Currency Museum in Ottawa. Traders used to use gold and silver as money, but those were cumbersome because you had to weigh the bars and ingots each time.
To speed up trade, King Gyges of Lydia (a kingdom on what is now the west coast of Turkey) started using pre-weighed chunks of electrum the size of a fingernail, stamping each with the head of a lion to show his approval. The Greeks followed suit a few centuries later, and Alexander the Great spread the practice throughout Europe.
The history of coin collecting is less clear, Bergeron says, but dates back at least to the days of Louis the XIV, who was a prolific collector. Monarchs often kept coins as war trophies or for posterity. Nowadays, collectors can seek coins for their themes, worth, history or rarity.
A penny's worth
A coin's worth is determined by its rarity and condition, Thompson says. Canadians had plenty of nickels in 1940, for example, but because of the war, they used those coins a lot, wearing them down. That makes the mint-condition 1940 nickel in his display case worth about $1,250. "This one here is one of only 12 that exist."
Assessors use a magnifying loupe to check each coin for lustre, surface scratches and design. Each is ranked on a 70-point scale, where 0 is terrible and 70 is mint.
The differences are often miniscule. Some Canadian silver dollars from 1947 have a maple leaf smaller than a pen-tip next to their year, for example — a mark that makes them more than twice as valuable as others from that year. Others, like the 1969 large date dime, have subtle differences in the shape of their numbers that collectors go wild over.
Error coins, like the dime-sized nickel Thompson has, tend to be more obvious. These are messed-up coins that slip past quality control and enter circulation.
One specific type of error is the mule — a crossbreed coin with mismatched sides. The Canadian Mint struck a small number of mules in its 2000 millennial coin set, for example, which included a medal with a map of Canada on one side and the mint's symbol on the other. Some of those medals had the standard Queen's head and "25 cents" instead of the symbol, making them actual quarters. Extremely rare, these Millennial Map mules regularly fetch thousands of dollars on the market.
Whatever coins you have, Thompson says, you should store them in a warm, dry place to prevent corrosion. If you plan to sell your coins, have a licensed assessor from the Canadian Association of Numismatic Dealers examine them so you know their true value.
Pieces of the past
Each coin gives you a glimpse into the past, according to Meyer. Take a two-mark piece from Germany, circa 1937. The grim eagle and swastika on the front recalls the horrors of Nazi Germany.
Many Nazi coins were destroyed after the war, Meyer says, so the remainders have some historic value. This particular coin has a portrait of Paul von Hindenburg on the back, which brings up an odd point about a certain dictator: Hitler did not allow his portrait on coins, but had no problem with stamps.
The famous "dot" pennies of 1937 recall the abdication of Edward VIII, says Bergeron. Edward surrendered the throne to George VI in December, 1936. Canada didn't have time to change its dies for next year's coins, so they added a small dot to the 1936 dies and used them instead.
The much-coveted 1921 50-centers would have been perfectly ordinary were it not for a post-war recession, notes Bergeron. The Canadian Mint struck about 250,000 of these coins, but ended up melting most of them due to a steep drop in the need for money after the First World War. Less than 25 of them went into circulation.
Technology has made coin collecting much easier, Meyer says, as online auction sites put foreign coins within easy reach.
Mints have also started making limited-run coins to inspire new collectors. Some, such as the red-painted 2010 Winter Olympic quarters, are meant to be spent, but most are purely for show — you'd be hard-pressed to use the puck-sized $500 Olympic gold coin in a vending machine, for example.
Coins are great conversation pieces, Thompson says, and can act as investments as well. "The coins in this case are about $1,000 each," he says, indicating a case of pennies and dollars, and he could talk about them all night.
You can even pass them, and the love of them, on to your kids. "I've got six grandkids," Thompson says, "and I've already got one started on nickels."