I was examining my pocket change recently-the life of letters isn’t as exciting as some would have you believe-when I spotted a 1949-S Jefferson nickel. This might not seem as momentous to you as it did to me. But only 9 million of the coins were minted, as opposed to a billion of more recent vintage, and it seemed remarkable that I could still find one in my change at the start of the 21st century.
I began collecting coins back in the 60’s, when I was in the fifth grade, and when it was still possible to find intriguing coins in circulation-Lincoln pennies dating back almost to the start of the 20th century, Buffalo nickels, majestic Walking Liberty half dollars, even an occasional Standing Liberty quarter, which wasn’t made after 1930 and felt like an antiquity resting in your hand.
The discovery of the 1949-S nickel, which I promptly popped into one of the remaining vacant spaces of my “Jefferson Head Nickels 1938 -” coin album, encouraged me to pay a visit to Stacks, the West 57th Street coin shop. Stacks is to coin collecting what Yankee Stadium is to baseball or the Roman Forum to ruins, the ne plus ultra , and a place I frequented on my way home from school during my coin-collecting heyday.
I had no desire to sell my collection-I plan to pass it down to my children both as a piece of Americana and as a key to the origins of their Dad’s anal-retentive personality-but I was curious to see what it was worth. I wasn’t under any illusion that it was going to finance a co-op on Park Avenue or my kids’ college education, but I nonetheless assumed that, if ever need be, the coins would provide a handsome return on my negligible investment and certainly have kept pace with inflation.
How wrong I was. How absurdly naïve, how gullible, guileless and downright dumb.
I took a seat across from Arthur Blumenthal, one of Stacks’ numismatists. The place was just as I remembered it-a low-key temple of collecting. Rows of coins of far greater rarity than anything I could afford beckoned from glass cases as security guards strolled unobtrusively back and forth.
I removed my coin collection from my knapsack. It consisted of three slotted books-nickels, Flying Eagle and Indian Head cents, and Lincoln pennies. The Lincoln pennies ran from 1941 until my interest in coins petered out sometime in the late 60’s.
They were replaced by R. Crumb’s underground comics-which, I might add, turn out to have been a far better investment than my coins. According to the 1995 Comics Values Annual , my copy of Snatch , for which I paid 50 cents, is now worth $295.
Mr. Blumenthal, a no-nonsense expert of approximately my own age, wasted no time bursting my bubble. “The common ones are spendable money,” he told me, examining my nickels first. “The key date is the 50-D”- which, of course, I didn’t have. “Your wartime coins are partial silver. They’re worth a quarter apiece.” In short, the entire album was worth approximately $3.
Overcoming my shock, I placed my book of Indian heads-about 20 coins in all-before him. I hadn’t found these in change. Back in the 60’s, they were already collectors’ items. I’d paid for them with my allowance. Come to think of it, I’d probably bought them at Stacks.
“You have the common-date coins,” he said. (One is tempted, for the sake of the story, to say that he “sniffed” or “snorted,” but there was no attitude in his appraisal. It was affect-free. He might as well have been delivering the weather forecast.) “The  Flying Eagle I could sell for $15. This is worth a couple of dollars, the ’63. These are worth a dollar a coin,” he added, waving his hand over the rest of my defeated Indian warriors.
In other words, they were worth just about what I’d paid for them more than 35 years ago. “People come in and you tell them, ‘No, it doesn’t have much value,'” the expert went on. “Most of them, they’re surprised. That’s why I always quote what I can sell it for. People call up, ‘I have a silver dollar. It’s a hundred years old.’ I say, ‘It’s $8 and I can sell it for $10.'”
Mr. Blumenthal attributed the worthlessness of my collection, and just about everybody else’s whose coins aren’t virtually singularities or at least in mint condition, to the fact that there’s little demand. Kids today have better things to do than stick pennies in coin slots. There’s the Internet, Pee Wee hockey, Game Boy.
“You can have 80 channels of cable TV,” he observed. “If you want to watch cartoons at four in the morning, you’ll find them.”
Furthermore, just because you can no longer find the old coins in circulation doesn’t mean they’ve ceased to exist. Coins are durable. The maddening fact of the matter is that most of the coins ever minted are probably still sitting on somebody’s shelf or growing mold in the basement. We’re decomposing a hell of a lot faster than they are. And the mere possibility of their existence apparently also drags down prices.
“We live in a society of hoarders,” Mr. Blumenthal explained. “The supply is bountiful and the demand is minimal.”
I still wasn’t ready to concede defeat. I pulled out the cream of my collection, a long brown box. Affixed to its top was a piece of Dymo tape, circa 1965, that said “Coin Collection.” Inside were several dozen yellowing little Stacks coin envelopes, their contents and condition described on the front in a meticulous 10-year-old’s penmanship.
I removed the first coin, another Flying Eagle penny, though its value was frankly sentimental. My father would visit coin shops, buy battered pennies for a few cents each, then lace his change with them for me to find. I never caught on. I just thought I’d gotten incredibly lucky, that the coins had somehow traveled through time without anybody recognizing their value. It made me feel anointed.
“This is probably the worst one I’ve ever seen,” Mr. Blumenthal said, bordering on the abusive. “It looks like it was in a fire. You can’t even put a value on it. It’s really bad. It’s just a piece of copper.”
How about one of my prized Buffalo nickels? The date, 1938, was completely legible, a rarity among this type of nickel since the dates are usually rubbed off.
“A dollar,” the numismatist offered.
A gorgeous, uncirculated silver Mercury dime was worth eight bucks, the Morgan silver dollar the tooth fairy brought me when I lost my first tooth at five was $9, the J.F.K. half dollar I got when I visited Washington in 1964, days after it was issued-oh, my joy when a friendly waiter at Duke Zeibart’s, a D.C. watering hole where my mother and I had lunch, presented it to me!-a measly three bucks. “I can sell it for $5,” Mr. Blumenthal shrugged.
“I started as a kid,” he continued, consolingly. “I have these albums at home, too. My father was in the stamp business. I always had that collecting sort of thing. I like vintage watches. I don’t do it for investment. Collecting isn’t about investment. You do it for enjoyment.”
He’s absolutely right. Nonetheless, I still feel as if the rug had been pulled out from under me. For a while now, I’ve been tempted to take my copy of Snatch to Sotheby’s to get it appraised. But after my experience at Stacks, I’ll wait. I don’t think I can take any more bad news at the moment.