FOR THE LOVE OF COINS
By T.L. Petersen
Observer Staff Writer
"Coin collecting is supposed to be fun," explains Wayne Long of La Grande.
Long, one of the area's acknowledged experts, has been taking more than a casual interest in American coins for more than 30 years.
He knows what's valuable and what's not, but stresses that the hobby really should be about the fun Â— the feeling that collecting gives Â— and not just the money.
Clearly on display whenever Long talks about coin collecting is his growing collection of new state quarters.
The Maine quarter, complete with a rugged coast line and a lighthouse, has just recently been released.
But it is not just the individual coin that Long pays attention to Â— even though he and other collectors often try to catch newcomers' interest by sending them home with a fragment that once was an ancient coin, or a nickel, dating back decades, worn nearly flat .
"In preserving coins it's really important to only handle the coins by the edge," Long says, smiling as his listeners guiltily readjust their hold on the coins he's passing around.
"You're not supposed to clean coins," he says, explaining that the value of a set of coins Â— a group of coins minted in a given year, or a group of coins with a similar theme such as the state quarters Â— is greatest if the coins are in mint-condition. Literally, the way the coins looked freshly coined.
Skin oils and cleaning can eventually lead to tarnish Â— the way an old penny looks that has passed through hands and banks over years. A bright, shiny copper penny gradually darkens or tarnishes with use.
Once, Long said, a treasure of double-eagle coins was lost in a shipwreck. More than 100 years later the ship was found and its treasure brought to the surface.
On one coin, which had never been circulated, a fingerprint was found. Despite more than 100 years underwater, the oil from a human touch, perhaps from someone involved in the minting process, had remained.
Many coin collectors build what are known as proof sets. These are coins minted for the collector's market, and are usually minted in a slightly different manner that will leave the coins' surface-luster intact, Long says, for "hundreds of years."
Coin collecting is about time and knowledge.
As in any sort of collecting, the rarer a thing is when new, or the fewer of them around, the more valuable it will eventually become.
An example right now is a state 25-cent piece.
These quarters are not instantly valuable, because millions for each state are being minted and circulated. And U. S. coins contain little of the original valuable metal, such as silver.
But the state quarters aren't all being minted every year Â— so trying to find one of the first can already require a bit of searching. A proof set or a complete collector's set will grow in value.
And as is true of any collection, the value of the collection is a matter of who wants it.
U.S. silver dollars Â— the now old, nearly pure silver, $1 coins, are currently worth about $7 to $8 each, based on the current listing in what Long calls simply the red book.
"It's kind of a Bible of coin collecting," he explains, with page after page of coins, the date minted, the number minted, and the current value, both individually and in sets.
At the idea of someone casually starting a coin collection for big profits, Long chuckles.
"This is a hobby," he says. "It's fun, it's enjoyable, and it could be profitable," for those who learn a lot, and become very serious about tracking down hard-to-find coins.
Far more frequent are stories like Long's own.
He started collecting in 1969 when he saw an Indian-head nickel, face value five cents.
He thought it looked neat.
Today, an Indian-head nickel, depending on it's condition and who is buying, sells for between $1.25 and $1.50.
Consider it two ways Â— from five cents to $1.50 is a 30 times increase in value. But it is still the difference between 5 cents and 150 cents.
For a little profit, though, coin collecting can be lots of fun.
Gary Sullivan, who calls Long his mentor in coin collecting, sold a few coins recently that he had bought for about $10. He sold them for $40.
"To do this really correctly," Long says, "you have to collect a series of sets," like Indian-head nickels, or sets of solid-silver coins.
"A completed set becomes more valuable, and a completed series of steps, even more valuable."
Coin collecting in the United States, Long explains, probably started about the time of the Civil War, because people started hoarding any metal, and especially hard-to-find metal money.
The government, he explained, started making encased postage money Â— stamped paper that represented an amount of cash.
"They had a terrible time producing enough coins," he said.
For example, he said, it only cost the government perhaps two or three cents to make a coin worth many times that much, but if people were hoarding coins, their values grew rapidly.
Today, all U.S. coins are produced in either Philadelphia or Denver, the sites of the county's two coin-producing mints.
It becomes fairly clear, after talking to Long, that he is in coin collecting for the stories.
He remembers as a child seeing Benjamin Franklin half-dollar coins.
"I though they looked neat," he says, looking back into his own memory. "And they were really heavy."
And then there's the inside knowledge gained from coin collecting.
Long remembers watching a television movie that featured Danny DeVito as a collector.
He remembers watching DeVito pull a bag of coins from under a floor board and pull each coin out.
"He had a story for each coin," Long says. "That might not be special to anybody else," he says, his voice drifting softly away.
And then his voice comes back strong.
"Coins can be really neat."
The Grande Ronde Coin Club meets the second Monday of every month at 7:30 p.m. at the Grande Ronde Retirement Residence, 1809 Gekeler Lane. For information call 963-8263.