Pocket Pieces

U.S. Morgan silver dollar, dateless but with an O mint mark for New Orleans, grading Poor-1, with wear concentrated near the edge, indicating that this coin must have have been used as a pocket piece for a long time

IN A NUTSHELL: Pocket pieces can be a great way to enjoy, and show off, coins -- the way they were meant to be carried -- but you should be aware of the risks.

 

Coin collectors have lots of options for storing and displaying their coins, from "slabs" of the grading services and do-it-yourself holders to coin albums and folders. One option you might not have considered is putting coins back in your pocket!

Keeping an interesting coin as a "pocket piece," to have with you and show off to others, has a long tradition. President Theodore Roosevelt, for one, reportedly carried with him an ancient Greek Owl tetradrachm, a classically beautiful piece of coin art nearly 2,500 years old. It was one of the inspirations that led him to order a redesign of our nation's coinage at the beginning of the 20th century.

There are lots of good reasons for carrying around a collectible coin as a pocket piece. Coins, after all, were created to be handled. You buy and sell with coins by handing them over.

A coin in your hand is also how you can best appreciate it. You feel the cool metal and the raised devices, flip the coin over between thumb and fingers for a different perspective, toss it gently in the air as proof of its remarkable portability. In your hand, a coin's presence and history become palpable, tangible, real.

Sight is only one sense. Touching your coins can greatly enhance your enjoyment of them.

Carrying coins around can also be a great conversation starter. You don't want to be labeled as a coin nerd by pulling out a coin at every cocktail party and social event you attend, but it can be a lot of fun showing a cool coin in this way to friends, colleagues, and family members. And if you're in a situation where somebody needs a flip of the coin, pulling out an old and interesting coin rather than an ordinary quarter can be a real attention getter.

Pocket Piece Risks

Of course, there are also good reasons to avoid carrying collectible coins as ordinary pocket change.

For one thing, an uncirculated specimen would quickly lose its uncirculated status, and high-grade circulated coins can pick up nasty fingerprints and other problems. Infamously, one of the owners of an ultrarare 1804 dollar, the "the Adams-Carter specimen," reportedly carried it with him in his pocket, unprotected, to and from coin club meetings, which caused wear on the proof specimen and lowered its value by hundreds of thousands of dollars.

So it's best to carry around only lower-grade coins, and even here it can be a good idea to protect them while in your pocket. You have lots of options. One way is to place the coin in a small felt pouch so it won't get banged up further when rattling around with your pocket change. Another is to place it in a small plastic bag. Or you can keep it in a pocket in which you don't carry other change or put it in a "safety flip" and keep it in your wallet or purse.

Another potential downside is the security risk. Keeping a coin as a pocket piece is the opposite of hiding coins away, such as in a safe deposit box, to be as secure as possible. While this provides protection against theft, an important consideration in today's age, it can detract from your ability to enjoy your collection.

The security risk is generally overblown, for most collectors. Some people warn against talking about a coin you're carrying because of the attention it might get, but many women wear sometimes very expensive jewelry out in the open on their fingers as rings or their necks as necklaces, and there's no rash of thefts of them.

Likewise, some people warn against even mentioning to others that you're a coin collector and recommend that you go so far as having coin publications sent to a post office box number, out of concern that someone will break into your house and steal your collection. While coin theft does happen, and it can be tragic when it does, so does car theft. Cars are worth more than the collections of most hobbyists, and we don't secure cars in a locked garage every time we're not driving.

Still, it can make sense to insure your collection, through a rider to your home insurance policy or through the American Numismatic Association's coin collection insurance plan. (Visit the ANA's Web site at http://www.money.org or phone them at 800-367-9723 for more information.)

It can also make sense to take prudent precautions against theft, such as not leaving coins out in the open when your teenage son is having a party and avoid bragging about any pricey coins you have when the wrong people might be listening.

Other precautionary options are to securely lock up expensive coins when you're out of the house -- some people use safes that are bolted to the floor -- and if appropriate for your neighborhood and level of risk aversion, to install a home security system.

Pocket Piece Ideas

There are almost as many types of coins that make good pocket pieces as there are coins worth collecting. Questions specific to pocket pieces to ask yourself are: What coin would you most enjoy pulling out and looking at while standing in an elevator? What coin would friends or family be most impressed with, perhaps one they've never seen before? What coin has an interesting story behind it that you could tell in a few words?

Coin types not currently in circulation can make good choices for pocket pieces. The Barber series, named after U.S. Mint chief engraver Charles E. Barber and dated 1892 to 1916 (Barber halves were last dated 1915), is one such example. These dimes, quarters, and half dollars, unlike coins today, all carried the same design, and they were the backbone of U.S. coinage in their time.

Another good example is the popular Morgan dollar. These big silver coins, named after U.S. Mint assistant engraver George T. Morgan, are dated 1878 to 1921 (with none dated 1905 to 1920). Morgan used Anna Williams, a kindergarten teacher, as his model for Lady Liberty, a job that reportedly got her fired from her teaching position because modeling was considered improper for refined young ladies during the Victorian era.

Odd denomination coins also make good choices. Not many non-coin people today know that half-cent, two-cent, and three-cent coins circulated in our country's past. All had relatively short runs.

The half cent had the longest run of these particular coins, from 1793 to 1857, though it skipped a number of years because of a lack of demand or a shortage of copper, including the years 1812 through 1824 and 1836 through 1848. It and the large cent were the only denominations issued for regular circulation during the U.S. Mint's first year of operation, 1793. In the early 1800s the half cent had surprising buying power. You could buy a beer or a cold supper for ten cents and a night's lodging for five cents.

The two-cent piece, which was minted for only ten years, from 1864 to 1873, is interesting not only because of its odd denomination but also because it began its life during the Civil War and was the first circulating coin to include the motto "In God We Trust." This motto won out over others that were considered, including "God and Our Country." The inclusion of the motto resulted from the strong religious fervor the Civil War had brought on. It wasn't until 1938, with the introduction of the Jefferson nickel, that the motto appeared on all circulating U.S. coins. The two-cent piece, like the $2 bill, proved to be more nuisance than convenience for shopkeepers and the public as a whole.

Nickel three-cent pieces had a slightly longer mint run of 25 years, from 1865 to 1889, though a few of those years saw only proofs produced. Early on the coin was popular as a replacement for three-cent fractional currency notes -- small paper substitutes for coins that were needed because the public was hoarding precious metals during the Civil War. The nickel three-cent piece was also useful in purchasing First Class stamps, which cost just three cents back in the mid-1800s. Its end finally came about when postal rates increased in 1889.

Silver three-cent pieces circulated as well, with dates ranging from 1851 to 1873. These tiny coins were the smallest circulating U.S. coins of all time, weighing just three-fourths of a gram and measuring only 14 millimeters in diameter.

Because of their sheer age, ancient coins can also make good pocket pieces. Some of them are amazingly affordable as well. Among the best bargains in all of numismatics, in fact, are ancient Roman bronzes. Many millions of them were minted, and new ones are found in hoards underground every year -- families and soldiers often buried their savings or pay for safekeeping, and if disaster struck, the coins stayed buried until uncovered by a construction worker, farmer, or metal detectorist.

Despite the fact that these coins are nearly two thousand years old, you can buy attributed late Roman bronzes in Very Fine condition for as little as $5.

Those from the House of Constantine are among the most interesting. Constantine I, also known as Constantine the Great, was the first Roman emperor to embrace Christianity, an act that was key in its later dissemination throughout Europe and to the worldwide popularity of Christianity today. Constantine reigned from 307 to 337 A.D. When he died, however, his sons were less than Christian in sharing his empire, with Constantine II demanding more territory from his younger brother Constans, who refused. Constantine II consequently invaded Italy, part of Constans' territory, in 340 A.D. Greedy with ambition, Constantine II lost his life in an ambush.

It was little more than a century later, in 476 A.D., that one of the greatest empires of all time would collapse in the West out of both attack from without and decay from within.

World coins can also make good choices for pocket pieces, particularly if you've traveled abroad. By pulling out and marveling at a British penny or French euro, for example, you can be reminded of the good times you spent in the respective country.

Changing Pocket Pieces

Many collectors like to rotate the coins they keep as pocket pieces. When they're bored with one, they use another. But you need to be careful that pocket pieces don't leave your pocket by mistake. Some collectors have reported that they've accidentally spent as pocket money the collectible coins they were keeping as pocket pieces. As a child during the 1960s I once received in change at Woolworth's an Indian Head two-and-a-half dollar gold piece, a coin just about the same size and color of a new Lincoln cent.

As with pocket change, you also need to be careful that your pocket piece doesn't fall out of your pocket by mistake. A colleague of mine found an ancient Roman coin he had been keeping as a pocket piece in his daughter's car months after he misplaced it.

Some collectors, on the other hand, freely give away their pocket pieces. If you've gotten really good service at a restaurant, for instance, giving a Morgan dollar as part of your tip can make a real impression.

Personally, I keep a fully attributed late Roman bronze in a "safety flip" in my wallet at all times. If I happen to be talking about coins to someone, and that person seems interested, I pull out the coin. If the person is impressed, I give it away. These coins have made great impromptu gifts to nieces and nephews, friends of my children, and my letter carrier, dentist, handyman, next-door neighbor, barber, bank teller, and friends. I've found that giving away coins like this to appreciative recipients is every bit as rewarding as buying coins that had been on my want list.

Provided you don't damage or lose them, pocket pieces can be a great way to extend your coin collecting enjoyment. Carrying coins in your pocket is carrying your hobby with you.

 

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© 2014 Reid Goldsborough

Note: Any of the items illustrated on these pages that are in my possession are stored off site.