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Penniless at Last

John Yeigh

IN AN EARLIER ARTICLE, I noted that my savings journey began in 1960 with a couple of jars of pennies that I started collecting at age five. I was following family ancestor Ben Franklin’s maxim that “a penny saved is a penny earned.”

One of my uncles also had an interest in coin collecting. He and I began to actively search through countless penny rolls to find pennies with dates that we didn’t have. We bought Whitman coin albums and organized our pennies by date from the earliest Lincoln head pennies from 1909 up through the 1960s.

We expanded our collection to include sets of Buffalo and Jefferson nickels, Mercury and Roosevelt dimes, and Washington silver quarters, plus any older coin we happened upon. Occasionally, we found Indian head pennies, Liberty nickels, Barber dimes or Walking Liberty quarters still in circulation. These dimes and quarters contained 90% silver through 1964, so they had a recognized commodity value.

Our coin-collecting hobby lasted for eight years. During those eight years, we amassed five nearly complete Lincoln penny sets, missing only the rare 1909 penny minted in San Francisco with the initials V.B.D. for its engraver. One of these pennies in fine condition can cost more than $1,000.

We had jars of old duplicate pennies as well. We assembled a couple of complete sets of Jefferson nickels and Roosevelt dimes. Our most valuable collection was the three nearly complete sets of Mercury dimes, lacking only a rare 1916 10-cent piece minted in Denver. We accumulated plenty of duplicate year silver coins as well.

My uncle passed away in 1968 due to complications from polio, and my interests shifted. That’s when my coin collection went into hibernation, stored in various basements untouched for 50 years.

I have no interest in pursuing this hobby today, and neither do my kids. To clean up my estate, as I suggested in another article and on this blog site, I started to sell my coin collection a couple of years ago.

Monetizing a haphazard coin collection is not a simple process. The coins have different values to different buyers. The Lincoln pennies and Mercury dimes had more value sold as a set to collectors. My bulk coins frequently didn’t have much numismatic premium over their silver or copper melt value.

I sold the rarer loose coins at a premium over the web. The remaining bulk coins went to a local coin dealer at commodity values. Bulk coins are heavy, making them too expensive to ship to anyone willing to pay a slight premium.

These coin sales took me several years to complete. How did I do over my 55-year holding period? Okay, but not great.

After tons of work, plus some costs, I ended up grossing about $3,500. I don’t know exactly how much my uncle and I spent buying these coins back in the 1960s. We acquired the vast majority of the coins for their original face value. I’m guessing the whole collection cost $200 and certainly not more than $300, because we couldn’t afford much at the time.

At best, this translates to a total gain of 17.5 times the original investment. That’s roughly equivalent to the appreciation of silver since 1966. I made far more from the silver coins than I did from the nickels or copper pennies.

By comparison, the S&P 500 and gold prices have risen 50-fold over the same period. Berkshire Hathaway stock appreciated more than 21,000 times.

One clear takeaway: Only collect things for personal enjoyment rather than as an investment. Another is that the sale of a long-term collection can be annoyingly time-consuming. You can see this for yourself by watching the TV show American Pickers. They regularly demonstrate how hard it can be to monetize collections, even when the collections have solid value.

John Yeigh is an author, speaker, coach, youth sports advocate and businessman with more than 30 years of publishing experience in the sports, finance and scientific fields. His book “Win the Youth Sports Game” was published in 2021. John retired in 2017 from the oil industry, where he negotiated financial details for multi-billion-dollar international projects. Check out his earlier articles.

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