Monday, February 18, 2019

Of Treasures Lost and Treasures Found

When I was a kid, my friends and I used to jump onto and off of fads fairly often. I remember going through phases of collecting George Barris trading cards and Wacky Packages stickers, and during one point in middle school, I went through a brief bout of coin collecting. One of our classmates seemed to be a serious-type collector--had the price guide and everything--so I started trying to put together my own collection.

It never went very far, just a handful of coins in  a jewelry box that looked like a treasure chest.

There were some special commemorative coins, and some Vietnamese coins that my uncle had brought back from the war, and then I just collected some old pennies and nickels and dimes here and there. My friend Erich, the serious-type collector, I think gave me a rare VDB penny that he probably wishes he still had, and I went to a coin shop and bought an old Mercury dime and a Buffalo nickel that were in horrible condition. I tossed in a couple of Bicentennial quarters, too.

The pride of my collection at that time was a pair of old Indian head pennies, one from 1907 and one from 1898. The 1898 one I was especially proud of, just because it was from a previous century, which made it seem impossibly old.

I've told this story to several people in the past, but the heartbreak of my coin collecting days was when I asked my dad, who owned a jewelry shop, to clean the coins in his ultrasonic jewelry cleaner. After he cleaned them, he decided to polish them up on his buffer.

This is one of the worst things you can do to an old coin. If you've never seen one, a buffer is essentially a motor that spins a cloth wheel at very high RPM's. You put a small amount of polishing compound on the wheel, then hold the items you want to shine against it.

This makes jewelry shiny and beautiful. But for coins, whose value is mostly determined by how close they are to mint condition, undamaged by the friction of countless hands and pockets, this is horrible. You are literally exposing the coins to years of normal wear in an instant.

If my dad had mentioned this idea to me before doing it, I would have explained it to him and asked him not to. But he did not ask, and it just so happened that as he was buffing my 1898 Indian head penny, pride of my collection, the other potential danger of the buffer came to fruition, namely the problem of keeping a secure grip on a small flat piece of metal while pressing it against a rapidly rotating wheel.

The penny went zinging off into the depths of his back room, which was not only crammed with junk, but also in the middle of being remodeled. The coin was gone forever.

I lost what zeal I had for coin collecting then. I did add to it now and then--German and French coins left over from a trip to Europe, Korean coins from when I was deployed overseas, some old Eisenhower silver dollars and Kennedy halves. My ex-wife gave me an old Liberty silver dollar that went in there. Later, I assembled a little booklet with a complete set of state quarters, and started accumulating presidential dollar coins as well. They were never worth very much, but I looked forward to handing them off to my daughter someday. They sat mostly forgotten on top of a tall bookshelf for years.

I moved recently, and because the new house was not quite as big as the old one, I ended up not moving everything at once. And one item that I neglected to move was that big bookshelf, with that small neglected chest of coins sitting atop it. I thought I would spend a few weeks sorting through old stuff, deciding what to keep and what to throw out. And one day, I came back to the old house to find the front door kicked in.

Literally the only thing missing was that chest of coins.

Like I said, the collection was never worth much, but it had sentimental value: the Vietnamese coins from my uncle, along with a piece of U.S. Army scrip that they used to purchase items at the PX, the mementos from my trip to Europe and Korea, the gifts from my childhood friend and my ex-wife. I suspect I may also have had my challenge coins from the various Army units I had served with in the chest.

I padlocked the front door in case they came back. The padlock kept them out on one attempt, but they got in again on their third try and ransacked the place. The only thing of real value they took was my comic collection, which I didn't have room for in the house and hadn't figured out where to store yet.

I finally hired another moving truck and moved out everything else that I really wanted to keep. I resecured the front door and cable-locked the gate to my fence, and with luck, that will keep them out. I haven't been back in a couple of days, though, so for all I know, they've cut their way in again. I'm almost afraid to go look.

Anyway, those things are gone, and I will never get them back. But there is another part to the story.

My dad decided to give me a little bag of old pennies that he had been setting aside for a while. Most of them were basically worthless, but I decided to go through them anyway, just to check. And I found something I never expected to find.

I may be mistaken, but this looks very much like a rare steel penny minted during World War II because of copper shortages. At least, it looks silver in color and the date fits. It's not worth much because it's in horrible condition, but its rarity makes it interesting, at least.

But that's not the biggest twist in the story. Because as I was going through this big bag of hundreds of pennies, sorting the wheat heads from the Lincoln Memorials from the occasional Canadian pennies, I found an even older penny.

An Indian head penny. From 1898.

Dad must have found the penny in his store at some point and just tossed it in a bag. It seems like too big a coincidence for him to have somehow run across another penny from that exact year.

So while some treasures were lost, a new treasure was found and another, once lost, has made its way back.

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