Silver streak: The value of classic coins

For several years, my paternal grandfather ran a movie theater in North Dakota.

When I was young, I knew this because, long after he had retired, my family owned small plastic buckets of bright goldenrod waxy “butter,” which was what they used to pop and flavor movie popcorn.

We’d chip out a wedge to melt in our home popcorn maker. Before microwave bags or air poppers were around, the hot-oil popper was the convenient way to go: No standing at the stove shaking a pan! Plus, you could add actual butter at the top for flavoring — it would melt just about the time the kernels began to pop and ping against the surface, in theory giving each piece a mini-run-in with greatness. And if it couldn’t get any better, the popper’s lid, when turned upside-down, could be used as a bowl! Handy!

I was reminded of my grandfather’s movie-theater roots again five years ago, when I returned home for my high-school reunion. My father, perhaps spurred by his recent cancer diagnosis, took me downstairs and pulled out a canvas bag that was incredibly heavy for its relatively small size.

“Your grandfather collected coins,” he told me. “When he ran the theater, he would put aside the silver dollars and half-dollars.” I’d never seen a Peace dollar before, and I thought it was the most beautiful coin I’d ever seen. (I still do — an example is at right. Minted only from 1921–28 and 1934–35, the coin was designed by a sculptor who used his wife as the model.) The bag also held Morgan dollars (pictured at top), and several types of half-dollars and other miscellaneous coins. “Take these home,” my dad said.

The bag was so heavy I knew I couldn’t add it to my carry-on, so I split the contents in two; Funny Michael and I maria-full-of-graced our way through  airport security, laden with coins, mine in a bag clearly stamped with the name of a bank. I was pretty sure we’d be stopped for questioning — especially Michael, who was determined to also smuggle home the Kum & Go lighter I’d bought him at the astoundingly named convenience store. (This being Montana, we made it through unscathed.)

When I got home, I bought a coin-values book and painstakingly researched each of the dollars and half-dollars, creating a spreadsheet that listed years, conditions and mint marks. None was particularly rare, which I’ll admit extinguished a tiny optimistic “lottery!”-style hope, so I just held on to the coins, hiding them in a safe spot.

Out of sight, out of mind: I’d see the spreadsheet if I powered up the laptop it had been created on, but after I sprang for an iMac, the days of Dell were few and far between. I pretty much forgot the coins existed until I ran across the bag during a cleaning spree a few months ago. That re-sparked my curiosity about their worth, but I wasn’t sure how to really find out.

I could try to sell the coins online, but they’d probably need to be professionally graded first, and that’s expensive. I was leery of approaching coin dealers, fearing unscrupulous behavior, so I emailed a few I found through the Better Business Bureau, wondering if they’d be game to help out with estimates. (One didn’t answer, and another replied once but never got back in touch with me, despite several follow-up entreaties. Rude!)

Today I was driving around and, on the spur of the moment, remembered a coin dealer that is just blocks away from my office. “I bet it’s open today,” I said. It was indeed — and the guys at Crown Jewels* & Coin couldn’t have been friendlier or more professional, even despite the lack of any super-rare coins.

* I just now got that: crown jewels.

My biggest surprise wasn’t the value of the dollar coins — after all, I’d done a little work on my own. But while I had them painstakingly organized by year and wrapped, there had been a bunch of other coins just hanging around loose — old quarters, dimes, nickels that were so beaten up through circulation that I figured they wouldn’t be worth much.

My grandfather, a man who didn’t have the opportunity to attend high school, knew something that his college-educated grandson was utterly clueless about: Those coins you see above? They’re all 90% silver.

Before 1965, dimes, quarters, half-dollars and dollar coins were 90% silver, 10% copper. (Nowadays, the ratio is 92% copper, 8% nickel.) That zip-lock baggie of beaten-up coins above was worth more than $450, because of the silver content alone. There was a lot of wheat in what I had thought was chaff.

I kept a few coins as mementos, but turned in the others. I’m still a little astounded by what those coins were worth, especially that loose change. (When I told Michael, his reply was: “Shut the front door. Amazing. I was a coin mule.”)  It’s a good reminder that you can learn a lot from your older relatives — even decades after they’ve passed away. Hats off to you, Grandpa Sam.

WHAT SAM WORE: 6-23-12
The shirt: University of Montana T-shirt, a gift from Mr. Brooks.
The shorts: Cotton drawstring-waist shorts by Mossimo, from Target.
The shoes: Custom All-Stars, which I created on converse.com.
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