Category Archives: Numismatics

Chicago ANA, 2014

I spent the last week in Chicago at the ANA’s World’s Fair of Money.  It was a show full of controversy, difficult hunts for coins, but it had its rewards as well.

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The Barber Coins Guy

John H. Bunge
9 November 1929 – 15 April 2013

I knew John Bunge longer than any other coin collector, bar none.

I knew John Bunge first as a teacher.  He taught my ninth grade geometry class, at a school that was closed a few years ago, in 1978-79.  By all accounts he was a good teacher.  Even though I was in his class I really can’t judge.  I was a math whiz and the mark of a good teacher is how well he teaches the students who would otherwise struggle with the subject.

Then I knew him as a collector.  Very early in my time as a member of the two local clubs in Colorado Springs, he gave a short talk on the Liberty Head or “Barber” coins that were issued from 1892-1916, and for that reason I had him “tagged” in my mind as a collector of Barber coinage from that point on.  With one thing or another he stopped going to the meetings for a few years, then I did, but we started seeing each other at the meetings fairly regularly this past year.  I really don’t know firsthand what else he collected though I remember him giving talks and showing off other items at meetings of the Colorado Springs Numismatic Society.  I did one day last year bring my three Barber type coins to a Numismatic Society meeting in the hopes that he would be there, and he was.  (Twenty years later he was still the Barber Coins guy.)  He pronounced them “gems.”

Those who knew him much better than I did said he had many interests and went after all of them with an intense passion, which is exactly as it should be.

He attended the Numismatic Society meeting this last Sunday, and I did not go.  He passed away the next day in his sleep, having just done some work on the kitchen.  Just that suddenly he was gone, leaving behind Claire, his wife of 62 years, and a large number of children, grandchildren, and even a few great-grandchildren (one on the way as I write this).

So long, old friend.

The Barber Coins

Another way for me to pay a tribute to John would be to talk about the Barber series of coins a bit.  Perhaps the reason John’s interest in the Barber coins stuck in my mind so thoroughly is that it’s a bit unusual.  The designs that came after 1916 are widely regarded as beautiful artwork:  The “Mercury” dime, the standing liberty quarter and the walking liberty half are artistic classics, and the walking liberty half design got recycled onto our present “silver eagle” bullion coin. By comparison the Barber series (which is sometimes considered to include the “V” nickel, which was designed by Barber but is a bit different from the dime, quarter and half dollar) are considered staid and dull and hardly seem like they could be interesting at all.  Even the portrait of Liberty on the coins seems lacking in much detail, with a broad flat cheek and a liberty cap with almost no detail in it, rather than bare hair (which would tend to have a lot).  This, I believe, was a deliberate decision on the part of Charles Barber (I’ll explain below).  In any case, the US Mint waited the statutory 25 years between design changes, and once that time period was up they dumped this design.

One look at a lustrous gem uncirculated Barber quarter or half dollar, though, and you will be surprised.  These coins look fantastic in a lustrous uncirculated grade.  I have uncirculated examples in each denomination but I won’t show my photographs here, because my photographs don’t do them justice and in this case it’s vital that justice be done.  But if you are reading this and don’t know what the Barber design looks like, see here.  (You’ll note that in many cases the coins pictured there are a bit worn or weakly struck–I wish I could get decent pictures of mine, but I simply haven’t learned how to handle luster when photographing.)

One of the most beautiful coins I ever saw was a Barber quarter, where the reverse field had toned an electric blue.  Picture that eagle and the stars against a vibrant blue blackground.  That coin was in an auction clear back in 1996, and bidding opened at three times the Red Book price.  (You get three guesses as to who doesn’t own that coin but wishes he did.)

It turns out that Barber halves are noticeably expensive to obtain in mint state grades though the quarter and dime are much more manageable.  In fact, if anyone has ever managed to assemble a set of mint-state, well struck barber halves, he or she is keeping mum because at least some people claim it has never been done.  Quarters and dimes, though not as expensive, can also be difficult to find in mint state.

So a challenge and surprising beauty when you first see an uncirculated piece.  That’s enough.  People will collect them, passionately enough that there’s an organization devoted to the Barber coinage.  (I’d have joined if I, as a type collector, weren’t already done.)

But I promised to explain my comment on Barber’s motivation for the plain design.  I think he knew he was designing a coin, first and foremost.  Most forms of sculpture do not suffer a lot of wear, but a coin will, and Barber was very cognizant of this and accounted for it when he made his designs.   He wanted to have a design that would wear fairly gracefully, and he succeeded.  If his silver coinage wears a bit, nothing is lost because the high points of the design all have no detail on them.  Even on heavily worn pieces you can tell what the design is supposed to be.  Contrast that with the walking liberty half dollar which has all sorts of detail in the high points.  First off, those details are rarely struck up properly to begin with.  Then consider that on a worn (or really badly struck–and there are a lot of those!) walker half dollar the design quickly comes to resemble a plain vertical bar and it’s hard to appreciate the design then.  I’ll even go so far as to say they look ugly then.  Of the three post-Barber designs, I think the dime holds up best as it wears.  (By contrast, the “walker” design was an excellent choice for the non circulating, and painstakingkly well struck, silver eagle, which allows its strengths to come through and be preserved.)

Apparently Charles Barber went to his grave claiming that the “Mercury” dime, Standing Liberty Quarter, and Walking Liberty Half designs were failures.  By his criteria, I think he was right.

It’s almost a hundred years since the Barber coinage was discontinued, but of course we still have the coins and can, if we take an interest, collect them.  Staid and boring?  Not really but I will admit it is an acquired taste.

The Core of Numismatics

The numismatic world–and all the related things like paper money, tokens, medals, and things that are even more exonumia than that–is pretty big, actually; not only does it span the world, but it’s big business, too.  There are investors, third party grading services, services that will check the third party grading service and tell you they agree with it, dealers, auction houses, publishing–oh lots of publishing, to the point where there are rare book dealers who specialize in numismatic books, and people talk in awe of others’ numismatic libraries!  I’ve seen no estimates but there just isn’t any way this is not a multi-billion-dollar “industry”–except it’s not an industry, it’s a hobby–in the United States alone.  And I am not including the part of it that’s actually dealing with precious metals that have no added numismatic (or “collector”) value.

All of it–all of it— depends on the collector.  The kid pushing quarters into a 50 State Quarters folder.  And the multimillionaire who bought the 1794 dollar that–many claim–is the very first US silver dollar ever made.  Without collectors who care about a grade, third party grading services would not exist.  The dealers would have no one to buy their stock, or for that matter, to sell them stock either.  Auction houses would have no bidders.  And few would care enough to buy the book before not buying the coin.  So that would wipe out the rare coin book dealers too.

That covers everything in my laundry list except the investor.  Surely the investors would still be out there, buying material and waiting for it to go up in price?  Well, maybe they would for a little while, if all the true collectors vanished.  But an investor is in it primarily to turn around and sell it for a profit later (nothing wrong with that), and for that he needs a buyer.  Now that buyer might be another investor.  Or it could be a collector.  But ultimately, why is the coin valuable?  Because some collector wants it, and wants it badly enough to part with big bucks to purchase a coin that has a face value of fifty cents and maybe ten dollars worth of silver in it.  The collector is the end user of the item, and without an end user, it has no market value. Were it not for us, no investor would care that the dime says 1894 on one side and “S” on the other.  So if we disappeared, the investors would eventually realize that they are now in a bubble… and that very realization would make it burst.

Again, a rare coin’s ultimate value to an investor lies in the fact that a collector wants it.  That having been said, investors entering a market can certainly increase demand that is already there; we’ve all see speculative bubbles, and I’ve been burned by one or two myself.  (The collector that has never made a mistake probably pulls everything out of circulation.  Which could itself be considered a mistake.)

All of those other parts of the hobby are nothing without us collectors.

Does that make them parasites?  Are they exploiting us?  Given the individuals involved are honest, and most are, absolutely not.  (Fraud, on the other hand is always bad.)  You see, we collectors would be almost nothing without them.  We could still collect, but we would be doing it from circulation, with no dealers.  Our collections would be pathetic.  We’d all be at the level of the kid with his coin folder–except we wouldn’t even have the folder, so we’d be wondering what years have “S” mint marks and what ones don’t.  (And if by chance we actually did stumble on something rare, we’d never know it.)  We’d have no idea what was out there, without the books–so the good news, I suppose, would be we’d have no idea how pathetic our collections were.  So yes we need the dealers and writers and publishers almost as badly as they need us.  And third party grading and certification is quite useful (yes! Though we sure like to gripe about them).  And auctions are, bar none, the best way to get your money out of your expensive and eclectic items when that time comes and your collection needs to be offloaded.

All these people make money off of us, but they are worth it.  Of course they are; if they weren’t would we spend our money on them instead of the next coin?  If we woke up one day and decided (for example) “you know these third party grading services are utterly worthless, that coin isn’t worth any more in the slab than out of it,” then suddenly the sounds of cracking slabs would reverberate across the land.  And that would be the end of them–slabs and graders both.  (Of course the fact that the slab really does add value does not mean you should buy the slabbed coin for its label!)

But it must be remembered that even though these individuals greatly enhance our enjoyment of the hobby, we collectors are the core.

Next:  Why the ANA–And Its Leadership–Matters