You’ve got to know enough to study the book

The classics, they say, never go out of style. I was reminded of that recently in working on an article for CCN’s sister publication, Canadian Stamp News. The story had plenty of drama, a third example of the rarest Canadian stamp was discovered by a collector, and purchased for just a few dollars, while the value is easily more than $100,000. The discovery would be similar to finding a 1921 50-cent piece in AU condition, sitting in a dealer’s junk silver inventory, with a bunch of common-date silver coins.

The reason I mention it here is that I was immediately reminded of one of the first things I learned about coin collecting. That old maxim “buy the book before you buy the coin.” In this case the reason the collector found a great rarity was because he knew enough to know what to look for, and wasn’t afraid to act on his knowledge. Established collectors know that, all other things being equal, whoever knows the most makes the best deal. I discovered this early on, when purchasing one of my first Victoria silver crowns.

The coins were struck with a date on them corresponding to the calendar year. They also had edge engraving, amounting to the reignal year. That number changed on the anniversary of Victoria’s coronation, so there are two types for each year. As you can imagine, there are very few cases where the number of each variety produced, and several silver melts since then have all but made the initial mintage figures useless. The only way to know the relative value of the two versions is to have a reference. Since I was building a date set, I could have pursued several strategies. I could have aimed for two of each year; I could have aimed for the less expensive coin of each year, only buying the scarcer one when the price was right; or I could have aimed to get the scarcer dates only, again looking for undervalued prices.

But I knew none of that at the time, because I hadn’t taken the time to study the book. Instead, I bought one of the commoner coins and paid too much. Then I did my research and discovered my mistake. My research also revealed that the series was far too expensive for my collecting budget. Given that information, I resolved to put together a type set, from Victoria to Elizabeth. Today, the set remains incomplete, the coins buried in a box. One day, I will pick it up again, and this time I will have a plan, and the knowledge to do it right.

Colville’s coins were art For me, the name Alex Colville has always invoked memories of the 1967 commemorative series. I was 11 when those coins first came out, and remember getting an Uncirculated Set early in the year. I can actually remember the moment, since it was at the school patrol’s monthly Saturday movie in Ottawa’s Capital Theatre. I remember checking out these designs in the dim light of the theatre, and struggling to make out the details. Of course, even then I was a bit of a cynic. Rather than set aside these keepsakes as a way to remember the 100th birthday of my home and native land, I reasoned that the Mint would be making lots of these, so they wouldn’t have a particular value in the future.

So instead of keeping them as is, I unleashed the coins and enjoyed the sudden pleasure of having a couple more bucks of spending money. It wasn’t one of my proudest collecting moments. In my defence, I can say that my sole coin collecting interest was a date set of circulated one-cent coins. So only one coin in the set actually lined up with my collecting goals. Besides, back then a 25-cent coin was a significant amount of money. At that time, a chocolate bar cost five cents, a ride downtown on the Ottawa bus cost a mere 10 cents, and a large chocolate malt could be had for 20 cents.

But monetary value aside, Colville’s designs were the first coins I looked at that got me excited about the look. The images were clean, simpler than the other coins in use at that time; actually cleaner than most coins in use today, since our basic circulating coins from five-cent to 25-cent are still the same ones issued in 1966. Colville’s coins were not the first ones I collected, but they were the first coins I saw as art.

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