170-year-old token ‘star of collection’ at Toronto Coin Expo

By Jesse Robitaille

Hundreds of pieces of Canadian history are ready to be auctioned off at the 2015 Toronto Coin Expo this spring.

Held in partnership with New Brunswick’s Geoffrey Bell Auctions, the semi-annual coin show takes place May 29 and 30 at the Toronto Reference Library on Yonge Street.

Geoff Bell, auctioneer and owner of Geoffrey Bell Auctions, said he expects the sale, which includes his collection of about 400 pre-Confederation tokens, to be outstanding.

“We’re going to have my collection, which is probably the best offered in the last 20 years, and we’ve got some nice supplementary material from other collectors to go with it,” he said.

“It’s going to be a real first-class sale.”

Luckily for Bell and other Canadian numismatists, Canada’s complex social history – often divided between lines like English/French, Upper/Lower and Aboriginal/European – has left behind a remarkable variety of coins and tokens for collectors to enjoy. 

“As you know, tokens are broken down into categories – there’s the pre-Confederation tokens, and then after that we’ve got local tokens, and they were issued by merchants in various communities to give away, similar to Canadian Tire money.”

Local business would often dispense these tokens in their customer’s change to entice them to shop there again soon. However, prior to Canadian Confederation, there was a lack of specie (coins made from precious metals), so businesses were left to issue their own tokens as currency.

“This will probably be the finest pre-Confederation token collection offered at least since the [Roy] Hughes collection was offered a number of years ago. Condition-wise, it’s going to be outstanding; variety-wise and in regards to the availability of rare pieces, it’s probably as good as has been offered in a long time.”

Bell has been collecting these tokens over the past five decades.

“Of course, the obvious thing is, as you get more sophisticated at it, you want better-conditioned specimens plus you want the very rare specimens, and some of them are very rare.”

One of the rarities offered from his collection is a roughly 170-year-old McAuslane token (Breton 956) struck for the owner of a Newfoundland dry goods store in 1844.

“The star of the collection is the McAuslane token,” said Bell. “He was a blacksmith in St. John’s around 1844, and he ordered 100 farthing-sized tokens to use in his store.”

However, two years later, a fire erupted in downtown St. John’s, where a disastrous mix of dry weather and strong winds fanned the flames throughout the town’s tightly placed wooden buildings. As it spread, the fire eventually reached vats of seal oil stored along the waterfront.

The Great Fire of 1846 caused about $1.5 million in damage and destroyed 2,000 buildings, including Peter McAuslane’s dry goods store and nearly all his tokens.

“Very few remain. The one I have is the finest known specimen in existence, and it should bring big, big money.”

He said another significant piece offered in this year’s sale is a Hunterstown Lumber Co. token (Breton 567), issued in 1852 near Rivière du Loup, Que.

“It was a half-pence store token struck for a lumber operation in the area.”

It is also considered a very rare token.

Brian Bell, Geoff’s son and face of the family business, said it’ll be very interesting to see the sale of his father’s collection.

“I grew up watching dad put this collection together ever since I was a youth, so I have a personal interest in watching it sell.”

He said he helped build his father’s collection over the years, adding rarities like the McAuslane token, which he purchased at the Stacks Bowers sale of the John J. Ford collection in 2013.

“I flew down to the Ford sale and bought it for him. I’m very proud to handle dad’s collection and see it sell. Personally, I have more interest in his banknotes and his medal collection, so I’d be a little more heartbroken to see that sell rather than his tokens. That being said, this is probably the most important offering in the last 30 to 40 years.”

Also included in his father’s collection are Prince Edward Island holey dollars and dumps, wheat-sheaf coins, McDermott tokens and other materials from the Temple and O’Connor collections.

Bell Sr., who has been very involved in numismatics over the past half-century, said the coin community is thriving as of late.

“I’m just amazed, to be quite frank with you. If you’d asked me that question a couple of years ago, I would’ve said it was on the wane.”

He said he was recently bidding on two local tokens – one from Newfoundland and one from Prince Edward Island – with surprisingly aggressive pricing.

“Mind you, they were rare, but they were going nuts. I used to pay $100 for those tokens – $200 at maximum – but one of them went for $1,300 and the other went for $400 or $500. There are obviously collectors out there, and they’re willing to pay the big bucks.”

Bell said his interest in pre-Confederation tokens held for nearly three decades before he moved on to something else.

“In the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, I was very interested in the pre-Confederation tokens, but once I picked up most of the rarities my interest waned a bit and I wanted to concentrate more on medals, which are my current interest. I’ve collected basically everything in the Canadian series – from banknotes to tokens to decimal coins – but right now, medals are my thing.”

He said collectors often go through this sort of evolution as their hobby progresses.

“As collectors, you tend to evolve in your collecting. You start with one thing and you evolve onto something else and so on. Most collectors start with a potpourri of a little of everything but then gradually start to realize certain things are more interesting to them than others, so they start collecting in certain fields.”

This branching out is a good sign for the hobby, he said.

“People are not so much concentrating in the decimal, but they’re moving into other areas like tokens, medals, paper money and scrip. They’re spreading out their wings a bit, and I think it’s healthy for the whole hobby.”

He said the reason he became interested in non-military Canadian medals is two-fold: he enjoys the research involved in learning about the different pieces in addition to their aesthetic value.

“A lot of things inspire me to collect these medals. I enjoy the research – who won them, who made them and how many of them are there? If they were awarded to someone, they were usually unique, one-of-a-kind,” said Bell.

“To me, they’re like a small sculpture. I think it’s a field that’s totally underdeveloped at this point but will become popular down the road. I see it happening already.”

He said the decision to sell his token collection came naturally to him.

“You always have qualms about parting with your nice stuff, but there comes a time. I’ve always said this to collectors: don’t ever think that anything is yours; we are simply curators. We hold an artifact for a period of time, and then it goes to someone else. That’s the way you have to think of collecting. It’s not yours – it’s only yours to enjoy for a period of time.”

“You reach a stage, at my age, and you realize you can’t hang on to everything forever.”

The lifelong collector said you get out of something what you put into it.

“If you put a lot into a hobby, you get a lot of it, and I’ve met so many wonderful people through the hobby over the years,” said Bell.

“I can go back into the ’60s and tell you about all these people – Sheldon Carroll, Doug Ferguson, Guy Potter, Jerry Remick – all those big names back at that time that I considered personal friends. Those people helped me a lot at the time because I was young and just learning, so I’m trying to do the same for new collectors today.”

He said the hobby was interesting for him from the outset.

“I can’t say enough about the hobby. I was a school principal, and I could come home at night, work with my collection and forget all the day’s problems. It was so nice to have a hobby like that, and it was a good investment besides that.”

Bell has had two stints as president of the Royal Canadian Numismatic Association (RCNA) and one as president of both the Canadian Paper Money Society and the Canadian Numismatic Research Society. He has also written extensively in journals.

Bell was also a recipient of the Royal Canadian Mint Award for numismatic education, the J. Douglas Ferguson Award for contribution to Canadian numismatics and the Paul Fiocca Award for long-term contributions to the RCNA. He is on the acquisitions committee for the Bank of Canada numismatic collection. Previously, he was the numismatic expert on the Canadian Antiques Roadshow.

“I guess you could say I’ve been really involved in the hobby over the years.”

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