Thursday, August 18, 2005

Journal of a Living Lady #255

Nancy White Kelly

It isn’t easy making a dollar these days. I speak from experience.
For over forty years I have been keenly interested in old coins. The hobby is called numismatics. To hold an old coin is a delight to me as most coins are both artistic and historical.

I enjoy rubbing my fingers over the raised ridges and pondering where the coin has been. Did the silver thaler circulate during the Revolutionary war? Was the deutschmark, with its swastika, minted by the infamous Nazi Third Reich in the late 1930’s?

My numismatic hobby eventually became a side-line business. Though education was my profession, I bought and sold copper, gold and silver coins as occasions arose.

A couple of years ago I invested a goodly amount of money and time in obtaining credentials in coin appraisal. The purpose was primarily to improve my personal numismatic education, but also to give me credibility for doing professional numismatic evaluations for banks or estate executors.

It is not unusual for the phone to ring with an inquiry. The most common question is, “How much is my old coin worth?”

Recently Buddy took a call on the Old Money Commerce line from an elderly lady. It is hard to disguise his Mississippian dialect, but he tried. In his most professional voice, he told the lady that the “COE” would return the call shortly. I don’t fix cars, weed eaters, or airplanes. He doesn’t answer numismatic questions. We know our limitations.

The lady volunteered her age to be 93. She was in the process of preparing to move near relatives when she had found her old coins.

From the woman’s description, I determined that she had several Washington quarters, a couple of Kennedy half dollars, a few Indian cents and a handful of miscellaneous coins with faint or unreadable dates. I mentally calculated that the coins she was describing might net her $25 tops though I never make a guestimate by phone. So much is dependent on condition. Trained eye balls are needed to accurately grade coins as there is a considerable difference of opinion even among experts.

Normally I would not have been interested in her meager cache. Yet, her gentle, worn voice reminded me of my beloved grandmother who died at the age of 99. She is in heaven now and I miss her.

Contrary to good business sense, I agreed to look at her little collection. The lady gave me precise directions to her home. Buddy slipped me $25 cash and told me to add it to whatever I would offer. That wasn’t out of character for him. Buddy is a softie for old ladies. He had a wonderful mother who modeled generosity in spite of her own poor circumstances. She died not long ago at the age of 98. Buddy and I both miss her.

I arrived on time in spite of missing a turn and driving ten miles too far. The woman was standing on the porch. She opened the front door and motioned for me to sit at the kitchen table. The pensive woman removed the coins from her apron and slowly unwrapped them. The dull, hapless coins were squarely wrapped in old paper napkins surrounded by withered rubber bands. She patted the small pile as if it were a pet.

There was no need to pull out a reference guide to look up current values. It was obvious that she had little more than $10 worth of coins. While I made meaningless notes, the old woman pointed to scores of medicine bottles on the kitchen counter.

“Times are hard,” she related. I nodded in agreement. Profit went out the window. Charity came in. I know first-hand about the high price of medicine. I put $50 in her shaky hand and asked her if she thought that this was a fair amount.

“Whatever you say,” she said, resigning herself to the parting of her sentimental hoard. She reached again into her pocket.

“You can’t have this one,” she said, showing me one of the new state quarters that had been electronically colorized.

“A friend gave it to me,” she said, as she clutched the treasure to her chest. “It was from his last visit.”

“Sure, you keep that one,” I said hesitantly, trying to feign some sign of disappointment.

On the way home, the gas indicator on the car dash reminded me that I needed gas. I paid the cashier the best part of a $50 bill.

The irony of the situation made me laugh. I left that morning with $100 and was returning with an old lady’s change and a near-empty billfold.

I will never be a great entrepreneur. But that is okay. I slept well that night.

Sometimes it is not all about money.


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