CWTS Article of the Month!
by David Schenkman
A friend owned a small coin shop not far from where I lived in Norfolk, Virginia and in 1960, after I was discharged from the Navy, I occasionally did work for him, usually packaging and pricing coins. I was interested in several series of early U.S. coinage, so my pay usually was in the form of additions to my collection. One day he purchased a large group of Indian head cents and asked me to get them ready for sale. As I sifted through the accumulation, hoping to find an 1877 or 1909-S, I noticed a few unusual pieces. Although they were about the same size and composition as Indian cents, they certainly didn’t appear to be coins.
So this was my introduction to Civil War tokens. The dealer was happy to give me these pieces; he knew what they were, but didn’t think there would be much market for them in his shop. I took them home and studied them at length. To me, they were much more interesting than a group of cents which were all identical except for their dates. I decided to collect them.
This was easier said than done. The question now was where to find more tokens, and how much to pay for them. As it turned out, locating tokens was a greater problem than buying them. Usually when found they could be purchased for a small price.
I haunted all the area coin shops, “talked tokens” at club meetings whenever possible, and my collection gradually grew. Before long I had amassed about two hundred varieties of Civil War tokens, and had reached the point where most pieces offered to me duplicated what I already owned. By this time I was considered the local “expert” on tokens, and in my infinite wisdom I decided that my collection was nearly as complete as it ever would be.
Then my bubble burst! I heard about the Fulds’ new catalogs of Civil War tokens, ordered them, and was shocked to discover that there were literally thousands of these tokens known to collectors. My collection was still in its infancy. It was even more of a surprise to learn that these books were not the first written on the subject; George Hetrich and Julius Guttag’s catalog had been published in 1924. So much for my “expertise.”
Well, maybe I wasn’t such an expert. So what? I still knew more about Civil War tokens than the other numismatists in my area, and armed with the Fulds’ catalogs, which now accompanied me wherever I went, I could readily determine which types were rare and which were common. With this knowledge I felt new confidence when offered a token. A quick look at the catalogs and I knew its rarity; thus I was able to make an educated decision about its worth.
I now found myself frequently purchasing tokens which would previously have been passed up because of price. After all, a common type might be overpriced at two dollars, while a rare token was possibly cheap at several times that price. Without the catalogs I wouldn’t have been able to make that determination. I also found that the catalogs were making money for me. More times than not these “expensive” tokens were actually quite underpriced.
The Fulds’ books were certainly paying for themselves many times over! And, since I knew what I was doing, my collection grew rapidly. I corresponded with other collectors, purchasing tokens and trading duplicates for pieces I needed. Without the books I wouldn’t have felt comfortable doing this. Knowledge is power!
David Schenkman is a 2004 Civil War Token Society Hall of Fame Inductee, 2015 American Numismatic Association Hall of Fame Inductee and regular contributor to The Numismatist on tokens and medals.