Members of the Reno Coin Club are always on the lookout for spare change
Apparently, it all began with Constantine the Great.
When David Elliot, member of the Reno Coin Club, returns from the back room of his house with an enormous binder bursting at the seams with ancient coins, he opens straight to the section on Roman emperors and, more specifically, his page of coins depicting the many acts of Constantine.
“You can really get a sense of his life,” says Elliot, hunching over the plastic sleeves to get a closer look. “This one shows Constantine praying to heaven after he got in trouble for killing his wife and son.” Another depicts the hand of God reaching down for Constantine and the chariot he is steering toward the heavens.
You may remember Constantine the Great from high school history books as the Roman emperor and leader of a pagan army who, one night on the eve of battle against a formidable enemy, had a vision of a cross in the sky. It was enough for him to rally his troops to victory and inspire a personal conversion to Christianity, still a young religion at the time.
“Anyone that was famous made a coin,” says Elliot, who started collecting currency 25 years ago. “I saw a Constantine the Great in the ‘70s and decided to send off for it. But I started like everybody else, collecting U.S. coins as a kid.”
In the ‘60s, Elliot would look for the real silver coins and take them out of circulation. These days, he has a penchant for ancient Roman, Greek and Russian coins, and he estimates his total collection numbers near 6,000 pieces.
His collection also spans history. Elliot flips through the plastic notebook pages, and momentarily visible are names like Ptolemy, Alexander and Cleopatra. He stops and identifies some of his favorites: an Epirus Phyrros coin from around 272 B.C., depicting the head of Zeus; an “owl” from 425 B.C., one of the very first coins minted in the Holy Land; a Greek coin minted in the colony of Corinth, with Athena’s head on one side and the body of Pegasus on the other.
“This one’s about as old as you can get,” says Elliot, reaching for a coin from Cyprus that dates back to 7th century B.C. Regional currency much older than this, he says, wouldn’t actually be coinage in the form that we know it—just a bit of bronze perhaps, created before people used minting processes. He retires to the back room again and, not surprisingly, returns with just that: an ancient lump of bronze discovered in the foundation of a church in Rome.
“Roman coin number one!” he says, smiling and dropping it onto the table.
As historically impressive as the collection sounds, most of the individual coins are rather inexpensive, about $20 per piece. Elliot attributes this to a recent overabundance in the amount of ancient coinage being found and traded.
“During the ‘80s,” he says, “prices were so high you could only get one or two at a time. But with the influx in metal detecting in those parts of the world where the coins are found, it’s dragged down the prices as the coins flooded the market.” Elliot estimates there to be about 100,000 people collecting ancient currency. And with millions of coins available, the demand is certainly less.
“These days, it’s possible to buy nice ancients for $10 or $12,” says Elliot. “One reason I collect lower-grade bronze and silver coins is because no one will go through the trouble to fake an ugly one. So I buy beat-up ones—they’re cheaper and, that way, my wife won’t kill me.”
Still, 6,000 coins at an average of $20 each is a pretty penny.
“Eventually, I did the math and decided it was time to buy some safes,” he says, reaching for another notebook.
The following week, on a balmy, summer Tuesday evening, Elliot and the gang that makes up the Reno Coin Club meet at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church on West Seventh Street. The night’s proceedings begin with a class and a raffle and end with a lecture on the history of counterfeit currency. Meetings convene at the church on the first Tuesday of each month, and attendance varies with about half the club’s members showing up each session. Tonight there are fewer than usual, somewhere around 20 gentlemen asking questions and sharing stories with the guest lecturer.
“We’re a well-rounded club,” says Paul Williams, a coin enthusiast and member who writes the club’s newsletter. “There’s a wide variety of interests—some collect silver strikes, some ancient coins, paper money or ‘error’ coins.” ("Error” coins include the rare finds struck with the same image on both sides, as in a coin with two heads or tails.)
“We’re all different types of people with all different types of backgrounds and educations,” Williams continues. “Most are older gentlemen, some retired. There are teachers, bankers, ex-military, historians and a handful of professional coin dealers.”
“Anyone is welcome,” says Elliot, gavel in hand, who, aside from presiding over the club’s meetings, works as the director of a substance abuse program, holds three masters degrees and is currently finishing a Ph.D. in Russian history.
The club, which began in 1984, the brainchild of Larry Demangate of Sierra Coin Company and member Allen Penland, belongs to the American Numismatic Association. Each year, on the first weekend in May, the club hosts the Reno Coin Show, a primary source of funding for the group and an event which can bring in up to 1,500 people over two days.
“There are local, regional and national clubs that put on local, regional and national shows,” explains A.J., tonight’s guest lecturer, a coin dealer in his early 30s, and (children of Reno Coin Club members notwithstanding) the youngest active member of the club, although the club has programs for junior members. “Local dealers come to shows, sell to regional dealers, and they sell to national dealers. And that’s how the coins circulate.”
Many make a living on the coin trading circuit, as United States coinage can be an investment that appreciates well, and a rare coin can bring in a fortune. Few people know Carson City had a mint, and some of the anomalous dimes struck there are worth $25,000 or more. A few copper cents were struck during World War II, a period when steel pennies were minted, and somewhere there’s a 1913 nickel that is allegedly one of 13 in the world. Says Elliot, “these things can still show up every once in a while. Someone found one of those steel pennies in their change not too long ago.”
But as anyone who collects knows, it’s not just about monetary value, especially when a collection is based on an arbitrary fancy. So, why do people collect?
“They’re little things of history that represent us,” says Williams. “No matter what you collect, it’s worth more to you than to anyone else in the world.”
“It’s a defective gene,” A.J. quips, packing up his presentation for the evening.
The night winds down, and, after a fascinating lecture on the history of counterfeiting, the group is abuzz as President Elliot calls August’s meeting to a close. As Coin Club members file out into the night, the subject of conversation ranges from news of a local coin dealer that recently paid $891,000 for a dime, to the slew of counterfeit bills allegedly passing through Northern Nevada ($5 bills bleached to look like $100s—look closely, and the watermark of Abraham Lincoln is visible to the right of Ben Franklin’s face).
Back at Elliot’s home, seated before the collection of notebooks that house his collection of ancient coins, he considers the same question posed to the others at the meeting.
“Why do I collect? I think it’s just fun memories." He pauses. "I like the history. An actual coin of Pontius Pilate or Alexander the Great, it’s a tangible piece of history in your hand."