Armorial Bearings granted to Robert Lord alias
Laward of London in 1510; College of Arms MS L10 folio 105b;
copyright of the College of Arms, London. Used by permission.

A Single Coin...

Ancient coins.

I can only dream any part of my little coin collection looks like this, but it is the dreaming that fuels the collecting, and it all starts with a single coin.

It starts with a single coin!

No matter what your collecting specialty or the scope of your collection, it all goes back to that first ancient coin you actually possessed.

For me that happened less than a year ago at a local coin show. It was my very first coin show, even though I have had a fascination with coins for nearly 50 of my 57 years. My father had a small collection; an assortment of mysterious metal disks contained in a half dozen antique shaving stick tins. The tins weren't antiques when the coins were first put into them sometime around 1910. This collection had been handed down to father, intact in those cylindrical tins, by his own father, and from him to me.

I can still remember those rare and special occasions, as I was growing up, when these wonderful tins, mysterious enough in themselves, were brought out, their lids pried off, and their contents spilled onto the dinning room table. What an assortment tumbled out - Indian head pennies, old 3-cent coppers, some strange foreign coins, and others so worn I could not make them out. There were a couple large, heavy ones that bore unusual portraits in high relief and what appeared to be Roman numerals on the reverse. "Old Roman coins..." we were told. They weren't, it turns out, but that is beside the point. The idea had been planted and the association had been created - a fascination with coins now became rooted in the simple pleasures of childhood.

Silver dollar.

This fascination was later nurtured by trips out west as a young adult in the '60s. Here the excitement of discovery - the first glimpse of the Great Plains, the Badlands of South Dakota, the Rocky Mountains, and the Great Pacific Ocean - was accompanied by the thrill of pockets bulging with silver dollars. In those days anyplace you went west of the Mississippi gave you change in silver - dollar for dollar. Two hundred of those gloriously heavy coins must have passed through my hands on those expeditions, many bearing dates in the late 1800s and all with marvelous designs. And I kept not a one!

I learned my lesson, and as I traveled to Mexico, Canada, Bermuda, Germany, England and Ireland in later years, though I had not yet begun a collection as such, I always stuck the better part of my pocket change into my left-hand pocket, and on arriving home, this "collection" went into a bag or box - for later.

Sometime, about a year ago, while planning a trip to visit her aunt in Ireland, my wife asked me what she could bring me back. It first it struck me then that a coin was the perfect souvenir. It was small, easy to carry, infinitely interesting in historical detail, truly representative of the place where you were, and generally inexpensive. What better way to document travel to special places or special events and acquire true documents of the past at the same time.

As an archeologist/historian, this last aspect appealed to me as much as any. And in anticipation of beginning to collect in earnest, I took all those little bags and boxes of pocket change from my adventures past, made a list, and placed them in binders. I had the first 200 items of my collection. It was a begining.

The first coin I actually bought as part of this collection was an old beat-up US large cent that I picked out of a junk box at an antique shop I passed on a business trip. A dollar spent, and the coin barely worth it; but symbolically my collection was truly begun.

I then added a few more early US coins from a local pawn shop I discovered - a vast midden of clutter presided over by a jolly fat man - something right out of Dickens.

So what has this to do with ancients and that coin show last summer? Well here is where the intervention of serendipity and a couple chance encounters turned the tale. First there was the dinner at the Italian restaurant to meet my daughter's boyfriend's parents, also Italian. As fate would have it, he was a coin collector, there was a monthly local coin show he always went to, and the next one was two days away!

And so I went to my first show. Given my small budget, I had prepared a "shopping list" of coins to find and their "book" values. I would begin with pocket change again - but this time recreating the coins I would have used, and still remembered, growing up in the late 1940s and early 1950s - when bread was $.17 a loaf and you could actually get something worth having for a nickel.

I spent two wonderful hours browsing the tables, trying not to appear as overwhelmed as I was by the vastness of it all. And in that time I had recreated my childhood pocket change. But on my way around the room, I had stopped once or twice to peer at the only ancients table in the place. I was marginally curious. I had already decided to focus my collection on my heritage - American and British. The British angle came from my ancestors, who left a little town in England in 1635 to come to America. That little English town - Towcester - was once a thriving Roman provincial town. (I should have seen it coming!)

As I passed and repassed that ancients table, I gradually became more curious. From what I had read in all the books I had bought since I decided I was a "collector" - more spent on books than on my collection - ancient coins were rare and very expensive. But perhaps I should try to buy just one, as every collection should have one example of this earliest type of coin.

A roman coin.

As I approached the table, I heard the man standing next to me concluding a deal for $1,100 of these tiny coins, for cash. I nearly ran off. But fortunately my first encounter with an ancients dealer was a good one. When I said I was just starting out, she asked me to sit down, diverted my attention from the velvet lined display case full of high priced treasures, and brought out a narrow black box filled with flips. "The bargain coins..." she indicated.

As I nervously thumbed through the little collection, I was amazed to see prices under $30, and some as low as $12, and then more amazed to see that these $12 coins had distinct portraits and detailed reverses. I debated between two of the $12 Roman coins as to which would become my only ancient purchase - an historical anchor for my American and British collection. I asked her to hold the coin I picked while I went to "check my funds", and then took two long walks around the room debating the purchase.

Oh well, it was only $12 and after all it was a Roman coin and the Romans did inhabit my ancestral home in England once, and it was not like I had really abandoned my collecting focus. So back I went, "I'll take it." There, that's done. But then she set the hook. "Make that $10" she said. I hadn't even haggled! And she knocked the price down $2! I left the building quickly with my coin - I knew I was in danger! But I was done buying ancients, right?

Constantius II.

Of course, when I got home, out came the magnifying glass, and as much time was spent examining that tiny patinated disk of a Roman coin as was spent on the half dozen US coins I had gone there to buy. Hmm, "Constantius II" I read off the flip tag. I can see him. And on the back "Soldier spearing a fallen horseman"... Yup, I can see that, too. Interesting, but end of story. I could do a million coin shows and never buy another ancient coin. And in fact, that is true - I never have..... at a coin show.

Soldier spearing a fallen horseman.

But... about this time I was striking up an e-mail barter exchange with the son of an archeologist I had met when visiting that ex-Roman town in England where my ancestors came from. He was a coin collector and wanted US coins and a copy of the Red Book, and I wanted anything English, and, well, maybe, if he knew where to get one, a local coin of the earlier period of the Town, you know, Roman. Family roots, and all that.

Then came the fateful e-mail message. "Would you be interested in a bag of 50 Roman coins for ten Pounds?" He had seen some in a local shop a while back and they might still be there. Thank God for e-mail. "Yes." Fifty coins, for $16! The days until he confirmed that they were still there, and the week before they arrived, dragged on. But at last they were here. "A very tiny envelope for 50 coins", I thought, and when I poured them out, my heart sank. A pile of thin, tiny disks of flat, featureless metal. I remember thinking "My God, they're all blank."

Well slowly I began to get beyond my disappointment. A little gentle brushing, a little olive oil rubbed across the dry, weathered surface, a well placed light, a magnifier, and voila'.....Faces began to appear, even on the most "blank" ones, and on the reverses, details of a variety of designs, all unfamiliar. Then the trip to the bookshops, a couple more coin books for my library - this time just on ancient coins. I was slipping fast.

In the end the bag of 50 Romans proved a rich and endless bounty of discovery and entertainment, not to mention historical information. Truly the best $16 I ever spent!

Perhaps that would have ended it. I had my "anchor" coin, and I had my "heritage" collection from my old hometown. But in comes serendipity again. In surfing the web to help educate myself on Roman coin designs and history, I came across the Pieces of Time website. I may have noted the owner's last name was "Bray", the same name as my cousin's son, who I had last seen over 40 years ago. But it wasn't until I was pulling images for a training class on Word graphics, that I noticed his first name was "Thom", and "Thom" was the name of my cousin. But I could imagine no connection he might have with ancient coins, so I made a mental note of the coincidence and forgot it. But a few days later, just to satisfy my curiosity, I sent off an e-mail, and the reply was "My God, its cousin Phil."

Well, there is no need to labor this tale. One could look back, across the bag of local coins from my ancestral home in England, past the single purchase and the over-obliging dealer at the coin show, past the Italian father of my daughter's boyfriend, and the Italian restaurant, and my own collection, and my father's collection, etc. and see an inevitability about the whole thing - a pattern that had doomed me from the start.

Emperor Augustus of Rome.

It is enough to say that now, a mere 10 months from my first Roman coin purchase, I will buy a Roman coin with my first spare dollar, above all others. And although my collection of ancient coins is still very small, and really contains no items of outstanding value, and I have still spent more on books than I have on coins, I cannot imagine having missed out on this rare and wonderful opportunity to collect these unique and unsurpassed little documents of ancient history; these tiny sculptures of great emperors and their families who lived nearly two millennia ago. And I can't imagine not looking forward, each day, to my next Roman coin.

And so it all begins with a single coin.... and in goes on, with each single coin after that.

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