Thursday, December 13, 2012

Hunting for Rare Coins in the Cemetery

Coins in St. Lucy's bowl
Back in the summer of 2012, I attended the “World’s Fair of Money,” the annual convention of the American Numismatic Association. Actually, I just attended the exhibit hall to ogle the rare coins. I’ve collected coins since I was a child, basically for the beauty and artistry of the objects, their intrinsic value. (I must add that my entire collection is rather mundane, since the extrinsic value of these objects has prevented me from making my collection more interesting!)

"Classic Head" Large Cent (U.S.)
Though silver and gold are the precious metals to which we typically assign greater value, this story is about the lowly copper coins. I decided to write about finding old coins in cemeteries when a friend recently pulled an 1814 United States large cent (copper penny) out of his pocket. He told me he found it in a small cemetery just lying in the grass a few years back. My initial reaction upon seeing the condition of the coin was to beg him to wrap it in something protective and not to drop it back in his pocket with the other change. I have no firsthand knowledge of early American coins because I could never afford to buy them; however, something in that good condition, and that old, had to be quite valuable! I looked it up on the Internet the next day and want to inform him that it retails for between $1,000 and $2,400, based on its officially-graded condition. The coin appeared to me to be in extremely fine shape. (The photo above is of the actual coin he showed me.)

I assume there are other stories like this, and I would be interested in hearing them from readers. However, I understand there might be some reluctance to sharing, as the flags of ownership may be raised, in which I don’t want to be involved.

Penny lodged between the clover leaves
Ben Franklin's grave
I myself have found coins on headstones – albeit worthless ones. People sometimes place them there for good luck or as some form of remembrance. For a long time people believed that placing pennies (face up) over the eyes of the dead "was a means of paying their way to cross over to the other world" (ref). Below we see people throwing pennies on Ben Franklin’s grave in (Christ's Church Burial Ground) Philadelphia – “A penny saved is a penny earned.

Tour guide instructing school children about tossing pennies on Ben Franklin's grave

So if you saw all those coins in St. Lucy's eyeball bowl (at beginning of this article), would you be temped to pocket a few dollars? Well, I often think back to finding pennies on mobster Angelo Bruno’s headstone (link to my blog posting, "Graves of the Mob Bosses"), and how uncomfortable I would have felt were I to snitch a penny as a memento!
The fact that people place coins on tombstones today makes it quite plausible that people have been doing so for as long as there have been tombstones – and coins. Which of course makes it quite possible that there are rare old coins lying around old colonial and Victorian U.S. cemeteries.

Image from U.S. Coin
So after mentioning to a friend that I had been to the World's Fair of Money, he told me this story. Back around 2007, he was working in a cemetery with a crew of guys righting a large obelisk that had fallen over in a storm. A crane was to be used to lift the obelisk upright, into the air, so it could be lowered back down onto its base. One of the guys set to the task of clearing the channel in the marble base on which the obelisk sat. As he brushed away leaves and sticks, he found a 1799 ("Draped Bust") United States large cent (copper penny), like the one shown above. He showed it to his coworkers (including my friend) and stuck it in his shirt pocket. On the way back to the truck later, he removed his shirt. That was the last anyone saw of the coin.

After I was told that story, I looked up the value of a 1799 United States large cent. By my friend’s description, its condition was at least as fine as the 1814 coin mentioned above. How these copper coins remain untarnished and uncorroded after so many years in the elements is beyond me. Ready for the value of this coin? After I checked it out on U.S. Coin, I was tempted to buy a metal detector and head out to that cemetery myself! In worn, barely recognizable condition, it would retail for $4,000. In the condition the coin was described to me? – about $40,000! Turns out this is the rarest U.S. large cent ever minted. Ever.

U.S. Mint Chief Engraver William Barber's grave
Seated Liberty half dollar (1839 - 1891)
And speaking of minting, after all this talk of rare coins, you may be tempted to buy a metal detector yourself and paw around William Barber’s grave in Philadelphia’s Mount Moriah Cemetery, looking for some silver "Barber" dimes. Barber was the Chief Engraver at the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia from 1869 to his death in 1879. He is responsible for the Seated Liberty coinage design (shown below). 

Barber dime (1892 - 1916)
This series actually pre-dates what is known as the "Barber" design coinage (example at end is from my own fine collection).William's son, Charles Barber, was actually responsible for the "Barber" coin design. Charles succeeded his father as Chief Engraver in 1879 and is also buried in Philadelphia (Mount Peace Cemetery). Just to give you some perspective, the Barber dime (1892 - 1916) preceded the more popular “Mercury” dime design (1916 - 1945).