This "Guest Commentary" appeared in Coin World in the Monday, December
9, 1996 issue, page 10.
Coin Collecting is a Hobby of the Mind
Coin collecting is a hobby of the mind. If the mind of the collector is
stimulated, the hobby is stimulating. On the other hand, if the
associated activity of the mind is sterile, so is the hobby. What is
the future of collecting US coins?
Show a non-collector a 1914-D cent in high grade and the response will
be that it is pretty old and well-preserved for its age. Why is this
interesting? The head is just Lincoln's. Obviously, the importance of
this minor variety requires explanation. But comments about the rarity
of the date and mint mark, and the rarity of the condition for that
date and mint mark, provoke only the mildest interest. The
non-collector gets the point only when the real interest is finally
broached--it is worth a lot of money. Certainly there is nothing at all
rare, and little of intrinsic interest, about the type. Nevertheless, a
high-graded example can excite a collector. Why?
Coin collecting is a hobby of the mind. The collector's response
depends entirely upon the thoughts the coin evokes. The thoughts are
based on acquired knowledge--they are not innate. If the collector
knows that relatively few were minted, or that few extant examples
grade higher, he will respond differently that if he is aware that huge
numbers were minted, or if there are a thousand finer pieces.
The point is that his response is based on the enjoyable connections
his mind makes with the relevant things he knows. Collectors of US
coins can be proud if they can identify key varieties, judge
authenticity, and accurately grade and price coins. But this is the
heart of the problem. Most of the thoughts provoked by a desirable coin
are worth knowing only because they must be known to price the coin,
not because they are worth knowing or enjoyable in themselves.
That is why, with some exceptions, the hobby of collecting US coins is
sterile. The thoughts provoked by the contemplation of a coin are
supposed to be enjoyable, but most have settled into a rut generated by
the collecting fraternity. Is the grade right? Is the price right?
Where is the relevance to outside factors, such as "Is the coin really
No wonder it is hard to recruit new collectors. We constantly reiterate
that the hobby requires a great deal of knowledge, but most articles
about the hobby encourage and validate thinking about factors that are
of interest only because the hobby itself says they are. Not,
"Knowledge will bring you pleasure," but "Lack of knowledge will get
Note I did not say coin collecting is sterile. I recently bought two
coins of the same denomination, design, legend, and general appearance.
One cost $12 and the other $330. Assuming I am not crazy, there must be
something in my mind that made the one so much more valuable than the
In this case, both coins were minted in the fourth century by the
emperor Constantine the Great, the first Christian emperor. Although
coins of Constantine are extremely common and Christian signs are
common on coins minted immediately after his reign, there are no
overtly Christian coins minted during his reign and only a very few of
his coins display even a tiny Christian symbol. My expensive coin has
one of those symbols, a small but bold chi-rho monogram of Christ in
the middle of the field between two soldiers and two standards. Because
of this small symbols there is a great deal of difference in rarity
between my two coins, but rarity does not make an ancient coin valuable
in the absence of a significant connection to history. However the historical
connection is strong; it is one of the very first Christian coins.
How does my explanation of price differential compare to yours? My coin
is worth contemplating because of what I know about history, religion,
and ancient coins, not just because of what I know about price. A hobby
of the mind is only as vital as the activities of the mind it provokes.
Here are the two coins discussed. They were not illustrated in the
Both coins: Constantine the Great, Roman emperor, AD 307-337.
Coins struck 332-334. Copper. 18 mm. Obverse: Portrait of Constantine
with diadem, legend CONSTANTINVS MAX AVG. Reverse: GLORIA EXERCITVS
(glory of the army) around two soldiers holding spears and resting
inner hands on shields, on either side of two standards. Mint mark
PCONST for Constantina, which is the name at that time of the modern city of
Left coin: Green patina. Palm branch between the standards.
Right coin: Brown patina. Christian symbol chi-rho between the standards.
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