American Numismatic Association meeting here

American Numismatic Association curator Douglas Mudd places a 1792 "half disme" into a display. It was the first coin authorized by President George Washington.
American Numismatic Association curator Douglas Mudd places a 1792 "half disme" into a display. It was the first coin authorized by President George Washington. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)
Posted: August 08, 2012

Philadelphians, search your closets, couch cushions, attics and basements. If you find any odd-looking money, bring it down to the Convention Center - you may have struck gold.

If you're lucky, you might wind up like the Walton family of Virginia. For more than 40 years, the Waltons kept an uncle's weird nickel stowed in a closet. In 2003, they took it to an American Numismatic Association (ANA) convention, where it was deemed to be one of the rarest and most valuable coins in U.S. history.

That coin - the Walton specimen 1913 Liberty Head nickel - is now worth $5 million. It's one of the highlights of the World's Fair of Money, held this week at the Convention Center.

For coin and paper money collectors, the festival is an opportunity to network, buy, sell, trade, and brag about their favorite acquisitions. For the public, it's an opportunity to see thousands of pieces of history, worth well over $1 billion.

So what made that 1913 nickel so valuable? It's one of only five - and none of them was supposed to exist. The Liberty Head design was to be retired after 1912. Someone at the Mint erred, very briefly, in printing the new date on the old design.

The convention marks a homecoming of sorts for the Liberty Head nickel and many other showcase pieces. As the site of the first U.S. Mint, Philadelphia is one of the most important cities in American numismatism.

The first coin authorized by the first U.S. president was struck here, before the U.S. Mint itself had been minted. That proto-nickel, known as a "half disme" (pronounced "deem," an early spelling of dime), was born in the cellar of sawmaker John Harper's shop on Cherry Street between Fifth and Sixth Streets in 1792.

"This is the predecessor of all predecessors," said Steven L. Contursi, a collector from Irvine, Calif., who donated the half disme to the ANA. The silver was donated by the Washingtons themselves, and was rumored to come from Martha Washington's silverware.

Tom Hallenbeck, president of the ANA, said the coin, one of 1,500 half dismes struck in July 1792, was recently appraised at $220,000.

"They were personally presented by mint director David Rittenhouse to then-Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson," Hallenbeck said.

The half dismes, featuring Lady Liberty on one side and a slightly awkward flying eagle on the other, were not intended for circulation. Instead, they were given to foreign dignitaries as a symbol of validation for our nascent country.

In addition to coins, the convention features some very pricey paper - like a sheet of $100,000 bills (with President Woodrow Wilson on the front) printed in 1934 for the sole use of banks, or two sheets of $10,000 bills (with Salmon P. Chase, Treasury secretary under President Abraham Lincoln and later chief justice of the United States) that were intended for public circulation.

Today, the United States doesn't print any bills larger than $100.

The Bureau of Engraving and Printing is also displaying a Lincoln-era hand-crank "spider" press and an "elephant" press that is still used to produce facsimiles of the Declaration of Independence.

The copies are printed using the intaglio technique on a plate that was hand-engraved in the 1930s. Ink is pressed into the grooves in the plate, and then the surface is cleaned off. The plate and paper are compressed together until the paper soaks up all the ink, leaving a clean, crisp, and beautifully textured document. It's such a delicate process that the most skilled printer can make, at most, 25, copies a day.

Hallenbeck, the ANA president, said one of the exciting aspects of the convention is seeing different regional treasures. He's from Colorado, where they see "a lot of silver dollars. Out here, there's a lot of colonial copper."

His son Spencer, 11, is most excited to see the foreign currency displays - and not just for the bright colors and exotic pictures.

"Normal U.S. money you see every day. You lose what goes into it, the art and the work," Spencer said. "Foreign money is interesting and different, you notice the beauty right away."

Spencer is working as a page at this convention - cleaning cases, running errands, getting coffee or soda for the booth operators. His father said pages usually earn a couple hundred dollars for their work, and get discounts to start building their own collections.

Jesse Lipka, a dealer and collector from Clinton, N.J., said he loves taking time out to teach young people about his pieces. "There's no future in this hobby unless kids get interested," he said.

The exhibit is open to the public 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday. Tickets are $6, but children under 12 get in free.

In honor of the convention, the Mint is extending its tour hours until 7 p.m., and will stay open on Saturday to accommodate the increased traffic.


Contact Jessica Parks at 215-854-2771 or jparks@philly.com.

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