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Kai Ryssdal: There’s going to be a little something different about the coin toss at the Navy Notre Dame football game this weekend. The coin in question will be a special edition silver dollar celebrating the bicentennial of the birth of Louis Braille. The word “braille” is written in braille. Four hundred thousand of them were offered for sale last month by the U.S. Mint. And a good number will wind up in the hands of collectors. For a better look at the fascination a lot of us have with pocketing more than our fair share of change, we sent Cash Peters to a coin show.
CASH PETERS: You wouldn’t think there’d be much interest in a money show, would you, really? Not now, we’re switching to debit cards. Unsurprisingly, their PR guy Jay Beeton disagrees.
JAY BEETON: Money’s 2600 years old. We can trace our entire history through money. Everything about our society and our culture, we can trace through our money.
PETERS: But it’s dying out. So how do you feel about that?
BEETON: I don’t know if it’s dying out.
PETERS: I’m predicting the end of your show here.
BEETON: Oh, I don’t think so.
He may be right too, because the hall was teeming with numismatists. That is to say, coin collectors buzzing around a vast acreage of display cases filled with exciting things like Estonian kroons and Filipino Treasury Certificates. Or how about a bunch of rare American coins?
BEETON: The value of coins is based on: first of all, how rare are they? The better the condition they’re in and the rarer they are, combined with other market forces to determine a value.
PETERS: So if we were to break this case now and just run off.
BEETON: We’d be shot.
Then I won’t be doing that. But because world currencies are constantly changing they attract hordes of collectors. They have three characteristics. A, most of them are men. B, a lot of them have pony tails. And C, what they do seems incredibly boring to the rest of us.
Dealer Sandra Baymer.
SANDRA BAYMER: A lot of them are not boring, but they’re quiet and introverted. They’re usually very smart.
PETERS: Do they have problems getting a date?
BAYMER: Mmm, some of them. Some of them. Some of them don’t have any problem with that.
PETERS: It’s the pony-tail, isn’t it? That’s the turn-on.
Course it is. The show had several high points. The British Royal Mint had brought along its new range of coins. They’re in color. It’s the latest thing. Meanwhile, the Canadian Mint was bashing out commemorative tokens that were cute, but worthless, and not just because they’re Canadian.
PETERS: See in my head, this is how Canadians make all their money. They make it coin by coin one at a time.
MAN: I think the Winnipeg Mint can strike 1,000,000 coins a minute, or some crazy number like that.
Geez. There was also a huge display case filled with millions of bucks in old currency. Jay again.
BEETON: These are $100,000 notes. These were never made for general circulation, but they were made for bank transfers back in the day when you would hire a runner on a bicycle and he’d uh.
Ah, now the reason he stopped talking was because, all of a sudden, this huge guy walks up with a security guard, removes a million dollars from the display case and starts posing for photos with it. Hello.
PETERS: Who is this guy?
BEETON: That’s Hillbilly Jim the wrestler.
PETERS: Hillbilly Jim the wrestler?
BEETON: He was a wrestler in the WWF for years and what have you.
Oh, that Hillbilly Jim, always kidding around. Turns out he’s also a serious coin collector. He has the pony-tail and everything.
JIM: It’s just something about it. It’s like years ago when people used to collect stamps when we were kids. It’s like a bug, it bites you, and you just can’t help yourself.
Is that right. Jim though was quick with a warning: if you’re into collecting coins, do your research. There are rogue dealers out there who will skin you alive. The kind who give numismatism a bad name. And numismatism’s a pretty bad name to begin with.
JIM: Every once in a while, you hear a story about someone coming in with something: “Oh, I dunno if that thing’s worth much in the system.” And it’s a one-of-a-kind coin. And, of course, sometimes there have been stories of people who’ll let it slip out of their hands for a little bit of nothing.
Oh you see that’s the danger. I was going to ask him a lot more, but the next thing I knew he was wrestling with some guy from the U.S. Treasury.
Tsk, boys. So I instead I went up to one of the dealers and asked, “Are you a crook?”
JACK BAYMER: If you polled 10 dealers, and you would find, maybe five out of 10 might try to pull a fast one.
PETERS: Is this industry riddled with sharks?
BAYMER: Of course! Is the used car business riddled with sharks?
PETERS: Yeah, but I think these people kinda look like they might be too educated, too intelligent.
BAYMER: I wouldn’t say you’re a very good judge of character.
Story of my life.
In Los Angeles, I’m Cash Peters for Marketplace.
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