Collecting Coins, Preserving History

United States of America Seated Liberty half dollar 1858; stamped silver by the United States Mint (New Orleans) The Historic New Orleans Collection, gift of Raymond Hoffman, 1992.85.27 | Photo from the Historic New Orleans Collection

Coin collecting has existed as a hobby at least since the Renaissance, when renewed interest in culture and education intersected with the frequent discovery of ancient Greek and Roman coins. Today’s enthusiasts take up the pursuit for largely the same reasons – though both the selection of coins and the types of collectors is greatly more varied.

“Collectors collect for the fascination of the history and the thrill of the hunt,” explained Robert Rongey, owner of Gulf South Coins in Metairie. “You might find something in your change and discover a new variety.”

Rongey also noted that “it doesn’t have to be an expensive hobby. There are so many different ways to collect, things to collect.”

As examples, Rongey cited particular types or sets of coins, such as Washington quarters or all the different types of cents minted through the years. Mint errors is a popular specialty. Beyond U.S. coins, ancient coins are still popular; other people may collect coins from any location that feature a specific motif, like birds or women heads of state.

“I have one crazy customer who is trying to collect the worst set of coins possible,” he added with a laugh. “Any time one of his coins grades too high, he gets upset.”

Like many coin collectors, Rongey started at a young age, when his father’s boss gave him a New Orleans-minted silver dollar at the annual company picnic. The bug bit. “I never sold a coin until I was 45, and I’m still more of a collector than a dealer,” he stated.

After stepping away from a much larger family business, Rongey opened Gulf South Coins in 2000. “When you flip a switch and go from collector to dealer, your collection becomes your inventory,” he said a little ruefully.”

That first New Orleans dollar launched what is still one of his favorite areas of focus, coins produced at the former U.S. Mint at the foot of Esplanade Avenue. “A lot of the New Orleans coins are plentiful and inexpensive,” Rongey noted. Twenty different American coins were minted there, from a silver three-cent piece to a twenty-dollar gold “double eagle”. While the rarity of a few of them make a complete set a nearly impossible dream, there are varieties within many of the types and the local connection makes this a popular focus for local collectors.

More generally, “Morgan silver dollars are always popular,” Rongey commented. “The state quarters were popular when they first came out, but they’ve cooled down a little bit. The American silver eagle program, which the U.S. Mint started in 1986, is still very popular.”

One thing Rongey does not recommend is going into coin collecting as an investment. “If you’re buying coins just for investment purposes, you should be doing something else,” he advised. “Gold and silver go up and down. People’s interests change. Never invest in rare coins.”

One reason for this is that a particular coin may be rare today but less so tomorrow, as hoards are unearthed or bank vaults opened. A prime example of this actually occurred in New Orleans in 1982, when excavations for a hotel being built for the World’s Fair uncovered two boxes containing 5000 primarily New Orleans-made coins. Values for some previously rare issues dropped dramatically overnight.

One recent phenomenon Rongey has observed is people who started collecting young returning to the hobby after many years away. “They have more money now, so they can afford to finish out sets they couldn’t afford before. It draws them back in.”

For those new to coins, young or old, Rongey suggested, “Start slow and buy the books. The Redbook [published annually] is the bible for U.S. coin collectors. Go to coin shows, talk to dealers, you’ll learn as you go.”

There is a local coin show coming up, July 23 – 24 at The Columbus Room in Kenner. Sponsored by the Crescent City Coin Club, there is no admission charge. In addition to coins spanning 2500 years, there will be currency, Mardi Gras doubloons, tokens, jewelry and more.

Rongey’s own store offers more than coins and collecting supplies. Mardi Gras doubloons, including silver special editions, are popular. Tokens of all types, from Civil War to merchants and transportation companies and even brothels, can be found. Some of the proprietor’s own collection is on display.

Across the centuries and across all ages, coins continue to fascinate. “Sometimes coins are the only history you get from certain time periods,” Rongey pointed out. “That’s why people collect, for the time spent with other people, learning and enjoying.”


Categories: Neighborhood Biz