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Journal Journeys to Numismatic Past

July 18, 1985|DON ALPERT

One of the neglected areas of numismatics is ancient coinage. Relatively few dealers specialize in this field, and collectors are not that commonplace. Still, the roots of coinage stem from China and Greece, although it is not clear which country deserves the title of being first. The difference between the two is that Chinese coins were cast and Greek coins, essentially, were struck from engraved dies.

Even though my ignorance of ancient coins can rival anyone's, I found Joel L. Malter's Collectors' Journal of Ancient Art interesting reading. The journal, basically, is a catalogue featuring ancient coins and antiquities. The coins come from ancient Athens and Oscan Spain, the Phoenician cities of Aradus and Ephesus plus coins of Lysimachus and the late Roman emperors. There are also Greek bronze coins, Ptolemaic bronzes and Roman coins. Antiquities include classic glass, Egyptian bronze and pre-Columbian objects. Reference books are also available.

If you're a collector and just a little tired of Morgan dollars or Lincoln cents, you might want to explore some of the untapped resources of the past. Items in the Collectors' Journal are available until Sept. 30 in a buy or bid sale. For a copy send $6 to Joel L. Malter & Co., P. O. Box 777, Encino, Calif. 91316, or call (818) 784-7772.

Question: How does one measure the increase in value of transportation tokens issued to commemorate an event? My question stems from the two different sets issued by the Los Angeles Rapid Transit District to commemorate the Olympics. As I remember, the RTD advertised $6 tokens issued in bronze, silver and gold coloring with three different Greek designs. The price was $54 for a set of nine. Also, didn't the RTD offer a 24-piece, 50-cent token set honoring 23 different sporting events and one of the Coliseum? I think this set sold for $26 with tax. My friends tell me there was a 25th 50-cent token that never made the set of 24, and it honored the Olympic torchbearer. Are tokens of this type considered to be part of numismatics? Do they have their own category as collectibles? And what are L.A. "birthday dollars" worth now? I have a set of six. I don't recall what the selling price was.--T.M.

Answer: You've asked a multifaceted set of questions. Basically, it is important to remember that there is a difference between coins and tokens. Coins are issued by governments for monetary exchange; tokens can be issued by just about anyone with the purpose of making a profit. The tokens you have mentioned were issued to help pay for Olympic activities and Los Angeles Bicentennial celebrations.

People buy tokens to support a particular group or event; because they like the design, or because they serve as a reminder of some happy event or occasion. There are many, many categories of tokens and many reasons to collect them. But if you buy tokens--especially recent issues--to make a profit, you're liable to be disappointed, especially in the short run. The main reason is that the profit has gone to the person or group that issued the token.

RTD tokens, for example, are selling for about a third or a fourth of their original price. There's no telling what a dealer might offer for one of these sets, if anything. That's because the original surge of interest has passed. Eventually, a secondary market may develop, especially when the next Olympics comes along. But for now, many dealers have a backlog of these pieces. The same holds true for what you called L.A. birthday dollars.

So, enjoy your tokens. Study up on the subject. Many books are available, and you can specialize in all sorts of areas. But don't expect any dramatic profit gains in the near term unless you get very lucky by purchasing a low-mintage issue that enjoys great demand.

Q: I have two large $1 bills, Series 1899 (Act of Aug. 4, 1886). The bills depict Lincoln and Grant under a spread-winged eagle. Both bills are in mint condition, and the serial numbers are in consecutive order. Signatures on the bills are John Burke, treasurer of the U.S., and Houston B. Teebee, register of the Treasury. Can you tell me the value of the bills? I would be interested in selling them; what would be the best way to accomplish this?--S.A.V.

A: Your bills are worth $85 each. Sell them the same way you would sell coins. Call several dealers, starting with those in your neighborhood. If you're not satisfied, attend a coin show, where you may contact many dealers at one time.

Q: Some time ago I inherited some gold coins. A friend says they are very valuable. I would appreciate your evaluation: a 1915-S gold $2 1/2 Panama Pacific Exposition (shiny, looks uncirculated) and 1843-C gold $5 (a bit tarnished, but very sharp in detail). I'm not absolutely positive about the S and C markings.--R.M.S.

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