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Rose Mary
By Rosemary McKittrick
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Gem mint state 1796 half-cent with pole sold for $176,000. Photo courtesy of Spink America
A bulky cow can be a clumsy medium of exchange, and that’s what many primitive societies used to barter. Later on some switched to tokens that served as a bridge between the metal coins we know today and the cows of yesterday.

For the American Indians it was wampum beads. For the ancient Chinese it was cowrie shells. The Aztecs used utensil money, copper plates made to look like a hoe.

In America, George Washington used $100 of his own money in 1792 to buy silver and start our federal coinage. From that money, 2,000 half-dime coins were struck.

It has taken more than 25 centuries for coins, as we know them, to evolve. Not so surprising, then, that they show up as one of the top three collectibles in the country.

The most valuable coins are “18th and 19th century examples in good condition,” said James Lamb. Lamb is president of Spink America, a division of Christie’s.

For the novice who stumbles upon a coin collection in the attic, Lamb said, “the key is to look carefully and try to determine if it’s a real collection.”

If what you have is a bag of loose coins, chances are they were gathered on a trip to Europe. Probably not much value. On the other hand, most serious collectors will use careful storage and keep an inventory list with the collection. This can be the tip-off. From the inventory list, experts like Lamb can tell if the collection deserves a closer look.

The real key in valuing coins is in “grading the condition,” said Lamb. This is something that requires a firsthand look.

“The market for coins was strong in the late-1980s. It dipped in 1990, and is getting back now. The difference today is that buyers are more selective. Rare coins in good condition are bringing more money now than ever.”

Spink America recorded the highest sale total ever of $2,469,071, for a mixed-owner sale, at their June 3, 1997, Coin and Banknotes auction in New York. “It was an extraordinary sale,” said Lamb.

The top lot was a gem-mint state 1796 halfpenny, with pole, $176,000. This halfpenny was the rarest coin made in Philadelphia in 1796. Yellow fever had broken out and the townspeople were dying in huge numbers and those who survived were leaving the city. Without competent engravers, production in the mint came to a virtual halt.

Other lots in the sale included an 1883S silver dollar, very choice mint-state, which sold for $28,600. A 1796-dime, choice-to-gem mint state, very sharply struck and lustrous, brought $26,400. A 1776 Continental dollar, only the third specimen known of this important rarity, sold for $25,300.

If you’re going to start collecting coins, “invest in your own education,” said Lamb. That’s the best defense in the marketplace.

Spink America will provide a free auction estimate of your rare coins by writing to, 55 East 59th Street, Fourth Floor, New York, N.Y. 10022.

Question: Enclosed is a photo of an orange vase I’d like to have identified. It’s 7-inches-high and stamped Czechoslovakia. Vera Colsnik, Verona, Pa.

Answer: Czechoslovakia was recognized as a separate country in 1918. Before the country split in 1992, a great deal of glass was made by a number of companies. The soil was filled with the natural resources required to support a glass industry.

There are a variety of vases available; cased, ruffled, applied with silver overlay. Orange was a popular color. Probably the most well-known Czechoslovakian glass company was Moser.

Most of the Czechoslovakian glassware is priced at $50-$100. That includes vases, baskets, serving bowls, decanters and pitchers. Perfume bottles sell for more.

There are over-35 different marks known. This includes those in the mold, ink-stamped, nameplates and acid-etched. Remember, condition will play a big part in value.

A good resource is “Czechoslovakian Glass & Collectibles” by Dale and Diane Barta. You might want to check your local library.

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