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The Coin Geek

Martha Washington

US currency is rife with famous political figures. From Presidents to Secretaries of State to Generals, there are many men to collect. Many of these figures  you probably have never heard of unless you are a political junkie or history buff. Most of the women on US notes are allegorical, that is to say they are not real people but a figure representing a concept or a belief.

The exception is Martha Washington. She was prominently placed on the left hand side of the 1886 United States Silver Certificate. The portrait used is the famous Charles Francois Jalabert painting. It was engraved by Charles Burt. The front design for this note was used for 10 years. The back of the note was changed halfway through, in 1891. The 1886 note is very popular and is often simply referred to as a “Martha”.


Martha Washington on US 1891 Silver Certificate

I think it speaks to the spirit of the times when you look at who is on the currency – both in the past and present. Here is a list of the other people featured on the 1886 Series Silver Certificates.


  • $2 General Winfield Scott Hancock, Union General – Civil War
  • $5 Ulysses S Grant, 18th President and Union General – Civil War
  • $10  Thomas  Hendricks, Vice President March 4, 1885-Nov 25, 1885.  Died in office.
  • $20 Daniel Manning, Secretary of the Treasury from 1885 – 1887

Although higher denominations circulated at the same time, they were not from the 1886 series. When a knew series came out in 1896 (the so-called Educational series) Mrs. Washington was on the back of the note opposite her husband, president Washington. They are the only husband and wife together on a US note. Together the 1886 and 1896 Silver Certificates are among the most popular with collectors.


Back of the 1896 US Silver Certificate

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Statistics. Politicians. Advertising. What do these things have in common? Lying!

Perhaps that is a bit harsh. Would you put coin dealers, mechanics and car dealers in the same group? Most people would. Let’s face it, those reputations are there for a reason. But how do you counter the liars and their lying lies? The  best way is through education. Q: Who is less likely to get ripped off by the mechanic? A: Men, because the shop owner assumes the man has a higher level of knowledge compared to his female counterpart. Q: Who do the mail order and advertisers try to deal with. A: The novice, because they have a lower level of knowledge.

What if you are a novice, how do you stop getting burned?

A great way to spot a bad deal is in the newspaper!

A great way to spot a bad deal is in the newspaper!

There are things to look for in advertising, especially in coins and paper money, that are misleading.

  • “Up To”
  • “Hurry”
  • “Prices Subject to Change”
  • “Actual Prices may vary”
  • “Members of…”

Up to is the catch all you use to give people big dollar signs in their eyes. “I’ll pay up to $2,000,000 for a coin”. That may be true, but what do they normally pay for coins. And what if that coin is worth $4,000,000? Would you sell it for $2M?  In fact the ad we picture was just in the local paper and they say they will pay $100,000 for a 1913 Nickel. Well shoot, ain’t that generous! Except there are two problems. 1) All 5 known specimens are accounted for. 2) The coin is worth $1,000,000+ !

Hurry is a term that all advertisers use. They try to convince you that time is limited or that an item may sell out, or prices may go up (or down depending on the business). One day only! Sunday, Sunday, Sunday!

The prices changing line is used in large volumes of print and radio ads. That price sounds great! And then you call and….oops, so sorry, you missed that price, it changed. So in other words, we just told you want you want to hear to get you in the store or to call, and while you are here perhaps we can do some business!

Members of may need some explanation. Businesses use these pay for memberships to prove they are trusted or reliable. The only problem is that anyone can PAY to get the membership and logo. It does not mean they are trustworthy. The other problem is that many of those associations do not actually weed out the bad guys.

Although these ads may not be lying, they are certainly designed to deceive. Be careful who you deal with, and always educate yourself. Also, take time to ask other people who they deal with. Word of mouth is often a good indicator of who you will want to deal with.








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Insurance, Coins and Deductibles

What do you need to have, hate to buy, don’t want to use, but are glad you have it when you need it? No, not an umbrella…insurance!  This post is not an in depth study of insurance practices and coin collecting, but it is a quick reminder to check your policy. Here are some things to check up on.

  • Do I have coverage for my coins
  • What do I need for evidence in case of loss
  • What are my deductibles


Many homeowner and renter policies have some type of coverage for coins or jewelry. That coverage, however, is often very limited in nature. Depending on your coverage it may be $500-$2000. This may cover your needs, if not you may need a special rider on your policy. A rider is additional insurance for items not normally covered.

The next thing to look into is what type of proof of value you need to get to the insurance company. They will need to know what you have and what it is worth. But they will want evidence of value. Some ask for receipts. Others will want an appraisal. Others may ask to physically see what you have.

One more important thing to know is what your deductible is. The deductible is an upfront charge from the insurance company when a claim is made. You pay the deductible to the insurance company and then they settle the rest of the claim. (This is to stop people from filing claims willy nilly). Here is a tricky thing for you to look into, make sure your deductible is the same no matter what type of claim it is. Many policies will have a different deductible for an act of nature versus a burglary. So look at your fine print and ask your agent if there are different deductibles on your policies. You may think you have a $500 deductible, and then when you have a theft find out it is $1500!

Those are some quick pointers that will hopefully help you be prepared. Here’s to making our insurance agents rich and to hoping we never have to make a claim!

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PCGS Price Guide

I have written about the many rip off artists that are wolves in sheep’s clothing. But what happens when your trusted advisor turns out to be a sheep, but the Benedict Arnold of sheep?

The tele-marketers harm the coin market. They give everyone in the industry a bad name. They cause confusion. They misrepresent item’s values.  So I would like someone to tell me how that is different than PCGS’s price guide.  It causes confusion and misrepresents the true value of coins.

Here is what I mean. Today I had a gentleman come in with some high grade Lincoln cents, all PCGS graded. He used the PCGS price guide to value them. Many of the coins are modern (1940s and newer). Many of the coins are not listed in any reputable price guide. So I did some research of recent auctions to try to find prices. Many of the coins on his list were selling for half (or less) of the PCGS price guide.  What good is a guide that is wrong by 50%? Perhaps the weatherman would like to answer that question.

The problem of coins being overpriced in guides is nothing new, but PCGS has positioned itself as a highly trusted brand. So when they portray values, collectors believe them. I’m wondering if there is any brave souls in the industry that are willing or able to tackle this problem. It is a black eye to coin collecting. It isn’t as bad as what the stamp dealers did in the 80’s, but numismatists need to be careful so we don’t go down that same road.

It is very confusing for new collectors to understand value when the first thing they are told is to only buy certified coins and to only trust NGC and PCGS. Then they look at the PCGS price guides and buy based on it. But what happens when they go to sell the coins? No coin dealer likes to be in the position of trying to explain to a collector why their coins are worth 20%-50% of what they paid for them. PCGS doesn’t have to worry about the pricing, they aren’t paying those prices.

As a community it would be helpful if more collectors (hello ANA!) would cry wolf on price guides put out by the “independent” coin grading companies. PCGS and NGC- please just grade coins and don’t set prices. It is a conflict of interest and it causes confusion and misinformation in the marketplace.

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Sand Dunes Colorado Coin

Great Sand Dunes Colorado Quarter.

Great Sand Dunes Colorado Quarter.

The mint has released the newest “America the Beautiful State Park Quarter tm”.  It is the Colorado Great Sand Dunes National Park. The coin features two figures by the river with the dunes in back and a snowcapped mountain in the background. The park was created by a law signed by Herbert Hoover in 1932. The land for the state park was expanded in the early 2000s. Around 285,000 people visit the park annually. You can visit the park’s website here.



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The Jewelry Myth

solitaireNot all Americans are showy. There are many plain sort of folks out there who don’t need fancy things. But even those plain sort of folks can end up with gold or diamond jewelry through a family member or marriage.  And even though these regular people are not consumed with consumerism, they still fall into the trap of thinking diamond jewelry is very valuable.

Before the yelling starts about me being against the jewelry industry, I’m not. I just find it ironic that the same American people who buy a TV for $700 that is worth $70 in 6 years, or buy a car for $20,000 that is worth $5,000 in ten years, get upset when they find out the ring they bought at Zales for $4500 is only worth $450.

Carat Total Weight is a scam.

Carat Total Weight is a scam.

If you choose to spend $8000 on a ring for your engagement, that is okay. Just remember it is probably only worth 10%-25% of that if you buy it at a national chain jewelry store. The reality is that most of the cost of the ring is the store’s overhead. That is the cost of the building, the labor, taxes, and profit. The wholesale cost of the ring itself is a small percentage of the total cost you are paying. And even a smaller percentage of that is the actual value of the diamonds or the gold. When you buy new, you are also paying for the creation of the ring.

This is why when you buy a ring at a major store they usually have a no return policy. Or they have a policy where they will take the item back IF you spend TWICE as much on a new item. Wow, nothing like losing twice as much money as the first time.

Lot's of Volkswagens

Lot’s of Volkswagens

The jewelry industry has great marketers and marketing strategies. One thing you will see often is a ring listed with a “Ctw” – Carat total weight (or TCW). What they will do is put 20 little five point diamonds in a ring and call it 1 carat, total weight. It sounds good at first, like having 100 single dollar bills gives you $100. But it doesn’t work that way with diamonds. It is more like saying that if you have 10 Volkswagens you have a Maserati. Well my friends, if you have 10 Volkswagens you do not have a Maserati, you have 10 Volkswagens!

Not a bunch of Volkswagens!

Not a bunch of Volkswagens!

Some of you may be wondering what the alternatives to buying at the box stores is, and my answer is to shop pawn shops and second hand stores. You don’t need to know much to get a better deal. The rings pawn shops buy from individuals are mostly of the same quality as those you get at Jared’s, Kay’s or Zales. In fact they were probably bought there originally.

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FRN Districts

There are a lot of numbers and letters involved with currency. On US Currency you will notice the long serial number. But what about those other numbers and letters on the sides of the serial numbers? What do they mean?



The B2 Indicates the district.


When the Federal Reserve system was developed in 1913 the country was divided into 12 districts (warning Hunger Game fans: No relation to the 11 districts). The districts sizes were determined by population first and geography second so the western districts cover huge tracks of land.

Name of District Number Alphabet
Boston 1 A
New York 2 B
Philadelphia 3 C
Cleveland 4 D
Richmond 5 E
Atlanta 6 F
Chicago 7 G
St Louis 8 H
Minnesota 9 I
Kansas City 10 J
Dallas 11 K
San Francisco 12 L


1928 $100 Features the number 10 for Kansas City

1950's Kansas City note with J for the District letter.

1950’s Kansas City note with J for the District letter.

The 1928 Series of Federal Reserve Notes were the first notes set at our current size.  Before 1928 they were larger. Today we call them large size and small size. The 1928 greenbacks used the alphabet at the front of the serial number and used the number in the seal and in the four corners.



The Federal Reserve Bank Notes of 1929 have the District listed by name and the letter in several spots.

The 1929 Federal Reserve Bank Note series had a crisp clean look with the name of the district on the note with the letters in the corner. One thing that is consistent over the years is that at the beginning of the serial number you will find the district letter.

Large Size


1914 Series with an Alpha-Numeric seal.


1918 Series $1 with Cleveland.

The 1914 Series Federal Reserve Notes have an alpha-numeric seal on it. So a note from New York will have a “2-B” in the seal. They also have it in the four corners of the note. The “Federal Reserve Bank Note” Series of 1918 does not use the large seal but does have the smaller annotations in the corners.



The black alphanumerics indicates the district, and the second letter in the serial number matches.

The black alphanumerics indicate the district, and the second letter in the serial number matches.


Map of the Districts


Map for the Federal Reserve Districts

Map for the Federal Reserve Districts


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What time is it?

Have you ever watched a sporting event with a friend and had an argument over a call made by the official? They will show the play in slow mo, and super slow mo and then you both come to the opposite conclusion as to if the pass was complete or incomplete.

This is the problem with the US $100 bill. Since 1929 the bill has had Independence Hall on the back of the note.  I have a couple of close up shots of some notes over the years. You can take a look at them and see for yourself what time you think it is.


1966 $100 US Note

1966 $100 US Note

1990 $100 Federal Reserve Note

1990 $100 Federal Reserve Note


After looking at both of these I considered self evident that the time is 2:22. After trying to find information on the significance of the time I came across THIS ARTICLE that says the BEP and FED claim the time is 4:10. This sounds like evidence, unless you consider the source…I don’t know of a source with less credibility than the FEDS! It sounds more like they have a negative reaction to the use of the time 2:22 because it was used in the movie National Treasure.

You can look at these images and tell me they say 4:10, however, on both notes the hand near the 2 appears shorter, especially on the 1990 note.  I did have another professional numismatist tell me that you could establish the difference in time based on the shadows that are cast. I happen to think the difference in time wouldn’t lend itself to a wide variation in shadows.

"A N.W. view of the state house in Philadelphia taken 1778," by Charles Willson Peale. (detail) The Library of Congress.

“A N.W. view of the state house in Philadelphia taken 1778,” by Charles Willson Peale. (detail) The Library of Congress.

When I look at the $100 bill I always thought it was neat to see the history. What I found out in the process is that the clock wasn’t even on the tower during the revolution. It wasn’t until 1828 when the building was redesigned that the clock was moved from the front of the building to the tower.  Therefore it is clear that the time on the clock was not there for historical reasons.

When the new $100 bill came out in early 2014 (2009 dated) I was surprised to see a new time on the clock. It was moved from 2:22 (or 4:10 if you are stubborn) to 10:30. This time they made one hand on the clock noticeably shorter, so there would be no arguments. The only question  left is why 10:30? If the time had no meaning, then why change it? Was the old time really 4:10? Did they let the artist pick the time? Can we start a new conspiracy? According to the BEP both images are taken from the original sketches by J.C Benzing, done in 1928.

The changes were among the steps in the new counterfeiting measures taken by the BEP. In case you think that is too subtle of a change, the other change on the new hundred is more dramatic, but just as hard to notice. The new hundred has the back side of the property instead of the front side. These anti-counterfieting changes may all be necessary and the changing time may be meaningless, but I am going to stay indoors on the 30th of October this year!

2009 $100 Federal Reserve Note

2009 $100 Federal Reserve Note

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Coin collectors  have the debate over whether to buy ”slabbed” or ”raw” coins. The term ”slab” comes from the coin being entombed. But those coins can be revived. Slabs can be cracked open and the coin released. There are, however, real slabs. Tombs from which it would take industrial tools to remove the coin.  I’m referring to coins put into lucite, or plastic.

They were used for many reasons, as souvenirs, for advertising, as a business incentive or give away for a bank. They also were marketed and sold in gift shops around the world. They also came in many shapes and sizes, from single coins up to dozens. You will even find paper money under plastic. What is 100 $1 bills worth under wraps?!

Some companies put them into every day items. We have a couple of interesting items with coins in them, including a ruler and a magnifying glass.

Coins in a ruler and a magnifying glass.

Coins in a ruler and a magnifying glass.

It can be hard to put a value on these items since they are not in a spendable form. Many of them have silver value but most collectors are not looking to buy silver coins in a 2 inch square slab!

Some collectors will have interest in the product that was marketed, such as Maxwell house or Lysol. Other people may enjoy finding different banks. But I think the best way to collect coins in lucite holders is to not discriminate. Buy one when you see one (as long as you don’t have that type yet) and see how many you can collect. You may find it a challenge to find them on your travels but it can be fun and rewarding.

Maxwell House gives a 2 pound promise and the Royal Mint shows off!

Maxwell House gives a 2 pound promise and the Royal Mint shows off!

Banks gave away coins with new accounts.  This is the Pima Savings and the Meadow Brook National Bank.

Banks gave away coins with new accounts. This is the Pima Savings and the Meadow Brook National Bank.

How would you spend $100 in Ones...under plastic?

How would you spend $100 in Ones…under plastic?

Not only coins, but tokens, medals and casino tokens are entombed.

Not only coins, but tokens, medals and casino tokens are entombed.


Arthur Anderson gave away and Olympic coin from Canada and encouraged the employees to ''Go for the Gold''. Lysol gave away Silver Eagles for their silver anniversary.

Arthur Anderson gave away an Olympic coin from Canada and encouraged the employees to ”Go for the Gold”. Lysol gave away Silver Eagles for their silver anniversary.


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1903 O Morgan Silver Dollar

Despite the nearly 4.5 million coins produced at the New Orleans mint in 1903 it is a coin that is very rare. But that rarity has had one major bump in the road. Most of the 1903-O Morgans were melted down. Through the early 1960’s the 1903-O was actually considered the key to the series (setting aside the proof only 1895 issue).


1903 O Morgan Dollar. NGC MS64.

In the 1963 US Red Book  the 1903-O listed for $400 in Extra Fine and $1,500 in Uncirculated. By way of comparison the  1893-S  listed for $125 in XF and $1,200 in UNC.  Between 1962 and 1964 the US Treasury released many uncirculated bags of the coins. This had what you would call an adverse effect on the price of the coin. In the 1964 US Red Book the 1903-O listed for $15 in XF and $30 in UNC.  Ouch.

Although some have suspected upwards of 300,000 of the coins were released it seems unlikely since NGC has only graded 7279 pieces to date.  What is interesting is that of those, only 121 are in circulated condition. That is a whopping 98.4% in uncirculated condition! The largest portion of which are graded MS64 (37%). Contrast this with the 1893-S Morgan. NGC has graded 2,695 of the 1893-S Morgan dollars, of which a scant 27 pieces are in uncirculated condition.

Today the  1903-O in VG lists for $270 and in MS60 it lists for $365. There are not many coins that have that small of a spread from VG to UNC.  The 1903-O is still a hard coin to come by. If you ever find one circulated, you’ve found a truly rare coin. It is in fact a conditional rarity.

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