The Pawcatuck Coin Club: Members recount their passion

Russell Young, of Preston, uses a magnifier to get a closer look at a civil war token during a meeting of the Pawcatuck Valley Coin Club on Sept. 20 at Stonington Arms. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
Russell Young, of Preston, uses a magnifier to get a closer look at a civil war token during a meeting of the Pawcatuck Valley Coin Club on Sept. 20 at Stonington Arms. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)

On a recent September night, in the small community room of the Stonington Arms apartment complex, coin club members haul in glass cases filled with coins from centuries past. And as if the glass cases weren’t enough, each coin is carefully enveloped in its own wrapping of cellophane and white cardboard, avoiding unnecessary fingerprints and tarnishes — potential damage that can affect the value of a coin. Once the coin displays are set up, club members of all ages curiously lean over the cases to survey the coins with hawk-like intensity. Other members swap coin stories passed through generations, ranging from the origins of old-wives tales to the habits of kings long past. They do so as if they were peddlers trading for valuable goods at a flea market — with conviction.

Founded in 1962, the Pawcatuck Valley Coin Club is known as one of the oldest coin clubs out of the other dozen that exist throughout the state, and it has since registered 889 members — 105 of whom are presently active within the club. The club meets every third Wednesday of the month. September's gathering was the club's 650th meeting.

It can be easily stated that this is a group of passionate numismatists (those who study coins), committed to their hobby.

For Scott Rottinghaus, an infectious disease doctor by profession, his coin-collecting hobby has permeated many facets of his life, taking him from his home in Salem to as far as Switzerland, Germany and London in efforts to collect ancient coins originally from Rome and Greece.

“Those are the best countries to find ancient coins in,” Rottinghaus says. “It’s nearly impossible to export ancient coins out of Italy and Greece today because of the strict regulations they have.”

Rottinghaus has been participating in the Pawcatuck Coin Club since the age of 11, when he joined in 1985.

On one of his most recent trips to London, Rottinghaus obtained a fragment of a bronze Roman Republican coin created in 215 B.C. — which he brought to show everyone at the meeting.

In all his years of collecting, Rottinghaus has only ever seen one Roman Rupublican coin fully intact — they are estimated to be worth as much as $20,000, he says. Rottinghaus wouldn’t divulge how much his fragment was worth though.

“Back in ancient times, the people would often break full coins for change,” he says. “They also didn’t have banking back then, so people saved their coins by putting them into boxes and burying them. When they would die, the boxes would go forgotten, until centuries later, farmers would find these boxes with $50,000-$200,000 worth of coins over 2,000 years old while plowing fields.”

It was during these ancient times, in fact, when the hobby of coin collecting began. It is widely believed that coin collecting is one of the oldest hobbies known to mankind, but unlike many home-grown hobbies, it originated through the upper echelons of society and was, for centuries, known as the “the kings’ hobby.” Caesar Augustus, the first Roman emperor, is thought to be one of the first coin collectors.

That lasted until the 17th and 18th centuries, however, when governments and institutions started forming their own collections. With the founding of public collections, the general public started to become more involved with collecting, and the hobby eventually made its way to the middle class.

Surprisingly, even in today’s times, ancient coins are still very common, Rottinghaus says, and are therefore inexpensive and easy to collect.

“That’s why I started collecting ancients. You could buy a 1,000-year-old coin for $1,” he says.

But his penchant for coin collecting began after he found a tin can full with old coins in his closet when he was 5 years old.

“It was filled with Indian-head cents, buffalo-head nickels, silver dollars. From there it took off,” he says.

It should be noted that the club is particularly welcoming to young numismatists — offering a $25 gift card to redeem at Westerly Enterprises, a coin dealer, after receiving an allotted number of points, which are rewarded for attending and participating during meetings. According to the club’s website, the future of keeping the “age-old” hobby alive lays with their youth, so it is imperative to keep their interests in the hobby piqued. To that end, three children under the age of 14 were present at the September meeting as well as one teenager.

Kyran Obermeyer, 12, of Gales Ferry, one of the club’s youngest members, has been swept up in the intrigue of coin collecting. He has been collecting coins for three years, he says.

This night, he is nervously shifting in his chair while sitting by his father, Ryan Obermeyer, recording secretary for the club, before giving a presentation on “era-coins” to the club’s 30-plus members at the meeting.

Specifically, Kyran likes to collect British coins and coins made during the World Wars.

“I also love B.C. (Before Christ) coins,” he says. “I didn’t know for a long time that coins were created during those times, but now that I do, it is fascinating. I even have one ancient Roman coin.”

His induction to coin collecting began in the fashion experienced by most collectors — during childhood, with the discovery of one coin, or many.

For Kyran, this is also true. It was during a visit to a coin shop in Virginia with his father. The owner of the shop told the boy, then 9 years old, that he could pick out any coin to keep, for free. Kyran picked out a modern Chinese coin.

“Once I picked up that coin, I knew that I would be a coin collector,” he says.

The passion, just like that, has only grown since, he says.

But at the September meeting, it is apparent that most of the collectors, unlike Rottinghaus and Kyran, prefer to collect U.S. coins. Member Carol Young is one of them.

“This will tell you everything you need to know about American coins,” she says, referring to “A Guide Book to United States Coins” written by Q. David Bowers — her proclaimed Bible.

Young might just be one of the most passionate coin collectors you’ll ever meet. Her knowledge of coins is encyclopedic. She can talk at length about her minted sets and Morgan dollars alone, not to mention in-depth stories about famous coins, where they moved throughout history, and who owned them.

In her retelling of a story about King Farouk, an early-20th-century ruler of Egypt and an ardent coin collector known to have had the world’s most extensive collection of coins, Young seemed on the verge of tears when divulging that Farouk cleaned and polished all of his coins — an act that she says ruins the coins.

Young joined the Pawcatuck Coin Club in 2000.

“Blame the 50 states quarter program for that,” she says, referring to the state-themed quarters that were minted between 1999 and 2008. And the rest was history. She has been happily participating since, having found her social niche.

She now helps to run each meeting as corresponding secretary of the club. At September’s gathering, she resolutely calls the meeting to order as one of her responsibilities.

Before discovering the club, she privately collected coins all her life after becoming enamored with her father’s coin collection as a child. When he finally gave her several Morgan Dollars, also known as the first standard silver dollar, the spark to her obsession was ignited. A “Quaker by convincement,” Young moved from Pennsylvania to Rhode Island in the 1980s to be closer to her coin-collecting friends.

In her Westerly home, Young lives with her pug named Daisy. She has a 6-foot-tall cupboard that stands in her living room filled with the majority of her coin collection — more specifically, open-set coins meant for trading. This includes minted sets; boxed Morgan dollars (she claims to own one from almost every year minted from 1878 to 1904 and again in 1921); mercury dimes; and other various American coins.

Her closed-set coins — those that are most valuable — she says, and all of her gold coins sit in a security deposit box in a bank. Her coin collection is worth over $10,000, she says, not including her gold coins, which she approximated is worth over $8,000 alone.

Ask collectors what they love most about coin collecting, she says, and they will most likely tell you that the hobby combines perfectly with history. For them, it’s a way to learn about history and, quite literally, own a piece of it.

“It’s history, it’s art, it’s intrigue, all combined into one,” Young says.

Meetings of the Pawcatuck Coin Club are held every third Wednesday of the month in the recreation room at the Stonington Arms apartment complex. Route 1, 133 South Broad St., Pawcatuck. All are welcome.

 m.biekert@theday.com

David Morrison and his daughter Julie, 13 years old, both of Waterford take a look at antique tokens during a meeting of the Pawcatuck Valley Coin Club. David has been a member of the club for 15 years, and Julie started joining him five years ago. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
David Morrison and his daughter Julie, 13 years old, both of Waterford take a look at antique tokens during a meeting of the Pawcatuck Valley Coin Club. David has been a member of the club for 15 years, and Julie started joining him five years ago. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
Russell Young, of Preston, takes a look at antique tokens during a meeting of the Pawcatuck Valley Coin Club on Sept. 20 at Stonington Arms. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
Russell Young, of Preston, takes a look at antique tokens during a meeting of the Pawcatuck Valley Coin Club on Sept. 20 at Stonington Arms. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)

Meet a member: Leonard "Lenny" Brown

Leonard “Lenny” Brown is the Pawcatuck Valley Coin Club’s oldest living member. Born in 1931, he is now 86 years old. He grew up in Pawcatuck and has worked in mills throughout the region since he was 16, starting out at a paper mill in Mystic. At the age of 31, Brown joined the club in 1962 as member #13, with nothing but an interest in collecting coins. Brown specialized in U.S. coin collecting and has since accumulated U.S. coins from 1792 to the present day. Although Brown can no longer attend Coin Club meetings, he is still an active member and enjoys receiving the club’s monthly newsletter.

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