When I am often reading the column “Under $100” over at The Numismatist, there are a great many examples that are featured. They highlight numismatic artistry, rich history, and a fun opportunity at camaraderie with other numismatists. My recommendation has all three of those but presents an element too often floated around with little explanation: rarity.
The tokens I’m referring to are often known as R7, R8 ,R9, or R10 according to the scale utilized by George and Melvin Fuld, the father son team that pioneered the Civil War Token Society in 1967 and brought these strange little copperheads to many collectors with their guidebooks.
A Concise History of the Use of Civil War Tokens
For those not familiar, Civil War tokens were privately issued tokens which circulated during the American Civil War in order to provide circulating specie for the lack of government issue Federal one cent coins.
Hoarding of coins occurred shortly before the war in 1859 as tensions rose throughout the country. Most silver and gold coins were already out of circulation by the time citizens began putting their copper coins under the mattress.
It got so bad that merchants and banks were often offering a premium on the one cent copper pieces, Indian Head Cents and the Flying Eagle Cent. Few took them up on the offer. Small change was an absolute necessary though for commerce to continue. The result led to thousands of different privately issued tokens divided into two categories, store cards for those with advertising related to a specific merchant and patriotics, those with common themes (often patriotic) intended to circulate anywhere and with confidence.
Now I am not suggesting Civil War tokens are cheap. They are not. Since I started collecting these in the mid 1990s prices have gone up comfortably. Many dealers at shows did not bother cataloging them and simply put them in 2×2’s as oddities for $10-20 when I was younger. Sometimes you can still find a gem that way. Generally speaking the asking price for a common die pairing in well circulated condition is now nearly double that price at shows and through dealers.
Consider Purchasing a Numismatic Rarity Rarer than a 1916-D Mercury Dime for Under $100
However, you can now buy from reputable dealers, many specialists in tokens and Civil War tokens; attributed pieces in which less than five are known to exist for about $100.
How does that work? There are hundreds of Civil War tokens for which dozens of different die varieties exist. The merchant or patriotic theme usually has a common variety that can be as common as one million pieces or as rare as a few hundred. However, you will also find often a dozen or more different varieties of which less than five are known of each.
Because of the way collectors work on a series, this works in favor of someone who appreciates rarity. Most collectors try to complete a one from each state, one from each merchant, one from each town, or one from each theme collection. Thus, they often go for one of the many available if there are dozens to choose from. Thus the rarest varieties are can be left untouched and sell for only a small premium above the more common variety, all else being equal.
Why do the rare varieties of Civil War tokens Exist? Why are they so affordable in relation?
Many merchants had numismatic varieties struck for their private collections or for sale to other numismatists. Thus they made minor changes to the die design or chose an off metal. And because they were meant for collectors they are usually in exceptional condition, compared to those that circulated in commerce.
The reason these are affordable is also due to the fact that a number of collectors want the pieces that actually circulated during the Civil War and some consider the off-metals, with really pretty brass, German silver or tin colors to be out of the ordinary. Finally a fair argument can be made that the differences in the dies and metals are so minor that it really makes little difference in the completion of a collection.
After all, a complete collection of Civil War tokens will never exist. This is due to the fact that there are hundreds of tokens that are simply unique. Unique is a word that means that there is no other. It is solitary. Only one exists and that is it. Today in conversation people often mistakenly say something is “very unique” or “incredibly unique.” There is no such thing. Unique is the pinnacle of rarity. Quite a few Civil War tokens have reached that pinnacle.
Buying is Easy: Researching and Learning is the Best Part
Nevertheless, there is a great opportunity for you to own a piece that no one else has, or only a few of the greatest collectors have owned. What a thrill to hold such rarity, Civil War history and knowing you own what was meant for numismatists of yesteryear.
Before you get too committed make sure you buy from a reputable dealer who is familiar with the guidebooks and how to attribute Civil War tokens. If you enjoy what you’ve added to your collection you may benefit from buying the beautiful books themselves and joining the Civil War token Society. Take a peak at the Newman Numismatic Portal. You can read our back issues there and start your search for a gem under $100!