I recently read an article in the Wall Street Journal that underscores many people's dream of stumbling upon a rare or valuable item while going about their everyday business, or in the case of collectors, finding something rare that has been overlooked or misidentified. A recurring dream I have is stumbling across a hidden room in an old house that is filled with old “stuff.” Philatelists (stamp collectors), numismatists (coin and currency collectors), card collectors, comic collectors and the like check out shops and troll the internet in search items for their collections, and hopefully something the current owner doesn’t know the value of. Occasionally noncollectors find items that turn out to be real treasures. Here are a few cases in point.
In 1885 a Swedish boy named Georg Wilhelm Baeckman discovered the “Treskilling Yellow” postage stamp in his grandmother's attic. Issued in Sweden in 1855 it was printed in yellow by mistake instead of the intended green. It is considered one of the rarest and most expensive stamps in philatelic history.
In 2002, Joan Langbord, the daughter of deceased jeweler Israel Switt, had his safe deposit box drilled and in it found 10 1933 $20 gold pieces, that President Franklin Roosevelt had ordered to be destroyed. One 1933 coin was known to have survived, and after lengthy negotiation with the government was auctioned for more than $7 million, with the government and the owner splitting the proceeds. In this case, Ms. Langbord was not as fortunate because the government seized her coins as government property and after back and forth court decisions, Langbord receiving nothing.
In 2003, the last remaining specimen of a rare 1913 Liberty “V” nickel showed up at the ANA show in Baltimore that featured the other four 1913 nickels on display. The missing coin was sought through advertising. Five specimens were known to have been minted, although in unusual circumstances. At that time four were in the hands of collectors, and the fifth was being sought. The story of its whereabouts for all those years starts in the 1940s when collector George Walton purchased the coin for a reported $3,750. He had it in his possession in 1962 when he was killed in a car accident while returning from a coin show. His coins were scattered about the wreck, but most if not all, including the 1913 nickel, were recovered and given to his sister, who was his heir. She tried to get the coin authenticated, but was unable to do so at the time, so she put it away. At her death in 1992 her siblings took possession, and upon learning of the search for the fifth coin, took it to the ANA convention where it was authenticated. Its current value is more than $4 million.
In 2012, Karl Kissner and his cousin Karia Hench were cleaning out their grandfather’s house and came across a box of baseball cards that, upon research and enlisting help from a dealer, were determined to be a rare group known as the E98 series, printed in 1910. They were in pristine condition and were worth around $3 million.
In 2013, David Gonzalez was renovating a fixer-up home he had bought in Elbow Lake, Minn., and found stuffed in the wall as insulation a copy of the 1938 Action Comics issue No. 1, which is the debut edition of Superman. It sold for $175,000.
Closer to home, an Atlantic County man took what he hoped was a genuine Honus Wagner known as the T206 card to the Atlantic City Antique Show held at the new convention center, where he showed it to Josh Evans of Lelands Auction Company. After a lot of head scratching and consulting with other knowledgeable dealers, the card was declared real. Although it was in terrible shape, it still sold for around $60,000.
Yes, these are stories about finds that don’t happen every day, but my advice is to keep your eyes open and have anything that looks unusual checked before discarding. I tell people I’m willing to look over anything, but if it gets thrown out first, I can’t help.
Douglas Keefe is the president of Beachcomber Coins Inc. He and his wife, Linda, operate Beachcomber Coins and Collectibles, formerly in the Shore Mall and now at 6692 Black Horse Pike in the old Wawa building just beyond the former Cardiff Circle. They have satellite offices in Brigantine and Absecon. Between them they have more than 70 years of experience in the coin and precious metals business. They are members of the American Numismatic Association, the Industry Council of Tangible Assets, the Numismatic Guarantee Corporation, the Certified Coin Exchange and the Professional Coin Grading Service.