NARRAGANSETT, R.I. — Ask a youngster what a wheat penny or a buffalo nickel is, and you’re likely to get a blank stare.
But those old coins and hundreds of other rare specimens are sneaking into cash registers of local businesses and being dropped in special hiding places, waiting to be found, as part of a new program celebrating National Coin Week, April 21-27.
Credit local coin dealer Joseph Stanelun, owner of No Common Cents in Mariner Square, with bringing the new nationwide initiative known as the Great American Coin Hunt, to our area.
It’s an effort by coin dealers across the country, and the U.S. Mint, to put more than one million rare coins back into circulation. Doing so, they hope, not only generates conversation, but also sparks youngsters and others to start coin collecting.
Stanelun said he’s been stockpiling coins for weeks in anticipation of the big event.
“As soon as we heard about it, we knew we wanted to be a part of it,” he said. “As a collector, the feeling of finding something with numismatic or precious metal value in your change, or in a roll of coins from the bank, is thrilling.”
Stanelun has already started distributing coins in two main ways.
He’ll drop an old coin – say a nickel with the profile of a Native American on one side and a bison on the other side – into a paper roll of more modern nickels, and then distribute the roll to a local business, banks or at the library, he said.
Visitors to that business then have a chance of getting the old coin as regular change.
“Check your change carefully, you might have something unique,” Stanelun said.
He’s also creating a treasure hunt by putting old and sometimes rare coins in small wooden treasure chests, and leaving them in public places around the state to be found.
“I left one at the top of the tower in Narragansett,” he said. It was quickly found and the discovery was posted to the No Common Cents Facebook page.
More were left on a recent visit to the former Rocky Point park in Warwick, Stanelun said.
“We don’t want to make it too hard to find them,” he said. “This is supposed to be something fun and get people interested in coin collecting.”
Other old coins that are “retired” but fairly common (they were minted in the tens of millions, and for decades in some cases) include the wheat penny, Indian head penny, Mercury dime and the bicentennial quarter.
There’s also demand for quarters and dimes minted prior to 1965. Before that time, they were made of almost pure silver. After, it was mostly nickel-plated copper.
More rare is a penny made of steel and minted in 1943, when World War II forced copper shortages.
Nationally, coin collecting has seen a resurgence over the past two decades. Initiatives such as the state quarters program starting in 1999 and the later America the Beautiful quarter releases drew more collectors, including younger ones, into the fold. Later, re-designs of the penny and nickel followed.
Dollar coins, such as the Susan B. Anthony and Sacagawea dollars, have never caught on as popular circulating currency, but they are plentiful in collectors markets and occasionally drop out from the odd vending machine.
“Coin collecting is such a great hobby, especially for kids,” Stanelun said. “It helps teach them about the history of our nation, helps them learn about our money, introduces them to other countries and cultures and offers them a challenge of hunting down rare coins to complete their sets.”
This is the first time that there has been a concerted effort on a national level to organize such an event. “In many cases, this is going to be the first time in over 100 years that some of these coins will be brought back to their glory and used for their originally intended purpose,” said Rob Oberth, organizer of the Great American Coin Hunt. The organizers will also distribute 250 specially-marked holographic medallions nationally, five of which will be released in Rhode Island. Once found, they can be redeemed in person at No Common Cents for a rare coin with a retail value of approximately $100. Additionally, five “Golden Tickets” will be distributed across the country. When these specially-marked tickets are found, the lucky treasure hunters can redeem them for rare coins valued up to $1,000 each by contacting www.GreatAmericanCoinHunt.com.
For more information on the coin hunt and National Coin Week, visit www.facebook.com/GreatAmericanCoinHunt and www.NationalCoinWeek.org as well as by searching hashtag #GreatAmericanCoinHunt on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.