Fragments of ancient civilizations and early American life are in the stewardship of a Clovis man named James Obler.
His slices of history come in the form of currency. He’s a numismatist, a person who collects money – and not for the same reason someone might stow away cash in a savings account.
I like the aspect that they represent something solid.
James Obler, on collecting coins
Obler holds an ancient silver coin bearing the raised face of Greek demigod Hercules, minted around 2,300 years ago.
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“Two thousand and three hundred years later, I get to keep it for a while, and somebody after me will keep it,” Obler said. “Generations from now, somebody will be thinking the same kind of thing: ‘I wonder who had this before I did?’ ”
That mystery is part of the draw of being a numismatist. Obler also likes knowing that his hobby is worth something.
“All U.S. coins ever minted are still legal tender at face value, so if I wanted to, I could take my 1797 silver dollar and go into the 7-Eleven and buy a dollar’s worth of Tic Tacs and they would have to take that coin,” Obler said with a smile. “I would lose about $4,000 on the deal, but it’s legal tender.”
He’ll share his hobby this weekend during the Fresno Numismatic Society’s 50th annual Fresno Coin Show at Las Palmas Masonic Center. The club has around 80 members and is celebrating its 70th anniversary. Obler serves as its vice president.
Some people do scrapbooking or log rolling or whatever. There’s all kinds of activities that people enjoy. This one is pretty benign.
The coin show will feature more than 20 dealers buying, selling and trading coins, along with a scavenger hunt for children.
The coins come with all kinds of stories. One club member specializes in coins minted in Carson City, Nev., near the site of a large silver and gold deposit exploited in the 1800s.
“That’s very much a Wild West kind of association,” Obler said. “You think of cowboys going into a saloon and slapping down their silver coins to buy whiskey.”
Obler’s numismatic aspirations began at age 8, when he collected pennies. Today he specializes in rare U.S. coins. His most valuable is a $10 Liberty Cap gold piece he says is worth $20,000. It’s particularly rare because the $10 coin contained $10.30 worth of gold, which led to a number of them being melted down and the gold resold. Mints realized the error and stopped making the coins in 1803.
Currency today is somewhere between hope and a promise.
Old coins represent “something solid” to Obler – currency made of its equivalent value in gold and silver, compared with today’s cash and credit.
“Currency today is somewhere between hope and a promise … the value of the paper money has depreciated substantially.”
Gold as an element is also alluring.
“I was a chemist by background and I like the notion that gold is kind of eternal. It doesn’t rust, it doesn’t get brittle. You can make a gold ornament and stick it in an Egyptian tomb for 4,000 years. You pull it out and it pretty much looks the same as when it went in.”
I was a chemist by background and I like the notion that gold is kind of eternal.
Put a coin in Obler’s hand and he starts asking questions: “ ‘Where did this come from? Who used it and why was it made? What’s it made from? What equipment was necessary? Where did the raw materials come from?’ You can go into as much detail as you want.”
Coin collecting has turned his life into a constant treasure hunt.
One of his treasures – a rare quarter minted in error, missing one of its alloy layers, that Obler estimates is worth a couple hundred dollars – popped out of a vending machine in downtown Fresno while he was buying a bag of potato chips.
“Whenever I get a coin I always glance at it. I usually don’t find much anymore, but every once in a while you get lucky. And the more you look, the luckier you’re going to get.”
Fresno Coin Show
The Fresno Numismatic Society’s 50th annual Fresno Coin Show will be held from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday at Las Palmas Masonic Center, 2992 E. Clinton Ave., Fresno. More information about the Fresno coin club is available online at FresnoCoinClub.com or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.