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Rare change

National coin convention returns after long hiatus

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Christopher Porco, a 21-year-old coin expert with Gatewest Coin hefts an impressive one kilogram gold coin.


Christopher Porco, a 21-year-old coin expert with Gatewest Coin hefts an impressive one kilogram gold coin. Photo Store

Calling all coin collectors.

A unique opportunity is taking place this coming week; an event that hasn't occurred in Winnipeg in more than 30 years.

From July 24 to 27, the city will once again play host to hundreds of coin collectors and dealers from across Canada when The Royal Canadian Numismatic Association national convention returns to Manitoba.

The last time the convention rolled through town was July 1982, held at a downtown Holiday Inn that no longer exists.

This time around, the event will be held at the Winnipeg Convention Centre, featuring impressive collections of rare coins -- some of them worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

For those unfamiliar with the coin collecting lingo, 'numismatic' refers to coins, paper money and other items such as military medals that have collectable significance beyond their obvious face value.

If the convention sounds like an event mainly frequented by grey-haired men, your preconceived notion is not entirely off the mark.

Even Barre Hall -- a longtime collector and spokesman for the convention -- admits it is often an older gentleman's pastime.

Yet coin collecting has garnered new interest in the last few years, largely because of the increased interest in gold and silver, which have both increased significantly in value in the last decade.

"It's definitely not dying," says Hall, a retired securities lawyer and member of the Manitoba Coin Club, which is hosting the 60th annual national convention.

Hall says about 600 people will likely attend, many from outside Manitoba, including exhibitors who will have tables of coins on display in the 'bourse' (coin-speak for the exhibition floor).

Among them will be Winnipeg's Gatewest Coin -- the largest private coin and bullion dealer in Canada.

For the majority of the convention, Christopher Porco will be at the Gatewest table, providing numismatic expertise and shattering stereotypes.

At age 21, Porco is numismatist in-training under the tutelage of Gatewest owner Ian Laing. In just a few years, Porco has become an eagle-eyed expert, able to spot old money's new worth.

"There are not a lot of people in their 20s and early 30s who are into this," he admits.

Oddly enough, he adds, coin collecting attracts a number of children age seven to 12. Then, for some unexplained reason, they often give up the pursuit in their teens -- but not Porco, and not Hall either.

"I was interested in American Indian Head pennies when I was in junior high school," says Hall, now in his 70s.

His interest has never really waned.

But like most collectors, his fascination has never been fuelled by the potential profits that can come from a rare coin worth many times its face value.

Although it can be lucrative, coin collecting is like any other hobby. People's interests are piqued for a variety of reasons.

"It's the stories behind the coins that interest many collectors," Hall says. "After all, money reflects our history."

Porco says a good number simply enjoy searching for items that are on the one hand common, but exceptionally rare on the other hand.

"For a lot of people, especially the younger collectors, looking for and finding the coins is more fun than actually having the coins," he says. "The chase is often the most satisfying."

Yet, on the rarest of occasions, it's also incredibly rewarding for the pocketbook.

One local collector recently found a five-cent silver coin from the early 1920s at Grand Beach using a metal detector, Porco says.

"It is worth about $3,000."

Although rare coins can fetch a pretty penny, few collectors sell them. Instead, they devote much of their time finding and buying coins.

And the convention is a good opportunity to browse sought-after collections and, occasionally, to hand over cold, hard cash to buy a rare, old penny.

But what makes a coin collectable and valuable beyond its face value?

Age is a factor, but not as much as lay people might assume.

"With coin collecting, first and foremost is condition," Porco says.

A coin's condition is measured using the Sheldon Coin Grading Scale, which ranges from PO (poor state) 1 to MS (mint state) 70.

"In classic coinage, 64 to 65 is a very high grade," Hall says.

Anything higher is off the charts in terms of scarcity and value if you're dealing with an old coin. Even a penny that's 10 years old can be worth several times its value if it's in mint condition.

Still, the older a coin is the more it's likely to be worth something simply because it's scarce.

What can make a coin even more valuable is its availability. A coin's value can be high, even though it's not all that unique, because it's in high demand and no one is selling.

"Even if there were 100,000 coins minted, and many still exist, if nobody wants to sell, you'll have to pay top dollar to own one," Porco says.

More than anything, successfully collecting coins involves a lot of learning. For the numismatic newbie, the convention is an excellent place to see a wide variety of collectables.

The Royal Canadian Mint is a perennial exhibitor at the convention -- and a good place to start. Besides offering commemorative collectables and gold and silver coins, it will also have a rare collection of 1912 to 1914 Canadian $5 and $10 gold coins on display and for sale.

Mint spokesman Alexandre Reeves says the federal government owns the hoard (more coin-speak), which had remained in the Bank of Canada vault for decades.

"Since we already have a distribution network, we have taken on the role of retailing these coins, which are being liquidated by the department of finance," Reeves says.

Hall says about 240,000 of these coins exist. Some of the lower grade coins--those in lesser condition--can be purchased for around $750, in part because they contain about $300-worth of gold. But the near mint condition coins may command as much as six figures.

Other priceless coins will be found at other tables too. Among them could be a 1921 Canadian 50-cent silver coin, of which only 75 remain.

"They're all owned in collectors' hands so they don't show up very often," Porco says, adding Gatewest brokered a deal recently for one that sold for tens of thousands of dollars.

Of course, the majority of coins on display are likely to be worth much less. Yet while they may only be worth a few dollars, for the avid collector, they're as good as gold.

"It's a treasure hunt," Porco says. "That's the best way I could put it."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 20, 2013 B12

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