By Michael O' Higgins with Antoinette Rahn
It’s a familiar phrase, “It’s like Christmas in (fill in the blank),” and its often uttered when someone unexpectedly finds, experiences, or receives something extraordinary. In coin collecting, many days could be described in this way, since it is often a treasure hunt with a chance of delightful discovery.
With the holidays rapidly approaching, Michael O’Higgins, founder and owner of Gobrecht Numismatics, located in Hollywood, Florida, took the time to share a few of the many poignant coin discoveries of his 58-year numismatic career. His “great coin finds” stories may have a thread of familiarity as they often came about through the common practices of coin collectors of all ages and years of experience.
Enchanted by Buffalo Nickel
“My story began in 1962. I was a smart, fat, little kid, and one day, I asked my mother to stop at Highs Dairy Store (a chain of convenience stores founded in Maryland in 1928) to buy a Hershey bar. I gave the clerk a Franklin Half Dollar, and in my change, I spotted a Buffalo nickel. WOW!! I was in heaven and asked my parents to take me to the local coin store. The proprietor told me the Buffalo nickel was worth 25 cents,’’ said O’Higgins, about his introduction to coin collecting.
At this exchange, a young O’Higgins surged with various emotions, including intrigue, fascination, and a bit of greed, he said.
Coin Collecting at the Pavilion
Another memorable experience, again including Buffalo nickels, took place in 1963 at Beverly Beach, Maryland, where O’Higgins’ family visited during the summer. Like so many destinations at the time, there was a pavilion with slot machines and pinball machines, he said.
“The women would sit in large wire mesh cages and lay out thousands of nickels face up on shelves to easily count and make change,” recalled O’Higgins. “I had a field day and filled up many 39-cent blue Whitman folders with Buffalo nickel key dates.”
Coin Rolls and Pocket Change
By the time O’Higgins was old enough to drive, in the early 1970s, he was finding 90 percent silver in bankrolls and change. Does this sound familiar? How many bankrolls have you purchased over the years, and have you found a few treasures among common pocket change?
During O’Higgins’ teen years as a coin collector, 40 percent clad Kennedy halves became valuable for their silver content. This situation gave the ever-evolving coin collector an idea — to visit banks and request half dollar rolls.
“To get the teller to agree, I had to make up stories, like, they were for a school project, my birthday, etc. Then, one day, I stopped at a bank on Viers Mill Rd. in Wheaton, Maryland. The extremely nice teller told me that the bank had bags of clad halves in the vault. She agreed to sell me all of them, $3,000.00 face value in clad halves,” O’Higgins recalled. “I could not believe it!”
Not only did he make thousands of dollars in a single afternoon, but as O’Higgins explained, this solidified his career in numismatics.
Smart Buys at Shows
As one might expect, another highly memorable moment in
O’Higgins’ numismatic career occurred at a coin show. It was about 25 years ago at the Clearwater Beach Florida show. After driving four hours to arrive at the show by 7:30 am. and setting up his table, he made his way to the booth of a fellow dealer he contacted earlier to inquire about the inventory he was bringing to the show. Although the dealer said he didn’t think his selection was anything that would entice O’Higgins, he still made his way over to his friends’ table because something at the back of his mind kept prompting him to check the inventory, he said.
“I asked to look at his slabs, and the first one out of the box was a 1909-S VDB penny in MS-64 Red. The second coin was another 1909-S VDB penny MS-64 Red,” O’Higgins said. “To my surprise, there was another and another and another. Other dealers were pushing to get at his coins, but I was there first!”
After a few minutes sorting through the inventory, O’Higgins walked away with his purchase: more than 150 of the 1909-S VDB pennies. While at the show, he turned around and sold most of the recently acquired coins at a substantial profit.
Like Christmas in the Coin Shop
As exciting as these discoveries were, the find O’Higgins considered to be his greatest started with an introduction in 1965 and culminated 30 years later. As a young numismatist, just nine years old, O’Higgins spent time at the typical childhood hangout, the local coin shop, of course! While at the shop, he watched, listened, and learned from the regulars who frequented the shop.
“One day, Bob Cohen, a seasoned dealer, was talking about the rarity of a Thurmont, Maryland National Currency Note. At that time, none were known to exist. I convinced myself, then, that I would find one even though it seemed like an impossibility,” O’Higgins explained. “After 30 years of searching every show and shop, the impossible happened. An elderly gentleman walked into my store, Maryland Coin Exchange, and placed a beautifully conditioned 1880 Thurmont Maryland National Currency Note on my counter.”
As one might expect, O’Higgins was a flood of emotion, with nervousness at the top of the list as he tried to reconcile the fact that the object of many stories was real and in front of him. While attempting to calm his nerves, O’Higgins inquired about how the man came to own the note. Interestingly, the man explained that his great-grandfather had been the president of The Thurmont Bank, a community located near Camp David, the country residence for the President of the United States, and the note had been a prized treasure within the man’s family since issuance.
“After serious negotiation, I was able to buy the Thurmont Note,” he said. “It is still in my possession to this day. I will pass it down to my daughter — along with this unbelievable story.”
About Contributor: Michael O'Higgins is the founder and owner of Gobrecht Numismatics, which marked 50 years in operation in 2020. O'Higgins developed a passion for coins at the age of five, and at the age of 17 he opened his first coin shop.