Coin Update continues its series dedicated to reflecting on the long history of Whitman Publishing’s Guide Book of United States Coins, also known as the Red Book, now in its 70th edition. “Red Book Recollections” features personal reflections written by Red Book contributors, collectors, and others with the aim of providing different perspectives on the long-lived reference work.
Our fourth narrative comes from David M. Sundman, President of Littleton Coin Company, Red Book contributor, and co-author of 100 Greatest American Currency Notes. He received the ANA’s Harry J. Forman Dealer of the Year Award in July of this year.
David M. Sundman
I am proud to say that I have a complete collection of the Guide Book.
In the 1950s my father, Maynard Sundman, was frequently visited by dealers from New York City and Boston, who would drive to New Hampshire to visit and hopefully to sell coins. My father liked mixtures, and Littleton often sold mixtures of tokens and medals in cigar-box assortments to our customers. We had some regular suppliers of these, as well as U.S. and world coins. Usually mixtures were sold unsorted, but sometimes we’d break them down by categories and retail the better individual coins. They would range from low-denomination base-metal foreign coins to tokens of the world, with some U.S. issues tossed in as well, principally Hard Times tokens and Civil War cents, often damaged or well worn. Sometime around 1956 or so, while accompanying my dad one weekend to work at our then-small family stamp-and-coin business, I came to really appreciate the Guide Book and the importance of reading it—or at least recalling images of its contents, if not actual values.
Being curious, I liked to rummage through the mixtures my father had just purchased. It was really a treasure hunt—you never knew what you would discover. Even if the values were low, the coins and tokens were really interesting, and it was educational to see which ones I could identify. It also was a source of pride to an eight-year-old when I made a “discovery.”
One particular Saturday morning while I was plowing through a pile of coins from one of these mixtures, I recognized a U.S. token I thought was better than the others—as it was listed in the Guide Book. It was a (1792) undated WASHINGTON BORN VIRGINIA cent in Fine condition. At the time it cataloged for $75, but in actuality it would have sold for more.
This was my first good coin “find.” In hindsight, I can see that this really got me excited about coins and doubtless instilled a desire to follow my father’s profession someday. As an eight-year-old, the idea of finding valuable coins was quite exciting (and still is)! Partly as encouragement to ensure we went to work with him, and partly so we stayed out of our mother’s hair on Saturdays, my father would pay my brother Rick and later Don (born 1954) and me 10 percent of the Guide Book value for any better coins that we found in our searches. So the WASHINGTON BORN VIRGINIA cent coin meant a $7.50 “finder’s fee” to me, which was then a small fortune—representing more than a year’s supply of comic books!
Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s when silver coins still circulated, Rick and I would support our comic-book habit by finding good coins through searching bag upon bag of dimes, quarters, halves, and even silver dollars. Dad would go to the bank and bring home the coins. After the dishes and homework were done, we would clear off the dining room table and go to work.
In particular, I can remember going through Mercury Head and Roosevelt dimes. Our business always had a ready supply of dimes at hand, because my father’s advertisements featured 10-cent offers. In those days you could really find almost all the dates of Mercury dimes in change or in bags available at the bank. Although I never found a 1916-D, I do remember finding quite a few 1921 and 1921-D Mercs. In 1958 the 12th edition of the Guide Book listed the 1921 at $3.00 in Good and the 1921-D at $4.50 in Good, which we valued at 3 or 4 1/2 comic books, which cost 10¢ each back then! This meant a “finder’s fee” of 30¢ to 45¢ for each of us if we found those better dates—which might happen once or twice in an evening’s search of many thousands of coins, so we could buy quite a few comic books. Not only were we happy, but Dad was happy too, as we provided him with another source of coins he could offer our Littleton Coin mail-order customers.
Over the years, as I watched the value of the WASHINGTON BORN VIRGINIA cent increase from $75 to $90 to $120 and upward, I always regretted selling that coin. Many years later I decided I would buy an example for my own small collection. Whenever I look at it today, I recall the one I found so many years ago and its listing in the Guide Book. It brings back many pleasant memories of working with my father when I was just a kid, and is a good reminder of how big dreams often have small beginnings.
David T. Alexander’s recollection first appeared in A Guide Book of the Official Red Book of United States Coins by Frank J. Colletti.