PERSPECTIVES: What Has Covid-19 Done to the Hobby of Collecting Things?


Above, a display of glass featuring a large number of whale-oil-lamps which served early Americans as a source of domestic lighting from the early 1800s until the rise of the use of kerosene in the 1860s and 1870s.

Part 1.

By: James C. Johnston Jr.

What can you do when you don’t get out like you used to? You can: work at home, go crazy, read some good [or bad] books--whichever is more entertaining, cook a lot, get fat [can also be fun but….], send out for fast food, get fatter [too much fun], or discover your old hobbies of collecting “Stuff”. I once made a nice bit of change by catering to peoples’ desire to accumulate, collect, and systematize accumulated objects of virtue into well displayed collections which were very decorative and gave a great deal of pleasure.

Because of the internet, one has great access to; Art Glass, Rare Books, Historical Blue Staffordshire Pottery, Victorian Mechanical Banks, Model Railroad Trains, Stamps, Coins, Furniture, Pottery, Snuff Boxes, Match Box Cars, all kinds of Antique Furniture ranging from pre-Columbian to Mid-Century, and Post-Modern pieces. In addition to that, Chinese Export Porcelain, Imari Porcelain, Meissen, Dresden, and even French Porcelain have shown more popularity then has been seen in twenty-five years. Some auctioneer friends of mine have told me that all of the markets I have mentioned owe their vitality to the boredom caused by being shut in during this recent pandemic.

The interest shown in collecting, researching collections, arranging and mounting collections has proven to be a viable way to cure pandemic-house-bound Hell. Now that the pandemic shows signs of being less of a problem than it was when it was raging in deadly fury, the habit of collecting has become more than a comfort activity. People have rediscovered the “Collector’s Passion.”

Collecting stamps was considered a childish hobby until it was taken up by very wealthy and famous people. When it was discovered that well know personalities were collecting stamps, the general public was surprised. When it became known that the Prince of Wales, later the King of England as George V was a stamp collector, the hobby took on a new perspective. As a matter of fact, George VI, and Elizabeth II were also collectors.

Above, This book is Sir John Wilson’s definitive work on the Royal Stamp Collection, and it was published in 1953. Reading about it at the time in Linn’s Stamp News, I wanted a copy very badly, but the cost of this book was $180.00! More than fifty years later, I got a chance to buy it for slightly more. It is bound exactly like the red leather albums in the Royal Collection of George V. The Albums in George VI’s collection are bound in blue leather, and Elizabeth II’s collection is bound in green leather.

On this side of “The Pond,” Presidents of the United States also collected stamps. They include: Herbert Hoover, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Dwight D. Eisenhower. King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy was a collector of both stamps and coins, King Carol of Romania was also a keen enthusiast, as was King Farouk of Egypt who, like Victor Emmanuel III collected both stamps and coins and belonged to both the American Numismatic and American Philatelic Societies. When Farouk was run out of Egypt by the Army and Col. Gamal Abdel Nasser in the early 1950s, the fallen king’s collections were sold off for millions of dollars in a series of huge auctions.

One of Farouk’s great treasures was a 1933 United States twenty dollar gold piece. Now for one thing, these coins are illegal to own because of the date that they were minted -- after the passage of New Deal Legislation regarding the ownership and hoarding of gold minted after 1932. Under the mistaken impression of the early Roosevelt period, many Americans thought that owning any gold coinage was illegal and as a result, thousands of people turned in their gold to banks and received paper money in return!

There was a guy in my dorm in college whose uncle worked in a bank. He proudly told me one night how his uncle fleeced an elderly lady out of a substantial fortune in gold. It seems that the uncle was serving at a window during the lunch break when this old woman came in and advanced on this window with a large leather change pouch which must have weighed five or six pounds. “Can you help me with this?” she nervously asked while looking over her shoulder.

“I will if I can,” he replied.

“Can we go somewhere private? I really don’t want to go to jail at my age,” she said on the verge of tears.

The Uncle put the proper signage in his window and led the lady to a room mostly used by people looking into their safety deposit boxes. When they were both seated, the lady furtively opened the pouch so that the man could see just what was inside. He peered into the pouch and saw several hundreds of gold coins ranging from dollar coins to twenty dollar double eagles. Choking back tears, the lady said, “My friend Alice said that if I’m caught with all this gold that the government would take it away and that I might go to jail!”

The Uncle put a serious frown on and said in a loud whisper, “Alice is right. But I think that I can save you.”

“Can you really! But how?”

“I will buy you out of your dilemma. How much face value do you have here?” he asked with a kindly smile.

“I don’t really remember. We will have to count it out. Can I pour it out here?” she asked.

“Let’s do that. I’ll help you.”

And so he did. They counted out, as I recall, about eight hundred dollars in gold. “That is a lot of money. Can you give me a check for it?” the old lady asked looking hopefully.

“I can do better than that. I can give you cash. Do you mind if I just take the gold with me in the pouch?”

She nodded affirmatively with a smile of obvious relief. He quickly but gently put the coins back into the pouch, and said, “Now just wait here. I will be back in a jiffy.” And out he went to his own safety deposit box to stash away his ill-gotten-gains and get the necessary cash, illegally stored there under federal law by the way, and returned to the small room where the lady was waiting.

He counted out the cash, put it into a brown paper envelope, and handed it to the woman whose eyes were slightly rearing up in relief and joy at the prospect of being a free woman. The seedy Uncle now placed a hand on the woman’s shoulder and said, “Nobody must ever know what we have done. Neither one of us wants to go to prison. Swear to me that you won’t even tell Alice!”

“Don’t worry about that! Thank you ever so much. I can actually sleep again.” And off she went.

The bullion value of that gold today is about $80,000.00 more-or-less. The value of the coins as collectible coins could reach into the millions depending on their date, mint mark, and most of all their condition as ranked on the Sheldon Scale.

There was no law at the time restricting ownership of gold minted before 1933 with the singular exception that not more than seven two-and-a-half dollar gold pieces could be held with the same date and mint mark.

My so-called friend thought that his uncle had pulled a “Good one”, and I am afraid that I did not agree with him on the subject of his uncle’s questionable ethics. And that was pretty much that. By the way, Farouk’s 1933 twenty dollar gold piece last traded hands for more than nine million dollars. You can see one today at The Smithsonian.

PART 2, Coming Soon!

James C. Johnston Jr. is a former Franklin selectman, Franklin High School history teacher, and author of "The African Son," a novel ,as well as "The Yankee Fleet" and "Odyssey in the Wilderness," (a history of Franklin, Massachusetts). Article copyright James C. Johnston, Jr. 2023, used with permission

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