Collector uses coins to study history

September 22, 1993|By Amy P. Ingram | Amy P. Ingram,Contributing Writer

To Robert Powell, it's "one of the most beautiful coins in the world" -- the Walking Liberty half-dollar, minted from 1916 to 1947, featuring Lady Liberty with flowing gown and flaming torch.

All he needs is a 1917-D -- the D means it was minted in Denver -- and his collection of the coins will be complete. But not to worry -- "Captain Bob" will still have plenty of numismatic worlds to conquer.

Mr. Powell, 67, a retired Naval Academy professor, has been collecting coins for 30 years. His collection, worth an estimated $100,000, has provided a unique view of history, he said, unlike that given in a history class.

"I'm interested in learning history through beauty and symbols. It gives me a perspective on how things relate and how they came about," he said, "like why the coin changed from copper to silver and back again." Uncovering why, he said, can reveal more about history than any textbook.

His oldest coin, the Athenian Silver Owl, minted 500 years before Christ, commemorated the victory of the Athenians over the Persians at Marathon.

Mr. Powell, a member of the American Numismatic Association, is also a former president and active member of the Colonial Coin Club of Annapolis. He joined the club in 1987 because he wanted to "share and trade history with friends."

Many members are seniors, but Mr. Powell hopes to bring the history of coins to children. "I like to teach kids to collect," he said. "It's good to learn to collect things according to priority and classification and to evaluate and study detail. It expands their minds."

Mr. Powell said he plans to donate a portion of his collection to a nonprofit service, club or agency benefiting the youth of Anne Arundel County.

In addition to sharing his coin message with children, Mr. Powell has traveled from Detroit to Germany, lecturing and appraising coins. He has spoken to Rotary Clubs, Boy Scout troops, people from other countries and business executives.

"Many leaders have coin collections," he said. "They seem to have a need to fill the gaps and finish a puzzle. And they have the money to do it."

But he stresses that people don't have to be rich to appreciate the beauty of a coin. His favorite is the U.S. Bicentennial quarter. "I give this quarter as a gift, to children, to everyone," he said.

Mr. Powell encourages seniors who, like himself, are "retired and aging," to use their free time to adopt a new hobby -- like coin collecting.

"As I see my mind and body deteriorate, I see my need for this kind of distraction," he said. "You've got to ask yourself, as a senior looking back at life, 'How do I appreciate the stories of history and how do I interpret the periods of our lives?' "

For more information on the Colonial Coin Club, which meets every second and fourth Monday at the Annapolis Public Library on West Street, phone 956-4570.

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