For dealer, old coins are priceless

Westminster's Lester White cherishes the stories behind the money

January 07, 2007|By Cassandra A. Fortin | Cassandra A. Fortin,[Special to The Sun]

A foreign coin, an Irish penny and a silver dollar were as good as gold to 9-year-old Lester White.

Although the coins weren't valuable, they were enough to spark his interest in collecting.

"Coins kind of grew on me," said White. "I was a different kind of collector. I was more interested in collecting for the sake of having the coin, than its monetary value."

Since receiving the coins about 63 years ago, White, now 72, has become well known among collectors and their children. The Westminster numismatist - a person who studies coins, tokens, medals or paper money - opened White's Emporium in 1987, now a coin shop on Main Street.

Fellow coin enthusiast David Thaxter attributes White's success to his work ethic and passion for coins.

"People respect Lester because he has a lot of integrity," said Thaxter, the owner of Metro Coins and Currency in Jessup, whose father was a longtime friend of White's. "He tells people about the coins they're buying, and always gives them a fair deal."

And sometimes he treats newcomers in his shop to the stories behind his first three coins.

Back in 1943, a banker gave White a foreign coin. White kept it because he thought it was cool to have a coin from another country.

Then, several year later, he found an Irish penny in a jar in his grandfather's house. His grandfather had brought the penny from Ireland when he came to America. When he died, White inherited the penny.

Finally, his father gave him a 1900 silver dollar.

The sentimental value of his coins makes them priceless, he said.

White, who was born in Waynesboro, Pa., began voraciously collecting coins while stationed with the Army at Fort Meade. After returning from an overseas tour in 1963, White joined the NSA coin club based at Fort Meade.

Simultaneously, he was running auctions, acquiring coins for his personal collection, and buying and selling coins for collectors.

In the early 1980s, White began sharing his knowledge of coins at workshops and lectures that were sponsored by the Maryland State Numismatic Association.

Then he opened White's Emporium, which started as an antique and coin shop. Later he closed the antique portion of the business to focus on coins. He bought unique coins, rather than rare ones, to sell, he said.

"I don't seek out the expensive coins," said White, who has been active in as many as eight coin clubs around the country. Instead, he looks for coins that tell a story.

One of his most intriguing collections of coins is counterfeit, he said.

"A lot of coins with a good value are counterfeited," he said. "So when I evaluate collections that come into my shop, I usually hang onto the counterfeit coins."

But, it isn't the type of coins that he buys or sells that interests him most, but rather the greatest appeal is teaching their history.

He also helped students at Elmer Wolfe Elementary in Union Bridge start a collection. And he works with numerous Boy Scouts who have visited his shop to earn a coin-collecting merit badge.

Most of White's teaching takes place when patrons visit the shop looking for a coin. He work swith the adult and younger customers, said Robert Ruby, the president of the Carroll County Coin Club.

"Lester is very generous with the kids," said Ruby who is on the Board of Governor's for the Maryland State and Eastern State Numismatic Associations.

For starters, he gives the youngsters coin boards for quarters that were introduced in 1999 by the United States Mint. The quarters represent each of the 50 states. Each year five new quarters are circulated, said Ruby. The boards hold two years' worth of the quarters.

"Lester does what he can to help children get a start on their collection. He buys rolls of quarters, and he gives the kids older coins when he makes change," Ruby said.

His generosity is second only to his desire to introduce people to the stories behind the coins. He said he starts by helping the budding numismatists understand the stages of collecting.

"First, there are people that throw coins in a jar to accumulate them," he said. " Then, there are individuals who organize coins in a folder by date and the mint mark. Some people see coin collecting as an investment, while others see it as a hobby."

Regardless of how a customer collects, the commemorative coins are bringing in a whole new generation of collectors, he said.

"I've seen a good increase in the number of people collecting coins," White said.

The splurge of collectors began in 1999 with the unveiling of the state coins. And then again when nickels were made in 2004 and 2005 in celebration of the 200th anniversary of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

In April, during National Coin Week, White is predicting another flux of collectors will surface. The United States Mint will unveil the first four of a new series of silver dollars depicting the presidents.

The first of the coins will depict George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison. Each subsequent year, the coins will honor four more presidents until all of the deceased presidents appear on a coin.

"These commemorative coins have been the best thing to happen to the coin collecting industry," White said. "The thing is that there won't be a lot of them out there, so people will come to me to try to get them."

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