Brother, Can You Spare $2 Million for a Dime?

Rare coin dealer John Feigenbaum recently sold a dime for nearly $2 million. How did one coin become such a magnet for enthusiasts?

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JACKI LYDEN, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

A few days ago, John Feigenbaum flew across the country carrying some of the world's most unusual pocket change - one little silver dime minted more than a hundred years ago that he just sold for $1.4 million.

Feigenbaum is a rare coin dealer. He brought the dime from California to New York to hand-deliver it to its new owner. We couldn't imagine what might account for such an impressive markup, so we called John Feigenbaum.

Mr. JOHN FEIGENBAUM (President, David Lawrence Rare Coin): It's a dime struck in 1894 in San Francisco. What's unique about this coin is that in 1894, the United States Mint struck coins in Philadelphia, New Orleans and San Francisco. And in the year prior and the years hence, they struck dimes, quarters and half-dollars at all of those mints. And they struck them in the millions.

For some reason in 1894, San Francisco was sent the dimes(ph) to strike dimes but they never struck a full production run of the dimes. And at one point earlier in the year, the mint directors specifically made 24 coins - that we know is on mint records - struck 24 coins. So the most accepted story goes is that he had seven visiting dignitaries and wanted to give each of them three coins and he kept three for himself.

To this day, of the 24 coins struck, only nine are known. The others have essentially been lost in history, and we don't expect them to be discovered. So this coin that I just sold is the finest of the nine known.

So it's a great, great coin in the same manner that there's great pieces of art to like a "Water Lilies" painting by Monet, and then let's say it was considered to be the finest of those "Water Lily" paintings. You know, when we're talking about the best of the best of a great historical piece.

LYDEN: Could you just describe it? I mean, is it bright and shiny like a new coin or is it kind of, you know, would I know, by the way, it was an old dime if I saw it?

Mr. FEIGENBAUM: It appears old. It's - we call it a toning - what you might call tarnish. Toning is the natural coloring that comes on to the silver. In the terminology of numismatics, the coin is supremely original. It has never been tampered with. If this were bright and shiny, there would have been some kind of cleaning to make it bright and shiny. And that would really take away from some of the quality.

LYDEN: I was just thinking, wouldn't it be cool if you knew all the people who would handle that dime, if you could somehow trace who had touched it?

Mr. FEIGENBAUM: Well, in this particular case, we really do know. That's another thing that makes this coin fantastic is it goes back to a true coin collector named Clapp. At the turn of the century, he sold his collection to a gentleman who's the most famous collector - it's a gentleman named Eliasberg -in 1942.

So Eliasberg sold off this one coin at an auction to a gentleman named James Stack. And James Stack owned it for many years. And we really do know the pedigree going all the way back, you know, within a year or two of the mint.

LYDEN: It's wonderful to hear you talk about it. John Feigenbaum is president of the David Laurence Rare Coin. We spoke to him from Virginia Beach, Virginia. Thank you, John.

Mr. FEIGENBAUM: Thank you very much.

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