Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2007

County collects thousands of foreign coins each year

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Photo courtesy of Harold Adams
Cans full of foreign coins sit, waiting to be sorted at the county’s Office of Operations. Every year the county receives nearly 80 pounds of foreign coins in its parking meters and RideOn buses. The coins are sorted and sold at auction.
With 21,373 public, metered parking spaces and 80 RideOn bus routes, Montgomery County collects millions of coins every year.

The problem, however, is dealing with the ones that don’t belong.

Every day, coins from buses and meters are brought to Montgomery County’s Office of Operations and sorted. And every day, the department finds coins that shouldn’t be there: foreign coins, slugs and tokens.

The tokens from RideOn buses get switched out fairly regularly.

‘‘Different tokens are some of the most frequent coins we find that don’t belong,” Harold Adams, head of the Division of Operations’ Support Services Section, said. ‘‘They’re usually from the Metro, and we just exchange them back to WMATA (Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority) for RideOn tokens.”

Foreign coins, however, have a more complicated procedure.

First, Canadian coins — which Adams said are the most common foreign coins found — are separated from the remaining alien coins. The separated coins are placed in bank-issued bags, and then they wait: three, four, maybe five years, until enough accumulate.

Then the county acts.

Like other cities and counties across the country, Montgomery County auctions off the foreign coins. Often, banks won’t exchange mass amounts of coins, Adams said, so an auction is the best plan.

‘‘We maximize the return, and also minimize the loss for the taxpayers by putting them up for auction,” Adams said.

The county auctions the coins by the pound, eliminating a numismatist’s dream of being able to sift through thousands of coins and assess their value. Currently the county has about 20 bank bags full of foreign coins, according to Esther Bowring, Public Information Officer for the Department of Public Works and Transportation.

Every year, the county sifts through more than 560,000 pounds of coins, only about 80 of which are foreign coins or tokens, Adams said.

According to coin dealer Joel Anderson of Grover Beach, Calif., there are usually about 100 coins per pound, putting the total amount of foreign coins or tokens collected every year in Montgomery County near 8,000.

Adams wouldn’t speculate as to the worth of the county’s American or foreign coins, citing security concerns.

The last auction was more than five years ago, Adams said, and as for now, another isn’t in the works.

‘‘When we start the bid process a lot of county employees have to get involved,” Adams said. ‘‘People from procurement and county attorneys are involved in addition to people from my office. It does cost money to have an auction.”

The county no longer has a record of who won the last coin auction, Adams said.

For numismatists – coin collectors, in lay speak— the value may not lay in the coins themselves.

Most coins found in meters, even foreign ones, are heavily worn and very popular, according to Simcha Kuritzky, secretary and treasurer of the Montgomery County Coin Club.

Instead of keeping or reselling the coins won at auction, Kuritzky speculates that the coins are most likely sold for scrap metal.

‘‘My suspicion is that the winner of the auction probably sells the coins to someone who melts them down,” Kuritzky of Silver Spring said.

But while avid coin collectors may not find the 1936 half crown coin from Rhodesia (valued on the market at $485) they were looking for at a public coin auction, the auctions, according to Kuritzky, may be good for other collectors.

‘‘Sometimes people will collect currency from places they’ve recently traveled to,” Kuritzky said. ‘‘So maybe they’d find something of interest.”

coin characteristics

Different features make certain foreign coins more appealing to specific coin collectors. Some features include:

Errors and Varieties — Mints often produce coins with errors that are quickly fixed, making the incorrect coins rare. For example, a 1997 Italian 1,000-lira coin botched the boundaries of several countries featured on it.

Commemorative — Coins worldwide feature special events commemorated by the nation that minted them, such as a South African coin celebrating Nelson Mandela’s presidential inauguration.

War — During times of war, countries may change their designs and metallic components. During World War II, Canada made 5-cent pieces out of brass instead of nickel.

History — Global politics have often been reflected on the world’s money supply. From 1903-1945, while under American control, Filipino coins blended images of the Philippines with American symbols.

Art — The aesthetic quality of certain coins has been raised to a level of art. For example, on a 1951 British crown, St. George slays a dragon.

Source: American Numismatic Association