Written and photographed by John Torsiello
While other boys his age may have been collecting baseball cards or comic books, Torrington’s Dick Bacca was acquiring something that would prove to be much more valuable — coins.
It all started simply enough for the owner of Heads and Tails Coin Shop, with a generous grandfather who would give his grandson a silver dollar each time he visited. The silver dollars sparked an interest that was further enhanced with visits to a coin shop that was once located near the present Warner Theater on Main Street in Torrington.
“The shop’s owner sold coin books that you filled,” says Bacca. “If you filled a Lincoln penny book he would give you $3. I could find about 85 percent of the coin in change, but it was hard to come by the pennies that were minted in San Francisco (bearing an “S” on them). I bought the pennies that I needed from him and still made a few bucks a book. I would spend one or two dollars for rolls of pennies from the bank in the 1950’s and found a lot that way.”
Bacca’s search for coins also took a leap when he took on a paper route, with customers paying for their papers in pennies, nickels, dimes, quarters, and half dollars. “That’s when coin collecting really became a hobby for me. I kept at it through high school, collecting, buying and trading.”
After diverting most of his attention to obtaining an engineering degree from the University of Connecticut, Bacca threw himself back into coin collecting in earnest as an adult. He joined and later became president and vice president of the once-thriving Litchfield County Coin Club, and also joined the American Numismatic Association. The Litchfield County Coin Club was very active at one time, conducting a number of shows, although its activity and membership numbers have tailed off in recent years. He served as co-chair of the ANA’s annual show held in Boston, which drew 14,000 enthusiasts. Along the way, he built up a network of fellow collectors and his passion continued to flourish, as he amassed a considerable collection.
“I had a friend, Harry Mendelsohn, who ran Heads and Tails Coin Shop in Torrington and we did shows together. Well, I got laid off from IBM and I was at an age where it was going to be tough to find a similar job. So, Harry asked me to join him and he eventually turned the shop over to me. I ran it for 11 years and closed it two years ago.” He now operates out of his home and maintains a website where interested individuals can view his inventory (which is kept at an off-site location) and continues to attend coin shows in and out of state. He also makes presentations to various groups and organizations.
Coin collecting has been a hobby for hundreds of years. Of special interest to collectors are coins (and paper money to some degree) that was in circulation for only a brief time, coins with mint errors and especially beautiful or historically significant pieces. Coin collecting and numismatics (the study of currency) are closely related, although a numismatist may or may not be a coin collector, and vice versa. A coin’s grade is the main determinant of its value. For a tiered fee, a third party certification service will grade, authenticate, attribute, and encapsulate most U.S. and foreign coins. Over 80 million coins have been certified by the four largest services.
“When you hold a coin it is history in your hands,” says Bacca. “Within coin collecting are subgroups, such as coins of the Colonial America period, which the states issued prior to the Revolutionary War,” he adds, showing off several coins from New England states that were produced in the early- to mid-1700’s. Coins also carry with them a provenance, a storyline that is sometimes fascinating, such as the very rare 1913 Liberty nickel.
One Samuel Brown, who attended the ANA’s annual convention in 1920, displayed the coins there. He had previously placed an advertisement in the December 1919 issue of The Numismatist soliciting information on the coins, offering to pay $500 for each and reportedly purchasing them as a result. Brown had been a U.S. Mint employee in 1913, and many numismatic historians have speculated that he may have struck them himself, or had them struck, and taken them from the Mint. Such strikes were fairly common in the 19th century, with the Class II and Class III 1804 silver dollars perhaps the best-known instances of this practice. Others say the coins could have been legitimately produced and issued by the Mint’s Medal Department for “cabinet purposes,” or could have been struck as trial pieces in late 1912 to test the following year’s new coinage dies. The mystery continues.
“The 1913 Liberty nickel is worth millions of dollars,” says Bacca. “The 1804 silver dollars are also very rare and could fetch a million dollars. There was a double strike (which in effect blurs some of a coin’s image) made of the Lincoln penny in 1955 and there was only 20,000 to 24,000 were released, somewhat by mistake from the Philadelphia Mint. And the 1909 VDB-S is a rare penny because there were so few issued.” There are many other rare coins.
Bacca also collects stamps, although he says that hobby is not as fervent as it once was. “The U.S. Postal Service really flooded the market with new stamps, which makes their value basically the price of the stamp. The Postal Service releases about 50 different stamps a year.” There are some rare stamps that can fetch tens of thousands of dollars, such as “the upside down Jenny,” issued in 1928 with the image of an airplane misprinted flying upside down. And stamps from the Columbian Exposition, which ranged from one cent to $5, are in demand and can fetch several thousand dollars, depending upon the denomination.
Stamp collecting is generally accepted as one of the areas that make up the wider subject of philately, the study of stamps. Many casual stamp collectors enjoy the hobby for itself, but large collections require some philatelic knowledge. Postage stamps are usually collected for their historical value and geographical aspects and also for the many subjects depicted on them.
Bacca says collecting has changed over the years. “Young kids aren’t collecting coins anymore. We still get some children at the shows, but they are mostly there along with their fathers or grandfathers. The U.S. Mint tried to spur some interest in collecting when they released the state quarters a few years back. But they have also released quarters with national parks on them and hardly anyone knows about them because they are snapped up quickly and don’t really circulate.”
Bacca’s business continues to be brisk, fueled by veteran collectors and contacts made through the years. “The most important asset I have is that I’m honest and trustworthy. I do a lot of coin evaluations because people trust me with their collections.”
Visit www.headsandtailscoinsct.com, or call 860-482-9603.