Rare coin museum in Colorado Springs undergoes renovation

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Patricia May was helping tornado victims in Central Florida when a plain old gold coin, covered in plastic, fell out of a golf shoe. May stuck it in her junk drawer at home and left it there for three years. A couple of weeks ago, she happened upon the coin again and decided to research its origins via the Internet.

The coin, a one-of-a-kind from the California gold rush, was valued at $150,000. The collector who actually owned the coin had never stopped looking for it. His wife had unknowingly donated it to the Fort Pierce Jaycees while putting together disaster relief supplies in February 1998. May contacted a Web site operator and coin collector, the true owner of the coin was found, and she received a reward of $10,000.

Coin collectors are acutely aware of the value of their prized possessions. And here in Colorado Springs there is a monument to coins and collectors worldwide. The Springs has hosted the American Numismatic Association since they established headquarters here in 1966. The coin enthusiasts had no permanent home prior to the Springs, even though they were founded in 1891 and chartered in 1912. The El Pomar Foundation bought the land that surrounds ANA. El Pomar donated part of the land to Colorado College, the Fine Arts Center, and extended a 99-year lease (renewable in 2163) to ANA. The coin collectors raised enough money to build a facility on the site, and that structure is currently under its second renovation.

ANA is closed to the public until July 14, but the $3 million remodel project will undoubtedly gain approval from supporters and visitors alike. During National Coin Week, 750 visitors per day passed through the rare coin museum. The new museum will house a children’s learning center, the Bass Gallery (named after Harry Bass, who was considered a “numismatic connoisseur”), meeting rooms, a bigger and better gift shop, galleries downstairs and a library for the 50,000 books that are in the care of ANA.

George Heath of Monroe, Minn., founder of ANA, would be proud of the association’s following. The ANA boasts more 31,000 members worldwide. In 1882, Heath first founded the monthly publication for coin collectors, The Numismatist, which is now published at the Springs headquarters. Edward Rochette was the former editor of the journal and is now the executive director who oversees the publication and the staff of the ANA. Rochette moved to the Springs in 1966 to accept the position of executive director and has been called out of retirement twice to retain that position. Rochette, like many coin collectors, started collecting at a young age. He said “meeting girls” transitioned him to other life paths, but that he picked up the hobby later in life.

“Later on, I went into the service and brought home coins from overseas,” said Rochette. “My interest was piqued again when my son was about 8 years of age.” He offered a description of the typical coin collector: “Usually, they are only children, probable introverts, history and/or geography buffs and usually about 56.5 years of age.”

Whatever the profile, the members support their organization. In attendance at last year’s convention were 22,000 members, and the ANA expects to draw as many to this year’s late summer convention in Atlanta, which will be held August 8 to August 12. Another mid-winter convention will be held in January in Jacksonville, Fla.

Members of the ANA collect coins, tokens, medals and paper money. One 1804 silver dollar is worth $4.1 million, and a 1904 liberty head nickel is worth $1 million. With such values, it is no wonder people become entrenched in coin collecting. Rochette said that paper money was once used to educate the masses. One educational series of currency portrayed names of prominent Americans, and another touted the great inventions of our time — such as the lightbulb.

Native Americans will be featured on U.S. coins and currency during the July opening exhibit at ANA. One month ago, legislation was passed to issue a silver dollar that will be a replica of the Buffalo nickel. Colorado’s Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell sponsored the legislation in the senate. A premium will be added to the sale of the coin, but a surcharge will go to underwrite the new museum of the American Indian at the Smithsonian Institute.

Thirty-two employees of the ANA welcome approximately 1,000 visitors to the center each month. Rochette recalls one of the recent visitors. “This collector wrote a book on the 1904 collectibles at the Worlds Fair. He couldn’t drive anymore, so he took the AmTrack to Denver and the bus to the Colorado Springs,” he said, adding that the long-time collector will be 103 years old this summer.

The museum invites students nationwide to participate in seminars that are sponsored by the ANA during the summer months. The ANA has an agreement with Colorado College to house the students, and about 450 students converge at the museum each summer to learn about grading coins, collecting, engraving, detection of counterfeit coins, preparation of exhibits and the modern minting process.

People have always used whatever is deemed valuable as a means to exchange, whether it is clothes, grain, animals, metal or tools. In 1792, the first U.S. Mint was established in Philadelphia, and the Civil War saw the first utilization of paper money. The Bureau of Engraving and Printing was established in a basement room in the Treasury building in 1862.

The complete history of coins from around the world is right here at the American Numismatic Association in Colorado Springs. The purpose of the museum and association is to promote the study of coins and other numismatic items as a means of recording history art and economic development. When the ANA re-opens on July 14, visit the museum and support an old hobby that brings thousands and thousands of visitors to the Springs every year.