Dad’s Denouement, Part 7: How to Buy Happiness With Gold

It’s been 7 weeks since Dad died and there isn’t a single part of my life that is “back to normal”. I don’t think there is a normal anymore. There is just the new reality, the “after Dad” world that looks so different from the “with Dad” world that the sun might as well be rising in the west and setting in the east.

I feel like I’ve had the wind knocked out of me, but for weeks. That feeling, when you hit the ground hard and you can’t catch your breath, you know in your rational mind that you’ll be ok, but there is an animal panic that comes from not being able to suck air into your lungs… that is what most days feel like.

Every week introduces a new part of the story. There is the story of Dad’s books, the story of his house, the story of his investments, of his plans for Mom, of the things he left behind.

This is the story of his coin collection. It’s a story that includes a mystery, a discovery, an investigation, and the meaning of life.

Dad was fascinated with coins and currency. I’ve recently discovered that the term for this is “numismatics” but I didn’t know this when he was alive. We (me, Mom, and my 5 siblings) all knew Dad loved collecting coins and bills, but we all saw it as one of his eccentricities. He did it on his own and we rarely talked about it.

When Dad was diagnosed with cancer, he talked about selling his coin and currency collection. I asked him what was special to him, maybe I could pick it up, pay him for it. He showed me his $5 silver certificate and told me about how his dad got him one when he was a kid and how it kicked off his interest in the art and beauty of currency design.

I didn’t end up buying any of Dad’s coins or bills from him while he was alive. I regret that.

But he didn’t end up selling any of his collection either. He talked about it. He had plans to do it. But he never did. He never could bring himself to sell any of his treasured collection. In fact, in his last year of life, he bought around $10,000 in new coins.

That is the mystery.

There was nothing more important to Dad than taking care of Mom after he was gone. He tried to hide it, but he was angry that he was dying so young because it meant he didn’t get to complete his plans to make sure Mom was taken care of. Mom wanted to go back to school so she could be more employable if (when) Dad died but she didn’t because she knew that would hurt him. It would be an admission that he hadn’t taken care of her, that he didn’t have everything ready for her to be worry free after his death. Dad was ferociously protective of Mom and took pride in his ability to care for his family.

But, with that in mind, why the hell did he spend over $5,000 on this coin?

This is the 1911-D Indian Head Quarter Eagle. It has a printed value of $2.50 and, at 90% gold, has a melt value just south of $150. You can read the fascinating history of the Indian Head gold pieces here, but I think that distracts from the point.

Dad bought this coin a few months before he died, knowing that Mom would need the money, for close to $5,000.

Why?

I thought about this long and hard as I cataloged my Dad’s precious coins and currency. For all his talk, Dad didn’t really get rid of any of his collection. And he had quite the collection.

Dad had thousands of coins and dozens of bills. He loved the beauty of silver certificates, the detail found in large-style bills, the engravings on coins and the ways that the engraving artistry changed over hundreds of years.

Before Dad died, this was just some hobby he had. It was something he did in near-total isolation because… well let’s be honest for a moment… his kids and his wife just didn’t care that much about this thing he was so fascinated with. He studied and collected and bought and saved and he did it in the basement while we rolled our eyes and viewed it as a simple but harmless hobby.

God, that feels so incredibly horrible to say. It’s heartless and wrenching to realize that I didn’t care about this thing Dad loved until he was gone. He died and we all knew he had money in the coins and we thought that’s all it was… just money.

That’s the discovery. We understood that Dad’s collection was “worth” a lot of money. But we didn’t realize it wasn’t about money. And, as I was trying to figure out what these coins would sell for, I discovered how much they were worth.

Allow me to divert for a moment.

I like to play computer games, especially open-world games. These games will often have achievements. You’ll often see guides or tutorials on “100% completion” for a game. Kill all of the trolls, win all of the races, complete all the challenges, conquer all the territories.

Collect all the treasures.

As I studied Dad’s coins, trying to assess their worth, I discovered that there are a lot of aspects to coin collecting that I hadn’t appreciated while Dad was alive. There is art in the engravings and bill designs. There is this sense of history in your hand when you hold a Denarius and realize that 200 years before Jesus Christ was born someone bought a donkey with this coin. You wonder about the journey through time that a coin has taken and there is a sense of awe, a knowledge that this thing has a life to live that has long out-lasted the first person to hold it and will long out-last you.

But coin collecting is also a treasure hunt.

This can happen at a small scale. To experience this, treat yourself to something fun: Go to the bank and get $25 in quarters, 100 coins. Spread them out on the table and start sorting them. How many states did you get? The quarters with different states on the back, that was a series that took a decade to complete. After that, they started on the “America the Beautiful” series, where they issued quarters with national monuments on the back.

By the way, Dad loved the America the Beautiful collection… so much that he had collected a set of giant 5 ounce silver quarters, some of the most stunning coins I’ve ever seen.

Once you discover the beauty and the variety of the coins, it’s easy to become obsessed. When you try to save one of everything, you keenly notice the ones you don’t have. You look for them. You long for them.

Dad had obsessions in his coin collecting. He loved Lincoln pennies. He loved Barber quarters.

But his deepest obsession was the Indian Head gold coins, particularly the quarter eagles.

And, as the cancer cruelly attacked his body and stole him from us, he was so close to completing this grand treasure hunt that he had been on for so many years.

This is Dad’s Indian Head quarter eagle collection. The missing piece, that 1911-D, is the most expensive and the hardest to find.

It took me a long time to figure this out. I knew he loved these coins, that was obvious from the fact that he had so many. But it was the good people on Reddit that helped me understand why that slot was missing.

Dad bought the 1911-D a few months before he died.

It was hard for us to understand why he would do this. He knew Mom needed to have money, he knew it would be hard to sell this coin for the same price he bought it for. Rationally, from a pure capital perspective, he was just giving money away. He was wasting cash when cash was an important thing to save.

There is this idea that coin collecting is an investment, but most realistic coin collectors will admit that it’s not. You can invest far more easily and productively in the stock market. Dad could have taken that $5000 and put it in an account to watch that number track with the S&P 500.

Dad could have bought a trip to Europe or gone on a cruise with Mom. He could have gone to Scotland to tour distilleries or paid off debts or any number of things. Five thousand dollars can do a lot.

Instead he bought a coin. He filled that void in the slab, that missing piece to his collection. For a few wonderful months, Dad personally had within his possession every single Indian Head quarter eagle that ever existed.

100% completion.

Dad did it. He finished it. He got them all.

God, that must have felt so good, to complete the treasure hunt, to have every coin in the collection. It must have been worth $5000 easy.

I wish I could have celebrated that with him. I wish he had felt like I understood him and this hobby of his well enough that he could have called me and say “Hi son. I did it. I got the last one.” I wish I had realized how much this meant to him so I could have whooped and cheered and smiled with him in his joy.

It’s a cliche to say that money doesn’t buy happiness. It’s as true as anything in this world. But this seems like an exception because, in this case, money bought closure. A single golden coin brought a dying man an ineffable joy.

It’s not really the meaning of life (sorry I lied to you at the beginning there) but it’s not a trivial part of it. Finding closure, finishing a race, completing a quest, these aren’t trivial things. They can’t be priced. There isn’t a good economic model that accounts for the joy Dad had in completing this collection.

It hurts a bit to think that that Dad had to hold that joy to himself. But, to be fair, I wouldn’t have understood it at the time. While Dad was alive, I was horribly incurious about him. This fascination that so consumed him was just an eccentricity to us. I didn’t understand it until I had to figure out why he did it.

I understand now. And the more I understand, the harder it is to let it go. We needed to sell this collection because Mom needs the money. But, goddammit, how can I sell these things now that I know how important they are?

In the end, it wasn’t my call. We had to sell Dad’s coins and currency for north of $30,000. I bought what I could, spending every dime I could afford to get the coins I thought Dad loved the most. I don’t know what to do with them. I can’t imagine spending the money and time that he did, trying to expand such an impressive collection.

In a way, just trying to understand his collection has been worth it. I know Dad better now than I did when he died. He left something behind that forced me to wonder about him, about his motivations and passions and fascinations and desires.

I miss him so much. I want to talk to him about his coins and see his eyes light up. I want him to know that I love the things he loved. Maybe that’s why he didn’t sell when he could have. Maybe he wanted to leave us a treasure hunt, knowing that the treasure was to discover a part of him we never knew.

Maybe this is a call to know each other better while we still can.