LEGENDARY CELEBRITIES BUYING COINS
COINage Magazine|February - March 2021
Numismatics In the Media Spotlight
JOSHUA MCMORROW-HERNANDEZ

When coins make it into the general media, our hobby wins, right? Numismatic luminaries and the coins they collect have been in the spotlight for ages, with the hobby’s A-list collectors and most legendary rarities stepping out for the rest of the world to see.

The hobby and its cast of colorful characters and rare treasures seem ready-made for the media. And what else would you expect, given the many flamboyant, larger-than-life collectors who have risen through our hobby with their prized six, seven-, and even eight-figure trophies? Coin collecting is known as the hobby of kings and queens, and by no means is that whimsical hyperbole. After all, some of the first coin collectors were royalty and noblepersons of ancient times who enjoyed collecting the coinage of their time.

Numismatics is a far more democratic pursuit today, a hobby enjoyed by those of every income, occupation, and background. Yet it’s still a favorite pastime of the rich, including the entertainment world’s movers and shakers.

Among the greatest collectors of yesteryear included King Farouk of Egypt, President Thomas Jefferson, actor Buddy Ebsen, director Penny Marshall, and American composer Hoagy Carmichael. Then there was Louis Eliasberg, a Baltimore financier who in 1950 finished what was then considered a complete collection of United States coins; it was featured in Life magazine and in the 1970s exhibited at the United States Mint in Philadelphia.

Many of today’s biggest stars are also coin collectors, including actor James Earl Jones, actresses Nicole Kidman and Kate Hudson, hockey great Wayne Gretzky, and ex-Beatle Paul McCartney. Yet, despite our hobby’s star power, the hobby can do a better job at gaining new recruits. Surely, numismatics has its occasional brush with fame, making major headlines when a major seven-figure rarity crosses the auction block. So, how has the hobby been portrayed in the media?

AS SEEN ON TV

Collectible coins make frequent television appearances. Think of all those infomercials with slick-haired, fast-talking salespeople hawking proof sets, gold coins, and modern commemorative coins for many times their fair market value. But beyond the overpriced home-shopping television adverts and minute-long daytime television slots selling gold-plated tokens with depictions of the current president for $19.95 (plus a separate shipping and handling fee!), where do coins figure on television?

Dennis The Menace, a television spinoff of the Hank Ketcham newspaper comic strip, is one of the many midcentury television series in which numismatics has made frequent cameo appearances. The young Dennis (Jay North) is the constant foil to his retired neighbor, Mr. Wilson (Joseph Kearns), a man who enjoys coin collecting. His hobby figures into many plots, such as the 1960 episode called “Dennis and the Rare Coin,” in which Mr. Wilson pays $250 for a fake gold coin hawked by a crafty scammer. In a 1961 episode, Mr. Wilson decides a great way to keep “The Menace” at bay is by teaching him how to collect pennies. But the plan backfires when the young boy harasses everyone for old pennies and ends up getting Mr. Wilson in handcuffs! The plotline of the 1993 Dennis the Menace movie starring Mason Gamble as the mischievous kiddo and Walter Matthau as his cantankerous neighbor centers on the heist of Mr. Wilson’s gold coins, which are stolen by a particularly grimy criminal named Switchblade Sam (Christopher Lloyd).

Everyone’s favorite redheaded comedienne, Lucille Ball, does some penny collecting of her own in a 1965 episode of The Lucy Show. In “Lucy, the Coin Collector,” she and her best friend, Vivian (played by Vivian Vance), refer to a red-colored book that appears very much like A Guide Book of United States Coins while searching bags of pennies for rare and valuable Lincoln cents. They end up snagging a 1912-S, then worth around $16.50, but the two ladies – whose slapstick comedy formula was established in the actresses’ earlier 1950s television series I Love Lucy – end up dropping the valuable penny down a sewage drain. They ultimately recover it only to lose it again.

In the 1973 episode of Hawaii Five-O known as “The $100,000 Nickel,” a con man hires an illusionist to try swiping a real 1913 Liberty Head nickel with a well-made fake. The heist takes place, and the crook discards the rarity at a newspaper vending machine, leading to a pursuit for the 1913 Liberty nickel before it’s found in circulation by anyone else. Interestingly, the specific example of the 1913 nickel featured in the episode was owned by collector Fred Olsen and later held in the cabinet of King Farouk of Egypt.

Those who watch Little House on the Prairie, the 1970s television drama based on Laura Ingalls Wilder’s novel series of the same name, are frequently schooled on what coins were circulating in the American West of the 1870s. Numismatists often cite the program’s accurate depictions of period-correct coins as seen in various shots throughout the series, which starred Michael Landon, Karen Grassle, and Melissa Gilbert.

On Three’s Company, the lovable Jack Tripper (played by John Ritter) jokingly suggests two women fighting over his attention settle the match by flipping a coin. “Make it a Susan B. Anthony!” he chuckles in the 1981 episode titled “Boy Meets Dummy.”

The beleaguered Susan B. Anthony dollar was later panned by the writers of the popular cartoon series The Simpsons. In the show’s 1991 episode titled “Mr. Lisa Goes to Washington,” there’s a reference to fictional women’s suffrage leader Winifred Beecher Howe, who reportedly led the Floor Mop Rebellion of 1910 and “later appeared on the highly unpopular 75-cent piece.” Nearly a decade later, the Susan B. Anthony dollar was further parodied in a 2000 episode called “Behind the Laughter,” when the coin’s obverse is borne upon the round shield of comic book hero Susan B. Anthony Man.

It seems the entire nation was on pins and needles waiting for each of the new 50 State Quarters, which hit the streets in 1999 with the Delaware quarter and wrapped in 2008 with an ode to Hawaii. Kermit the Frog (of “Muppets” fame) served as the official United States Mint “Spokesfrog,” pitching the new quarters in various television advertisements at the time.

Late-night comedian Conan O’Brien further hyped the new quarters in a long-running spoof segment called “New State Quarters.” The talk show host apparently “pulled a few strings” at the Mint to receive previews of reverse designs for upcoming state quarters. Of course, they were all lampoons. Consider, for example, the “design” for the New York Quarter, bearing the likeness of songstress Ashlee Simpson beside the “state motto,” declaring New York as “THE FINAL RESTING PLACE OF ASHLEE SIMPSON’S SINGING CAREER.” It was a comically topical jab at the young star, who had just infamously been caught by millions lip-syncing on Saturday Night Live, the weekly NBC comedy show taped “live from New York!”

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