serving New Hampshire numismatists since 1960

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by Ken Camilleis

When I was 13, I spent $32,200 for a cup of grape soda. Why did I do such a silly thing, and what in the world was I doing with $32,200 at age 13?!
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Upon returning from a camping trip on a hot summer day, I’d become so thirsty that I felt I’d been on a desert island. There was a soda machine at the community center that would gracefully dispense a cool drink to me if I would feed it 15 cents. But all I had was 10. Well, actually I did have the 15 cents, but hang on for a moment, dear reader…
About two years earlier, after having “graduated” from Lincoln cents to Jefferson nickels as a Whitman folder assembly, and shortly after the mass release of the 1964 nickel issues from both mints, I noted with keen interest that the steps of Monticello on the ’64 nickels usually came weakly struck. Occasionally, if I had $2 I’d sneak over to the bank (a 20-minute walk across a divided highway which my parents forbade me to cross) and buy a roll of nickels so that I could study and compare the step strikes from one nickel to another. At that time there was also a good mix of Buffalo nickels still in circulation, and I’d save those with readable dates. I soon came to the conclusion that the later Denver mint issues seldom came with 6 (or even 5) full steps and most of the time the steps were completely mooshed even on uncirculated (or close to it) pieces. Although the Buffalo nickels were usually well-worn, most of the Jeffersons in circulation were in good enough condition so that if they’d been struck with full or nearly full steps, the steps would have remained intact despite the circulation.
Late in 1966 I began to upgrade my Jefferson nickel collection by “filling in the holes” such as 1938-S, ’39-D & S and the “almighty” (at the time) ’50-D and others I was unable to get in change or from the bank, and also replacing the later dates with “Unc.” Pieces.  I distinctly remember going to S. L. Stone’s in Boston and picking up the ten 1960-64 P-D nickels. I noted that the ’60-D had steps far better than I’d seen on any ’60-D in well over a year of “nickel step study”. The base was completely outlined and as I recall (well, it was only 37 years ago) the steps were mostly if not completely defined. My collec-tor peers to whom I flaunted my collection thought that I was totally wacko for paying attention to such minute details on twenty-cent collector value coins.
Now, back to the soda dispenser in the community center in the summer of ’67 … I had two nondescript nickels with me, and I’d just about completed a phase of selling, spending or trading most of my Jeffersons for “bigger and better” stuff. I had one left – the “stepped” ’60-D, and it was in a small pocket in my camp bag. After trying to wangle the machine to grant me my libation after the two nickels, hoping it would “miscalculate”, I decided what the heck, it can’t be worth much, and I’m way too thirsty and not about to go begging for a nickel. So in went the ’60-D, and out came a stream of purple passion into a plastic cup. The bubbly grapelike sweetness instantly quenched my thirst.
Fast forward to August 14, 2004.  Plain and simple, a 1960-D nickel graded PCGS MS-64 with “Full Steps” sold in a Bowers & Merena at a hammer price of $28,000, and with a 15% buyers fee added on, the total “damage” was $32,200. So perhaps it cost me that much for that deliciously soothing grape drink way back then. Out of curiosity I viewed the image on their Web site. It is said in so many words that to this day only a handful of ’60-D nickels are known with full steps, despite that fact that more than 192 million 1960-D nickels were coined.
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Down the years, I’d essentially forgotton that incident at the community center, except for a few stray occasions when I’d read something about Full Step nickels. I was especially intrigued by an article in a 1980 Coin Dealer newsletter (at a time when the “type” coin market was red-hot and no one would blink at a Jefferson) which was about Full Step nickels and spoke of the “PAK Full Step Nickel” Club; in this article the ’60-D and ’61-D stood out as believed to be rare in Full Steps. I should probably hate and feel accursed by grape soda now because of what happened with that auction, but no, I enjoy it just as much at 50 as I did at 13.  Just last week I went to a restaurant that I knew served – and in fact “coined” their own! – grape soda. And as I was drinking the soda I thought of those two ’60-D nickels, the one that I spent thirty-seven years ago and the one that sold at auction for $32,200 … step by step.

Last Updated on Thursday, 29 August 2013 02:21