I wrote a filler piece for one of the medal collector publications last week, inspired by a photograph taken at a Canadian coin show. The news photo displayed a senior collector pawing through what we call a “Junk Box” in America. In Canada, I noticed the sign called the plastic tote box filled with numismatic flotsam a “Loonie Bin.”
Such a box is undoubtedly called a Loonie Bin because the dollar coin in Canada bears a common loon bird and the coin has earned the nickname “loonie.” All the numismatic items in that bin are priced at a dollar.
Maybe the price has increased since I was a medal dealer 25 years ago, or maybe the price in Canada is that much higher. But I used to sell items out of my junk box for 50 cents each or three for a dollar. Many dealers have an equivalent of a “junk box” or “loonie bin” today to dispose of cheap items that do not justify describing or cataloging or pricing individually.
For this report I would like to identify the characteristics of what ends up in a junk box. What numismatic items — what medals — have such a low secondary market value that their worth is so low, that collectors will not buy such an item unless the item is priced at drastically reduced price.
I will attempt to recall what I placed in my junk box decades ago. By doing so I will point out the characteristics of a medal that will keep a medal from ending up in a “loonie bin.” Here’s what I recall.
U.S. Mint’s mini-medals. Introduced in the 1980s under Mint Director Mary Brooks’ direction, the Mint closed out all the 3-inch presidential medals and replaced these with a 1 ½-inch medal struck on coining presses. This required all 40 odd presidential medals to be remodeled with low relief patterns made into new dies to be able to strike large quantities on coining presses.
“We did it for the kids,” Mary Brooks said repeatedly. We ended up at the same banquet table at a convention one year and I asked her what she was most proud of during her administration at the mint. It was those mini medals “for the kids.”
By eliminating a legitimate medal series of substantial size and heritage, she was instrumental in replacing it with a series of far lesser substance, struck in large quantities. And lower value. Her mini medals for kids ends up in dealers’ junk boxes.
Sports medals. Here are all the medals obtained from trophy houses. They are stock medals supplied to trophy shops around the country. It seems sports promoters want the cheapest medals possible to award the winners of their events. Some of these medal makers that manufacture these medals tout that their medals can be sold at less than $2 each.
Without specific identity as to date or event, these medals have no permanent validity to anyone except perhaps the recipient. They end up in dealers’ junk boxes when those medals find their way to the secondary market.
Religious medals. Catholics around the world are encouraged to wear a medal for religious reasons. Excellent. Good cause. Glad that a medal can be an intimate daily reminder of one’s spiritual life and devotion. However, these are available in such large quantity, singular design – Virgin Mary – and small size that they lack interest among collectors.
Once I received a religious medal collection from a lady in a nearby town. She had inherited the collection from an aunt who had run a bar in an Eastern seacoast town. She collected religious medals, all those Virgin Mary medals from her patrons. Seamen gathered these all over the world and brought them to her. She exchanged a drink for each one.
I had to tell the new owner it would take me years, decades, to sell those medals. And it would have to be through my junk box. I could not offer her a dime apiece for all those medals.
Play coins. Until a few years ago, play coins had no interest among collectors. These are imitation coins, cheaply made, for instructing children to learn about real coins and how to use them properly. They were first made in Germany, called spielmarken, even in imitation of other counties coins. American play coins were popular.
Then a book was published listing all the varieties. This gave the series some collector interest. The German made, embossed metal shells, were then sought after. But all others, mostly cardboard with printed images or plastic in color, had no enduring value. Into the junk box.
Trademark and seal medals. Some businesses have ordered medals that bear their trademark or logo. That’s it. Only their trademark. Nobody wants these. They lack meaning unless the other side has some event or person, or even some product featured. Same for seals, unless it is an early seal. Some seals are so detailed they have a charm of their own from, perhaps, a heraldic significance. But modern, stand alone trademark medals go right into the junk box.
Aluminum medals. Prior to 1890 aluminum was a costly metal. It requires a lot of electric current to purify the metal from its ore. Once electricity became readily available aluminum became a cheap metal. It replaced tin and lead for cheaply made medals.
Today aluminum is widely used for the lowest cost die struck items. Tokens and giveaways, promotional pieces and trade items. Not worth more than a dollar, into the junk box it goes.
Elongated cents and wooden nickels. While not medals, these items are a large component of junk boxes. They are easily printed or rolled out, cheaply made.
Low condition medals. Medals that are holed, dented, scratched, corroded or otherwise downgraded in condition are candidates for the junk box unless it is a very valuable medal. Even that item will be considered a filler until it can be replaced as soon as a better specimen can be obtained to replace it.
Graffiti items also fall in this category. “My dad won this” scratched in an award medal drops the value where it cannot be sold anything more than junk box price.
What are the characteristics then that keep a medal from ending up in a junk box?
Here are the red flags. This includes all factors — its composition, how it is struck, how the dies are made, and, of course, the attractiveness, appeal or significance of its design.
- Is it cheaply made in the first place? If so it is likely to be valued even more cheaply on the secondary market.
- Is it struck on a coining press? This often implies large quantity at a cost lower than if it is struck on a medal press.
- Are the dies cut by tracer controlled or 3D mechanically methods? The craftsman operating these machines are generally not artists. Its mechanical design is often flat and frozen, lacking realism or the vitality a medallic artist can work into a design prepared by creating that design oversize and pantographically reducing it to the required size die for striking.
- Is it designed by a factory artist? These artists are usually more concerned with time, meeting a deadline and producing a quantity of work within a certain period. This demand often lacks enough time to reflect on the design at hand, to give it the proper reflective consideration to obtain an inspired theme and image.
- Is it struck in a “medallic” composition? Bronze, silver or gold, or even some others, but never aluminum, pot metal or similar.
- Does it have a legitimate reason for being issued? The more popular the event or person portrayed on the medal, the more popular the medal. If this lacks strong appeal, the medal will not appeal to collectors.
The field of medallic art is a unique field among all aspects of Art, of all other art forms. It has characteristics that are not present in other art fields. It has the ability to present a great amount of detail in a small space. Its end product is a hard, permanent, portable form of dual sides. It has the ability to outlast all other art forms – its longevity is greater than all other forms of art.
Ideal for memorializing and commemorating, medals have the characteristic of being miniature works of art that are enjoyed by individuals close up, held in the hand for viewing at eye level within intimate distance. Medals can be charming, satirical, compelling, attractive, that document a vision in an artist’s mind.
What they shouldn’t be is cheap. If so they are destined for the loonie bin.