The Silver (Gold, Copper and Nickel) Screen: Coin Collecting and Pop Culture

by Unfrozen Caveman Law Writer

Numismatics have long been an important trope in pop culture, and it’s not hard to see why.

For one thing, coins can be worth a lot of money, making them a good plot device for heist movies, crime dramas and treasure hunts.

For another, they can serve as historical documents, adding credibility to period pieces or providing a glimpse into yesteryear from the present.

And of course, they look good on screen, giving the actors, to say nothing of the audience, something striking to look at.

These are just a few of the many movies, TV shows and plays in which numismatics play an important role.

(Thanks to BrianRxm’s website, which has a long list of movies, tv shows and stories involving coins.)

Dennis the Menace: Mr. Wilson’s Coin Collection (Original series, 1959-1963. Movie, 1993)

Dennis Mitchell and his penchant for mischief, misbehavior and overall annoyance found its natural target in uptight, cantankerous next door neighbor George Wilson. Most episodes involved Mitchell getting under Mr. Wilson’s skin somehow — and Wilson’s coin collection and love of numismatics became a recurring plot point for both the original TV version of Dennis the Menace and its 1993 film adaptation.

In an early episode of the series, we see Mr. Wilson buying coins from a dealer (who comes to his house — because all shows in the 50s, 60s and 70s involved professionals making house calls). The dealer shows off a 1909 Barber Quarter, a 1901-S Barber Dime and an unidentified half dollar (although Mr. Wilson never uses the term “Barber” — instead, he calls the quarter a “Liberty Head” and the dime an “S-mint” — maybe he, like a lot of numismatists, has contempt for Barber?), before dazzling him with a 1907 Gold Eagle. The dealer claims its already spoken for, but Mr. Wilson makes him an offer he can’t refuse and ends up with a gem of a coin.

At least, until he finds out it’s faker than a Chinese coin on eBay. Mr. Wilson probably should have been tipped off since the dealer doesn’t have the coin in a holder and simply takes it out a bag to show it to him. Either way, he learns an important lesson when it comes to buying coins.

Mr. Wilson’s coin collection makes several additional appearances in the series and movie. In the latter, a criminal steals Mr. Wilson’s coin collection and Dennis recovers it, finally earning him Mr. Wilson’s friendship. See? Coins! They bring people together!

Matlock: Various Rare Coins (1989)

When it came to formulas, Matlock had a pretty good one. Like its spiritual predecessor, Perry Mason, Ben Matlock (Andy Griffith) would take on a defendant that seemed guilty as sin, and through his skills as an investigator and litigator, he would inevitably crack the case (usually in court via a Perry Mason Moment) and prove his client’s innocence while showing who the real perpetrator was. (One wonders what might happen if Matlock ever squared off with Perry Mason in court. If we can have Alien vs. Predator, Freddy vs. Jason and Batman vs. Superman, then why not Mason v. Matlock?)

In a 1989 episode, “The Thief,” a coin dealer is charged with murdering an employee suspected of stealing $40,000 worth of coins from him. The dealer hires Matlock and, in lieu of his usual $100,000 fee, the famed lawyer shows off his knowledge of numismatics by asking for an 1804 silver dollar, a 1836 Gobrecht proof dollar and a set of Seated Liberty dollars.

The fact that Matlock got the 1804 silver dollar is impressive. One of the rarest and most famous coins in numismatic history, the 1804 dollar is actually a restrike since it was produced in the 1830s. The Mint had stopped issuing silver dollars following the 1803 coins, and decided to mint a small number of “1804” ones to be used as gifts for foreign dignitaries. Only 15 are known to exist, and all of them are worth a fortune. Most recently, one sold for $7.68 million. For reference, an 1804 dollar went for almost $1 million in 1990, so Matlock definitely made out.

Not to be outdone, the Gobrecht fetched nearly $100,000 at auction last year. Meanwhile, Seated Liberty dollars are not cheap— even worn coins can go for several hundred on the market. See? It pays to have a knowledge of coins.

Especially since that knowledge is what allows Matlock to win his case. When investigating the crime scene, Matlock notices a 1936 proof set that’s missing the quarter. Through some digging, he traces the location of said quarter to an ice cream shop and finds out it was used by a woman who was once a criminal associate of the victim’s. Since it’s Matlock, he confronts her on the stand and gets his client acquitted.

Money well spent, indeed.

American Buffalo: Buffalo Nickel (Play, 1975. Movie, 1996)

David Mamet is a revered name when it comes to theater, and his classic play, American Buffalo, has long been considered one of his best.

The play, which takes place in a junk shop, involves a Buffalo nickel as an important plot device. When store owner Donny (played by the likes of Phillip Baker Hall, Cedric the Entertainer, John Goodman and Laurence Fishburne on stage and Dennis Franz in the 1996 film) sells the coin to a buyer for $90, he immediately has seller’s remorse, believing it might have been worth even more.

Additionally, the fact that the guy dropped $90 without hesitation on a coin makes Donny suspect that his buyer might have a valuable coin collection at home that might be worth stealing. With his two cohorts, they devise a plan to break into the buyer’s house and steal said collection before words are exchanged (since it’s Mamet, these words include plenty of f-words and other off-color terms), accusations are hurled and everything falls apart.

In the movie, it appears as if the coin in question is a 1913 nickel, which is not among the more valuable varieties of the coin. According to Coin Collecting, the most expensive Buffalo nickels are three error coins: A 1916-P Doubled Die Obverse, a 1918-D piece featuring the “8” struck over a “7” and the 1936-D specimen where the buffalo looks like it has three and a half legs.

In fact, $90 for a fairly common Buffalo nickel that has been circulated seems very steep, even at today’s prices. I doubt it would have been worth anything close to that amount when the play premiered in 1975. Then again, things are worth what people are willing to pay…

UHF: The Doubled-Die Error Cent (1989)

In UHF, “Weird Al” Yankovic stars as George Newman, a fledgling station manager who turns his tiny, failing network into a powerhouse by coming up with great programs and movies like “Stanley Spadowski’s Playhouse,” “Wheel of Fish,” “Gandhi II” and “Conan the Librarian.”

So of course, that draws the attention of a bigger and richer rival station — particularly its corrupt, crooked and generally unpleasant CEO R.J. Fletcher, (Kevin McCarthy) who hatches a plan to acquire them. In order to save his station, Newman must raise $75,000 to buy it before Fletcher can.

Luckily for George, Fletcher is, as we’ve already discussed, a huge jerk who is just asking for karmic retribution. We’re talking the kind that would kick a cute puppy in the face because he felt like it. Or in this case, when a beggar asks him for any spare change, Fletcher condescendingly gives him one penny. But before you can say “deus ex machina,” it turns out this penny happens to be an extremely rare error coin, which, as we’ve seen, can be quite valuable.

In this case, the coin in question is a 1955 doubled-die error Lincoln cent (although the beggar says it was minted in Denver — the valuable and famous 1955 specimens were minted in Philadelphia). The beggar happily uses the money to save the station (Newman had been kind to him earlier in the movie) and even buys a Rolex with his leftover funds, much to Fletcher’s chagrin.

According to PCGS, a 1955 doubled-die cent in uncirculated condition or higher can go for anywhere from a few thousand dollars to a record $114,000 in March 2018. So depending on what condition the coin was in that Fletcher gave away, it’s entirely possible that the beggar could have bought a UHF station and a Rolex. But probably not a Patek Philippe.

So the moral of this story is always check your coins before you give them away. And don’t be mean to beggars — especially those with a deep understanding of numismatics.

Getting Even With Dad: Stealing Rare PCGS Coins (1994)

In this 1994 flick, Macaulay Culkin stars as a smart, wise-cracking, cute-but-kind-of-mean-spirited boy who gets in the way of his estranged ex-con dad (played by Ted Danson in one of his first post-Cheers roles) as the latter steals a large collection of rare coins from PCGS headquarters in San Francisco. Timmy (Culkin) hides the coins and forces his dad to spend time with him before he’ll reveal the location of the treasure.

Father and son start to bond and, eventually, the dad has to choose between the coins or his child. Obviously, since this is a family movie, he chooses his child and, through a fairly liberal application of Hollywood Law, ends up not getting trouble for committing burglary and grand larceny.

The PCGS website has a retrospective of its role in various movies and TV shows over the years and discusses, at length, Getting Even With Dad:

In the late ’80s we hired a bright young lady, Patti Minassian, to handle the media outreach of our burgeoning company. We were hoping to increase our recognition and footprint in the marketplace and to the general public. Patti was aggressive and, apparently, well connected. I’m not sure how she got her foot in the door, but one day she told me that she was working on a deal that would feature PCGS in a full-length movie. We were ecstatic. It was just the type of exposure that we sought.

Apparently one of the producers was fascinated with coins, one of which was the rare 1920-S Saint-Gaudens Double Eagle. So, one day the producers, and others on the project, came out to PCGS to find out how we did what we do. They asked us to come up with the coin to be featured. So, we decided we would take a high-grade 1920-P $20 and affix an “S” mint mark. We canvassed our Authorized Dealers for an MS64 (65s were almost non-existent at the time), but we could not locate one. The film was on a tight shooting schedule, up in its San Francisco location, and couldn’t wait. So, a poor, gold-painted mockup was produced, and that is shown in the opening of the movie. I didn’t like this, as we were all about vintage, genuine coins, but the show must go on!

PCGS Co-Founder Gordon Wrubel, “35 Years: PCGS in the Limelight,” Aug. 2, 2021

In this case, the 1920-S Saint-Gaudens Double Eagle is not the rarest or most famous of its kind. It’s not nearly as valuable or coveted as the famed 1933 Double Eagle, of which only 14 specimens are known and only one has been deemed legal to own. That coin went for a record $18.9 million in a 2021 auction. The 1920-S is no slouch, though, selling for $600,000 in a 2022 auction.

Unfortunately for Culkin, Danson and the others associated with this film (which I saw in the theater with my aunt in San Francisco), that record price on the 1933 Double Eagle was only slightly more than what Getting Even With Dad brought in at the U.S. box office. Between this film and an additional flop later that year (Richie Rich), Culkin saw his career as a movie star come to an end, spending a long time in the wilderness before experiencing a professional resurgence over the last few years. Meanwhile Danson, more or less, retreated to the familiar and comfortable confines of television, where he reestablished himself as a leading man.

So all’s well that ends well — although I don’t think either of them will be visiting the PCGS headquarters anytime soon. It probably brings back too many painful memories.

The Simpsons: The Kissing Lincolns Coin (2008)

At this point, The Simpsons have made fun of everything there is to be made fun of.

In a Season 19 episode, it was coin collecting’s turn to go into the barrel. In “All About Lisa” (an episode that more or less recycles the main plot from the far superior “Bart Gets Famous“), the main subplot involves Homer and Bart deciding to start collecting coins. Like many beginners, they get a coin album (in this case, a Lincoln penny album) and start scrounging for change so that they can amass a complete set.

Of course, they quickly run into a problem facing many people who try to collect all of a certain type of coin — one of the coins they need is extremely rare and either can’t be easily found in circulation or would cost a fortune on the market.

In this case, it’s the (fictitious) 1917 “Kissing Lincolns” penny. Ostensibly a double-inverted error coin where Lincoln’s bust was stuck twice on the obverse and mirrored so it looked like they were kissing, the coin was very valuable and in-demand. So much so that when Homer and Bart tried to buy it at an auction, they were outbid by Mr. Burns, who buys every single coin being offered. (“I have won every coin, yet I feel strangely empty inside. Oh, there’s another coin. That should do it.”)

Luckily for Homer and Bart, Mr. Burns cares more about hurting people than anything else. Homer manages to trick Mr. Burns into giving him the penny as change for a nickel. Burns thinks he got the upper hand since he only gave Homer four cents. However, one of them was the “Kissing Lincoln’s” coin, much to his eventual chagrin.

Finally, at the end of the episode, with their collection complete, Homer and Bart do something a lot of would-be collectors end up doing. Rather than move on to nickels or dimes, they put the album on the shelf and never look at it again. I can relate to a degree. I have a 50 State Quarters album I haven’t looked at since I completed it years ago.

The Dark Knight: Harvey Dent’s “Lucky” Peace Dollar (2008)

“You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”

Those words were presciently said by crusading District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) as he worked alongside Batman (Christian Bale) and Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) to try and bring law and order to the perpetually crime-ridden Gotham City in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight.

Thanks to The Joker (Heath Ledger in an iconic, Oscar-winning performance), Dent does live long enough to see himself become a villain — and a two-headed 1922 Peace Dollar plays a prominent role in illustrating his downfall. (Why is it always two heads? Why not two tails? That way you can say: “tails never fails.”)

At first, Dent uses the coin for fairly innocuous reasons. For instance in one of his first scenes, he flips his coin and calls heads, allowing him to switch places with girlfriend and ADA Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and cross-examine a dangerous defendant in court.

But as the film progresses, he starts to use the coin for more nefarious means. After losing Dawes, as well as half of his face, to an explosion engineered by The Joker, Dent snaps and uses the coin to determine the whether or not he will kill the people he holds responsible for his pain. Thanks to the explosion, half of the coin has now been charred. As such, his potential victims now have a legitimate 50-50 chance for survival as long as the coin lands on the pristine side.

As mentioned, the coin in question is a 1922 Peace Dollar. Most likely, he got it from a magic store or eBay. Additionally, there are plenty of private minters who could have made it.

The two-headed coin is a prominent part of Two-Face’s backstory. In Batman Forever (1995), Dent (Tommy Lee Jones) uses a slightly different looking coin featuring the Statue of Liberty head on both sides. Meanwhile, in Batman: The Animated Series, his coin resembles a George Washington quarter — albeit one the size of a silver dollar. And, in one of the comics, he had a coin that had an image of a young girl on it — reminiscent of this school girl pattern coin I saw at the 2019 Worlds Fair of Money.

So it looks like Two-Face has the beginnings of a pretty nice coin collection. Live long enough to become a numismatist.

Dear John: Bill’s Coin Collection (2010)

If you’re looking for a movie where you’ll actually learn a thing or two about coin collecting, then this 2010 romantic comedy starring Channing Tatum and Amanda Seyfried is the film for you.

You’ll learn about mule coins (coins with an obverse and reverse that don’t normally go together— in this case, a coin with a Jefferson nickel obverse and Lincoln penny reverse features prominently in the plot). You’ll learn about Bryan Dollars — political tokens that were comically large as a means of criticizing 1896, 1900 and 1908 Democratic nominee for President William Jennings Bryan and his “free silver” policy. You’ll learn about error coins — including a rather tortured metaphor about how, Tatum’s character, a soldier, is like an error coin after he gets shot because he’s no longer in perfect physical condition. Like the Bryan Dollar, it ends up being fairly clunky and mars what was otherwise an excellent scene between Tatum’s character and his dying father (the always great Richard Jenkins).

Ultimately, the movie, which is based on a Nicholas Sparks bestseller, does a good job integrating numismatics into the plot, but demonstrates the limits and difficulties of using coins as a foundational motif for a story — especially when it comes to weighty emotional issues like love, life or death. Despite poor reviews, the movie did well at the box office, probably because Sparks equaled big business at the time.

Another possible reason why this movie was such a hit is that Tatum and Seyfried have good chemistry and make for a very appealing on-screen couple. Clearly, that casting choice was no error.

The Blacklist: 1943 Copper Pennies (2018)

In 1943, the government needed copper for the war effort, so one of things they did was temporarily change the composition of the Lincoln cent to a zinc-steel alloy.

A few copper planchets were left in the machine, though, which meant the Mint erroneously produced approximately 40 copper cents before they realized their mistake.

Or was it? In a 2018 episode of The Blacklist, criminal Abraham Stern (Nathan Lane) and criminal-turned FBI cooperator Raymond Reddington (James Spader) hunt down the 1943 copper pennies (in the show’s universe, only four were minted). Stern, whose father had been a disgruntled former Mint employee, had stolen hundreds of thousands in Federal Reserve notes and hid them somewhere. When viewed together the pennies revealed a map to where the treasure was buried.

The show, obviously, took a lot of liberties when it came to the coins. Besides the discrepancy over how many pennies were minted, Reddington claims that the coins had been made of bronze rather than copper, which was false. Maybe the writers thought a shorter explanation about the coins was necessary and came up with this to account for the color similarity between copper and bronze.

Or maybe they did this because they assumed most viewers had never seen a steel penny before. Then again, they could have gone the other way and had them search for 1944 steel cents, which were also created erroneously from a few leftover zinc alloy planchets in the machine and are similarly rare since the Mint went back to the usual copper alloy that year.

One thing the episode does convey accurately is the power Mint employees have when it comes to manipulating the market. Whether it’s creating rare and valuable coins, purposely or inadvertently, or stealing them to sell to eager dealers, Mint officials have access and opportunity — things most collectors would die for.

For instance, the reason why several 1933 Double Eagles managed to survive FDR’s order melting them down was because a Mint cashier smuggled them out. Additionally, in 2016, the son of a former Mint official returned a stolen 1974-D aluminum penny that had been proposed as a more cost-effective replacement for the existing copper alloy.

Meanwhile, PCGS has a longstanding $10,000 reward that they’ll give to anyone who lets them see an authentic 1964-D Peace Dollar, a coin that’s never been confirmed to exist but presumed to since, let’s face it, what Mint employee wouldn’t have tried to swipe one?

Maybe if they reboot The Blacklist in a few years, they can have them track down one of those Peace Dollars with the twist being that they contain instructions on how to find a secret underground tunnel that will allow the coin’s owner to steal all of the gold out of Fort Knox. I’d watch that…

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