This group follows the money, for fun

Once a month, members of the Las Vegas Numismatic Society gather to swap tales about lost loves, current lusts and adventurous treasure hunts that enthrall listeners.

They feast on free cake. They eat ice cream and chips. They mingle and forge lasting friendships cast in their shared obsessions. They validate one another. During the summer, they have a free barbecue and at Christmas, a free holiday party. It costs only $20 for an annual membership.

With perks like that, why on earth does the Las Vegas Numismatic Society have trouble recruiting young members?

This is the question that has stumped the local coin collectors’ society for most of its 55-year existence. From Friday through Sunday , they will have their 50th annual coin show with more than 200 dealers in attendance. The public is invited. People can look at money — both metal and paper — and buy it, too. You can learn everything you didn’t know about United States currency. And, if you’re like most Americans, that’s a lot, at least according to numismatists.

“Americans are very lazy about their money,” says Patti Finner, a numismatic educator who teaches Boy Scouts how to earn their badge in coin collecting. “They know how to spend it but most people can’t tell you about who’s on their money.”

Joe Cavallaro, president of the local society, expects a big turnout during the three-day event. Now, if he could only get crowds like that to join the society, then he wouldn’t worry about coin collecting becoming a dying art.

In case you didn’t know, people who collect coins are called numismatists. Why? Who knows? The word has its origins in French and was adapted in the 1700s. It’s a mouthful. It’s pronounced like this: New-miz-ma-tists.

It often has to be explained to those hearing it for the first time. Could the name have something to do with the lackluster membership? Maybe. About 160 people belong to the Las Vegas Numismatic Society now. They have a handful of junior members. All are related to adult members.

“There’s maybe two or three people that are close to my age,” says junior member Jake Nazzaro, 15. “Most of them are mostly old people.”

Nazzaro, who is home-schooled through Odyssey Charter School, became interested in coin collecting after his father took him to a coin show. He immediately started his own collection. The father and son both became members of the local society and spend a lot of time together working on their own collections.

“We’re trying to grow our youth program,” says Cavallaro, who has no idea how to do that. “Right now it’s hard to reach out to the kids because most of our activities are on Saturdays. And kids are involved in sports.”

Numismatists have a nearly captive audience in the Boy Scouts. Coin collecting is one of the oldest merit badges that a Boy Scout can earn, Finner says. It’s been offered since 1937. It’s OK if you didn’t know that; most Americans don’t, she adds.

The Girl Scouts have offered a similar merit badge for about 12 years.

Aside from that, numismatists have few inroads to potential young members. In May, the Las Vegas society will set up an information table at a Las Vegas 51s game. Cavallaro hopes to somehow get involved with local schools.

“We don’t have a lot of avenues, other than word-of-mouth,” Cavallaro says.

The Las Vegas Numismatic Society was founded Dec. 7, 1957, by a group of 20 people, Cavallaro says. The first meetings were held at Elwell hotel, which used to be where the Golden Nugget’s parking garage sits. They held their first coin show in 1963 at the Sahara. Eighty coin dealers were there. The club incorporated in 1965 in Nevada.

Even at its peak, the club never had more than a couple of hundred members.

They are seeking young members because Cavallaro knows, coin collectors are often made during childhood. He was.

One of his aunts used to live in Las Vegas. When she would visit him in his childhood home in New Jersey, she brought him silver dollars.

“I always say that was the beginning,” he says.

Cavallaro grew up to be a coin dealer. He retired to Las Vegas a few years ago.

He is among the first to admit, coin collectors are a unique personality. Even his father, who couldn’t believe his son would pay more than face value for a coin, didn’t understand.

“That’s the funny thing about our hobby,” he says. “The people who are not coin collectors, they all think we’re crazy, I guess.”

Over the years, Cavallaro amassed a collection worth thousands. He really likes old coins made before 1835. That’s when coins were still made by hand. There weren’t a lot of words on the coins, either, so the artwork was more visible.

His greatest treasure, a 1794 half-dollar featuring the bust of an unknown woman, would be worth $20,000 today. He bought it for about $1,200 and then traded it a few years ago for $9,000 worth of art and coins.

Not a day goes by that he doesn’t think about that bust half, as they’re called in the coin world. There are only 1,000 of them in existence. Now, he doesn’t have the money to buy another one.

“If I ever hit megabucks I will have one,” he says.

But not all coins hold that kind of value and collectors don’t have to own expensive coins.

“That’s the beauty of it, everybody has their own taste in coin collecting,” Cavallaro says.

Contact reporter Sonya Padgett at
spadgett@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4564.
Follow @StripSonya on Twitter.

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