Constable: $1 billion is yours -- but only to see -- at show in Rosemont
To reach the treasure, our guide winds a twisty path through the rows and rows of antique coins and rare currency. After all, a normal guy might suffer a case of the financial bends if he dove into the shallow end of the World's Fair of Money and suddenly surfaced in front of the "Billion Dollar Showcase."
"We'll start with the small stuff -- $5,000 and $10,000 bills," quips Donn Pearlman, a former member of the board of governors for the American Numismatic Association, which sponsors the massive coin and currency show going on through Saturday at the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center in Rosemont.
Those magnificent bills only whet the appetite for the $100,000 bills. Kevin Brown, marketing manager with the Department of the Treasury's Bureau of Engraving and Printing, lifts a dozen of the bills worth $1.2 million from the glass case unlocked by Karen Smith, a marketing manager with the numismatic group.
"These were only used for the Federal Reserve Banks," Brown says of the 1934 bills, which sport the likeness of President Woodrow Wilson. The largest denomination ever printed, the $100,000 bills are worth a fraction of what lurks under the glass in the next locked display case.
"One billion dollars!" Brown says slowly, holding his right pinkie to his mouth in a dead-on impression of Dr. Evil from those "Austin Powers" movies, before gently cradling two $500,000,000 Treasury notes. In charge of the "Billion Dollar Showcase," Brown still lightens the mood. Collecting coins and currency should be fun, he says.
"I have the best collection in the world. Whatever we've printed, I have," says Brown, who is surrounded by gobs of money at his office but generally can't bring his work home with him. "I collect the stories people have. They get people asking who's on money and why."
Those $500 million Treasury notes aren't just for show. Issued in 1969, they were purchased by "very wealthy individuals," "municipalities with money," "states" and "foreign countries," Brown says. Every six months, an owner could redeem a coupon for $15,625,000 as revenue from the 6.25 percent interest rate.
Displays such as the "Billion Dollar Showcase" spark interest. "It creates that dialogue about the history and the advancements," says Brown, who adds that he always pays for items with $2 bills.
The Treasury Department has said that it plans to put a woman on a future piece of U.S. currency. Brown travels with a bill from the first time that happened: in 1896, when a $1 silver certificate featured the likenesses of George and Martha Washington. As rare as those bills are, "I've seen a couple out here today," Brown says, waving toward the 1,000 vendors and displays that are expected to attract as many as 15,000 people during the show.
One of the most popular items is a 1913 Liberty Head nickel worth an estimated $2.5 million, says Pearlman, who retired from his 25-year career as a newsman with WBBM-AM radio and Channel 2 TV. Milwaukee resident J.V. McDermott used to carry that nickel around in his pocket, whipping it out to win bar bets when he'd produce the documentation about its worth, Pearlman says. After McDermott's death in 1966, the coin was purchased at an auction for $46,000 and donated to the American Numismatic Association Money Museum in Colorado.
The nickel shares a display with a legendary "King of U.S. Coins" 1804 silver dollar, which actually was struck in the 1850s as part of diplomatic trade mission gifts to the king of Siam and other Asian leaders. Only six are thought to exist today, and this one is insured for $4 million.
One of the beauties about being a numismatist at this convention is that a person literally can begin his hobby for pennies, Pearlman says. Or he can embellish his collection by adding coins or currencies that sell for millions.
Value depends on quality, quantity and the number of people willing to spend for an object.
One small ancient coin made of electrum, a blend of gold and silver, dates from 615 to 600 BC and is the first coin to bear an inscription, says Douglas Mudd, curator and director of the numismatic group's museum. The coin features a likeness of a stag and a Greek phrase that translates as "I am the badge of Phanes," Mudd says. Even though no one knows who Phanes was, that coin is worth an estimated $250,000, he says. But less ornate older coins can be had for under $100, Mudd adds. Lots of collectors own silver coins dating back more than 2,000 years, says Mudd, who displays some coins thought to the same as the "30 pieces of silver" mentioned in the Bible as the payment that Judas received for betraying Jesus.
Members of the public can get free appraisals of their old coins and paper money between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. Saturday at the show.
"That's part of the reason we have these shows," Mudd says, recalling the time a family brought in an old can of coins that kids used as playthings, only to discover a 1793 coin worth $12,000. "Those things happen, but it's rare," Mudd says.
Even if a thief could swipe a $100,000 bill, he wouldn't be able to use it at Wal-Mart. Still, Brown says, the World's Fair of Money has armed guards, cameras and extensive security. He is coy when it comes to details about how he got his billion-dollar display to Rosemont.
"Securely," Brown says. "Very securely."
See ancient coins, $1 billion displayWhat: American Numismatic Association's World's Fair of Money
When: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday
Where: Donald E. Stephens Convention Center, 5555 N. River Road, Rosemont
Cost: $6 for adults. Free for kids younger than 12. Free for everyone Saturday
For details: visit WorldsFairOfMoney.com