FELTON, Calif. — Members of the Santa Cruz Coin Club will be up to their old tricks next month.
Five or six years ago, the local chapter of the American Numismatic Association secretly started slipping rare coins into circulation, hoping some eagle-eyed kindred spirits would find an Indian head penny or buffalo nickel while sorting through their pocket change.
Bill Higgins, the club's treasurer, said they now do it every year in honor of National Coin Week, held this year April 21-27 with the theme "Buffalo Nickel Centennial: Black Diamond Shines Again."
The national numismatic association is celebrating by hosting events and educational activities centered around the Indian head/buffalo nickel, including Native American history and animals on coins.
The face of the Indian head/buffalo nickel is believed to be based on three American Indians, Chief Iron Tail of the Lakota Sioux, Chief Two Moons of the Cheyenne and a third who remains unidentified, according to the U.S. Mint. A bison, believed to have been modeled after a buffalo at a New York zoo, Black Diamond, graces its back.
The nation's first independent central bank, the Federal Reserve, was created through an act of Congress in 1913. That was also the first year the buffalo nickels were minted, and they stayed in circulation for the next 25 years before being replaced by the Jefferson nickel. Prices vary, but a buffalo nickel minted in 1926, for example, can fetch anywhere from $17 to $7,620 depending on its condition, according to Cointrackers.com, which tracks values of coins, paper currency and medals.
At its April 1 meeting, Higgins, a Felton, Calif., resident, will hand out 50 Buffalo nickels to members, and they'll begin putting them into circulation during National Coin Week.
Among the other coins Higgins will distribute, and will eventually find their way into cash registers and pants pockets, are 40 steel cents, 20 pre-1964 Roosevelt dimes and 50 pre-1939 pennies. The oldest was minted in 1909, the first year Lincoln's mug graced a penny, and is worth $14, Higgins said.
Officially, the club only circulates the coins during April. But Higgins has been interested in old coins since childhood, when a neighbor introduced him to the hobby, and he personally hands them out whenever he feels like it.
"I've even gone into Taco Bell and dropped them on the floor, or at the Kmart," he said Friday. He also frequents area banks, purchasing rolls of coins and sorting through them as if on a treasure hunt, or exchanges 10 old pennies for a single dime. When a teller recently asked what he wanted her to do with them, he said, "I told her she can keep them if she'd like, or give them away," or just stick them in her till as a surprise for the next customer.