For most of his life, Merced's Jim Stofle has been interested in coins. His knowledge and appreciation of coins have led to a much-heralded ability to evaluate rare examples.
When Stofle was about 8 or 9 years old, his baby sitter brought along a shoe box full of coins to entertain her new charge. Stofle, now 56, still has one of those coins, known as a Fugio cent, which today is worth about $5,000 on the collector's market.
A life member of the American Numismatic Association, Stofle entered his first-ever grading contest last month at the Long Beach Coin Expo. He correctly judged 12 out of 20 coins and missed six others by only one point. His prize was a Saint-Gaudens Double Eagle $20 gold piece valued at $2,500, along with considerable bragging rights.
Stofle said he had 20 minutes to judge 20 coins; it only took him only five minutes to get the job done, but about a minute of that time was spent analyzing one tarnished coin. He got that one right, too; three other contestants got nine right out of 20 samples.
Stofle's friend Bill Shamhart of Morris County, N.J., said Stofle is a natural at grading coins. Shamhart teaches advanced grading classes and says not everyone knows how to grade coins. Some students eventually will learn grading skills, but Stofle's talents will only get sharper as he practices, his friend said.
Stofle modestly says professional coin graders regularly get 18 out of 20 coins right. Some of the more brilliant younger collectors who have an eye for grading coins have been recruited by professional grading companies to grade coins rather than deal in them. Shamhart said that if Stofle graded coins every day, he also would get almost all coins right quickly.
Coincidentally, Stofle discovered that Shamhart's father, a B-52 instructor pilot at Castle Air Force Base, was stationed here in the late 1960s and early 1970s and Shamhart lived in Merced during that time. Stofle and Shamhart have met numerous times at the annual collectors' conventions.
"Most coins are pretty easy for me to grade," Stofle said. "I can't explain it, but I just look at the coin and know what the grade is. Due to the recession, coins have decreased 20 to 30 percent in value, except for extremely rare ones."
Coins are graded between one and 70 points, with points subtracted for flaws. Stofle uses three magnifiers to spot the scuffs and nicks that coins accumulate over time. When they are lumped together in sacks, coins get marks as they rub together, and that detracts from their value.
Stofle, a certified public accountant who's lived in Merced for 46 years, said he is more driven by the history of a certain coin than the fact it's rare. He said there's quite a bit of speculation in collector coins but the average old coin, like houses, is down about a third in value today.
Many coin collectors specialize, but Stofle said he's a generalist and many coins appeal to him. Like many collectors, he seeks what are called "freaks and errors," mistakes that somehow escaped from the U.S. Mint. In the past 10 years, the government's enhanced quality-control measures have limited the number of new coins "escaping" with flaws.
Stofle has several dozen freaks and errors, including a three-legged 1937 buffalo nickel with its right front leg missing. A U.S. Mint employee, trying to repair deteriorating dies, apparently polished the mold too much and the buffalo lost its leg.
Back to the Fugio cent, a 1787 collectible that is very sought after among collectors.
Stofle's baby sitter didn't believe him when he said that coin was rare. When she checked a reference book, she discovered it was. Stofle acquired the coin 10 years later but doesn't remember what he paid the woman for it.
"How it ever ended up in the shoe box accumulation of my childhood baby sitter in Merced is a mystery," he said.
He does remember buying his coin supplies, including identification guides, reference books and folders, at a Thrifty drugstore in the old Westgate Shopping Center. At age 17, he was the first president of the Gateway Coin Club of Merced.
Shamhart said a knowledgeable collector methodically acquires coins, but 90 percent of so-called collections would properly be called accumulations, not worth much of anything.
Mark Feld of San Diego has known Stofle for several years.
"During the time I have known him, he has always been a gentleman and very easy to work with," Feld said. "He has also displayed an excellent knowledge of the coins he collects as well as a keen coin-grading and evaluating ability. Additionally, I have always enjoyed my conversations with him, including those in which we have examined coins together."
Stofle has many vivid collecting memories from over the years.
In 1990 he had a chance to examine the ultra-rare King of Siam proof set. This collection of nine coins sold for $8.5 million seven years ago. Flanked by two armed guards in a bank vault, Stofle got to see the set in a framed holder in an exclusive Beverly Hills hotel.
Five years ago, Stofle took a two-hour floor tour of the U.S. Mint in Denver while attending a national collectors' convention. Attendees were closely supervised at all times and were frisked going in and out of the mint, much like today's airport screening procedures.
Stofle's eyes light up as he describes seeing minting errors lying on the floor and noticing the coins were still hot as they were being struck. As he was leaving, Stofle endured ribbing from fellow enthusiasts when his belt buckle triggered the scanner alarm three times and irritated the guard monitoring him.
Stofle has two tips for budding collectors: Keep your valuables in a safety deposit box and never clean coins, which hurts their value.
Stofle said he still has many of the coins he collected as a kid.
"Probably the most valuable would be a 1909-S VDB Lincoln Cent that I purchased for $100 with money I earned for mowing lawns. It's now worth $5,000," he said.
Stofle's grandmother gave him an 1835 $5 gold coin she found in a piece of used furniture she bought. While it's not in the best of shape, it's probably one of his favorite coins, because of its sentimental value.
Stofle said he probably owns more than 500 reference books on coins and subscribes to the weekly "Coin World" newspaper. Regular networking with like-minded aficionados also has sharpened his grading skills.
"I think most hobbyists go through phases based on life events," Stofle said. "Casual young collectors leave the hobby in their teens to return in the 35-to-45 age bracket when they've settled in their career and have some disposable income. That's the way it's always been and I don't think that will change."
Forty-plus years after he started, Stofle still retains his zeal for shiny little coins just begging for an expert's evaluation.
Reporter Doane Yawger can be reached at (209) 385-2407 or email@example.com.