Treasure from the deep
Volume 55, Number 10, October 2018
Cashless Society? So what? As we go to press in early September so yet another “story” breaks about how cash is being over taken by credit and debit cards. As is the way of things these days so the story (picked up by a number of media outlets) happily tells us that cash is on its way out, how contactless payments and other technological advances are making the need for nasty, dirty, money obsolete and how the young are leading the way and if we aren’t following their lead towards a cashless utopia then we are all dinosaurs and the quicker we shuffle off this mortal coil the better (OK it didn’t actually say that but it was implied, or at least I inferred it!). Read behind the sensationalist headlines however, and you’ll discover that the truth is somewhat different, as it always is, and that it is the value of the transactions made on card or electronically that is increasing beyond that of cash. In other words overall more money is being spent on cards than in cash transactions. No kidding! You mean people aren’t paying for their big screen TVs, cars, new phones and holidays in wads of banknotes? You mean they are using cards for big purchases? Gosh you amaze me . . . As so often is the case this non-story of people using credit rather than money they actually have, of paying for things on plastic rather than risking carrying around large amounts of cash lest they either lose it or are branded a tax evader, and of rising prices (when things were cheap cash was used, now we have more expensive things on offer everywhere we use credit—oh my goodness, really?) is being used to tell us that cash is dead and you would be amazed at how often this ridiculous premise, and the old chestnut of getting rid of the pennies and 2p coins, is used as a stick to beat numismatists over the head with. I have lost track of the number of people who have told me that our hobby will be dead soon because none of us will use cash in the future—conveniently forgetting that most of us don’t collect new issues anyway and instead focus on coins long ago removed from circulation and thus the fact we all use debit cards these days in no means hastens the demise of our hobby at all. The argument often used is one that references the phone card hobby—people point to the once booming phone card market and tell me that when mobiles came in so phone cards stopped being issued and so the market for them dried up, and the same thing will happen with coins when we all go cashless. Well, no actually, it won’t. Firstly the phone card hobby was shaky way before the advent of the mobile, crippled by the fact that just about anyone could commission a phone card and call it a “limited edition”, even going as far as throwing away most of the run to make the one or two left more “valuable”. Secondly, by the very nature of the commodity all phone cards were relatively new issues. It was a new hobby and those who collected rarely had anything in their collection beyond a decade or so old, thus they were all looking for the latest, newest shiniest piece—stop production of the new cards and of course the hobby will suffer. Lastly, the phone cards, like Beanie Babies and other such things, had no real substance behind them. All successful collecting hobbies are based, not on the items themselves, but the history and story behind them. Collect stamps? You’re doing so because they are fascinating insights into geography and politics around the globe, or wonderful pieces of art in their own right. Collect postcards? It’s history and topography you’re buying into. Banknotes? Well you’re not just collecting paper you’re collecting history, perhaps art. Military medals? Again you’re collecting not so much silk and metal but the story of the man who was awarded them. Coins? History once more—and the knowledge that the coin you now hold in your hand could well have been used by a Roman centurion, Celtic warrior or Elizabethan merchant. It’s a story you hold, not just a lump of metal. Some phone cards satisfied these criteria: the promotional ones, the limited editions, etc., gave an insight into marketing and a look at the wider social context but they didn’t have the gravitas of medals or coins and, like the little pig’s house made of straw, so they blew away at the first sign of trouble. There is no doubt that cash is slowly being replaced . . . the powers that be would love that and are encouraging it. They love the element of control (oh, sorry sir, your card has been declined, apparently you’ve already bought too many drinks this evening) and one day we may well find a world without coins in our pockets but not for a while (after the recent problems with BA, TSB and others, people aren’t ready to fully trust technology just yet. I know I’m not). That will, naturally, be a problem for the new issue market (although I’m fairly sure commemoratives will carry on regardless) but it won’t make a blind bit of difference to the hobby at large—as long as there are people out there who are fascinated by the past. As long as there are archaeologists, historians and those who just like to collect (as well as those who do it for the money . . . we can’t pretend that the prospect of finding the rarity that’s worth a fortune doesn’t entice us all), then coin collecting isn’t going anywhere.
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