It all started with a pocket full of pennies, nickels and dimes.
At 9 years old, Rep. Frank Lucas took his first foray into numismatics — the study or collection of currency — digging through the change jingling in his pocket. Soon, he was hooked.
“The first actual coin I purchased was an 1885 silver dollar from New Orleans,” he said. “Back in that time, I think it was $5 for an uncirculated coin. So, you can tell, I can remember what I paid in 1970 for my first piece.”
His interest hasn’t stayed in the realm of simple pocket change, though. Since that first piece, the Oklahoma Republican has built a type collection —- a set consisting of examples from every design and time period --— of coins produced by the U.S. Mint.
“I’m one of those folks who doesn’t have the budget or really doesn’t care to ever purchase those super expensive pieces, but what I purchase has a significance to me either where it came from, or the historic period it represented or the artistic nature,” Lucas said. “When I finish my type album, it won’t be of great value to anybody else, but to me it’ll mean a lot.”
Some of Lucas’ notable coins include a 1920s Peace dollar designed to commemorate the end of World War I, a 1933 Walking Liberty 50-cent piece and a unique 1861 New Orleans half dollar that could have been minted by the federal government, the state of Louisiana or the Confederacy.
“It’s a look into the history and heritage of our country, because our coinage has kind of changed the way the country’s changed with time,” he said.
Yet one of Lucas’ most treasured pieces isn’t about the United States in the grand scheme of history. Instead, it’s a reminder of his own life.
In 1971, Lucas’ grandmother ordered a proof edition of that year’s commemorative Eisenhower silver dollar as a gift for him. The coin was slow in coming, however, and his grandmother died that November. “I remember my grandfather giving it to me in late December when it arrived,” he said. “That’s one of my most treasured pieces because my late grandmother had ordered that for me, and I’ll always keep that forever.”
It’s that aspect of keeping something forever, Lucas noted, that inspires not only his collection, but also his legislative career. After coming to Congress in a 1994 special election, Lucas secured a spot on the Banking Committee — now the Financial Services Committee. It’s a position that’s allowed him to work closely with the Mint on the engraving, printing and preservation of U.S. currency.
“Coin collecting, numismatic issues, if you like it, you love it, if you’re not interested, then it just doesn’t float your boat,” he said. “But I not only like it, like several million of my fellow Americans, but being a Member of Congress and sitting on the Financial Services Committee, I have an ability to have oversight over the Mints.”
One moment that stands out for Lucas in his career working with the U.S. Mint, he said, was the production of the 2001 American Buffalo Commemorative Silver Dollar. The coins, which were authorized under an act he sponsored with then-Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.), used the design from the 1913-1938 coin commonly known as either the Buffalo nickel or the Indian Head nickel.
“It was a major effort on my part, and I’m proud having worked so hard to get it created,” Lucas said. “One of my personal highlights was being with Sen. Nighthorse Campbell at the first striking ceremony when those were first produced.”
Lucas continues to work closely with the Mint and says he looks to the way fellow numismatist Teddy Roosevelt emphasized preserving the United States’ historical legacy through currency during his time in office. With coins, Lucas noted, changes in a country’s fashion, government and technology are revealed.
“When it comes to quality, mechanical manufacture and the artistic images that are embodied on our coins, we need to work very diligently to leave an impressive historic record,” he said. “I mean, it’s not just coins to put in the parking meter down on the corner. You are leaving a record of your civilization.”
Lucas said he has encouraged the Mint to inventory all of its items and make that information available to the general public.
“There is a substantial collectors’ community out there — numismatists, as we prefer to call ourselves — who are very focused not only on the current production, not only on the collecting of coins, but on the history and the records of the Mint,” he said.
One of the perks of being a Congressman interested in coinage, Lucas noted, was getting the opportunity to tour the Smithsonian’s national numismatic collection. “They have more stuff than you can possibly imagine, and they have the original of virtually everything,” he noted. “It is the most incredible thing.”
Currently, however, the collection isn’t available for just anyone to check out — but that’s something Lucas is aiming to change.
“We need to come up with ways to display more and more of that material to the public,” he said. “Not everybody’s going to be able to afford a million-dollar coin, not everybody’s going to be able to afford a $10,000 coin and many of us will never spend $500 on a coin, but the public still should be able to enjoy and have an opportunity to appreciate our common resources.”
Numismatics has been more than just a lifelong hobby for Lucas — it’s helped define his Capitol Hill legacy.
“My interest not only gives me the ability to focus on things I’ve really enjoyed since I was a puppy, but it also puts me in a position to help influence the coins of this country,” Lucas said. “Because one thousand, two thousand, three thousand years from now, potentially, just as we look at what the Romans or the Greeks issued, people will look at what we’ve done, and it will be a historic, artistic and economic record of our time on this planet.”
All in all, it’s not too shabby for the kid who once spent his spare time digging through pocket change. The only difference, he says, is that he now has to use a magnifying glass.
Visitors get their first look at the American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial, which opened to the public on Monday, Oct. 6, 2014. The new memorial is located off Independence Ave. SW between the Rayburn House Office Building and HHS. Buy photo here.