Tales from a Pawn Shop: Our coin maven visits

One event we at Kamaaina Loan look forward to each year is Dennis Ryan’s winter visit to escape the snows of his home in Albany, New York.

Dennis is a man of many parts. During his two months or so on Maui, he consults on archaeological digs, visits antique dealers (“They’re all disappearing” on Maui) and sorts through a year’s accumulation of strange and oddball coins and paper money for us.

He is also an expert in African art, works on the archaeology of the Erie Canal, and holds a master’s degree in Russian history — for which he wrote his thesis in French. There’s never a dull moment when Dennis is around.

Over the course of a year, the pawn shop accumulates bags and envelopes of hard-to-identify coins. Typically, we buy somebody’s collection based on one or a few valuable coins, and along with it comes a plastic bag of odds and ends.

We rely on Dennis to spot the unusual rarities in this pile of junk. This year, we presented him with a large shoebox of coins.

He’s still working his way through it, but so far this trip his prize find has been a J.F. Souza merchant token.

Souza had a shop on Luso Street in Honolulu. Shopkeepers in Territorial days would pass out brass tokens as advertising and promotions, or to use in slot machines, or sometimes as a form of store credit — like today’s gift card. (These tokens still exist; think of the Maui Trade Dollar.)

The token Dennis found — and it was in a jumble with a bunch of dross, so we don’t know where it came from — is not dated, but it must be from the earliest Territorial days around 1900, since the store credit it offers is for “half a cent.”

Metcalf and Russell’s “Hawaiian Money,” the standard reference, considers the Souza token among the most valuable of the island commercial tokens, along with the Lunalilo Home and St. Francis Hospital radio tokens — a generation ago, these were valued at $100. Recently, one sold for $150. Only the very first, the Hawaiian Gazette Co., and one or two other Hawaii tokens are rarer.

The Souza token is by no means the most valuable coin Dennis Ryan has rescued from the junk pile, but the reason we value his visits is not the money he finds. It is the stories.

Some of the interesting finds are worth nothing. Monday, for example, his eagle eye spotted a faked Liberty dime. He immediately noticed the bronze showing through the silver plate. At the end of each visit, Dennis accumulates a small stash of counterfeits and fakes.

About 99% of the shoebox was uninteresting coins: some contained enough silver to be worth melting down; some still pass current (you can spend them, if you’re in the right country); and some are worth from half a buck to a dollar to a collector. That accounts for about half.

The other half end up in the scrap metal pile.

Dennis Ryan sorts coins