Flip a coin: In a tough economy is it worth spending $18 to see other people's money?
The American Numismatic Assn. hopes to find out this week as it stages the World's Fair of Money at the Los Angeles Convention Center.
A billion dollars' worth of rare coins and big-denomination currency is on display, including part of a seldom-seen Smithsonian collection. And rare-coin dealers are offering free appraisals to amateur collectors and piggy-bank-toting visitors hoping to cash in.
The association, whose president is Barry Stuppler of Woodland Hills, sounded bullish about the opening day turnout Wednesday as about a thousand visitors milled around locked glass display cases loaded with Liberty Head nickels, silver dollars, antique gold pieces, state quarters and foreign coins.
They expect that more than 10,000 people will attend the show before it closes Sunday.
But there were plenty of empty chairs in front of dealers with magnifying loupes hanging from their necks waiting to sell and buy coins.
Jim Marshall, a collector from Hollywood who specializes in Ethiopian coins and currency, blamed the economy and the state of the collectibles market.
"It cost $12 to park and $6 to get in. So far I've only seen one item I don't have, and they were asking $500 for it. They're out of touch with reality," said Marshall, who said he had come with $80 in his pocket.
Across the Convention Center's West Hall, coin expert Steve Contursi of Dana Point carefully handed a plastic-encased 1794 silver dollar to Mark Schenter of Chicago and a 1787 gold doubloon to Bruce Zweiban of Panorama City.
The silver dollar, the first produced by the U.S. Mint, is insured for $10 million. The Brasher Doubloon, made by a neighbor of George Washington, is valued at $7 million.
"Don't drop them," Contursi, president of Rare Coin Wholesalers, cautioned the amateur collectors.
"You drop it, you've bought it," Schenter told Zweiban.
A few steps away, professional and amateur numismatists crowded around a coin exhibit from the Smithsonian Institution featuring such national treasures as historic coins given to President Teddy Roosevelt and a Gold Rush-era $20 gold piece, known as a Double Eagle.
At a U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing display, visitors ogled glass cases holding pristine $100,000 currency notes, Treasury bonds and Gold and Silver certificates.
The big bills, featuring President Woodrow Wilson's engraved portrait, are part of what officials call their Billion Dollar Showcase. In reality, the display is pricier: Each 1934 $100,000 note would be worth about $1.6 million today.
"We haven't printed anything larger than $100 bills since 1945," said Kevin Brown, bureau division manager.
Nearby, the bureau's chief engraver, Christopher Madden, demonstrated how he creates portraits for U.S. currency, and chief printer Michael Beck showed off a hand press used by the government in the Lincoln era.
The bureau's head currency restorer, Roscoe Ferguson, used tweezers and razor blades to show how he painstakingly reassembles cash that is burned, hardened into blocks by water, nibbled on by rats or cut into pieces by vengeful mothers-in-law.
Anyone who sends in damaged bills will get a full replacement check if at least 51% of the currency is still there. There is no charge for the service.
"Since we make the money, we stand behind our product," Ferguson said.
In this climate, those were encouraging words.