Rupert Cornwell: Don't write off the dollar just yet

Where else is a coin made when George V was on the British throne still legal tender?
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It's often the tiniest things that make you think the most. The other morning, I was picking up the change I had left on the desk the previous night, when I noticed an unfamiliar coin. At first I thought it was some dodgy foreign item that had slipped into the money supply of these great United States. But then I looked more closely and saw the worn away shapes of an Indian chief's head on one side, and a North American bison on the other. To my amazement and no little thrill, I had stumbled on a "Buffalo Nickel", still in perfectly legal circulation despite having been minted between 70 and 95 years ago.

I gingerly inspected it. The date (anywhere between 1913 when it was introduced, and 1938 when the coin was replaced by the modern nickel depicting the head of Jefferson and his home at Monticello) had vanished entirely making it likely, according to specialists, that it had been struck before 1925. On both sides, the metal had been smoothed by constant use to a dull, shining silver. The words 'United States of America' and 'Liberty' had also largely disappeared. Only the "Five Cents" at the bottom of the coin was still easily read.

My ancient discovery, let it be quickly said, isn't a serious collector's item. Now it might have been, if it had shown a three-legged buffalo, struck from a damaged die in 1937. Alas, on my nickel the beast indubitably has four limbs. The coin would also been worth something had it been a "hobo nickel", where amateur artists used to re-carve the raised profile of the Indian chief into fanciful new portraits.

And if by some miracle I had hit upon a 1913 Liberty Nickel (the previous design that was withdrawn when the Buffalo Nickel was introduced), I could have retired on the spot. Only five are known to have been minted that year and one of them sold in 2003 for more than $3m. As it was, 1.2bn standard Buffalo Nickels were produced over the coin's quarter century life.

And as for purchasing power, forget it. The nickel was humble then, and it's even humbler now. Five cents is now worth barely 2p. But during the Great Depression in America, my nickel would have bought a loaf of bread, and two of them would get you a movie ticket. In our affluent age, an identical five cent coin buys a single piece of candy gum, or six minutes on a parking meter in downtown Washington DC.

But the fascination of the Buffalo Nickel is not to be measured in purely monetary terms. You can see it as an early specimen of American hypocrisy. The Buffalo and the Indian chief were chosen as emblems of liberty then as now a watchword of the "American Dream". Except of course the buffalo by 1913 had been slaughtered to near extinction, and the Indian population had long since been forced into reservations. But set aside these affronts to history. Consider my coin as an imaginary ringside seat to history.

Look at a Buffalo nickel, and the flights of fancy are endless. Was mine once in the pocket of a "doughboy", as the American soldiers who went to Europe were nicknamed? Might it have briefly belonged to a Wall Street broker as he watched the tickertape on Black Friday, or to someone listening to FDR's first fireside chat? Or did it once pass through the pocket of Charles Lindbergh, the most famous person in the world after his solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927 or even of a juror who convicted Bruno Hauptmann of the murder five years later of Lindbergh's infant son, in what remains the unchallengeable Trial of the 20th Century?

But the real miracle lies deeper still. Is there any other country where a coin, made when George V was on the British throne, is not only still legal tender, but also accepted by electronic machines selling thoroughly 2007 bars of chocolate or tickets on the Washington metro. A reader may correct me, but with the possible exception of Switzerland, I cannot think of one.

In an age when, to read the papers, you'd think the American dollar is going the way of its Zimbabwean counterpart, that fact alone is an astonishing tribute to the country's continuity, stability and good governance. Coins and currencies come and go, but US dollars and cents last for ever. Such longevity, indeed, is the hallmark of imperial might.

You can imagine a Roman citizen in Hadrian's reign, jangling in his toga a clunky sestertius struck under the Emperor Tiberius a century earlier, without a second thought. And as a child in the 1950s, I remember collecting those pre-decimal copper pennies that now seem as large as soup plates, with dates that went back into Queen Victoria's reign but were still circulating 60 years later.

Ah, Nineveh and Tyre! Britain's empire has gone, and the successor to the old penny, nominally worth two and a half times as much, is held in such low esteem that most people would pass one lying on the pavement without bothering to pick it up. History says the American empire will go the same way. The Buffalo Nickel is another tiny proof that it hasn't yet.

And compare the history of the nickel with the fate of the only other unusual coins I have ever come across, a pair of gorgeous Italian 500 lire coins from 1958, made of silver and depicting the Tre Caravelle the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria in which Colombus discovered the New World. Italian inflation and the rising cost of bullion meant they were in serious circulation for less than a decade. The ones I found, in around 1980, had slipped down the back of an ancient sofa in the FT office in Rome.

Soon the Tre Caravelle were replaced by scruffy little notes, then by one of those bi-metallic coins now all the rage, and finally by the euro. Euro coins have a fine feel to them. But I doubt that in 2077 my grandchildren will be fishing this year's specimens from their pockets (assuming of course that coins then exist at all). As for some other metallic aberrations I have come across weird Soviet kopek coins there was nothing to buy with, and old East German marks that would float on water, the less said the better.

So despite its current travails, don't write off the dollar. As for my Buffalo Nickel, I can report that it is now out of circulation for good. After three quarters of a century's service, I have awarded it premature but well earned retirement in an ashtray on the top of the desk where I found it on Wednesday morning.