Esteemed auction blocks can have their mint-condition nickels and polished doubloons—what Spiller has been fascinated with since a child is what he calls altered currency. The grimier and more damaged, the better.
“The thing about collecting beat-up coins and bank notes is they give you this sense of the passage of time,” he said. “I have a coin that’s scratched pretty badly dated 1906, before the Model T. I imagine those scratches came from a horse and buggy.
“These coins trigger the imagination,” he continued. “With good quality coins it’s a finite set of information. With mutilated coins, you don’t know how they got there.”
Spiller attributes his fascination with roughened currency to a bag of scratched liberty nickels his parents’ accountant, also a collector, gave him when he was nine years old.
“I got so excited,” he recalled. “[The accountant] felt bad from my reaction. He said off the bat, ‘they’re all scratched up, they’re not valuable, so calm down boy.’ But I thought they were so ancient and cool.”
Thus began a love affair with altered currency, a passion he eventually translated into a book, Keep the Change, published in March by Princeton Architectural Press.
“It’s never been done,” he said. “There’s no such book, because I built my expertise all by myself.”
He said that having discussed mutilated coins at city public libraries for years as part of his work as the Senior Educator for the Museum of American Finance, he had been surprised how positively people responded to his stories.
“These stories catch,” he said. “People respond, surprisingly, to my stories about mangled coins.”
Spiller will be reading from his new book on Tuesday, April 28, at 7 p.m. at the Astoria Bookshop.