All That Glitters

He’d collected coins from the time his father thought he was ready to understand the hobby.

“You see, David,” said his father, “it’s more than just money when we collect it. These are all special coins. We wouldn’t ever want to spend them on anything. The idea is to keep them. Any coin in this collection will be worth more the longer we hold onto it.”

“But if we can’t ever spend the coins, Dad, what good are they?”

“Well, your grandfather began this collection when he was not much older than you. Just before he died, he gave it to me to hold onto. It’s a part of him, a part of our family history. And one day, when I die, I’ll pass this collection onto you, and then you’ll pass it onto your children, and so on. And all that time the collection will become more and more valuable.”

He couldn’t remember what age he was when he finally appreciated exactly what his father meant, but when he inherited the collection at an unexpectedly early moment, David knew he would be proud to carry on the tradition of adding coins to the collection, teaching his children about the collection’s significance, and making sure that this aspect of the family history would carry on. So far none of this had come to pass, and he’d finally lost all interest in collecting coins.

David’s father had introduced him to Mr. Corbin, the owner of Hawaiian Heritage Coins & Stamps. The proprietor lived and breathed coin and stamp collecting, and had, by reputation, perhaps the premier collection in the state. Should you want to see any of it, if you were part of the inner circle of Mr. Corbin’s acquaintances, you might be invited to his home to examine some of his more valuable holdings.

The very finest coins and stamps in Mr. Corbin’s collection were, however, kept in safe deposit boxes at the First Bank of Hawai‘i. Even Mr. Corbin hardly ever saw them.

It had been many years since David had visited Hawaiian Heritage Coins & Stamps. He knew they’d moved from downtown to somewhere in the relatively new shopping center at Ala Moana, but not being much of a shopper, he’d never been to the shopping center in the four or so years since it had opened.

The shopping center had plenty of parking. This was becoming a problem for businesses in downtown Honolulu. He could understand why more and more stores were either opening branches at Ala Moana or simply relocating there.

Downtown was looking more and more like the past, and Ala Moana and Waikīkī were taking their place as representatives of the future. David found parking easily in the future, but finding Hawaiian Heritage Coins & Stamps proved a more challenging mission. No wonder Ala Moana Shopping Center was now the largest shopping center in the US.

When he finally almost stumbled across the shop, David gave thanks and pushed through the front door into some quality air conditioning. The romantic notion of palm-tree breezy Hawaiian paradise was not a 365-day-a-year phenomenon. There were plenty of hot and humid days where shopping in AC was most appreciated.

A small bell ringing over the door brought a brief flash of the end of It’s a Wonderful Life, when George Bailey says that every time a bell rings it means an angel has earned its wings. David grimaced. This bell might just as well indicate that a devil had earned its pitchfork.

The shop was empty. An older Japanese man wearing white cotton gloves stood behind the counter examining a coin with a jeweler’s loupe. He looked up at David’s entrance.

“Hello,” said the man, putting down the coin and the eyepiece. “How may I help you today?”

“By any chance,” said David, “is Mister Corbin in today?”

“Oh, I’m sorry, but Mister Corbin passed away several years ago. My family bought the business from his. I’m Stan Nishimura.”

“Ah, I’m sorry to hear that,” said David. “When I was a kid, my dad and I used to come in here – well the old downtown store – all the time. We used to collect coins.”

“Used to?” Nishimura said quizzically, pointing to the folder in David’s hand. “Once a collector always a collector, am I right?”

“This,” David brought it to the counter and laid it on the glass top, “this isn’t mine. The owner’s unable to get around anymore, and he needed to get an estimate of the current value of his collection, for purposes of updating the insurance, and for designating distribution in his will.”

“Oh, I’m sorry to hear he’s not well,” said Nishimura, turning the folder towards him. “I’d be happy to take a look.”

David watched Mr. Nishimura carefully open the folder.

“Ah, your friend collects stamps.”

“Yes, stamps. I know absolutely nothing about them. As I say, my father and I collected coins.”

Nishimura slowly leafed through the clear plastic sheets. “This is a very fine collection,” he said, turning the pages thoughtfully.

Then he stopped dead. David was sure he heard a small gasp.

Nishimura stared at the single stamp on that page for a long time. Finally, he affixed his loupe again and bent down close to the counter to take a look at the stamp.

David was intrigued. The silence went on and on. Years later, Mr. Nishimura dropped the eyepiece in his gloved hand and looked up at David.

“Do you know what this one is?” he asked.

“No, sorry, as I said, I know nothing about stamps.”

Turning around, Nishimura selected a book from the collection lining the back counter shelf. Pivoting back, he moved a bit to the right and laid the book on the glass showcase. After a glance at the table of contents, he opened the book to the page where David could see a large picture of the stamp in the album.

Nishimura spun the book to face David. “See here,” he said, almost breathless, “do you see what your friend has here?”

David began reading the description aloud. “This stamp is known as the Blue Hawaiian Missionary Stamp. The two-cent stamp dates back to 1851 when Hawai‘i was a sovereign nation and a popular destination for American missionaries. The stamp went on sale October 1, 1851. It is believed that there are now no more than 15 in existence. The most recent sale price was $41,000 US.”

“And look here,” said Nishimura, grabbing a copy of Life Magazine off the back counter. He thumbed through a few pages. “Here, see? It says pound for pound the Hawaiian Missionary two-cent is the most valuable substance on earth.”

David stared at the man. Stared at the stamp that was famous enough to be in Life Magazine. Stared at the man again.

“So really,” said David, “this one stamp alone is worth that much?”

Nishimura nodded. “It’s breathtaking.”

“Are any of these others even in that ballpark?”

Nishimura continued to leaf through the sheets. David could see his hands were shaking. Finally reaching the last page, he said, “There are some very valuable stamps in this collection, but none I can see with this cursory examination that are nearly as spectacular. Of course, I’d have to sit down and go over the collection more carefully.”

“Actually, you know what?” said David. “What I want to do first is ask my, ah, friend if we shouldn’t get this stamp stored in some safer place, like the way Mister Corbin used to have his most valuable coins and stamps in safe deposit boxes.”

Nodding, Nishimura agreed. “I think that’s an excellent idea. To tell you the truth, I can’t believe it isn’t stored in one already. I wonder if he knows how valuable it is?”

Nishimura flipped the back cover over to close the folder. David let out a tiny gasp of his own. He could see a small drop of dried blood on the back cover, one he’d missed when he wiped it down.

Sweeping the folder off the counter, David thanked Mr. Nishimura and exited the shop quickly.

That was sloppy, David thought, as he began half-whistling some vaguely remembered tune. Walking briskly to his car with his new stamp collection gripped securely under his arm, he decided that maybe crime really did pay after all.

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