Joe Luciano is seated in the back room of the Giordano Construction Company’s New Haven field office at 198 College Street. Although he works as a senior project manager for the new high school across the street, Joe is mostly a father: the father of four-and-a-half-year-old Julianna Rose Luciano, and a father who collects coins. Thirty-six, Joe parts his espresso-brown hair at the side (he comes from “a real Italian family, like you wouldn’t believe”), and he talks with his hands as he shows me his “coin stuff,” which covers four shoved-together tables in the center of the room and includes grading manuals, coin show fliers, a comprehensive history of New Haven banks, price quotes for Krugerrand and Vienna Philharmonic gold coins, a magazine with cover stories such as “South Dakota’s New Quarter” and “1867 Shield Nickel Proofs: Debunking Conventional Wisdom,” and an article from the Numismatic News: “We Collectors Mystify the Psychologists.”
Joe is president and founder of the New Haven Coin and Currency Club, a society devoted to numismatics — the study and collecting of coins, paper money, tokens, and medals — that has met at 198 College Street since Joe rented the space in July 2005 for fifteen hundred dollars a month. Joe’s “allowance” is only a hundred dollars per week, and initially the club met four times a month. His wife and friends called him crazy. Joe says he started the twelve-person organization — the thirty-dollar membership includes a club t-shirt and annual Christmas party — to provide the community with an alternative to coin dealers, who often lie about the value of coins “because that’s where the money is made.” (Joe once paid three thousand dollars for a Mercury dime, and when he learned it had been graded incorrectly and was worth about half that, the dealer said he had never seen the coin before in his life.) Although Giordano took over the space and the lease in 2006, Joe still holds club hours every other Saturday from eight to noon. The club, he says, is letting people “understand what was in Grandma’s cookie jar.” Open hours are devoted to walk-ins who bear shoeboxes of silver dollars and buffalo nickels, and this December, Joe set up a table (“not one thing for sale”) at the club coin show, where enthusiasts and dealers gather to buy, sell, and trade. He gave every child that stopped by an uncirculated quarter and a t-shirt if it fit. Kids’ faces lit up, and some even asked if he had the other state quarters. The dealers were flabbergasted. “Everybody at the show was like, ‘why are you doing that?’ And I’m like, Hello! It’s not about the money.” He draws it out to emphasize the point.
Although Joe has amassed what is probably the world’s largest collection of New Haven-made banknotes, his prize possession is an eight-coin registy set named after his daughter: the Julianna Rose collection of Fugio cents. Joe explains that because Julianna was born in New Haven, he decided to build a New Haven collection, which was “born in New Haven” too. The Fugio cent, the first coin authorized by the US Treasury, was minted in New Haven in 1787, two years before the Constitution was ratified. Joe calls it the most historic coin in the history of the US. It is marked with fugio, which means “time flies,” and its thirteen linked rings represent the original colonies. No one has ever collected a complete set of eighteen, and according to the online registries of PCGS and NGC, the two leading professional coin grading companies, the Julianna Rose set is number one in the world. Joe shows me a printout as proof. The set is worth sixty thousand dollars, and Joe predicts a complete set could eventually be worth between five hundred thousand and one million dollars. “I made a commitment that this was what I was going to do for my daughter,” he says. “Right now she’s four-and-a-half and non-verbal, but you never know when she might say back: ‘that’s interesting, Dad.’ ”
Julianna Rose Luciano was born in New Haven on June 27, 2002, but her parents did not realize she was autistic until December of 2003. They expected their one-and-a-half-year-old to get excited about Christmas presents, but Julianna didn’t. For Julianna, says Joe, “Christmas is just Monday. It’s just Monday.” He adds that she doesn’t really have the motor skills to unwrap a toy.
Soon after Julianna was born, a neighbor gave Joe a gift for his daughter: a set of uncirculated 2002 silver proof coins from the US mint. At the time Joe didn’t think much of it, but soon after Julianna’s second Christmas Joe saw a commercial on TV that said that coins were a great way to connect with your children and pass history from generation to generation. He lit up and scrambled to buy a 2004 silver eagle proof. He went from zero to seventy in two years. By February he owned twenty-eight Morgan silver dollars, and that Valentine’s Day he asked for and received a coin-collecting album. In May he purchased his first Fugio cent. By June 27, 2004 — Julianna’s second birthday — Joe’s collection was worth more than five thousand dollars.
Joe’s concerns for Julianna were growing. She walked for the first time at twenty-eight months, but still, at thirty-two months doctors reported that she had the mental level of a ten-month-old. Fights with his wife and thousands of dollars in therapy costs led Joe to throw himself into the collection, yet by 2005 he had turned to gambling. In the past he had gone to the casinos maybe once a month, usually with his wife, but now he went frequently and alone. He became a sucker, he says, who won big a few times and thought he could win all the time. The money, when it came, went toward coins. Soon Joe thought his marriage was headed toward a divorce, and after a fight with his wife he withdrew half the family savings, spent some of it on coins, and lost much of the rest to craps and roulette. But, as Joe puts it, you have to hit rock bottom before you can truly lift yourself up again. His wife wanted to keep the family intact for Julianna’s sake, and Joe agreed. In July 2005, Joe signed the lease on 198 College Street and started the New Haven Coin and Currency Club.
When I visit Joe’s house in East Haven to meet Julianna, I walk upstairs from the garage and there she is — playing with a brightly colored, plastic telephone in the middle of the living room floor. Dressed in a purple shirt and pants with pastel flowers, she looks up when I enter but then stares back at her toy. A typical day, I am told: when Joe gets home from work, he greets her and gets “basically a glance.” Joe’s wife says that Julianna mastered several matching exercises in her after-school learning program, but Joe isn’t so sure. “They say ‘mastered,’” he says, “but that’s today.”
Joe tells me he once did something really stupid: he bought Julianna a toy cash register. To her it was just about making noises and listening to the dinging of its bell. “If I put the finest-known Fugio down in front of her—nothing.” Joe tells me that Julianna’s autism is neither severe nor mild. She’s just autistic. As Joe puts it, she can’t really feel her body, so she walks stiffly and sometimes repeatedly grabs her feet and rocks on the ground or hits her head and face — a practice known as self-stimulation. But still, Joe is certain his daughter loves him. She hugs. “She can’t pucker, so she just sort of sticks her lips on your face when she tries to kiss you.”
It is unlikely that Julianna will function normally when she is forced to leave school at age eighteen. Now four-and-a-half, she still hasn’t spoken. “We may get words,” says Joe. “We may get sentence structure. These are all hopes and dreams and everything.” To provide for his daughter, Joe dreams of owning a coin shop where the two will work together. And there is also her coin collection, now worth tens of thousands of dollars. Although Julianna remains non-verbal, if you go to the PCGS online coin registry and look up the Julianna Rose set of Fugio cents, you can see these words, which Joe has written for her — the only words that can vaguely be traced to his daughter:
“I am not in the same league with FCC Boyd or John Ford Jr. but someday my father and I hope to be. He believes any collector born in New Haven must have these historical treasures. I am 4 1/2 years old and live with autism. Winston Churchill once said, ‘Success is going from failure to failure without the loss of enthusiasm.’ My friends, welcome challenges fearlessly!!!”
You might find it strange that Joe would put these words into Julianna’s mouth, but I am sure it makes sense to him. And it will make sense to you too if you just remember that Joe collects Fugio cents because they are “born in New Haven,” that his greatest dream as a father is to own a coin shop, and that he longs to someday hear a few words: “That’s interesting, Dad.”