For most people, pennies have become an inconvenience they'd rather leave on a shop counter than have jangling in their pockets.

But for Tucson coin dealer Richard Snow, Indian-head cents issued more than 100 years ago - characterized by the image of Lady Liberty wearing a headdress of feathers - have become a calling.

"They cover a great period of history, from 1859 to 1909 - through the Reconstruction all the way up to Teddy Roosevelt," Snow said.

For a time, the coins were woven into the fabric of daily American life. "Everybody who lived in the U.S. had an Indian cent in their pocket," Snow said.

Snow, who runs Eagle Eye Rare Coins in an office in the Catalina Foothills, is an expert on the coins. He's the go-to guy for collectors looking to buy, sell or learn about Indian-head cents.

"He's unequivocally the authority," said Larry Shepherd, executive director of the American Numismatic Association.

The coin dealer's research on the cents - he published the first book focused on them - and his work to share his knowledge led the association to name Snow the 2010 Numismatist of the Year. Snow was selected from among thousands of coin dealers eligible for the honor, Shepherd said.

For those who are wondering, a numismatist is a specialist in coins or paper currency.

Of course, the coins Snow deals with aren't ones to casually drop in the leave-a-penny, take-a-penny tray. One of the Indian cents, dated 1877, recently sold for $135,000.

Even the dirty one just sitting on Snow's desk is worth about a buck, he said.

The coins hold a special place in the hearts of many collectors, Shepherd said, as many of them started with pennies as children. After all, an aunt, uncle or grandparent didn't think twice about tossing a young collector a penny.

"I think Indian cents always had a certain romanticism attached to them," Shepherd said. "For those of us who were kids in the '50s, it was still possible to find an Indian cent in circulation."

And Shepherd and Snow agree: The coins are pretty. The Indian is an iconic American image that symbolized the spirit of the nation, Snow said. Not lost on him, though, is that as this country's freedoms were established, American Indians lost many of theirs.

But for Snow, exploring historical and political trends that shaped currency is what makes coins interesting.

While it wasn't something he planned on making his career, he found himself homeless and broke in New Jersey in the 1980s, so he moved to Tucson to live with his sister and landed a job at AllState Coin Co.

He started his own business after publishing his book on Indian-head cents in the early 1990s.

On the issue of bestowing the annual honor on Snow, Shepherd said, the American Numismatic Association's nine-member board didn't have much to debate. Everyone pretty much nodded his head when Snow's name was mentioned, Shepherd said.

"He's passionate for the hobby," Shepherd said. "He's thoughtful and shares his knowledge. He operates with the highest level of ethics and integrity."

Snow will soon head to Boston, where he will be recognized with the honor at the ANA World's Fair of Money on Aug. 13.

Uncommon cents online

See Eagle Eye Rare Coins' inventory of Indian-head cents and other coins at www.indiancent. com

Contact reporter Dale Quinn at or 573-4197.