By Harvey Stack - Founder, Stack's Bowers ......
CoinWeek continues to post Harvey Stack's wonderful series of blogs on not only the building of one of the all-time greatest coin collections but also how the relationship between Josiah K. Lilly and the Stack family grew over time. This week's entry compiles parts 19 and 20, available on the Stacksbowers.com blog. If you're new to the series, you can start here at Part 1. Or if you just need to catch up, here's a link to the most recent issue, Part 9
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During 1959 and 1960 Stack's was fortunate to add to the J.K. Lilly Collection in various fields. Among Ancients we found a few double staters of Greece and added to the aurei of the Roman Empire, including finding some very rare examples. We were able to purchase a collection of late Roman and Byzantine coins and filled in rulers that were not already a part of the fast growing J.K. Lilly Collection
For Medieval coins we found and acquired early types from Scandinavia as well as many new examples of the hammered coinage of England and France, and early German pieces. For the milled edge series we were able to locate specimens representing many of the provinces, states and sovereign countries that were developing monetary systems.
With the help of famous collector Mortimer Hammel, we found more doubloons, and smaller denominations to enhance Mr. Lilly’s fabulous cabinet of Spanish American Colonial coins, the series that began his interest in gold coins of the world,
Of all of the coins we found and sent to Mr. Lilly, two coins stood out as highlights to me, as I never thought I would have the opportunity to handle them. One was the 100 Ducats of Poland and the other was the 100 Ducats of Transylvania issued in 1629 on the anniversary of the rule of Ferdinand, who controlled much of the Holy Roman Empire at that time. These are considered the two largest gold coins ever issued for use as currency (mostly by the king or his officials). The examples we found came from two different European collections and I was able to deliver them at the same time.
When Mr. Lilly picked up and examined each of the coins, he commented, "I guess the King had strong leather pockets to carry these in." He held them both and laughed at having a “king’s treasure," one in each hand.
The Lilly Collection of Gold Coins of the World included 4,500 or more examples. This was a gigantic feat for any collection, and it was still growing.
But in every discussion we had, Mr. Lilly wanted to talk about completing his United States gold collection. He always said he would be patient; but his competitive collector drive to build a collection of coins nearly as complete as the Eliasberg Collection was always there. While he might not be able to acquire every U.S. gold coins, he knew that the 1822 half eagle was a possibility. He knew that three of them were known and that Stack’s had a promise from Amon Carter, Jr. that we would have first refusal when he decided to sell it.
One day in the early summer 1960, Amon Carter, Jr. came into our shop and said to Ben (the first Stack to greet him that day), "Are you guys still interested in buying my 1822 half eagle?”
Ben responded firmly: "Amon, you know we are!”
"Well, here it is,” he said as he reached into his lower vest pocket, took out the coin, and placed it on our counter. By this time the entire Stack family was in front of the shop. We each looked at it, examined it with a glass, and carefully returned it to the pad on the counter in front of us.
Of course we asked immediately: "Amon, how much do you want for it?"
Amon, chewing on his cigar, said, "I promised you that when I decide to sell it, I would offer it to you, for your client, first.”
He explained that he and his wife were doing some big renovations on their home in Dallas and his wife wanted to re-do the driveway, which was quite long and wide. He finished, “I need $50,000 for the coin."
We all gasped! That was by far the highest price for a gold coin. We responded that the price was quite dear. But our client had wanted it since we sold him the Weihman collection of half eagles in 1955, hating the “hole” in his collection.
Amon replied: "Then call him and ask him if he is willing to pay that for the coin!"
So we called Mr. Lilly, told him of the events of the day and informed him of the asking price for the coin. There was short silence on the phone, and he then confirmed that there were only three known, one in the Smithsonian and the other in “that noted Baltimore collection we have spoke about many times.” He asked us if we were really looking at it. We answered that it was right on the desk in front of us.
A moment passed and then we heard him say, “I will take it! I will send a check today!" He then concluded the call thanking us and thanking Mr. Carter.
We confirmed the purchase and Amon thanked us for concluding the deal so smoothly. He got up, lit another cigar and left with his famous departing words, "Adios, mi amigos. We will do more together in the future.” He was a gentleman who kept his word.
Years later, while driving from Fort Worth to the Dallas airport he had a heart attack and passed away. Within a month Stack's had a call from his family and Amon's executors to come down to Dallas, pick up the balance of the Amon Carter Family Collection and offer it for sale at public auction. Amon had left instructions that if anything happened to him, his coin collection should be auctioned by Stack’s. And that is just what happened.
It has been my experience that people are very curious about what motivates people to set records when buying very rare coins for their collections. Many have asked me for my thoughts on this.
When J.K. Lilly agreed to purchase the 1822 gold half eagle from the Amon Carter collection for $50,000, he had a very simple motivation. In a second call after we let him know that we had been successful after about five years of trying to purchase it, Mr. Lilly answered that question. Basically, he really wanted to fill that major gap in his collection and was fortunate enough to be able to afford to do so, even at a record price.
But this motivation, while seemingly simple, was about more than just this one coin and this one collection. It was not the full story. This series of articles is not just about the items that came to make up the J.K. Lilly Collection. It is about the way this man collected, not just coins but also stamps, literature, documents, and arms used in the War against England in the 1776 period.
He wanted all of his collections to be as complete as possible, as a reflection of what he saw as the importance of collecting. He was a great believer in preserving history and his collections represented what he wanted to be preserved for future generations to appreciate and learn from. He had a great belief that education would be served.
On the phone after he bought the 1822 $5 gold, Mr. Lilly explained that he was not a young man. He noted that he was older by a number of years than Louis E. Eliasberg, who owned some items Mr. Lilly desired for his collection. He thought that Eliasberg would outlive him, and that it was unlikely that the Eliasberg coins would be available in his lifetime, meaning he would not get a chance to purchase some of the Eliasberg rarities. Because of this, Mr. Lilly believed he would never be able to acquire the unique 1870-S three-dollar gold piece.
So, with one 1822 half eagle in the Eliasberg Collection and one in the National Numismatic Collection at the Smithsonian, Mr. Lilly knew that the Carter piece was the only one that would likely be available for the foreseeable future. He knew he had to make his move and get it while he could. This collecting spirit spilled over into his other collectibles as well as I will tell more about later.