Highlights from the Stack’s Bowers Legendary Numismatists Symposium
By Charles Morgan for CoinWeek….
The late Steve Tanenbaum, John J. Ford, Louis Eliasberg, Sr., collectors of the 1950s, and the famed 1933 double eagle were among the many topics discussed at the Stack’s Bowers symposium that took place at the Whitman Expo Baltimore Spring Show.
Not much has happened over the past 60 years of numismatic history that has escaped the notice of legendary numismatists Q. David Bowers and Harvey and Lawrence Stack, the proprietors of Stack’s Bowers auction house. That’s why the Stack’s Bowers Question and Answer Symposium held on March 28 at the recent Spring Whitman Expo was one of the show’s real highlights.
The following is an annotated transcript of the some of the key questions and answers from this memorable event.
On Great Collections and the Passage of Time
The first question asked was “Of the many great collections and collectors, which and who do you remember most fondly?”
For Bowers, the first name that came up was Steve Tanenbaum, an expert in tokens and medals–most notably Hard Times and Civil War tokens–as well as patriotic exonumia (numismatic items other than coins and currency).
“He was a renaissance man,” recalled Bowers. “He’d look at a die of a Civil War token, for example, and he’d say, ‘I’ve never seen that die before’… and of course, he hadn’t, because if he had he’d have remembered it.”
Bowers then talked about the tragic day when Tanenbaum was killed by rampaging madman Maksim Gelman, the “Subway Slasher”. Gelman took the lives of four people during a killing spree in February 2011. Tanenbaum died after he was hit by the stolen car Gelman was driving.
Bowers said that he and fellow dealer Steve Hayden tried to honor Tanenbaum’s memory by promoting and selling his collection in 2012.
“We tried to honor him the best we could… If Steve [Tanenbaum] were alive today he’d appreciate the fact that his various tokens, hard times tokens, and his various counter stamped tokens all found appreciative homes and all went to people who liked them. Steve was one of a kind.”
On the passage of time, Bowers likened his experience as an elder statesman in the hobby to that of an old timer and friend he knew in the 1950s.
“I used to know Farny Wurlitzer,” Bowers said. “He was Chairman of the Board of the Wurlitzer Company. I knew him because I collect music boxes and coin operated pianos. He was born in 1883, and I knew him pretty well and he was, I guess, in his 90s, and he said, ‘One of my laments, here I am, 93 years old’, or however old he was, ‘I don’t have any childhood friends anymore. Everybody I know, I have met later.’
“One of the unfortunate things about being 75 years old, I started in 1952 when I was 12 or whatever and I started being a dealer in 1953… So, none of the dealers, well, Harvey is an exception, but everybody I knew, if I went to a convention like this, in 1954, the Empire State, or 1955, I went to the ANA. I saw a whole bourse floor of people and none of them, there are only three people left today. It’s sort of strange.”
Speaking of the ‘50s, Harvey’s most vivid memories came from working at the family business as a teenager.
“I was kidding with one of the photographers earlier, that I started out in the business when I was quite young…. [Up until] I was about 17 or 18 years old, I considered myself an indentured slave, because I’d come down on Saturdays and holidays and help the folks. [I’d] do anything from sweep the floors to wipe the showcases, pick up the coins, roll them in rolls, and try to mail them out and rubber stamp envelopes.”
Stack’s in the 1950s was legendary, with many notable numismatists and industry characters stopping by regularly. Groundbreaking research was conducted there, too.
Harvey recalled the camaraderie of collectors: “They would come into Stack’s, meet their friends, sometimes go out to lunch and come back in, and they’d sit [and] exchange coin information with each other.
“This is what went on. The coin shop was different place than it is today. It was a place where people felt like home. And we considered it a clubhouse.”
The Stack’s “clubhouse atmosphere” helped the family prosper and develop strong numismatic skills, said Harvey. “The collectors of many years ago loved to argue with each other about varieties and learn from each other because there weren’t as many books around as even today.
“And they’d come in and sit and chat and they’d permit a Stack–whether it be myself, or my two cousins Ben and Norman or my father and my uncle (there were five Stacks operating in the early years, when I was there)–and they’d let us listen to the conversations.
“So If you were having a discussion about a die variety of a silver dollar, I was sitting there listening and then I learned what they saw and what they did.
“That’s why Stack’s maintained all the years I was in business one of the largest privately held libraries. And collectors would come in and get the books out, if we knew who they were. They’d sit down in the library, look at the books and look at the coins, and they’d help us catalog the coins. That was the beauty of early collecting.”
Lawrence Stack grew up in the family business but came on board as a major figure in the firm after graduating from the University of Akron in 1973. One of the collectors he remembers best was Baltimore legend Louis Eliasberg, Sr.
“I think I’m kind of the bridge between the real old world and today. Whereas I knew Louis Eliasberg, Sr. not personally, because whenever he came in they’d tell him ‘get the kid out front.’ He’d walk in the back and crack open the Jack Daniels and sit around and the old folks would have a couple of shots together.
“Some of these old catalogs are just names to people, but to me they are real people.”
On John J. Ford (Blind Men and an Elephant)
The conversation turned to one of Stack’s most notable competitors, when a collector in attendance asked the trio about John J. Ford. Many may not realize this, but Ford got his start at Stack’s, working at the family coin shop in the early 1940s before being drafted into the Army during World War II.
“John was really an unusual person,” said Harvey. “His mind was a snap trap. You tell him something and he’d remember it forever. He was also argumentative because he was always right. Till the day he died, he was one of our closest friends.”
“John was a Saint”, Lawrence added. “This man would stay up to about eight o’clock at night, go to sleep, wake up at three in the morning, read, study, make complaints, or whatever he used to do and then every day from 1:30 to 2:30 he’d call me on the phone and yell at me about something for seven years in a row. I figured it was worthwhile because we ultimately got the collection.”
Not everyone in the industry was as close to Ford as the Stacks, which led Bowers to relate a story that, had it unfolded differently, could have changed the course of numismatic history:
“I knew John when I was little kid. Knew him nonstop all the way… I’ve been to his house many, many times. And we’ve done a lot of things together. And then after he died a lot of new information came out. And I feel that if I ever talk about John, and I think Larry and Harvey would be the same thing… it would be like the blind man and the elephant. And one blind man said the elephant is like a wall, very rough. Another blind man said like a rope, and someone says like a hose. I think three people could know John Ford and know a different person. I knew a different person that was brought out by some other things…
“In 1955, in New York City, [there was] a rooftop garden and a bar and a room next door. They had a sale of Hard Times tokens and Don Miller of Indiana, Pennsylvania who was a very well-built, strong man, and John Ford got involved…. Well, first of all Don Miller spent some time at the bar and he was quite lubricated.
“They got involved in a fight and Miller had John in the rooftop garden… and Miller
was going to throw John into the street and I ran up and grabbed Miller, and I said, “Help!” And two or three people came and pulled Miller off… otherwise John would have died in 1955 and the story of numismatics would have been different.”
Cultural Changes and the Direction of the Hobby
A theme I discuss from time to time is the changing relevance of money in contemporary culture. Curious as to how these three gentleman felt about the issue, I asked “How do you feel America’s association with coinage has changed since the 1950s and what does that say about the future of coins as a circulating medium and as a hobby?”
“The biggest problem is we had a couple of very serious strikes against collecting,” said Harvey. “One is the simple board that you find coins in change, the 25 cents Whitman boards, you put them in and keep filling the holes. That changed.
“That changed when we decided to go off the silver standard. You couldn’t find the coins.
“The amount of silver coins that were melted between 1964 and 1970 would fill up 25 rooms of this size and then you’d need 25 more to help. Because what happened was they found a way to make a profit on the face value. That’s a strike against us, in a sense, then, of course, the fact that distribution has changed.
“The government will sometimes sit on a 1999 quarter for a long period of time because the Federal Reserve banks around them didn’t need anymore quarters. Then all of a sudden one day, everyone in the world could find 1999 quarters. So there’s been an Economics change, which is like like what the stamp business went through.”
Bowers added: “We had an interesting situation in 2009, with the four Lincoln cent reverses. We were in the middle of the recession, not that we’re out of it completely. The most spectacular thing that ever happened to Lincoln cents, so the Treasury Department did not see fit to distribute these widely at all. You could not get them in circulation and then months later we had another situation where we had the New Hampshire quarter–where I’m from, New Hampshire, this was the national parks quarter–there was no bank in New Hampshire that could get these quarters from the Federal Reserve because they had sufficient stock, so most New Hampshire quarters were released in and around Maryland.
“So one of the things that some of us are trying to do with Whitman Publishing, the Littleton Coin Company, and our own companies are trying to work with the Mint to educate Senators and so forth about coin collectors and helping the Mint along. And also we are very involved in the Smithsonian, which has some ambitious programs. So we have a few pro bono projects that we’re all working on.”
On Israel Switt and the 1933 $20
Stack’s has handled many great rarities over the years, one such coin being a 1933 double eagle that was sold by Stack’s and Sotheby’s in 2002 for $7.5m dollars.
By the way, that wasn’t the first 1933 that Stack’s was involved with; the firm tried to sell Colonel James Flanagan’s example in 1944, only to have it removed at the prompting of the U.S. Secret Service.
The recent seizure of 10 double eagles, once owned by Philadelphia coin and jewelry dealer Israel Switt, led one collector to ask, “Did any of you ever meet Israel Switt or have any stories to tell about the 1933 double eagle?”
Lawrence replied: “I’ve visited the shop many times in the hope that one would just be sitting around. In doing some research, David Tripp, who wrote a book about the ’33, and when were awarded the coin along with Sotheby’s, we went down to the shop a few times [sic].
“But Harry Foreman–I don’t know how many people remember Harry–would certainly, would always get John Ford riled up and say John you know they have ten 1933 $20s down there all you have to do is go get them. And John, who was out in Arizona already, would call up and say, ‘Larry, you have to go into Philadelphia and go get them.’ This went on for years and years.
“And ultimately, Harry had seen them and nobody believed Harry, I guess. Or it just recently came out that Harry was right, they had 10 but the family who was there would rotate consigning to Dave’s company and to our company.
“Philadelphia struck $20 gold pieces. In other words they had a group of 1929s, 1931s, and 1932s. In that period it was ok to go to the window and take a $20 for a $20 or a pair of $10s for a $20. The only really small difference between the ’33 was the government contends that they never were released. That’s what they held to and that’s what it came to. But the government was afraid they’d lose the lawsuit, that’s why they made a settlement with Steve Fenton.”
Bowers added: “One of the things I did when I was a little kid, I loved numismatic research. I started interviewing everybody: Abe Kosoff, B. Max Mehl, you name it…. This is when I was in high school. And so I was asking about 1933 $20s, and Ted Naftzger, a dealer from California, said he bought four of them from Abe Kosoff. And he sold one to a collector in Texas and he couldn’t remember where he sold the other three. There are three unaccounted-for 1933 double eagles in some estates.
“There are huge amounts of coins that have never been sent to the certification services. There’s still many things held by families, so, anyway they are going to come out sometimes. We’ve had our share of things popping out–strawberry leaf cent, within the last year or two.
“The story of the 1933 double eagle, which I got very involved in, is ongoing.”
Harvey concluded the talk with a question: “I was around when they seized one coin, and I remember when Eliasberg gave his up, and things like this, because he didn’t want the stigma that came with it that it was a ‘stolen coin’. And I still don’t know, did they ever melt those that were surrendered? I’m just wondering if, down in Fort Knox, if they are still sitting there.”
* Thank you, Alan Weinberg, for correcting the transcript. I thought I heard Mr. Bowers say “Ken Masters”, when in fact, he said “Ted Naftzger”, which makes much more sense.
Charles Morgan is a member of the American Numismatic Association, the American Numismatic Society, the Numismatic Literary Guild, Central States Numismatic Society, and the Richmond Coin Club. Together with his co-author Hubert Walker (ANA, NLG), he has written numerous articles for publication online and in print, including two 2013 NLG award-winning articles for CoinWeek.com.
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