By Charles Morgan and Hubert Walker for CoinWeek ..........
While almost everybody handles coins on a daily basis, and a great many people collect them to some degree (who doesn’t stash away one or two unusual specimens in a dresser drawer or jewelry box?), some of us quickly discover a desire to learn more.
And if you’ve got the bug, poring over more than a hundred years of American numismatic knowledge and research is what it’s all about.
But no matter where you stand in the hobby, numismatics are like a fractal (indulge us). You think you see it for what it is, but the longer you stare, the more you see something else. Coin collecting is surprisingly dynamic. And coin lore, like coin value, changes over time. Facts change, and commonly known tidbits are lost to time.
Hubert and I comb relentlessly through old books and magazines, and auction catalogs. We do this to learn not just the stories behind the coins, but also the stories behind the stories. Books are great for that, sure, and a good catalog is a masterful blend of the technical and the legendary. However, for our money (literally, and not a lot of it*), old magazines are where it’s at.
Individual issues are snapshots of the hobby as it was at the time of publication, and are full of insights that can only help you as a collector. They have the power to transform your collecting goals and lead you in new and exciting directions. Taken as a whole, a year’s or even a decade’s worth of magazines puts you in the middle of the action, and the hobby of the past becomes a living thing once more.
For example, we enjoyed reading about the goings-on at the annual ANA convention in an issue of The Numismatist from the 1930s. The banquet was a black tie affair, and the wives of the country’s most prominent collectors absconded on a day trip downtown in one of America’s premier cities. Just that tiny vignette can tell you how the once elitist American Numismatic Association has completely transformed itself (for better and worse) in recent decades, and how truly broad a reach the hobby has today.
So to share some of the better pieces we’ve read lately, we compiled a short list of four essential back issues of The Numismatist to seek out and add to your library.
1. February 1986
We’re lucky enough to correspond personally with Herb Hicks from time to time, but the entire hobby owes him a debt of gratitude for his relentless attention to detail. Hicks’ work is the cornerstone of Washington quarter reverse variety study, and his in-depth feature “The Washington Quarter Reverse: A Die-Variety Bonanza” is a mesmerizing take on the subject.
So groundbreaking is the article that it remains essential reading on the Heraldic Eagle-type Washington quarter reverse, and is often quoted by Q. David Bowers and others when describing the different reverse hub changes that have occurred throughout the series.
Note: You’ll also need to pick up the March ‘86 issue as it contains several image corrections (pp 488-90).
Those interested in the legend regarding Martha Washington and the 1792 half disme should check out Walter Ostromecki Jr’s short piece “Martha Washington: Mother of Our First Coinage”, which appears immediately before Hicks’ article.
And capping things off is the cover story by Cory Gillilland, “The Evolution of Taste in Medallic Art”.
You can also read Bowers’ review of Edward Rochette’s The Other Side of the Coin, a collection of interesting numismatic trivia and anecdotes that continues to amuse and surprise.
1986 also happens to be a “key date” in the evolution of third party grading. Check out the ANACS grading submission form on pages 414 and 415.
2. July 2002
The story of the 1933 double eagle is one of the great tales of 20th century numismatics. The month that the only example the Federal Government ever allowed to be privately owned went on sale, The Numismatist published an insightful and captivating piece by Stack’s cataloger and former Numismatic Literary Guild Executive Director David T. Alexander entitled “Selling America’s Rarest Coin”.
Alexander covers all the bases, from the production and subsequent melting of the ‘33 double eagle, to attempts to sell the coins over the years - including the Flanagan, Berenstein, Boyd, Bell, Reed and Eliasberg specimens. The Reed specimen was actually advertised by Smith & Sons, a Chicago coin dealership, in the February 1941 issue.
All this leads up to the supposed origin of the coin that was offered for sale through Sotheby’s and Stack’s, which fetched $7,59,020.00 on July 30, 2002. British numismatist Stephen Fenton and Kansas City dealer Jay Parrino arranged to sell the coin to a Texan named Jack Moore for $1.65 million. Moore turned out to be an informant for the Secret Service, and the two dealers were arrested. Alexander doesn’t offer his opinion on whether the Fenton and Parrino piece was the same one that Max Mehl sold to Egypt’s King Farouk in 1944, but we wouldn’t be surprised if it was. Ultimately, the government wasn’t confident that it could prove the coin was stolen and cut a deal to allow the sale.
Looking back at Alexander’s piece, the following passage seems prescient:
“[Israel] Switt was well known to the authorities, having lost his scrap-gold dealer’s license for violations of the Gold Reserve Act of 1934…. Indeed, Switt once boasted of possessing 25 1933 double eagles, but had been able to sell only 14.”
At some point in time, the Switt family had discovered ten 1933 double eagles in a family bank deposit box. In August 2005, they sent them to the Treasury for authentication. The coins were seized immediately, which led to a court case wherein the judge upheld the government’s claims.
The same issue also has an eight page feature by John Kraljevich, Jr. on the colonial coinage of New York, a two-pager by Pete Smith recalling the tempestuous relationship between Charles Barber and Augustus Saint-Gaudens (ostensibly over the aforementioned double eagle, but there was more to it), and, finally, David R. Sear’s essay on reconstructing Greco-Roman architecture through the architectural motifs on coins.
To the history buff, an all-around winner.
3. July 1984
James O. Sweeny’s essay “The Liberty Cap: Numismatic Symbol Sans Pareil” should be required reading for every coin collector. Strangely enough, Hubert and I have a long-running conversation going (Hubert: Debate? Argument? Bar-room bull session?) about the differences between the Phrygian cap and the Roman pileus. It’s what we do. The two hats are decidedly different in origin and use and are commonly confused for one another. In Sweeny’s piece, you find an illuminating history of the pileus and its symbolism, going back to the Denarius of Cassius in the 2nd century B.C.E. and progressing through the modern era.
The issue also has a great piece by University of Rhode Island professor William A. Turnbaugh, who wrote a lengthy essay on Ulysses S. Grant and the making of Grant’s 28¾ ounce gold Congressional medal. It was struck in January 1865 and pushed the Mint’s screw press to the limit. The medal currently resides at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Numismatic Collection. Grant’s widow Julia Dent Grant, and William Vanderbilt, the railroad giant to whom Grant was indebted at the end of his life, gifted it to the institution.
The issue also offers a retrospective on the Olympia Press, a small independent publisher that offered a number of books drawn from public domain sources. Its catalog included reprints of early Numismatists and a host of titles pertaining to world coins.
Lastly, the issue features the ANA’s Annual Report for 1983-1984 (yes, we know this is really getting into the weeds). What’s telling about this piece are the membership charts. At year’s end 1984, the association had 34,687 members, which, according to our best estimates, is roughly 7,000 more than today. The top 10 states in terms of ANA membership (from most to least) were: California, New York, Florida, Texas, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Ohio, New Jersey, Michigan, and Massachusetts.
One of those states has yet to host an ANA convention. Do you know which one?
4. March 1985
We talked about William Hyder before during our coverage of the 2013 ANA Board of Governors elections. In a March 1985 piece entitled “The Selling of the Stone Mountain Half Dollar” Hyder and coauthor R. W. Colbert wrote one of the best essays ever about a U.S. commemorative coin.
The piece traces the coin’s origin back to attempts to construct a monolithic sculpture of Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson on the side of Stone Mountain in Georgia. Plans for the work go as far back as 1912. The coin wasn’t issued until 1925, and the actual sculpture wasn’t finished until 1972, after fits and starts and heaps of controversy.
Of all the “shenanigans associated with the issuance of [commemorative] half dollars”, Hyder and Colbert point out, “none is more mysterious than the variety of schemes devised to sell the Stone Mountain half dollar”.
Controversy surrounded the coin from the start. Who would get credit for the coin? Was it appropriate for the United States government to issue a coin commemorating the valor of Confederate soldiers? Some called the piece the “traitor coin”. And then there was the quibbling between the temperamental artist Gutzon Borglum (best known for Mount Rushmore), the monument organizing committee, and James Earl Fraser, who sat on the Commission of Fine Arts.
It all ended badly for Borglum, who was dismissed. And while the coin program came to fruition, that happened only after language in its authorizing legislation commemorated the recently deceased President Warren G. Harding.
Yet this only scratches the surface of what Hyder and Colbert reveal about the coin. It’s enough to make you want to go out and buy one for yourself.
Or not, if “traitor coins” aren’t your thing.
The issue also covers the Strawberry Leaf variety large cent, a passage by famed numismatist Walter P. Nichols concerning Demand Notes, and an excellent short piece by then-ANACS authenticator Michael Fahey on the grading of Morgan dollars.
*In fact, the typical back issue of The Numismatist runs less than a dollar each on sites like eBay. Of course, we’d be remiss not to mention other online venues that serve the numismatic reader; Kolbe & Fanning is one of the best.
FLIP OF A COIN:
Back in June, the 72nd Pennsylvania Infantry monument - featured on the reverse of the 2011 Gettysburg National Military Park quarter - was felled by winds. It was returned shortly to its proper place atop its granite pedestal, but the soldier’s rifle is now bent at an angle. In its own small, “postmodern” way, the incident reminds us of how coins are uniquely capable of preserving the past.
You think U.S. coin designs have gotten stale? The design of the Venetian gold ducat, or zecchino, went unchanged for 513 years, from the High Middle Ages to the end of the 18th century. That's the longest design run in numismatic history, bar none. Incidentally, it's also where we get the word "sequin" from, as ladies began to wear the gold coins on their clothes. Venice was an economic powerhouse for much of that same time period, so perhaps we should read between the lines and be grateful that modern American coins are so boring.