The Rare Coin World of Old Favorites

By Richard Schwary (www.golddealer.com) …………

Not that long ago well-known coin dealer Ray Merena passed away and I began to think about how many old favorites are not with us anymore. Ray was buying and selling important coins in the 1970’s so we knew each other from the old days. And over the years we both became Officers and eventually held the office of President in the Professional Numismatists Guild (PNG). We both have a business style which is on the quiet side but enjoyed smoking a cigar while poking fun at less serious industry problems the PNG deals with on a regular basis. Ray was professional, reliable (always good) and respected both on the PNG Board and in his business dealings. Steady…that’s a good way to describe him and the business partnership formed between Ray Merena and Dave Bowers (Bowers and Merena) reminded me of another old favorite Bowers and Ruddy.

book library The Rare Coin World of Old FavoritesBowers and Ruddy was an icon in the LA area in a time which required a great deal more work if you wanted to examine great collections. It was an era in which books and auction catalogues and thus subsequent numismatic knowledge was king. It was not streaming and needed no 4-G network. It was not flashy and needed no tablet. It was not fast paced and did require an attention span.

During the 1970’s I lived in a working class neighborhood under the LA flight plan and pored over everything Dave Bowers and Jim Ruddy so carefully produced. I wore out my copy of Photograde (Jim Ruddy) first published in August of 1970 which proudly stated that “all photographs by the author”.

I was convinced he was a genius for taking pictures of each grade as he saw the ideal example and then producing a grading book which took advantage of the visual approach. The book was later adopted by The American Numismatic Association as its Official Grading Guide and I still keep a copy handy next to my desk.

Of course it was not the first book on grading coins but it became a standard reference in an era in which words were used to describe a coin’s condition. And before Photograde I was sure comparing written descriptions with the old Brown and Dunn steel plate line drawings was the true secret path. That was how it was done before the numerical system was co-opted from Sheldon’s Penny Whimsy.

The old way of describing a coin’s grade is still very useful but the public liked the numerical system and believed it provided accuracy. David Hall and PCGS further defined the higher grades in 1986 which was groundbreaking at the time.

Old time dealers like Harvey Stack offered sage advice. Harvey and I were discussing the changes at Long Beach when he claimed that while grading should be more precise the process itself required more than a mechanical approach. Grading after all was an art form and subject to revision. Verbal descriptions like Very Fine or Extra Fine were a necessary part of the complete grade description and trying to define grades at the extreme higher end of the scale might lead in the wrong direction.

Auction catalogues were a prime source of numismatic insight and more nuanced grading information. Bowers and Ruddy, Stack’s, Rarcoa, Superior and others redefined the “grand format” style which became so popular.

At the time I was sure they contained more secret information and so annotated many pages. And I am sorry today that I did not keep more of these because the ones I managed to save show my progression in adapting new material and even contain a few notes on mistakes. I attended the local auctions and was happy to wait for the box which contained a particular rarity. Viewing was a necessary and fun part of the process until the million dollar web site burst upon the scene.

Grading discussions were popular and the learning curve dangerous because “lessons” were expensive.

I developed a private coin scale of 1 to 5 so it would be easier to make up my mind during the auction. In the end however I did not buy much because I was usually broke. But the cost of admission and the subsequent book education was free which is where I am going with this missive.

Still there were a few coins I took home, no real rarities because the classics fetched “too much money” just like they do today. And it took real sand to keep that paddle in the air against legendary dealers like Julian Leidman or Kevin Lipton. I attended an old Bowers auction once in Hollywood, CA in which an auctioneer no longer with us (George Bennett) delayed the beginning lot by 20 minutes because Julian was running late.

It was a treat sitting next to Abe Kosoff during the Garrett Sale and commented on pattern prices. Like everything else in that sale patterns were white hot and Julian Leidman had just purchased the famous School Girl pattern in silver for $100 grand, an unheard of price at the time. The audience clapped and when he put down the paddle Kosoff leaned over and whispered that he would never suggest patterns to his clients at prices like these!

patterns The Rare Coin World of Old FavoritesToday I still read everything Dave Bowers writes with interest and never miss his Coin World column which goes out of its way to emphasize that a large monetary commitment is not necessary and perhaps should even be avoided.

The incessant drum beat of higher rare coin price promotion has been around since the old B. Max Mehl Star Encyclopedia days but for the rank and file trade it serves little purpose. And the whoopla accompanying the modern issue trade has deemphasized more traditional rare coin areas and Mint shows no sign of slowing down.        

Years ago I bought a coin collection from the son of one of Bowers and Ruddy early customers. After I figured the deal and wrote the check the boy smiled and was happy to say that his dad was right about the value of the collection.

The collection also contained a number of old auction catalogues and a copy of “High Profits from Rare Coin Investment”. I mailed the book to Dave with a comment that his picture on the inside flap looks like it was taken when he was in high school. A nice return note said this book was a first edition which he lacked. In the picture he was wearing his usual jacket and tie which used to be common place in this trade. I wonder what the public response might be at the next Long Beach show if dealers once again began wearing jackets and ties.

Not that I am turning into an “anti” because “new” in this trade has brought wonderful improvements: more collector involvement, a transparent auction process, improved grading and better anti-fraud measures. And the Internet has ushered in a golden age of numismatic scholarship which places accurate facts and figures next to your morning cup of coffee at Starbucks.

So is this missive just a nostalgic look over my shoulder? Perhaps this is true but there are fundamental changes which detract from the art and fun of numismatics.

When Dave Bowers ran Bowers and Merena he edited a series of “Companion” books which are out of print but can be purchased for a pittance if you can find them: “Welcome to the latest of our “Companion” books. When we published the first of these a few years ago – The Numismatist’s Bedside Companion – we had no idea that books with coin stories would be so popular. Since then, we’ve had to reprint this and other Companion books, and we’ve received many nice letters about them from readers.”

The above was taken from The Numismatist’s Weekend Companion and Bowers completes the introduction as follows: “As you read through the pages to follow – perhaps on a grassy knoll overlooking a beautiful, sparkling lake, or, more likely, in your favorite overstuffed chair in your living room – I hope you enjoy these articles as much as the authors did when researching and writing them. Enjoyment is the bottom line of numismatics.” – Q. David Bowers – March 1 1992.

This volume is number four in the series and contains articles which appeared in their famous Rare Coin Review. A not to be missed fixed price list which included numismatic scholarship, reader comments and wonderful stories all of which guaranteed they became part of your permanent coin library. In those days everyone had a significant coin library which led to a real hands-on experience. You not only had to keep the references in order you had to remember where the specific coin could be found.

The Numismatist’s Weekend Companion also contained comments and observations from numismatic luminaries, original research from trade experts like R.W. Julian (always a treat) and insight by NLG member Emil Voigt (1987): Reminiscences of a Collector – The Early Years.

If you are curious about Charles Wormser and the legendary New Netherlands Coin Company you get a front row seat as John Ford and David Bowers describe their first-hand accounts. And you could at the same time just imagine what was in their inventory.

I am not sure how many incarnations this series enjoyed but I had 5 original volumes: Volume One – The Numismatist’s Bedside Companion, Volume Four – The Numismatist’s Weekend Companion, Volume Six – The Numismatist’s Traveling Companion, Volume Seven – The Numismatist’s Downtown Companion, and finally Volume Eight – The Numismatist’s Topside Companion. And added 3 more to the list somewhere along the way: Volume Two – The Numismatist’s Fireside Companion, Volume Three – The Numismatist’s Lakeside Companion and finally Volume 5 – The Numismatist’s Countryside Companion.

It is impossible to read the series without stumbling upon hundreds of numismatic insights which are historically important and at the same time are fun and entertaining. It’s my guess that Stacks Bowers still own the printing rights to these books and I have asked about the possibility of reprinting but have been rewarded with a “we will get back to you” so there might be other factors at work.

Still some diligence in the second hand book market could be rewarding and provide surprises even if you do not consider yourself a numismatic scholar. To a newcomer paying attention to old books adds a dimension you can’t find online. I am a sucker for a used book store as opposed to the Latte variety usually seen in today’s shopping centers.

Years ago my wife and I were shopping when I saw a small Used Books sign across the alley and the old place was a marvel complete with dusty shelves and the right smell. At the end of row two I ran into 2 copies of The Standard Catalogue of United States Coins (1944) and The Standard Catalogue of United States Coins (1953). By the time she finished shopping for the real necessities of life I had completed the deal at a cost of $2.00 each. These of course are the old Wayte Raymond books predecessor to the familiar Red Book we all enjoy today.

The second book (1953) had a sticker on the inside cover: Stack’s 12 W. 46th Street, New York, N.Y. I believed this was some sort of providence and began to ponder previous owners, what might be in their collections and how this book traveled across the US.

I have always had an interest in what used to be called Territorial Gold and was surprised to see that the term Private Gold was used in the 1944 book. The two similar books welcomed price comparison: the 1944 edition lists the Humbert $50 Assay Piece (880 fine) reeded edge at $350.00 and the same coin in the 1953 edition also comes in at $350.00.

We can all agree this is not numismatic scholarship but it is interesting that these accepted sources indicate the price of rare coins was steady after World War II although $350.00 during this period was about 2 months pay for an average worker.

The more inquisitive reader might find other items of interest. Like why these early price guides listed United States Mint Reports: The following pages are reprinted from the pamphlet, “Domestic Coin Manufactured by Mints of the United States” compiled by the office of the Director of the Mint.

My point is that even on an elemental level the study portion of old numismatic books is worth the effort because at the very least it enriches the reader. It might also encourage the next R.W. Julian or Don Taxay in a numismatic world moving so fast that million dollar coins are a reality. And this slower approach to numismatics does not replace the 4 G network but only enriches the process and makes the hobby more rewarding. It does not detract from the million dollar coin it enhances providence.

I have only mentioned a few things which remind me of the old days. Every reader has their own important list to ponder. Old coin stores which are no longer there – in LA there was Numismatics Ltd., American Coin, Coin-A-Rama, Jonathans, Hawthorne Harry’s, Slim Pickens, United National, O’Carmody’s and dozens of others which should be fun to remember.

Your list might also include the sometimes outrageous people in the trade you found interesting. The Long Beach Show alone would produce a dizzying array of the most confounding and sometimes loveable folks – all looking for something odd or different.

Consider magazines no longer in print, bid boards and colorful stories about how you stumbled upon special coins in your collection. Or how about the coin you passed on only to find it was a big mistake? Take a minute and write these down because I am convinced the hobby would be all the better for your effort and posting on the Internet is easy.  

I am not suggesting we go back to the old days. That is like envisioning your 40 year high school reunion before you arrive. It may sound like a good idea but in the end this may lead to disappointment.

I am suggesting that old coin favorites are like old friends. They should be visited often as the process itself provides its own rewards. It slows the 4 G network down, presents its own kind of disciple and in the end might help reestablish a collecting dimension needed in the 21st Century.

Posted in: Commentary

About the Author:

Real Answers To Investment Questions With Richard Schwary, president of California Numismatic Investments. Richard is well known in the dealer community for he helped write the $1000 sales tax exception law regarding bullion and rare coin sales within California. He is a long time price contributor to A Guide Book of United States Coins, the premium pricing guide for US coins since 1947. He attends national shows for the latest market information, and was a Director of The Professional Numismatists Guild for more than a decade, serving as President from 1997-1999. http://www.golddealer.com/

1 Comment on "The Rare Coin World of Old Favorites"

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  1. goldsheet says:

    History: If you do not know where you have been, how can you be sure you know where you are going ? Very nice article on some great old timers

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