by Al Doyle for CoinWeek
If a professional numismatist is widely known as “Mr. Commem”, it’s obvious that he would carry a large selection of silver and gold U.S. commemorative coins issued from 1892 to 1954. That line of reasoning applies to Anthony Swiatek, but his interest in the field extends far beyond one area of coinage.
Visitors to Swiatek’s table at major shows can also choose from better-date and high-grade Buffalo nickels, Standing Liberty quarters, Walking Liberty half dollars and $20 Saint-Gaudens gold. His appreciation for classic artistry has led Swiatek to go beyond the series where he gained his reputation.
“Saints, Walkers – those coins are so beautiful,” he declared. “I also carry old U.S. currency for the same reason.” Like many other dealers, the Brooklyn native developed an interest in coins at a young age.
“It started when my uncle bought me a 1952 proof set at Gimbel’s department store,” Swiatek said. “Not to be outdone, my father also went to Gimbel’s, and he bought me a 1921 Pilgrim commemorative half dollar.” The elder Swiatek’s investment paid huge dividends in his son’s future career, but it was a different series that captured the youngster’s attention.
“There were one, two and three-digit Standing Liberty quarters and the occasional 1928 or 1929 with four digits,” Swiatek said. His magic moment happened at an unlikely place.
“There was a seedy coin shop near my house,” Swiatek recalls. “Moe was the proprietor. He weighed close to 300 pounds and chewed – not smoked – cheap White Owl cigars. Moe had a 1919 Standing Liberty quarter with a full head. It had luster. It was uncirculated. To me, that coin seemed to levitate.
“I raced home six or seven blocks and got all the circulated rolls of 1916 to 1919 Lincoln cents I had. I ran back and offered to trade the Lincolns for that quarter. Moe’s response was ‘Get the hell out of my store with this (expletive).'”
That experience didn’t deter Swiatek from getting more involved with coins. He became a part-time dealer after obtaining a master’s degree in science from the City College of New York and working as a high school teacher in the New York City school system.
After a decade of part-time coin trading, Swiatek took the plunge and became a full-time dealer in 1979.
“I took a one-year leave of absence from teaching,” he said. “My wife Gloria was working for an international bank at the time, so we had her income. I said, ‘Let me try coins full-time for a year and see what happens’, and I never went back to the high school.”
One legend in the coin business took the former science teacher under his wing.
“Lester Merkin was like my numismatic father,” Swiatek said. “If I needed three Pan-Pac gold dollars to fill orders, Lester would show me a dozen of them and tell me to pick out the ones I wanted. He’d ask why I picked out those coins, and he’d point out what to look for when buying coins. Lester was a gem.”
As he became a regular at major shows, the “Mr. Commem” name stuck.
“It wasn’t something I promoted,” Swiatek said. “A few collectors would come up to my table and shout ‘Hey, Mr. Commem!’ when they saw me. Some of the dealers picked up on it, and that’s where it came from.”
After serving on the American Numismatic Association’s board of governors beginning in 1989, Swiatek was elected as ANA president in 1997.
“I wanted to focus more on the grassroots collector,” Swiatek said about his two-year term as ANA president. “During a trip to California, I visited four coin clubs in three days. Dealers were looked at like ogres by the ANA, and I helped break the ice there.”
This was also the decade where Swiatek teamed up with numismatic researcher David T. Alexander to win five of the eight World Series of Numismatics competitions conducted by the ANA.
“I loved the World Series of Numismatics, and I took it very seriously,” Swiatek said. “I might be up at 2 a.m. with one of the Krause catalogs studying and coming up with possible questions and answers.”
The educational instinct has been a constant in Swiatek’s life.
He is a regular speaker and instructor at the ANA Summer Seminar and at coin shows across the nation. Swiatek also teaches about numismatics at continuing education courses near his Long Island home. Since much of Swiatek’s emphasis is on collectors becoming savvy about all aspects of coins, it’s no surprise that he is among several New York-area dealers who serve as expert witnesses for the U.S. Attorney’s office in coin fraud cases.
“Not enough people educate themselves about coins,” Swiatek remarked. “Fewer people are attending educational forums because they don’t want to take time away from the bourse floor.”
In addition to becoming a well-known figure on the bourse floor, Swiatek is an established numismatic author. In addition to a long-running newsletter, his book on Walking Liberty half dollars was followed by Encyclopedia of United States Silver & Gold Commmeorative Coin 1892-1954 co-authored with Walter Breen. Another book on commems was published by Amos Press, and the recently released Encyclopedia of the Commemorative Coins of the United States may become the opus on the series.
“It’s 712 pages with 600 color photos,” Swiatek said.
Even though he turns 71 next month, Swiatek has no plans to retire.
“I have a wonderful wife who is one of life’s great blessings,” he said. I love coins and everything about them. I don’t want to sit on the porch and do nothing. There’s always more to learn about coins.”