Finding a 1926-S $20 in the 1950s

I received an inquiry about the collection of $20 gold double eagles known to have been assembled by Robert Schermerhorn, which Stack’s acquired for Mr. Josiah Lilly of Indianapolis, CEO of the Lilly drug company in the early 1950s. Josiah Lilly started to collect with Stack’s in 1951, with a profound interest in early Spanish-American gold coins. He desired to acquire examples of each ruler and mint of the Spanish-American colonies prior to the 1820s, as he loved the stories and history of the Spanish period in the Americas. The most talked about coin of the period was the doubloon, the largest coin of the era, and that provided him a goal.

In the beginning, Lilly wanted to acquire just one of each ruler, country and mint. However, after reviewing Wayte Raymond’s book on Spanish-American gold, he decided to expand and try to get as many different examples. We worked on that part of his collection virtually to the end of his life, as some pieces were rarely available.

In 1952, Lilly expanded his interest to large coins of England and France of the same period. By late 1953 or early 1954 he decided to try for a complete set of U.S. double eagles. Around that time we were offered a nearly complete set of double eagles formed by Robert Schermerhorn of Texas and Mr. Lilly decided to buy it intact and then seek out the missing issues. Among the coins that were not in the collection was the 1926 San Francisco Mint issue. Despite searching at shows and in private collections, we were unable to find a 1926-S for him.

In order to attract attention to our search, in 1955 or 1956 we advertised offering a $500 reward to anyone who would tell us where we could get an example for $3,000. Initially there were no responses.

Shortly thereafter, at a convention, James Kelly came over to our dealer bourse table and dripped a coin on a pad and said to my father, “Mort, I claim the $500 reward.” When we looked it was a Choice 1926-S double eagle. My father asked Jim, “How much?” Jim said $3,000 of course and we paid it, plus the reward. My father was furious at Jim, but we got the coin. We sent a Western Union wire to Mr. Lilly to tell him we had found the last coin he needed and were billing him for $3,500. We felt our zeal had established a price beyond its value at the time.

Within two days or so afterward, there appeared several 1926-S double eagles on the floor, offered to us at prices ranging from $1,200 to $2,000. Naturally we refused, but did take an option on one for under $1,500 and contacted Mr. Lilly to ask him to return the original double eagle so that we could supply him one for less than half the cost. He replied, “You have spent close to two years trying to find the coin for me. I will take it at its original price as I feel you were taken in.” He also said that we had surely already saved him money by bargaining with the sellers when we found coins for him, and passing on those pieces that were overpriced. He felt we had done our job in good faith. For 17 years we built series after series of gold coins of the world for Mr. Lilly. The coins now reside in the National Collection at the Smithsonian Institution.

After this incident we learned that James Kelly partnered with Paul Witlin who had bank contacts in Europe and while going through coins, found a small hoard of 1926-S double eagles. They tried to sucker us in and make a killing, but in the end Mr. Lilly showed what kind of man he was and his appreciation for all the work we had done with him and for him.

This story is told from my memory, as the transactions took place over half a century ago and many of the documents are long gone or may have been sent to the Smithsonian.

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