Harvey Stack continues his reminiscences and the story of Stack’s, with numismatic traditions dating back to 1858, in its present form founded in New York City in 1933. Stack’s held its first public auction sale in 1935. Today, Stack’s Bowers Galleries is the longest-established and most accomplished rare coin firm in America.
The Collecting Scene
The numismatic scene confronted by the Stack’s in 1933 was far different from the fast-paced world of a few years later. Coin collecting had not yet become a mass hobby. This would follow the marketing of the ‘penny board’ in the next year by J.K. Post of Neenah, Wisconsin, followed by its acquisition and popularization by Whitman Publishing Company, then located in Racine in the same state.
Coin market prices of the time seem startlingly low by today’s standards, although wages and the cost of living were also vastly lower. Union News mogul F.C.C. Boyd of New York City was regarded as a wonder in the 1930s because he had $10,000 to spend on coins each year at a time when an annual salary of $5,000 marked a man as a well-to-do professional. For thousands of working Americans, $15 a week was considered doing well. Collecting such material as commemorative half dollars on a salary of $15 would obviously entail much sacrifice. Collecting Lincoln cents from circulation to fill in the spaces on ‘penny board’ was a more approachable reality. The chances were fairly good that all the dates and mintmarks could be found in pocket change, including the scarce 1909-S V.D.B. and 1914-D.
Thomas L. Elder claimed to hold the “biggest world’s records for coins, one for $7,900, made, 1929.” Nowhere did he find it important to identify this coin or specify whether this figure was an auction record or private treaty sale. Such details were obviously unimportant.
Commemorative coins had been part of the numismatic scene since 1892, but the series was still relatively brief: a handful of gold coins marking such expositions as the Louisiana Purchase, Lewis and Clark, and the Panama-Pacific; the 1893 Isabella quarter, the companion Columbian half dollars of 1892 and 1893, and 19 other basic types of half dollars. Controversies were already beginning about distribution of commemoratives, centering on the 1928 Oregon Trail coins, which had been struck but had not yet been released at the beginning of 1933. The issuing commission still had many 1926 coins on hand and needed to sell those first, to be able to pay the Mint for the later ones.
Coin Prices in The Numismatist, January 1933
A glance at prices in retail advertisements in the January 1933 issue of The Numismatist gives an idea of the comparative popularity of various key coins in the United States series. Ambrose Brown offered Uncirculated commemoratives: the 1915 Panama Pacific gold $2.50 at $8; the 1922 Grant with Star gold dollar for $3.25, and the Grant without star dollar for $3.75. Silver commemoratives included the 1900 Lafayette dollar at $3.10 and the 1893 Isabella quarter for $1.25. Half dollars included the 1893 Columbian Exposition at 60¢, 1915-S Panama-Pacific at $9.90, 1921 Alabama Centennial in worn VF grade at $1.25, and the same issue, but with “cross” (we call in the 2X2 variety today) in Uncirculated condition for $2.60. Among other halves the key 1922 Grant with Star cost $5, the 1925 Fort Vancouver $2.75, the 1927 Vermont 95¢, and the low-mintage 1928 Hawaiian $6.50.
A. French (Arline French, husband of Charles French, who would later become well known) of Garden City, New York, offered gold dollars from 1849 through 1862 at $3.25 each without listing their condition. Grades were important to some, but many collectors simply wanted a “nice” example. This seems strange to contemplate today. Further from French, an 1853 Moffat & Co. gold $20 in VF could be ordered for $35, and $3 coins of 1854, 1866, 1883 and 1885 at $5.50 each, again without condition listed. “Large coppers – all fair condition” included 1794 at 40¢, 1795, 60¢, 1797 and 1808, each 50¢, and the scarce 1823 for $1. I have no way of knowing what Mrs. French meant by “fair,” but presume she was selling “nice” coins in perhaps Good to Fine grades. There were no grading standards in effect then.
The Gary Coin Exchange in the Indiana city of the same name offered nickel five-cent pieces including a Proof 1882 Shield at 45¢; a Proof 1883 Liberty Head, your choice of With or Without CENTS, 25¢, and a Matte Proof 1913 Type I Buffalo for just 60¢. Proof dimes of 1859 and 1860 were available for $1 each, and Proof 1865 and 1883 nickel three-cent pieces cost 80¢ and 90¢ respectively.
Among firms offering in-house numismatic guides was Arnold Numismatic Co. of Providence, Rhode Island, a leading mail order house whose owners had a young cousin named Dr. William H. Sheldon (who would leave a memorable trail across the numismatic firmament in the next decade).
In Bowie, Maryland, dealer John Zug offered what he called a 1796 ‘Proof’ quarter in Very Fine, whatever that might have been, for $20. In the same denomination you could buy an 1804 EF for $7.50 and a Proof 1820 for $17.50. Uncirculated quarters included 1853 Arrows and 1854 Arrows for $1 each, 1877-CC $1.25, ‘Old Type’ 1915 and 1916-D 75¢, and the 1917 Type I or II for 75¢. Zug had a fine reputation and enjoyed a wide trade. He was one of only a few dealers who maintained a deep stock of United States coins.
More Tempting Offers in August
In August 1933, F.C.C. Boyd advertised “Brilliant Mint State” Flying Eagle cents of 1856 at $15 and 1858 cents of either variety, 85¢ each. Among Indian Head cents for sale were the 1864-L at $1.40 Uncirculated, and an 1877 in the same grade for $2.25 and a Proof for $3. Uncirculated Lincoln Cents featured the 1909 V.D.B. at 15¢, the low-mintage 1909-S V.D.B. at 25¢, and the 1914-D $1.25. Collecting by dates and mintmarks was done by just a few. In 1934 “penny boards” would change all that. The numismatic world would never be the same!
John Zug’s August offering of silver dollars included the 1795 Flowing Hair with two or three leaves in EF at $15. Uncirculated seven-stars facing 1797 and a 1798 Small Eagle and 13 stars were $50 each, or perhaps 1/1000th of today’s prices! The 1800 AMERICAI in the same grade cost $20, and an 1803 Large 3 was $15. Especially intriguing were the EF 1836 Liberty Seated dollar (we call it the Gobrecht dollar today) for $25 and the Brilliant Proof 1838 at a then-lofty $300. Nearly every date of Proof Morgan dollar from 1879 through 1903 cost $2 each, an exception being the 1904 at $3.50. Hardly anyone collected Morgan dollars, but those who did considered the 1904 Proof to be the most important date. Today, we think of the 1895 as first and foremost, and the 1904 as simply another year in a long run. Seeming mysteries at the end of the Zug listing were the “1876 Centennial dollar, Brilliant Proof, $20… 1876 Nevada dollar, Brilliant Proof, $25.” Today these are known as “so-called dollars,” actually medals issued for the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia.
In the Auction Gallery
Prices realized at Tom Elder’s June sale are also instructive. A red Uncirculated Virginia halfpenny reached $6.25. Uncirculated early date half eagles included a 1798 for $20.50 and an 1800 for $21.50, and these others: 1802 $15.50, 1807 $15.50, 1808 $15, 1809 $15.50, 1811 $14, and 1818 $32. What was called a 1795 Small Eagle reverse in “Proof” realized $88. Today, that mirror finish style is not recognized for a 1795, and we would call it prooflike Mint State. Among western gold coins a Wass, Molitor & Co. $5 in VG brought $120, and a Clark, Gruber & Co. “mountain view” VF was bid up to $70.
Results of the October 18 sale held by J.C. Morgenthau revealed remarkable strength for high quality colonial and early federal coins. This firm was a division of Scott Stamp & Coin. Most cataloguing was done by Wayte Raymond, although J.G. Macallister came to New York City on the train to help with this and to be at each sale. The catalogs were plain affairs with hardly any text describing history, overall appearance, or numismatic desirability. However, that was state of the art at the time. A Fine Massachusetts NE Shilling brought $130, a VF Oak Tree sixpence sold for $75, an Uncirculated Pine Tree Shilling (Crosby 12-D) fetched $86, a VG Maryland shilling commanded $45, and an Uncirculated Maryland fourpence or groat went to a new home for $155. Actually, unless one was present at the sale and knew the bidders, there was no way to tell if a coin was sold or was “bid in.” Every coin auctioneer simply listed prices after the sale, whether or not they changed hands.
At the same Morgenthau event a “fairly Good” Connecticut Higley threepence brought $30. If the same family still owned it, the coin would probably cross the block for a thousand times that price or even more. A Fine Standish Barry threepence was bid to $65, and a rare Non Vi Virtute Vici copper in Fine grade went for $110. 1792 coins and patterns of the Philadelphia Mint included a VF copper disme at $120, a “Mint State, brilliant” silver half disme $120, and a Silver Center cent in Good $175. Each of these would be worth a thousand times the price today, or even more. A Washington Funeral medal in gold, VF, realized $105.
Among regular issue gold dollars were an Uncirculated 1856-D at $61.50, a Proof 1869 for $20, and an Uncirculated 1875 $75. Quarter eagles included a “superb” 1796 No Stars $175, an EF 1797 $240, and an Uncirculated With Motto 1834 $700. A price of $700 was exciting news back then. In fact, few rarities sold for as much as $200 to $300. Among $3 gold coins were an Unc. 1873 at $85, 1876 Brilliant Proof $150, and a brilliant Proof 1877 for $81. Half eagles were highlighted by an EF 1795 at $51, an EF 1796 for $75, and some stellar prices such as an EF 1797/95 Heraldic Eagle for $475, an Uncirculated 1797 16 Stars at $825, and an AU 1827 for $600.
A 1796 AU eagle reached $80 at the Morgenthau sale, and an EF 1798 fetched $125. Pioneer gold included a Templeton Reid EF-grade $2.50 at $350 and a Fine $5 by the same coiner that climbed to then-astonishing height of $1,325. I imagine there was wild applause in the sale room! California issues included an Uncirculated Baldwin & Co. 1850 $5 at $250, a Vaquero Type 1850 $10 in EF for $1,000, .887 THOUS. Augustus Humbert 1851 $50 in VF for $240, a “pattern octagonal” $50 at $535, and an EF Oregon Exchange Co. $5 for $175.
Elsewhere in the Marketplace
The major advertisers of commemoratives in The Numismatist in December 1933 were the Scott Stamp & Coin Company (with Wayte Raymond handling the coin part of the business) and a Minneapolis clergyman, Rev. Elias Rasmussen. Scott offered the 1926 Oregon Trail at $1.50; the 1926-S or 1928 at $2, and the newest variety, the 1933-D, at a controversial $3 each. By this time the Oregon Trail Memorial Association had paid for thousands of coins stored at the Mint and was in a position to have new ones struck. Authorized by Congress, there was no oversight for these or other commemoratives. The issuers ordered them from the Mint at face value plus minor charges, and then could retail them for whatever they wanted.
Rasmussen, whose name was to be remembered with little love among dealers of his time (although I hope his parishioners gained some value from his ministry), offered a wide selection of Mint State commemoratives, including the 1915-S Panama-Pacific half dollar for $9.25, both thick and thin 1925 Norse-American Centennial medals at $3, and the 1928 Hawaiian half at $6.25.
Wayte Raymond was looking forward to the marketing of his Standard Catalogue of United States Coins, set to be the first general guide to coin mintages and market prices in various grades. The Stack brothers, my father Morton and uncle Joe, recently set up in New York City, found the milieu to be exciting. Depression or not, coin collecting was an enjoyable hobby for those who could afford it, and there was much enthusiasm and activity.
Elsewhere, the American Numismatic Association continued its annual conventions and remained strong during those uncertain economic times. In fact, the 1930s would be one of the greatest growth periods ever!