By Harvey Stack – Founder, Stack’s Bowers ……
During the fall of 1955 and winter and early spring of 1956, Stack’s continued building segments of the J.K. Lilly Collection, keeping him informed while he spent his winter in Florida. We sent him some books on ancient and medieval gold coins, about collections listed in the British Museum and in various reference texts. We also provided him with auction catalogs from all over the world, and pointed out which coins we were trying to acquire for him. We concentrated on finding additional doubloons and beginning an ancient gold collection.
We knew he wanted to finish his double eagle collection, but there was still one piece needed to do it. Our ad offering to buy a 1926-S had received no response, but we continued to mention it to the dealers who traveled overseas, hoping that they might help us locate this missing link.
We had a visit from Mr. Lilly on his way home in the spring of 1956 and he was pleased with what we had accumulated. As we expected he asked about the 1926-S double eagle. We told him that we had not been offered one in response to our reward ad.
We arranged a date to deliver what we had acquired to Indianapolis in the early part of May. Before that, in April of 1956, I went to the Central States Numismatic Convention with my father, Morton, to locate more items for Mr. Lilly. During the first two days of that event we were able to add some foreign and ancient gold, but the missing $20 gold piece was not offered.
On the third day of the show, James Kelly, together with his recent partner Paul Witlin, a dealer-jeweler from New York, came up to our table. “Is your offer still valid?” asked Jim. My father replied that we still wanted one.
Jim reached into his pocket, took out a 2 X 2 envelope, and placed the coin on a pad at our counter.
“There it is,” he said. “I want my $500 reward!”
Morton replied, “You got it!” and said, “Now tell me where I can buy it.”
Jim responded, “From me.”
Morton wrote out two checks, one for $500 and one for $3,000. This was quite a good deal for Jim Kelly as he received not only the reward money, but also all the profit that came with selling the coin for $3,000 — a price way above the current market price.
As soon as we could we sent a telegraph to Mr. Lilly, saying the double eagle collection was now complete! We would deliver the missing link with the other items in May and we would give the 1926-S to him at cost, as we felt we had paid a ransom price to get it. My father spoke to Mr. Lilly and received a wonderful “Thank You” for completing that collection.
In U.S. gold he now had complete collections of $1, $2.50, $3, $4 and $20! He was surprised we had been able to do it so quickly. All that was now needed was a few $5 and 10 coins for his regular U.S. gold collection to be complete. He congratulated us on our efficiency. He added: “I look forward to placing the 1926-S $20 in my collection. Thank you for your efforts, and I will see one of you in May.”
But the sky fell the next day at the Central States Show!
We returned to the bourse floor the following morning. Then the “sky” started to “fall”. One dealer offered us a 1926-S for $2,500, while another had one for $2,000. Then we could get one for $1,500 or even $1,300, without the reward! We took an option on the $1,300 coin, as it was of equal quality as the one we got from Kelly, and were lucky enough to reach Mr. Lilly on the telephone.
We told him the whole story, and that we would buy the $1,300 piece, deliver it to him in May and consider the $3,500 not available. Mr. Lilly said: “Mort, let me tell you that what happened to you was surely not your fault or your company’s. You tried for about a year to finish my double eagle collection. You tried something different than I have ever seen in the hobby business, by tempting someone with a reward to find the coin. You may have been taken advantage of, but I will take the first specimen at the $3,500 you paid for it.”
He went on to thank Morton and Stack’s for building his set at a fair market price, and felt that he had benefited from our experience and network of contacts.
Wow, that was a gentleman. In 1956 to give up $2,200 (the difference of the cost of the one we purchased from Kelly and the one we could have gotten for $1,300) represented a sizable amount of money to lose. To compare, remember that gold was still at $35 an ounce then and common coins (and even some rarer ones) sold for small multiples over face value. Even with the market increasing after World War II and the U.S. economy growing, rapidly $2,200 was still a lot of money. Back then record prices were in the five or ten thousands; today we have records that run well into the millions (even up to $10 million for one coin!). Mr. Lilly was definitely a class act.
So we continued our search, working to help Mr. Lilly build a world-class collection and in May 1956 I made my now familiar delivery trip to Indianapolis.
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