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By Charles Morgan and Hubert Walker for CoinWeek….
 

Twenty-two years ago, noted numismatist Walter H. Breen died at Chino’s California Institute for Men, part of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. A convicted serial child molester, it’s hard to imagine that Breen’s stay at the facility was ever meant to rehabilitate the man. Instead, that duty seems to have fallen to a very few of his friends and associates in the world of numismatics, a community that benefited tremendously from Breen’s work for over 30 years.

As numismatists, it’s difficult to be “objective” when writing about Breen. We benefit too much from what he did for the hobby, and most of us were not directly affected by the things Breen was accused of doing – and admitted doing – in his private life.

Plus, it evokes in many of us an impulse not to talk about him. Better to leave well enough alone lest it taints the hobby, one might argue. To this day, numismatists–ourselves included–continue to cite Breen’s work in auction catalogs, books, and articles; his sins sequestered from his expertise.

But does this reticence nurture, or possibly inflict, the very harm that some in the hobby worry about?

To an extent, we understand the impulse to keep quiet. Consider this: as a hobby and an industry, we’re actually quite fortunate that the Breen scandal erupted when it did. Had Breen’s crimes come to light in the Internet Age, the hobby as a whole could have been implicated. And not because of some kind of guilt by association (though in some eyes that’s bad enough, and it’s an understandable fear). No, the problem lays in the deference the hobby showed to him, treating Breen like a guru or a numismatic “institution” that was “too big to fail”. The industry could have experienced something like what happened to Pennsylvania State University, when public opinion accused the University and its fans of prioritizing football over the safety and lives of underprivileged children. That scandal didn’t just bring down a child molester, it ended the career–if not the life–of a Hall of Fame football coach and tarnished the reputation of one of the nation’s most prominent public universities.

That didn’t happen to coin collecting. Yet the fact remains that by continuing to so closely associate Breen with numismatics, we open ourselves up to the same criticism and contempt.

Silence about his crimes merely reinforces those ties.

We doubt that Jerry Sandusky and his achievements on the gridiron will be reevaluated on the basis of his football IQ, but for Breen, there remains the possibility that his reputation as a preeminent numismatist may be rehabilitated. We don’t say this to be alarmist; we say this because we know people who want to make it so.

But in some ways, it’s curious that Breen still lingers in our hobby. It’s been more than two decades since his last meaningful work was published. Much of what he knew and wrote has been superseded by more recent scholarship, and a number of his claims and theories have been discredited.

Walter Breen himself has no say in the matter. He has no heirs in the coin business. His children, who have accused him of crimes against them, have not lobbied on his behalf. The fact that some of us still do shows that it is we who continue to be drawn to him.

So let’s do what so many of us are loathe to do.

Let’s have that conversation about Walter Breen, the one that’s long overdue. The one we’re so afraid to have because of what we’re afraid it might say about us. The one that by not having it has said more about us than we’d like to admit.

The Numismatist and the Monster

It’s comforting to assume that Breen came undone at the end of a lengthy career. That his crimes were committed after decades of service to the hobby. But this is simply not true, for Breen’s crimes against children had been going on since the beginning of his numismatic career.

According to court documents, Breen was first convicted of child molestation in 1954 while employed at the New Netherlands Coin Company.[1] It’s unknown what his employers knew about his crime, but Breen’s conviction did little to thwart his career. He continued on at New Netherlands through the end of the decade.

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Walter Breen accepts an Award at the 1974 ANA Convention. Photo Courtesy: American Numismatic Association.

Walter Breen was a man of many interests, science fiction being one of them. Breen, the convicted child molester, gained further notoriety in 1961 when he was ostracized from the science fiction fan community because of persistent rumors about his sexual advances towards children.

Organizers of the 19th World Science Fiction Convention (also referred to as SeaCon), tried to ban Breen from the proceedings.

However, many in the community felt that the accusations against the talented Breen were unfounded and that Breen, certainly an eccentric and unusual character, was being demonized unfairly. It is unclear how widespread knowledge of his previous arrest and conviction was.

In fan circles, the affair and subsequent events became known as the “Breendoggle”. Fanzines both for and against Walter Breen were published. The end result of the brouhaha was that the ban was reversed and Breen was allowed to attend.

He repaid his supporters’ trust by molesting a 10-year-old victim two years later.[2] The Breendoggle erupted anew (this time, however, it was called “Breenagain”).[3]

Also, and while the scandal was still raging, Breen married science fiction writer Marion Zimmer Bradley in 1964. The couple divorced in 1990 after a long separation.

At this point, it’s important to realize that most of Breen’s major work as a numismatist was yet to come. Walter Breen’s Complete Encyclopedia of U.S. and Colonial Coins hadn’t been written, nor, too, had the dozen or so other works that would eventually earn Breen such high esteem in U.S. numismatic circles.

As a proponent of pederasty, Breen was a prolific scholar and researcher. To some of his closest contacts, this was no secret. In her 1998 sworn deposition, Zimmer Bradley acknowledged that she knew of and defended her then soon-to-be husband’s behavior to the science fiction community, admitting that she had been aware of Breen’s proclivities since “shortly after” the two were married.[4]

In 1964, with Bradley’s help, Breen (using the pen name J. Z. Eglinton, supplied to him by author, coin dealer, manufacturer of restrikes and accused pedophile Robert Bashlow[5]) wrote and published a defense of pederasty entitled Greek Love.

A pull quote provided by renowned psychotherapist Dr. Albert Ellis[6] sums up Breen’s central premise with startling clarity:

Greek Love is a truly remarkable work… it is the only comprehensive work in any language, to my knowledge, that unequivocally espouses the right of an older male to have social-sexual relations with a young boy[7].

That he wrote Greek Love isn’t a revelation to many who know about Walter Breen. But what many Breen defenders don’t know is that Greek Love was not a one-off exploration of a taboo topic. To the contrary, Breen followed it up with the two-volume International Journal of Greek Love (1964, 1966) while simultaneously working on a 34-page pamphlet entitled Dies and Coinage, which was put out by the Hewitt Brothers, publishers of Numismatic Scrapbook Magazine.

In 1976, a third volume of the International Journal of Greek Love was released. Breen would continue to research the topic for much of the rest of his life, working towards a second edition of Greek Love that was never realized.[8]

In the 1970s and ‘80s, Breen began his association with Stanley Apfelbaum and First Coinvestors, Inc., where he wrote some of his most celebrated numismatic reference works. These include Walter Breen’s Encyclopedia of U.S. and Colonial Proof Coins, 1722-1977 (1977) and The Encyclopedia of United States Silver & Gold Commemorative Coins 1892-1954 (1981) (though Commemorative Coins co-author Anthony Swiatek claims that Breen’s input was minimal).[9]

Unpublished written correspondence from Breen reveals that he was working on a comprehensive book of United States Coinage as early as 1976.[10] This work of course became Walter Breen’s Complete Encyclopedia of U.S. and Colonial Coins (1988). He also published works (sometimes in collaboration) on large cents, California pioneer gold, and other assorted topics.

All the while, Breen continued to prey on children and maintain a “public” presence in pederastic circles. In the spring of 1979, he was the keynote speaker to the North American Man Boy Love Association’s (NAMBLA) second conference in New York.[11]

In 1985, Breen met the eight-year-old stepson of science fiction author Stephen Goldin, while the boy and his mother Mary were attending a science fiction convention. According to Walter Breen’s own confession, entered into court record, he spent most of his time chasing the boy–“babysitting”, as he put it.[12] Four months later, Breen molested the boy for the first time. The molestation continued for almost five years.

In 1988, Breen’s Complete Encyclopedia of U.S. and Colonial Coins was published through a partnership with First Coinvestors and Doubleday. The next year, Breen was arrested for sexually abusing Goldin’s stepson. Breen plead guilty and was given a probationary sentence.

That same year, Breen abused another boy that he met at another science fiction convention, identified in court documents as Johnny Doe 5. It was for molesting Johnny Doe 5 that Breen was arrested in the middle of the workday while appraising rare coins at Superior Galleries in Beverly Hills on 3 October 1991.[13] Breen, 61-years-old at the time, was held on $200,000 bail and faced eight felony counts. He was convicted, and this time he was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Already diagnosed with cancer, Breen succumbed to the illness not even two years into his term.

The Industry Reacts

We don’t know why Breen continued to thrive as a professional numismatist while at the same time carrying such baggage.

It’s tempting now to accuse those who knew Breen or supported him during this time with enabling his crimes or covering up for him. Again, while it’s hard to say how much about his actual convictions anyone else knew, one would think that the science fiction “fannish” scandals–still talked about to this day–were high profile enough that those in numismatic circles who had dealings with the man should have been aware of the controversy. But there’s no evidence that any one person, group of people or company shielded Breen from the consequences of his actions.

Walter Breen Portrait. Image courtesy: American Numismatic Association

Instead we have anecdotes regarding what many considered Breen’s peculiar behavior, told in earnest but nearly all uncorroborated by documentary evidence. We’ll spare you the details of some of the more lurid accounts, but suffice it to say that if Breen were living a double life, he wasn’t trying very hard to hide it. Yet somehow he continued to find patronage and opportunities to work in the trade.

But even in 1991, with the seeming finality of a confession and a 10-year prison sentence, it was like the sci-fi dustups of the 1960s all over again. This time, however, it was coin collectors and fans of Breen’s numismatic work that came to his defense.

One such defender was fellow author John D. Wright, who wrote a letter to Coin World that stated:

My friend Walter Breen has confessed to a sin, and for this, other friends of mine have picked up stones to throw at him.”[14]

Wright criticized the American Numismatic Association for revoking Breen’s membership mere weeks after awarding him the Heath Literary Award, saying that while he did not condone Breen’s “lewd and lascivious acts”, he did not see the charge, Breen’s guilty plea or subsequent conviction as “reason for expulsion from the ANA or from any other numismatic organization.”[15]

Perhaps Wright believed his was an objective response. Or perhaps, as may well be likely, Breen was a genuine friend to Wright, who had no idea about this other side of the man.

But then there’s this.

In the “About the Author” section–which Breen penned himself, for the most part–of Walter Breen’s Encyclopedia of Early United States Cents 1793-1814 (Bowers & Merena Galleries, 2000) is an evocation of an important period in Breen’s numismatic career: his time working with New Netherlands. He goes on to talk about his time on the West Coast, where he penned books on a number of subjects–including “sexology”.

Breen was clearly talking about Greek Love. And while Wright (among others) was having a hard time reconciling Breen the Numismatist with Breen the Monster, Breen the Man was more open about himself than many want to acknowledge.

Despite this clear fact, the publisher did the best that they could to soften the blow. At the bottom of the “About the Author” section, three sentences were added:

Walter Breen was married to celebrated science-fiction writer Marion Zimmer Bradley. They have two children, Patrick and Moira, both musicians. Walter Breen passed away on April 28, 1993, from cancer.”[16]

Every word of it true. Every word of it a lie.

Bradley, a co-conspirator, was divorced from Breen. It has since been alleged that both parents victimized their own children. Walter Breen died in prison convicted of child molestation.

But we can sympathize with the publisher. Ultimately it was Breen who put them on the spot, inflicting similar indignities throughout the industry.

Aftermath

Having never met Walter Breen, one can only imagine what his life was like in those final weeks and months at Chino.

His signature unkempt locks and beard shaved off, his personal life torn asunder, his family reeling with shame and suspicion, and his body racked with cancer.

Breen in his last days was a pitiable and defeated creature.

He did, however, receive visitors from the industry during his sentence. Some who were close to him lobbied for his release to hospice, but the State of California considered him so dangerous that they refused to do so.

Breen, who was set to serve his time at San Quentin State Prison, never made it there, dying instead at Chino before he could be transferred to the facility where he, his friends, and his attorneys expected he would spend the rest of his life.

In the process of researching Breen and his crimes, we reached out to Stephen Goldin. Goldin is not shy about what happened. His website detailing the Zimmer Bradley trial is one of the only sources of information on Breen’s sexual crimes on the Internet.

Over the course of a conversation that lasted several hours, Goldin spelled out how Breen came to be involved in his son’s life; how charming Breen was; and how certain of Goldin’s friends secretly kept their children away from Breen.

He spoke about how Breen damaged Goldin’s relationship with his wife and caused lifelong hurt for his stepson. He believed Breen to be a liar, a thief (Breen is said to have had a habit of stealing rare books from shops in the San Francisco Bay area), and a sociopathic manipulator.

But despite everything Breen did, Goldin felt that Breen’s work shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand. “Facts are facts”, Goldin said, “and I have no problem with people using Walter Breen as a source of facts.”[17]

breenmonographsWe don’t disagree.

But again, does the hobby’s disinclination to talk about that other set of facts, having been adjudicated in court and far less impeachable than numismatic research, hurt the hobby?

We believe it does.

There’s a tendency in this hobby to avoid telling hard truths, for fear that it will taint us all and drive collectors away. The reality is that our inability, as a hobby and an industry, to be open and transparent will raise red flags faster than any airing of dirty laundry in an effort to clean up this mess.

His work is what it is as well, warts and all.

Though mostly out of print, new editions of his books are reprinted every couple of years. And while Breen is no longer on trial, his work and our readiness to accept it at face value deserves scrutiny. If the insights and investigations of more than two generations of excellent numismatists and researchers isn’t enough, what will it take to put Breen–like Dr. William Sheldon before him–in the proper historical perspective?

Not talking about it means the Monster never goes away (Google will make sure of that). It’s time to face up to it.

Notes

[1] http://www.stephengoldin.com/MZB%20Website/Marion%20Zimmer%20Bradle—Timeline.html. Accessed 11/3/15.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] http://www.stephengoldin.com/MZB%20Website/Excerpts%20from%20MZB%27s%20Depositions.html. Accessed 11/3/15.

[5] Mader, Donald. “Walter H. Breen (J. Z. Eglinton) (1928-1993)”, Before Stonewall: Activists for Gay and Lesbian Rights in Historical Context. Hayworth Gay & Lesbian Studies, 2002. Print. 314-16.

[6] Authors’ note: Ellis was a controversial figure in his own right, being the first psychologist to use the words “fuck” and “shit” at an American Psychological Convention conference, as well as for his belief that exclusive heterosexuality and homosexuality are fetishistically deviated behavior, and his advocacy for civilized adultery.

[7] Breen, Walter, writing as J. Z. Eglinton. Greek Love. New York: Oscar Layton Press, 1964. Print.

[8] Mader.

[9] Phone conversation with Anthony Swiatek, January 2013.

[10] Breen, Walter. Letter to Herbert P. Hicks, 27 December 1976:

Maybe someday there will be a REALLY comprehensive book on U.S. coinage, though it probably won’t use any such adjective on its title page.”

[11] Mader, 320.

[12] Phone conversation with Stephen Goldin, Spring 2013.

[13] Serrano, Richard A. “Rare Coins Expert Charged With Child Molestation”, Los Angeles Times 3 October 1991.

[14] Wright, John D. Letter to the Editor, Coin World 11 Dec 1991. Sidney, OH: Amos Press.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Breen, Walter. Walter Breen’s Encyclopedia of Early United States Cents 1793-1814. Bowers and Merena Galleries, 2000. Print.

[17] Phone conversation with Stephen Goldin, Spring 2013.

9 COMMENTS

  1. It is very difficult to respond to this article with out it looking like you condone Breen’s actions. I do not in any way condone his terrible and horrific actions and attitudes he had toward children. On the other hand he was an excellent researcher. Much of his numismatic research, 80+%, has stood the test of time. The rest has been or will be corrected in the future. His research has at one time or another touched most series of numismatics. Many would say that we could have done without the research of this terrible person but we do have it. Once again I do not in any way condone his personal life.

  2. I fall on the side of ensuring that every time his name is mentioned in numismatics, it should be preceded with “Convicted pedophile”. I’ve been in this hobby enough to know that a lot of people consider him a Founding Father of numismatics, without having any idea of how many lives he has destroyed, literally and figuratively. His legacy is being enabled in death just like his behavior in life was enabled by those in the coin community that “looked the other way”. Very disturbing.

  3. For those who may think that Breen’s activities were separate and distinct from the world of coins, I have a recollection that may bring home just how this was not the case. At a Long Beach show in the late 70s, I met Breen for the first time. As a 13 or 14-year old avid reader of his books, I was awed by meeting such a titan in the numismatic world. We chatted for a while about coins at which point he invited me to his hotel room “to get high”. I had no idea of what he had in mind, but I understood his proposal to be a very unusual thing for an adult to say. I said no thanks but I always remembered this incident. Years later I learned of Breen’s proclivities and realized how close I came to a potentially life-altering experience. There’s no way I was the only kid at a coin show he ever propositioned, right?

  4. The numismatic world is fairly well sorted on Walter Breen.

    Facts stand independent of whoever speaks them, compiles them, cites them or employs them. Walter Breen, the disgusting human being, spent a portion of his time on this earth compiling useful facts.

    Perhaps that’s why he was able to ‘survive’ in the numismatic world, in spite of his grotesque personal proclivities. Because Mint State is Mint State whether the seller is a good guy or a bad one. Because a 1909 S-VDB is a 1909 S-VDB whether the seller is a good guy or a bad one. Because the world of numismatics is a world of facts and ultimately, facts stand alone. Facts cannot be contaminated by association, they are neither guilty nor innocent, they do not rely on the reputation of whoever purveys them.

    Walter Breen was able to gain a professional reputation on the basis of dealing in facts, in spite of a personal reputation that was repellent. There really is no conflict here.

    The man was a disgusting human being who compiled useful facts.

  5. I knew Walter and hated him for two things, one what he did to children and second that he was not honest in his numismatic activities. I saw he shown a coin which the dealer thought was a proof. Walter said that it wasn’t and wouldn’t give his certificate. The dealer then offered him $150 and Walter wrote out a certificate that the coin was a proof.

    On one hand he was evil and got what he deserved on the other hand he was not honest and his certificates are not worth the paper they are written on. I didn’t like him, the world and numismatics is better off without him. He ruined a lot of young men’s lives and used his fame to make money selling false certificates. He was not a nice man.

  6. I am particularly upset that a well-known coin writer compelled me to buy this man’s book after chastising me, publicly, for a purchase that he thought was unwise. He did not disclose that fifteen years earlier, this man finally met his comeuppance for his horrible behavior over the decades. I was new to the hobby, so I did not know of this man’s actions.

    I feel sick that I bought his book, because I don’t know where the money went. I also feel sick that I allowed a bully to convince me to buy it. To the bully: You know who you are, and the fact that you covered, and apparently continue to cover, for this terrible person is a stain on your soul.

    • We have an incredible hobby and I hope you continue to enjoy it. Your comments are vital to the discussion and I hope auction houses, dealers, and other collectors heed your message.

  7. I wholeheartedly agree that Walter Breens’ actions in his personal life are inexcusable and extremely disturbing to say the least. I, as well as most of the world, agree that they do NOT condone his actions. In saying this, YOU can not have the best of both worlds. You can not acknowledge him as pedophile and use him as reference for anything numismatic in nature. You have to learn to separate the man (his personal life) from his subject matter expertness (being an icon in the world of Numismatics). By using his name for both his accomplishments and reverence of him in the Numismatic Industry is demeaning and hypocritical. This is JMHO, nothing else. To save our beloved hobby from further internal deterioration we must separate the two forever. If we, as a whole, do not do this then we will forever link Walter Breen’s enormous contributions to numismatics with pedophilia. I know that some will flame me and I can understand that. There is only night and day. Black and White. There is no grey area on this subject. Let me remind you of the best piece of advice I have EVER been given…”Character is what YOU do when no one is looking”. Thank you and enjoy what remains of your day.

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