By Harvey Stack – Co-Founder, Stack’s Bowers Galleries …..
I have had the pleasure of writing and publishing some of my thoughts on coins and the history of the hobby for close to 10 years now. I am now 89 years old and love to relate stories of my growing up in the family business for over 70 years as a full-time professional numismatist.
I was born into a numismatic family, the Stack family, in 1928. My father Morton Stack, and my uncle Joseph B. Stack, brothers, formed a business that became primarily devoted to Numismatics in 1933, the year they established Stack’s in what was a midtown location in New York City after originally being located in the Bowery section in lower New York. It was a difficult period as the Great Depression was still going on.
They saw that businesses were moving uptown, and they found a great location at 690 Sixth Ave near 23rd Street, a growing retail area. A major elevated train was overhead with a stop at 23rd Street, making it easy for collectors to visit our new Midtown location.
For those who do not remember Sixth Avenue, it is just West of Fifth Avenue, and is now called the Avenue of the Americas.
So the move took place when I was five years old, but I do remember it well. The Stack Brothers were the first ones in a New York storefront that had SIT-DOWN COUNTERS for visitors who came in to sit and discuss buying or selling coins (most, if not all, coin shops that were around New York had “jeweler type” stand up cases, which surely were not comfortable for visitors).
On staff was also Shirley Stack, their sister, who functioned as a bookkeeper and stock filler.
The show cases were made of wood with glass tops, so one could readily see what the displays were. Our show windows were always filled with coins, some in trays, from the ancient world to the modern, and people stopped by and looked at what we showed, and many times came in to buy a coin or two. The displays also attracted those who wanted to sell their coins, as they meant that this was the place to visit.
New York at that time was home to a number of dealers. However, most ran their businesses out of an office, not down by the street, and people of course preferred not to climb stairs or use a dark elevator with their valuables on their persons.
Because of these factors, Stack’s attracted many to its store.
My Very Earliest Days at Stack’s
From the days I was free from public elementary school, my father would take me to the store on Saturdays and holidays to do many chores – i.e., wipe the counters, clean the front window, sweep the floors, open rolls of coins, stamp them for identification, and even greet visitors if my folks were busy with others.
This, I should mention, was not their only source of sales.
Firstly, most dealers in New York and I am certain around the country also had a postage stamp department. Not large but there to serve. Many collectors of the period collected both coins and stamps.
Stack’s, however, gave up the postage stamp business near the end of the Depression after what they thought was a good Saturday’s business turned sour. A group of rarer stamps went missing from the stock book they were housed in, and they said “That’s it, THEY ONLY PUT GLUE ON THE BACK OF POSTAGE STAMPS TO STICK TO COLLECTOR’S FINGERS!!!!”) The family sold off all their stamps in very short order and specialized solely in Numismatics.
Coin Dealers also bought and sold gold. Many people tried to sell their U.S. and foreign gold coins for premiums, more than a bank would give them, because of the Gold Acts of 1933 and 1934, which mandated that gold coins had to be surrender to the Federal Government to help replenish the value of the Dollar. After all, gold had been conveniently revalued from $20.60 to $35.00 per ounce. Luckily, COLLECTORS OF NUMISMATIC GOLD COINS WERE DECLARED EXEMPT, and so coin dealers could buy and sell gold coins to and from the public and sell them to collectors in turn. Some dealers even bought gold objects like jewelry, glasses frames and gold teeth!
The buying and selling of gold coins helped all dealers stay in business and provided a service to the seller of a place to sell their gold. It was, after all, since 1929 that we and the rest of the world had been in a DEPRESSION!
The stock market crashed. Millions were out of work and had lost their savings and homes. Poverty was an unrelenting daily experience for many, and people sold what ever valuables they could to survive the period. So the coin dealer provided a means for individuals to do just that, and at the same time were obviously a way for those who collected to add to their collections, a little at a time.
But not everyone was stricken by the disaster. You still had people like “Colonel” E.H. R. Green, the Brandt family of Chicago, and assorted others who considered themselves collectors and bought large quantities of gold coins…
An Exciting First Experience
I had the opportunity once or maybe twice to meet Col. Green. He would visit Stack’s, usually on Saturday. A huge limousine would arrive at the door and with the help of his chauffeur a huge man (at least to me) got out and walked into the shop using a beautiful walking cane with a gold and silver handle.
Expecting his visit each weekend, Morton and Joe set up a few trays of U.S. and foreign gold coins that they had acquired during the week. After the usual greetings, the Colonel would ask, “So, brothers, what do you have that is new?” Morton and Joe would carry out the trays they had prepared for his visit and set them before him. Col. Green would examine each coin, holding some in his hands for a better view. He would also ask about the story behind these particular coins, the importance of a date or mint, and then asked prices for certain obvious rarities.
Then, as usual, Col. Green would ask “How much for all the coins on these trays?”
Morton and Joe, knowing that was coming, had already calculated the asking price. They would then quote a number, at which Col. Green would look back at the trays and shout “SOLD!!”, shaking the Stack brothers’ hands. The one time I met him, he even offered his hand to me, and said “Someday you may be selling what I am buying, so keep learning about the coins, or if I ever decided to sell them, I will remember you, young man”. He then asked his driver to come in, took all the trays and had them loaded into the car. He left with the usual smile on his face.
On the Monday after Green’s visit, I was told the driver would return, bringing back the trays he carried out the Saturday before and delivering a check for the FULL AMOUNT of the sale.
That’s how Col. E.H.R. Green assembled the mass of gold coins he had with many duplicates. He loved owning the gold coins of the United States and specialized in the early issues, from 1795 up to the Civil War. Later. when segments were sold by Chase National Bank and Green’s executors, hundreds of early issues of U.S. gold were able to re-enter the market. Were it not for what Col. Green collected and hoarded, even what is now considered a somewhat scarce example of the dates and mints he assembled would be impossible to find.
And the above happened quite often. So Stack’s had sizable funds available, even in the depression. Collectors and the public came to Stack’s to sell their coins, gold, silver and copper, worldwide.
The 1930s: Years of Growth
From the rededication of the Stack family’s emphasis on Numismatics (especially after 1934), Morton and Joe met many collectors and dealers who wanted a place to visit, as well as sell and buy (if they had the funds) coins of interest.
One of the great friendships that grew from these meetings was with Harold Proskey, the son of the late David Proskey, a famous hobbyist and numismatist in the early 20th Century who passed away in l928 (the year I was born). Harold (“Hal” to his friends) Proskey was the executor of the Estate of his late father. Since David Proskey had stamps, rare stones, tokens, medals, coins, minerals and other small collectibles, Hal decided to sell off parts of the holdings but retained the numismatic portion. He did so because they were made of precious metals as well as being the collectible he most liked personally.
Late in 1933, Hal visited Stack’s. Morton and Joe, remembering Hal’s father and his father’s friends and the collectors that he served, made them close. Hal started to visit Stack’s on a regular basis, once or twice a week, bringing with him a selection of coins: some just change, others Mint State or Proof, and some in rolls. Stack’s bought them all and developed a wonderful working inventory, far beyond what they already had. With the addition of Ancient, foreign and U.S. coins in all metals, the inventory grew and grew, and the fact that Stack’s had this wide selection just as the Great Depression was lessening encouraged those who were once again building their collection to flock to Stack’s to see “what was new”. So with the help of the Proskey sales (and others as well), Stack’s attracted many from all around New York and became the popular place to visit.
Within a short period, collectors would gather in the shop, trading coins with fellow collectors or even with us, and before 1935 the shop on Sixth Avenue became “The Numismatic Club House”!
Of course, this close contact with collectors helped Stack’s to grow, and so they decided that it was time to have public auctions as part of their business.
Stack’s First Public Auction
In 1935, Stack’s ventured into to public auction market for the sale of coins. Before these auctions, many of the sales of collections nationwide were by mail bid.
Being in New York City, in the center of the high-type business area Stack’s was located in and close to transportation, collectors from all the boroughs of the city and surrounding counties, and from Boston to Baltimore, would travel to the “Big City” to attend a public auction.
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