By Harvey Stack – Founder, Stack’s Bowers ……
CoinWeek continues to post Harvey Stack’s wonderful series of blogs on not only the building of one of the all-time greatest coin collections but also how the relationship between Josiah K. Lilly and the Stack family grew over time. This week’s entry compiles parts 27 and 28, available on the Stacksbowers.com blog. If you’re new to the series, you can start here, at Part 1. Or if you just need to catch up, here’s a link to the most recent issue, Part 13
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In the spring of 1965 Mr. Lilly made his customary stop at Stack’s, reviewed what we had acquired for him, and set up a delivery at Eagle’s Nest. During that delivery we once again looked at his various collections and new additions. In fact he showed me, in his vault room, a set of solid gold tableware service for 12 that he had made for Mrs. Lilly for their 50th wedding anniversary. I left that afternoon with Mr. Lilly’s encouragement to continue working to keep the collection growing.
We spoke to each other over the following months and Mr. Lilly advised us of when he planned to stop in New York on his way to Florida for the winter. But about two weeks before he was to arrive, I got a call from his secretary advising that Mr. Lilly had delayed his trip, that he wasn’t feeling well, and that he would update me later as to his plans. After a month went by and we received no direct word from him, I spoke to his secretary, who advised that he was still not well and would probably cancel his winter trip to Florida. But, we were to continue getting more coins for his collection.
By the week before Christmas, Mr. Lilly’s secretary related that he was too weak to travel and would be canceling his trip. Before New Year’s I heard from him directly. He offered his holiday greetings and wanted to know how we were progressing. We spoke often during the early months of the 1966, and he seemed to be weaker each time.
Then, in mid-April, a call came from his secretary that he was well enough to have a visitor and asked if I could come to Indianapolis. She added that it was evident to her that he loved his gold coin collection and that he enjoyed visiting with coin people and with me when I came to visit. I was told that his doctors wanted all visits from family and friends to be limited to about a half hour. Of course I understood and agreed to follow any instructions. She arranged once again for my stay at the Indianapolis Athletic Club for the night before I was to see him, and that his chauffeur would pick me up about 8:30 in the morning to visit with him. All worked according to schedule.
However, this visit would be very different from all of my previous visits.
After he picked me up at the Athletic Club in the morning, the driver told me we would not be going to Eagle’s Nest as Mr. Lilly was at his home in town. I had never visited it, and had wondered about it. We drove through a lovely residential area of Indianapolis with large homes on large pieces of property; most were fenced or had shrubbery for privacy. We turned into a driveway with a stone arched entrance and onto an inner driveway, sheltered on each side by huge trees just starting to bloom. I learned that the house stood on 26 acres of wooded and flowering gardens. We must have driven a mile before we came to the house, It was fieldstone and brick and very large. To one side was a large greenhouse, where I learned that Mrs. Lilly grew prize-winning roses and other flowers. Gardening was one of her hobbies. In addition she was very involved with the various charities she worked with and supported.
We arrived at the front door, were greeted by a uniformed houseman and were ushered into the foyer, which opened up to the large living room. This room was surrounded by decorated windows that overlooked the gardens, and was furnished with period furniture with rare classical paintings on the walls. A curved staircase led to the upper floors. I felt I was in a museum or a castle and I was excited to have been invited there.
The houseman took my topcoat, and took me to the upper floor and showed me to Mr. Lilly’s bedroom. I found him there, sitting on the edge of the bed and he got up and greeted me with a warm smile. He said, “I am so happy that you made the trip, for I enjoy our time together discussing my collection.”
We moved to a small table with two chairs in his bedroom, and I laid out the coins I had brought with me. They included a number of Spanish American doubloons (the series that started his collection), both cobs and portrait issues; a group of hammered English and French gold coins; several coins of the Ancient world; ducat and double ducat issues of the early German States, and a few coins from China, Japan, and India.
Mr. Lilly examined each carefully, asked about some that were undated, and we discussed world numismatics.
“These will make fine additions to my collection,” he said. “I hope you will keep searching for more.”
Looking at my watch I realized I had to conclude my visit, as my stay was already a few minutes more than the half hour I had promised to spend. So I got up, shook his hand and thanked him for allowing Stack’s to build this outstanding collection with him. We bid each other goodbye, I wished him improved health, and I left.
The car was waiting for me. I stopped at the Club, picked up my bag, and was taken to the airport. Little did I know that I would not see Mr. Lilly again.
On May 5, 1966, Josiah K. Lilly passed away. The private funeral was for family only.
As I continue with more of this story, I will tell about how the Lilly Collection made its way to the Smithsonian Institution.