By Harvey Stack – Founder, Stack’s Bowers ……
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After making our delivery of United States and foreign gold coins to Mr. Josiah K. Lilly in the spring of 1956, I discussed ways of making his collection grow. He now had an almost complete collection of United States federal gold coins, as it was complete in the $1, $2.50, $3 (not including the 1870-S), $4, and virtually complete in the $5, $10 and $20. We discussed whether we could complete the United States gold series, and the chances of doing so.
I explained that, in my opinion, the few missing coins would be available within a few years, when some other major sets or collections were marketed. The main two coins that he still needed were the 1870-S $3 gold (at the time part of the Eliasberg Collection) and the 1822 $5 gold. I felt that since Amon Carter, Sr.–who had an 1822 $5–had died, that was the most likely one that could be acquired. That collector’s son, Amon Carter, Jr., liked paper money more than the coins and had indicated to us that sometime in the future the 1822 might be made available. But he never set a time for it.
Mr. Lilly said, “Rome wasn’t built in a day, neither will my collection be!”
We discussed various other areas, such as Ancient gold coins and the extensive medieval series. Mr. Lilly asked that I prepare an outline and listing of how he should continue, and that we continue seeking more Spanish American gold coins, along with the few U.S. pieces needed to finish his set. He also asked us to work on expanding his English and French coin collections.
Mr. Lilly remarked that in the past five years he had assembled close to 2,000 different gold coins and that he had enjoyed owning these examples of monetary history of the world.
Over the summer and early fall of 1956, we surveyed the market and kept in weekly contact with Mr. Lilly. We made suggestions and of course answered the many questions that he had. It was a wonderful and very enjoyable challenge to be part of this great endeavor.
In early spring 1957, Mr. Lilly visited us to review what we had proposed and set a date to make the delivery to him in Indianapolis. Using our customary program, I arrived on an evening in May in Indianapolis and was picked up as usual at 8:30 and went directly to Eagle’s Nest to deliver the coins we had assembled.
Mr. Lilly was pleased with what we had amassed and we discussed the various collections. I expressed how honored we were to be his sole dealer. We told him of the dealers we worked with. Often these dealers (as well as collectors) asked us, “Who is your client?” We of course kept it a secret, for Mr. Lilly wanted to keep private what he was doing, and we followed his instructions to the letter. We even had a story we used for a few dealers who made special efforts to assist us, telling them that we had several different clients: one who liked doubloons, another who like United States gold, another who collected Ancients, another who liked England and France, etc. It may seem a fantastic story, but it was believed, even though our want lists showed various forms of specialization.
We did the same for other clients who desired anonymity. We kept their secrets and in that way kept the confidence of the collectors we dealt with.
During his late fall 1957 visit to Stack’s, while on his way to Florida, we reviewed some of the ideas we had. We had a set of the 12 Caesars in gold, a few Ancient Greek gold coins, as well as a Daric, issued in the 7th century BCE (an example of the first gold coin), a few Byzantine and early Medieval specimens, as well as another group of Spanish American doubloons.
We reviewed the material, set a program for expansion of the collection, and Mr. Lilly left us for his winter in Florida. We worked all fall and winter of 1957, and on into the early winter and spring of 1958, continuing our quest to expand the J.K. Lilly Collection into a world-class cabinet.
The collection was growing in size each year. During his customary stop in New York in the spring of 1958 we suggested that he expand into the Pioneer and Territorial series. He said he would like to see examples of coins in this specialty to get an idea of what that expansion would entail.
We had in stock a few Bechtler coins, two octagonal slugs ($50) of the U.S. Assay Office, and a few other California pieces. We had a general discussion with Mr. Lilly about the California Gold Rush and other gold discoveries in the American West. We also talked about the coins issued in California, Colorado, Oregon and Utah. Mr. Lilly knew about the series as he had read about them, making use of his massive library at Eagle’s Nest that included many volumes about the early West. He decided that we should start assembling Pioneer and Territorial gold coins to add to his collection. He left shortly after we had arranged a delivery visit in May.
That spring we reached out to dealers around the country to see what coins in the Pioneer and Territorial series were available at fair market prices.
We first contacted George Walton, who was both a collector and a dealer. Being from the Carolinas he traveled as a bank examiner into the hills of Georgia and the Carolinas. He visited numerous banks in those areas, and purchased from the banks a huge assortment of Bechtler coins. We acquired from him a number of these of various denominations and varieties.
From James and Co. in Virginia, we got a few $50 slugs.
From F.K. Saab of St. Louis came a few slugs and Mormon pieces.
From Dan Brown in Denver we found items made by Clark Gruber and from R. Green of Chicago we were able to acquire a few scarce California gold pieces.
From the F.C.C. Boyd Estate we got Wass, Molitor and Kellogg round slugs, and we picked up a few other nice pieces at coin shows we attended during that period. Just like that we had the basis of a collection for Mr. Lilly to examine, study and acquire. We knew where to look and were able to make some advantageous acquisitions. I took these pieces with me on my next delivery trip.
My arrival in early May kept to our usual schedule. I arrived at Eagle’s Nest, was greeted by Mr. Lilly and went straight to his “Hobby House.” We reviewed the coins I brought, the French and English pieces, other European issues, and of course the Ancient Greek and Roman coins he had seen in the office. He admired the artistry of the Ancient coins, and expressed his amazement at what was produced under relatively primitive conditions. He asked that I continue to search for Greek and Roman issues so his collection would reflect the beginnings of gold coinage in the Ancient world.
In addition we reviewed the Pioneer and Territorial coins I had brought with me, and again Mr. Lilly was amazed, considering the primitive conditions in California and the rest of the West, that such designs and coins could be created, assayed and weigh correctly. He asked that we continue to find other pieces as examples of the economic conditions that developed in the West in its formative days.
In addition, since his collection now exceeded 4,000 different coins of the world (with a virtually complete set of the United States gold from 1795 to 1933), he felt that we could expand the collection to the gold coinage of the entire world. Since initially we were only assembling the largest denominations, (i.e., Doubloons), he wanted us to add the lower denominations that played major roles in the world’s commerce.
After spending the morning reviewing the coins I had brought with me and placing them in their appropriate cases for storage we sat down to lunch and we had the chance to discuss his various other hobbies. Then, after lunch, Mr. Lilly showed me around all the rooms in his “Hobby House”. What I saw and handled amazed me even more than on my earlier visits.
Next time I will describe some of Mr. Lilly’s other hobbies and how he worked to amass his fabulous collections.
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