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Building a World Class Numismatic Gold Coin Collection: The Josiah K. Lilly Collection, Pt. 1


By Harvey StackFounder, Stack’s Bowers ……
In my early years of working full time at Stack’s in New York, I had the privilege of meeting and serving many of the great collectors who lived near the city, as well as many who came to visit or work in New York. The Big Apple was and still is a major attraction for collectors who lived, worked or visited the metropolitan area and Stack’s was a great place to meet with friends and collectors as they assembled their numismatic collections.

Many of the auctions held by Stack’s and the other auction houses in New York attracted collectors from the City’s five boroughs and surrounding areas such as Long Island, Westchester, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut. In addition, people would travel long distances to New York for important sales. The greater New York area was a hub of many of the collectors whose names today are legendary. The city was a center of art and culture and was home to the American Numismatic Society and its major numismatic museum, and a dozen or more coin clubs were centered in or about New York.

The Stack’s shop, as I related in earlier writings, became a “club house” for numismatists and attracted those who visited the city.

For a young person just learning the ropes, it created an incredible opportunity. My experience being acquainted with and learning from these great numismatists was extensive and I was the beneficiary of information from some of the greatest specialists in the United States.

In the spring of 1951, a well-dressed, debonair gentleman came into our shop. He wanted to know if we had any doubloons from Central and South America to show him. Stack’s always maintained a vast and diverse inventory and we took out a few Spanish Colonial gold coins to show him. He introduced himself as Josiah K. Lilly, the chairman of his family’s pharmaceutical business, Eli Lilly and Company, headquartered in Indianapolis. He explained he had a passion to learn more about the coins that gained their fame during Spanish Colonial days. The coin that was most talked about was the ‘”doubloon,” or 8 Escudos.

My father, Morton Stack, and my uncle, Joseph B. Stack, were working at the counter that day and began showing J.K. Lilly gold doubloons that we had in stock. These included the somewhat crude early issues, known as cobs due to their somewhat irregular shape. Lilly also examined the various portraits of Spanish kings that appeared on the later issues.

Morton and Joseph advised Mr. Lilly that these coins were made and struck in various South American countries, identified by the mintmark on them, and also the assayer’s initials, which gave assurance that the fineness of the gold and weight were verified and therefore official. It was discussed how these were used in trade and also to pay the troops who occupied and ran the countries occupied by the Spanish.

However, at least 20% of all the gold mined was sent back to Spain as compensation to the King who helped finance the expeditions. That portion of the gold was called “The Royal Fifth”, and these shipments were a great temptation to pirates of the day. Many treasure ships were captured, looted and sunk during this period of Spanish domination of the Western Hemisphere.

These were the coins that Josiah K. Lilly desired. They proved to him that gold coins were actually minted and then plundered by the pirates — here was the evidence.

From Stack’s stock at the time, we gathered for him 12 different pieces, some from different mints of Central and South America, a cob or two, and for the balance, pieces with the portraits of the various kings of Spain. J.K. Lilly was amazed with what we were able to show him, and he decided to purchase all 12 to start his collection. My father and uncle introduced me to him. I was the only junior Stack in Stack’s at the time, as my cousin Benjamin had left to try his luck in Las Vegas, and Norman, his brother, was in military service. Later on, since J.K. Lilly liked personal deliveries to Indianapolis, I became the appointed messenger to him, whenever either senior Stack could not make the trip.

We gave J.K. Lilly some books on the subject of Spanish American Coins we had, and the one of most importance at the time was the book compiled and written by Wayte Raymond called Gold Coins of Central and South America. This book proved to be invaluable to anyone who needed information about coins issued from each country in the Spanish Colonial era. It had a detailed tabulated listing of all the known denominations and dates, from the 8 Escudos (doubloon) down to the 1 Escudo.

After scanning the book, Mr. Lilly was amazed how many different pieces were made, as well as how skillfully they were produced. He thanked us for our help and information as well as the coins we found for him, and told us we would hear further from him after he reviewed his purchases and studied the information in the books. Within a few weeks after his initial visit, we received a phone call from Mr. Lilly. He expressed his appreciation for the time and assistance we offered during his visit, and for the books and literature we provided. He let us know he was fascinated by the coins and asked us to find more for him. He wanted to expand his Doubloon collection with different dates and mintmarks, and see how many more we could assemble for him.

Mr. Lilly concluded, after reviewing the Raymond reference text and tabulation, that there were close to 500 different dates and mints originally struck, and that he would be willing to expand his collection by another 75 or 100 pieces. He asked if we could do it. We, of course, said we would do our best, and also try to keep the prices within an acceptable range. He thanked us and let us know that he would be back in New York in the fall on his way to Palm Beach. Our response was to assure him that as a valued customer we would work diligently on his project to find the coins he wished to add to his collection.

The task was before us, and we enjoyed the challenge.

Stack's Bowers
Stack's Bowers
Stack's Bowers Galleries conducts live, internet, and specialized auctions of rare U.S. and world coins and currency and ancient coins, as well as direct sales through retail and wholesale channels. The company's 90-year legacy includes the cataloging and sale of many of the most valuable United States coin and currency collections to ever cross an auction block — The D. Brent Pogue Collection, The John J. Ford, Jr. Collection, The Louis E. Eliasberg, Sr. Collection, The Harry W. Bass, Jr. Collection, The Joel R. Anderson Collection, The Norweb Collection, The Cardinal Collection, The Sydney F. Martin Collection, and The Battle Born Collection — to name just a few. World coin and currency collections include The Pinnacle Collection, The Louis E. Eliasberg, Sr. Collection of World Gold Coins, The Kroisos Collection, The Alicia and Sidney Belzberg Collection, The Salton Collection, The Wa She Wong Collection, and The Thos. H. Law Collection. The company is headquartered in Costa Mesa, California with galleries in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia. Offices are also located in New Hampshire, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Virginia, Hong Kong, Paris, and Vancouver.

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  1. Wonderful remininsence about the beginning of one of the great collections of the 20th century. Thank you Mr. Stack.


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