HomePeopleA Crown and Taler Man, Reflections on Dr. John S. Davenport

A Crown and Taler Man, Reflections on Dr. John S. Davenport

By David Thomason Alexander for CoinWeek….

Rarely does a single individual become identified so completely with any area of numismatics as did Dr. John S. Davenport (1907-2001). Over a period of more than 50 years, his name became synonymous with the world of large-size silver coins, generally referred to as crowns and talers.

“Crowns” in this usage referred to silver coins of 38 millimeters or larger diameter, although crown was also a specific denomination in the coinage of several countries. “Taler” is the modern (post-1873) spelling of the German “thaler,” a nickname first applied to the large silver coins struck by the Counts of Schlick in Joachimsthal, Valley of Joachim, Bohemia in 1517.

Dr. John S. Davenport (1907-2001)

An educator of note with a distinguished career as professor of English literature, Davenport was born in Buffalo, N.Y. He received his Bachelor’s degree from Cornell in 1928; his Master’s from Harvard the following year and completed his Doctorate at North Carolina in 1934. Most of his teaching career was spent at Knox College in Galesburg, IL.

Davenport began collecting coins in 1921 and carried on until his death 80 years later. Collecting of what were then called “foreign coins” was then in its infancy in the U.S. No comprehensive or specialized catalogs were available, but crowns and talers were a natural as a distinct collecting area.

Centuries before numismatics became a popular hobby, European nobility and members of royal houses pursued these large coins with zest. In the chaotic jigsaw puzzle of the pre-1800 German States, dozens of kings, grand dukes, dukes, princes, counts, barons and free cities issued talers along with a parallel roster of what German historians called “spiritual lords,” ruling bishops and abbots of major monasteries.

German numismatists had published multi-volume taler catalogs in the 1700’s, which are sometimes still cited today, but such historic references as Madai and Schulthess-Rechberg were already major rarities in their own right in the 1920’s. There were no such pioneer volumes of world crowns, so the frustrated Davenport soon set out to create them.

This has happened in many areas of numismatic study; recall Dr, William H. Sheldon launching his far-reaching research and cataloging of U.S. Large Cents. In his first published compendium Sheldon famously stated that he compiled it because when he needed it, it wasn’t there!

Some of Davenport’s first cataloging appeared as articles in the American Numismatic Association’s journal The Numismatist and in Lee F. Hewitt’s Numismatic Scrapbook Magazine during the 1940’s. He found it possible to begin explorations of such clearly defined series as crowns of Swiss Cantons and cities during World War II, when paper shortages made publishing new books nearly impossible.

The first volume in a series of nine of similar size and format appeared in 1947, European Crowns since 1800, bearing the imprint of Foster & Stewart, Buffalo, N.Y. Within its 9¼ x 6½-inch purple-pebbled hard covers were 194 pages covering coins from Albania through Yugoslavia, plus appendices providing translations of hundreds of coin inscriptions and a detailed bibliography.

Though generally seen as separate volumes, Davenport looked upon his crown and taler books as a continuous record, ultimately assigning “Davenport numbers” to talers (1 through 10,063) and crowns (1 through 8,899). There were also some additional volumes that did not form part of this connected record, which will be noted below.

crowns1949German Talers since 1800 appeared next in 1949, a grey-pebbled hard cover book of nearly identical size, printed by Airport Publishers Division of William J. Keller Inc, Buffalo. Both books had “Valuation” sheets inserted giving prices for the coins cataloged, prices sure to amaze the 21st century reader.

I particularly craved the European Crowns book but got the taler volume first in 1955 for $5 retail at Leo S. McGranahan’s Royal Palm Coin Co. in Miami’s Seybold Arcade. William Fox Steinberg’s Miami Rare Coin Co. had the Crowns reference in his store on Biscayne Boulevard but I was not able to buy it.

The numismatic world offers incredible networking. Though I failed to obtain the European Crowns book in the 1950’s, it came to me in the 1990’s as a gift of the later Seymour Pike. Seymour was a lifetime New York dealer whose store in downtown Brooklyn in 1956 had a fantastic five-cent “junk box.” Forty years later he was active as a “schlepper” for New York dealers and a frequent visitor to Stack’s.

One day Seymour dropped in at West 57th to announce that he was moving in with his girlfriend (at age 93!) and was liquidating much of his library, “I want you to have this,” handing me the European Crowns reference, which he bought from Stack’s when they were located at 12 West 46th Street years before. Everybody was in the act with this single, well-used volume!

My brother and I became acquainted with Davenport in 1953 at meetings of the Miami Coin Club, of which he was a founding member. He was an affable, nattily dressed gentleman of medium height with a pencil-thin mustache and always carried an elegant, Franklin D. Roosevelt-style ebony cigarette holder.

Over the decades we met at ANA conventions, and in the early 1970’s we switched residential locations. I moved from Miami to Sidney, OH in early 1974 just after Davenport retired and moved to Coral Gables, FL. A last Miami assignment was arranging for him to speak before the prestigious Friends of the University of Miami Library.

I nominated Davenport for honorary life membership in the Numismatic Literary Guild (NLG) during the 1980’s, startled to find that he was now using a pharyngeal speech device after a lifetime of cigarette smoking.

I drove into Galesburg in February 1984 from Des Moines to pick up someone’s collection of U.S. coins, sets and commems still in their original mailings. Galesburg proved to be a typical small Midwestern city in the grip of winter and I was haunted by memories of John S. Davenport.

Knowing the author over the decades lent a personal note to trying to complete my set of his catalogs. I am sure that someone has a complete book-by-book, edition-by- edition listing of Davenport titles, but the following is a list of his books in my library. They are presented in chronological order of the coins included, NOT in order of publication, and I am sure the list is far from complete.

German Taler titles:

German Talers, 1500-1600. Dark blue, silver-stamped covers, 1979. German Church and City Talers 1600-1700. Second edition, black silver-stamped covers, 1975.
German Secular Talers, 1600-1700. Gray silver-stamped covers, 1976.
German Talers, 1700-1800. Gray, black imprint covers, 1958, printed by Hewitt, Chicago.
German Talers, 1700-1800. Red silver-stamped covers, 1965, Spink & Son, London.
German Talers since 1800. Gray pebbled covers, black imprint, 1949.
German Talers since 1800. Second edition, 1964. Red silver-stamped covers, Spink & Son, London.

Related German title:

Silver Gulden 1559-1763. Deep green, silver-stamped covers, 1991. Printed in Germany, listing Coral Gables, Florida as author’s home base. This is Davenport’s only book on coins smaller than a taler, listing pieces of ⅔ taler, 60 kreuzer, 24 mariengroschen, 16 gute groschen and kindred.

European Crown titles:

European Crowns, 1484-1600. Deep red, silver-stamped covers, 1977. Printed in Germany.
European Crowns, 1600-1700. Dark red pebbled, silver-stamped covers, 1974. Printed by Hewitt, Chicago.
European Crowns, 1700-1800. Deep red, silver-stamped covers, 1961. Printed by Hewitt, Chicago.
(Dual volume) European Crowns and Talers, 1700-1800. Red silver-stamped covers, 1964, Spink & Son, London.
European Crowns, since 1800. Purple pebbled silver-stamped covers, 1947.

Oversize Crowns and Talers:

Oversize Multiple Talers of the Brunswick Duchies and Saxe-Lauenburg. 11 ¼ x 8 ¼ inches, dusty red silver-stamped hard covers. 400 copies printed in Germany, 1956. The preface was contributed by Henry Grunthal, late numismatic scholar and dealer, sometime ANS curator. Valuations were provided by Mark M. Salton, European scholar, member of the great German-Jewish Schlessinger dynasty of numismatists. A rarity today, this Davenport effort explored the fabulous realm of the huge multiple taler coins of 1568-1704.

Large Size Silver Coins of the World, 16th – 19th Centuries. Called third edition. 1991. Edited and revised by Edward D. Milas and Carl Subak, Krause Publications, 1991. 11 ¼ x 8 ¼ inches, smooth deep red silver-stamped hard covers with full-color multiple taler of Duke Julius of Brunswick on the front cover. This book represents a meeting of Davenport and Krause, using glossy stock and many new black and white illustrations. Added are coins of such countries as the Italian states, Britain under Charles I, and the overseas realms of Annam and Brazil.

Additional oddments:

The Dollars of Africa, Asia & Oceania. Galesburg, 1969. Silver, blue-stamped covers. Extended the Davenport system to all but Latin American crowns, here incongruously called “dollars.”

The Talers of the Austrian Noble Houses. Blue-cover 64-page paperback, Organization of International Numismatists, 1972. Hewitt, 1972. OIN was an ill-fated group, conceived with the high purpose of being the world coin “section of the ANA,” distinct from what the late ANA Governor Byron Johnson called “splinter groups.” After a well-publicized start, OIN faded and dissolved amid internecine fighting that included an election made memorable by mailing of numerous counterfeit ballots.

Standard Price Guide to World Crowns & Talers 1484-1968. By Frank Draskovic and Stuart Rubenfeld, edited by Colin Bruce II, Krause Publications, 9 x 6-inch paperback, 1981, 1984. The appearance of the first volume The Standard Catalog of World Coins in 1972 changed the face of world numismatics forever. The massive “Telephone Books” have placed a vast amount of data in collectors’ hands but eclipsed the kind of in-depth and definitive cataloging personified by John S. Davenport.

“It’s all in Krause” became the word of the day, but collectors specializing in crowns would have to leaf through thousands of bare-bones listings to find their specialty. The Draskovic-Rubenfeld guides were incredibly useful and many knowledgeable dealers cheerfully helped with listings, updates and pricing. After the second edition, they were curtly dismissed and the title was discontinued to the great loss of collectors everywhere.

John S. Davenport is remembered around the world for his dedicated research and cataloging. He was a great influence on me and my collecting activities and his books, still sought-after by true collectors will guarantee that he is not forgotten.

David Alexander
David Alexander
David Alexander has been an avid coin enthusiast since the age of nine. He has spent most of his professional life immersed in numismatics, writing for Coin World for several decades, and is an expert cataloger with a specialty in world coins and medals. A Life Member of the American Numismatic Association (ANA), Alexander has received numerous accolades over the course of his career, including the ANA's Glenn B. Smedley Award and the Silver Medal of Merit. In 2013, Alexander was named ANA Numismatist of the Year. Alexander is also the founder of the Medal Collectors of America and is a Fellow of the American Numismatic Society (ANS).

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