By Harvey Stack – Founder, Stack’s Bowers ……
In the late fall of 1951 Josiah K. Lilly stopped off at Stack’s on his way to Palm Beach for the winter (Mrs. Lilly liked to make the stop in New York to do her shopping and to rest from the first part of their trip).
We showed him what we had assembled: close to 100 different dates and mints of the various Central and South American issues. These were not easy to assemble, for as we searched, our dealer friends thought this was a good time to raise their prices. Stack’s became their own major competitor for these coins. During the summer we had sent out inquires to many dealers to get quotes and lists of what they had for sale. Of course, this information found its way to others as well and the demand made this a “hot series,” so up went the price.
So when we could, we bought pieces at reasonable prices, but we also refused to buy a goodly number at these inflated prices, for it was our obligation to our client to keep prices in line with the general market conditions, not an artificial surge in “demand.”
During Mr. Lilly’s visit he discussed the possible expansion of his collection, and at that time he told us that his strategy for collecting was to have a single agent for each of his hobbies. He learned that Stack’s was an agent for well-known collector Louis Eliasberg, who had built the only complete collection of United States gold, silver and copper coins. He learned that in 1941, as agent for Louis E. Eliasberg, Stack’s acquired and sold to Eliasberg the impressive Clapp Collection in a private sale. Similarly, Stack’s had been instrumental in building and selling many of the most important collections of the 1940s and had established itself as a very important, reliable, and knowledgeable dealer. For these reasons Mr. Lilly wanted the firm to act as his exclusive agent.
Mr. Lilly explained to us that he wanted a single representative (dealer), as he knew if he had a few, it might add up to competition as he might end up bidding against himself. He asked us to continue locating doubloons for him, and he would see us in the spring of 1952 to review what we had accomplished. We, of course, agreed to continue our search.
He asked what we would recommend to house his growing collection. We used felt lined trays divided in squares (measuring 2 inches x 2 inches each), with four openings across and eight down, housing 32 coins per tray. This allowed the standard 2 x 2 coin envelope to be placed in the opening with the coin exposed above.
Mr. Lilly liked the idea, and we refined our trays to house 24 coins each, six across and four down. These trays were to be housed in leather boxes, holding six trays, or a total of 144 coins (one gross) per box. This made handling and storage easy.
The coins could be stored by country and date, and when others were acquired he could move the coins around with each envelope marked with country, date, mint and other information. This simplified adding items to the collection and maintaining order. Mr. Lilly requested that we order six such boxes. As noted, he then promised to return on his way back to Indianapolis, to see our progress.
In the spring of 1952 Mr. Lilly visited Stack’s to review what we had shown him earlier and to examine other coins we had assembled for him. He also discussed naval history and the explorations made by nations other than Spain during the 15th through 19th centuries. He was fascinated by the story that developed as the ships traveled west across the Atlantic. He asked what kind of coinage did countries like England, France, Portugal and Italy make from the gold they assembled trading between Europe and the Americas.
We showed him examples from each country, as Stack’s always maintained a good representation of world coins on hand, and he examined them and said he would be in touch to let us know how he wished to proceed.
Late in May of that year he contacted us, asking if we could hand-deliver what we had already acquired for him and bring along the group of English and French coins we had shown him. Since the shipment was quite valuable I accompanied my father, Morton, on the trip.
Mr. Lilly’s secretary called, suggested the flight we should take, made reservations for us at the Indianapolis Athletic Club, made dinner reservations and advised that Mr. Lilly’s driver would pick us up the following morning at 8:30 AM and take us to see Mr. Lilly. She also arranged for a late afternoon flight back to New York.
Like clockwork we were met in the Club’s lobby, escorted to a Rolls Royce and taken to see Mr. Lilly. We knew that he lived with his wife in a residential park-like area in downtown Indianapolis that bore the name “Oldfields“. However, we noticed that we were being driven out of town. The chauffeur explained that Mr. Lilly had a personal retreat on the outskirts of Indianapolis and we would meet with him there.
As we drove, we saw a large forest, and the driver announced that we were about to enter the 5,000-acre forest preserve in which Mr. Lilly built his retreat — “Eagle’s Nest”.
It was beautiful, with stately trees and well-kept grounds. A few miles into the forest we came to buildings made of natural Indiana stone in a clearing within the forest – the site of Eagle’s Nest. One large building, we were told, was the Guest House, used by family and friends who stayed on the location for lengthy periods of time. The other immense building was Mr. Lilly’s retreat, magnificently designed and with several giant matching pine trees near the driveway.
Mr. Lilly greeted us at the door, welcomed us to “Hobby House” at Eagle’s Nest, and gave us a brief, instructive tour. He talked of his hobbies, which now included collecting gold coins, Revolutionary Rifles and other armament, stamps, seascape paintings, (some he painted himself), uncut diamonds and rare colored stones. He was also very proud of his library, located in a separate wing and containing many of the rarest volumes of English and American literature in private hands–from Shakespeare to the early 20th century–together with maps and manuscripts. He had a magnificent collection of lead toy soldiers (some 5,000 pieces) in cases about his large display rooms.
Josiah K Lilly was a dedicated collector, who enjoyed his hobbies and devoted time to studying about them. Now we became part of this collector’s love of collecting as we delivered the gold coins we had found for him, and worked with him to arrange them in the many trays we had ordered to house his new hobby.
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