By Harvey Stack – Founder, Stack’s Bowers ……
I want to stress to the reader that Josiah K. Lilly was an extraordinary collector. He did not collect just one type of coin or object of art, but was a man who desired to assemble a variety of items and make those collections as complete as he could. He had an insatiable desire to amass great historical collections that would illustrate the history of the periods he was interested in, both in America, as well as worldwide.
He loved research and developed a library of great renown. He gathered collections of things rarely seen in one place with the goal of having his collections relate to the economic and historical growth of the world.
As you know, from the beginning of his interest in Spanish American Gold Doubloons during his first visit to Stack’s in New York, he wanted to own money from before the American Revolution, that was part of the economic growth of our country. This interest led to Mr. Lilly’s gathering United States gold coins and resulted in collections that were virtually complete. As his interest in gold and its place in history grew, he began to accumulate Ancient Greek, Roman and Byzantine coins, through to pieces from the Medieval and Renaissance eras, right up to those of America in 1933. These pieces told a story for him and confirmed the role gold coins played in worldwide commerce as the economics of the world changed.
Mr. Lilly’s interest in history fostered an interest in rare books and manuscripts and a desire to retain the printed word for future reference and study. Many volumes in his collection were first or unique editions. He started with early copies of both English and American interest. During my first visit to the Eagle’s Nest, I saw a huge wing on the building and learned that was where his library was housed.
Though we talked about the library during a number of my visits, it was not until about 1954 that I had the privilege of venturing into that wing. It was behind a steel safe-type door, perfectly insulated against heat and moisture, to preserve the books and manuscripts. He loved these collectibles, and each volume was housed in special library boxes, labeled on the exterior. The first volumes I saw were the “first editions” of William Shakespeare, and then I saw and held a Gutenberg Bible, the Audubon original folios, the original works of Edgar Allen Poe, and original works of Mark Twain, to mention but a few. In addition I saw Albrecht Durer’s Apocalypse and the first edition of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales printed in the 1470s. Among more modern works he had original Ian Fleming books and manuscripts.
Among the document files I saw the letter from George Washington accepting the Presidency of the United States, and a copy of the Declaration of Independence from John Hancock. There were also old and important maps, including an Ancient hand-painted map.
Housed in the library were some 20,000 books plus 17,000 manuscripts. Just to be able to walk through and see these great treasures was an experience I could never forget.
In 1960, the Lilly Foundation built a magnificent library at Indiana University in Bloomington, and it was to this facility that Mr. Lilly donated his collection. It is named The Lilly Library and is one of the most important collections of books and documents in America.
After we left the Library Wing at Eagle’s Nest I had the opportunity once again to look at the other items he had studied and collected. In special cases on the wall there was an impressive collection of rifles, and other fighting implements like swords and bayonets, all from the Revolutionary period in America. All were is superb condition and could, according to Mr. Lilly, be used, if you knew how to load them. He also showed me some magnificent seascapes, as he loved the lore of the sea.
Mr. Lilly had collected postage stamps through the years, a collection he started after buying a stamp album and a large assortment of stamps for his grandson and working together with him to mount them in the albums. He later developed a major stamp collection of the United States, which had as its highlight a mint perfect example of the 24¢ Inverted Jenny (the stamp was printed with the airplane upside down). When the collection was sold in later years it took seven full auction catalogs to present them! It was indeed a major collection, and a perfect example of how much time and effort he spent on his hobbies.
He also wanted to own some precious stones, and he displayed to me a wonderful array of diamonds, emeralds, rubies, and other colored stones, in various sizes and shapes. Of these items he said, “These are really Mrs. Lilly’s.”
The most outstanding collection he built (although not as valuable as some of his other accumulations) was his collection of lead soldiers.
Mr. Lilly traced American military units from the era of the Green Mountain Boys (pre-revolutionary) up to World War I. He was interested in the uniforms each company or regiment wore and researched their dress. He had small groupings of five to seven of each company, cast to order by the foremost artist of military dress who worked in Philadelphia and confirmed along with Mr. Lilly the actual uniforms for each grouping.
Once they were cast, each was hand painted. A group would include a Captain, the officer under him, a foot soldier, a drummer, and a flag bearer. Sometimes they would add the bugler or major officer as appropriate. The total number of lead soldiers on display was approximately 5,000. Regiments from the different states varied from each other, especially during the Civil War. The North wore blue but the ornamentation varied, making the uniforms and decorations different yet similar. The South wore gray and their uniforms also differed from regiment to regiment, state to state. With several hundred different regiments coming to battle from both sides, each from the locality of town, city, and state, the uniforms, though the same basic color for each side, differed. Therefore, Mr. Lilly, being a true collector, wanted them all to be correct, so he studied the designs of each set and the caster of the lead soldiers followed through. He also had examples of the Navy and Marines of each period, with distinctive uniforms of their own. Hence, 5,000 soldiers, lead soldiers on display!
Visiting with Mr. Lilly at Eagle’s Nest and seeing his collections confirmed to me how a dedicated collector approaches his hobbies. Mr. Lilly’s approach was simple: assemble the best you can, set your goals, get the knowledge you need and take advantage of the experience and expertise of others. The result is then a fine, well-built collection that can someday be passed on to family members, an institution of learning, or be sold at auction by a reputable auction house, perhaps a firm that assisted in building the collections.
To me, Mr. Josiah K. Lilly was a man with a purpose, who made himself remembered in numismatics, philately, and the collecting of rare book and documents, early colonial rifles, great pieces of art and statuary, and left a legacy for the future to study and enjoy. In my next article I will continue with the story of J.K. Lilly’s amazing collection and how Stack’s continued to serve him.