By Harvey Stack – Co-Founder, Stack’s Bowers Galleries …..
* * *
The Postwar Years
World War II came to an end in 1945. It brought home many a soldier, sailor, airman and marine, away from their families for as long as five years. They had to rebuild their lives in a peace-time environment, and try to get back to their jobs and, if they could, their hobbies.
Among those who served in the Armed Forces from Stack’s was John J.Ford , Jr., U.S. Army Intelligence; Cornelius Vermeule Army finance specialist who was in Japan inventorying their money as he was fluent in Japanese; and Commander James C. Risk, U.S. naval attache to Russia. We also gained back Henry Grunthal, who immigrated to the United States after the war.
The above were but a few specialists who became once again part of Stack’s, as we found that the postwar era attracted more collectors to the hobby.
In order to produce the many sales catalogs that we did in 1945 and the years that followed through 1949, we needed good research staff, and we wanted to be able to sell equally in building, buying and selling collections in order to properly conduct our business.
By 1946, as I mentioned earlier, Ben, Norman and myself were “drafted” by our folks to make ourselves available any day we were not getting our schooling.
Ben finished school a year earlier and became part of the Stack’s over-the-counter staff. In 1947, both Norman and I were given similar positions in the firm. We were all very lucky that the atmosphere that our fathers had created brought to us in the shop some of the most advanced collectors in the city, who not only came to try to enhance their collections by buying “something new” we might have acquired, but were also very generous with what they knew and had researched earlier. It was an extension of “going to school” while working to learn about numismatics and the art of collecting.
So the “three young Stacks”, as we were called in the shop, started to become professional numismatists who had a grounding in coins, from ancients to modern world coins and the entire United States series in all metals, and currency. Specialists, starting with our parents and those they employed, provided the best “schooling” a developing numismatist could have. We three were lucky.
As we became involved with the buying and selling of coins, we had unique opportunities to see many of the greatest rarities as well as outstanding collections.
Of course, our growing public coin auctions, usually conducted once a month (no summers), added to our understanding of grading and valuing coins.
During this period, Stack’s continued to sell from the Proskey collection, and sold from the James A. Stack (no relative) collection, James Flannigan coins, plus many more famous names like J.F. Bell (whose son later was Rarcoa of Chicago). George H. Hall, Charles Deetz, Theodore Grand, and duplicates from the Louis E. Eliasberg Collection, which we sold to him in 1941, which was pedigreed with the initials and name with a non-doubloon H.R. LEE, the first two initials was Eliasberg’s wife maiden initials, and LEE was for Louis E. Eliasberg.
The postwar period at Stack’s was hectic, replete with both learning and work.
Both of our fathers put in seven days and many a night a week working to be of continuous service to the collectors who sought out the firm. So other than night college courses, the three young Stacks were there helping with all the details of a professional numismatist.
By 1950, we in the coin business had witnessed many changes. The postwar period brought many coins from overseas to our shores. Servicemen who were in the war returned home with packages and, in some cases, duffle bags full of coins from all over the world. Surely those of silver and gold had intrinsic value, and those of obvious scarcity and rarity had more value. So in a few years the market here in America was flush with coins from all ages, ancient to modern times. Many ended up in collections which were sold at Public Auction.
Mint Issues Commemorative Half Dollars and Proof Sets Once Again
Another phenomenon occurred. The U.S. Mint made several new COMMEMORATIVES. One was for the State of Iowa in 1946, and this new entry–the first commemorative struck since 1939–spurred a collecting interest in commemorative half dollars, 47 different ones struck from 1892 to 1939, and collectors flocked to get them to add to their sets. Also in 1946 to 1951 a series of commemorative half dollars honoring Booker T. Washington, was struck each year at all three branch mints, and in 1951 a series was struck for Carver-Washington, also at the three branch mints; this series was issued until 1954. Again, the more designs offered the more the interest grew. So in the early days of the 1950s the interest in commemorative coins flourished and grew in value.
In addition to the new commemoratives, the Mint decided to start issuing (because the collector loved them) PROOF SETS starting in 1950. One coin of each denomination, from the cent to the half dollar, was issued. The collector who loved to have specimen or special coins for their collections bought the new issues. Some of the sets were kept with the series of Proofs the Mint issued from 1936 to 1942, and then because of the war effort none were struck again until 1950 so the collector had another stimulant to seek. The new sets were sold at $2.10 each that included 91 cents face value. Reasonably priced, for sure!!!
Also starting in 1946, to commemorate Franklin Delano Roosevelt the U.S. Mint started to issue a newly designed dime. These became favorites of new collectors who sought them out in change. The same thing occurred with the Benjamin Franklin Half Dollar, which was issued starting in 1948, struck in all three mints, this was as with the Roosevelt Dime a great series to start, because one could begin the first year these were issued.
All of the above contributed to the interest and desire to own and collect coins once again. Of course the country’s economy had gotten better post war, and this also encouraged numerous new collectors to enter the field.
Which naturally put higher demand for service on the staff at Stack’s and we thusly had to stretch to serve our new customers. Many a collector, when he had the time (mostly on weekends) came to Stack’s to help sort our coins, catalog them, and also learn more about what they were interested in.
To give you an idea of how varied the demands were of the business, Joseph, who hated to drive a car, got Norman to drive them to visit a old bank in Bridgeton, New Jersey, to go over some coins they said they had from the early days of the bank, which was established in 1830. When they arrived at the bank they were shown a number of bags of silver coins that according to the banker had been there since 1836 or so. When they opened each bag they found hoards of early Half Dollars dated before 1837 when the design was modified, the edges milled, (rather than lettered) and the weight of the coin was reduced.
The bankers in 1837, feeling that the earlier issues might melt for more than those from 1837 on, decided to save all that came in, possibly for a future profit. Joe and Norman bought over 10,000 specimens from the banker, as the numismatic value in 1950 was greater than the silver content by a good margin. So they paid the banker, thanked him for calling us, and the two drove back to New York, where we looked at the hoard and were amazed.
In order to really figure out what exactly they had bought, the Half Dollars were sorted first by date and then by grade and obvious varieties, each placed in a 2 x 2 envelop with date and grade on the outside. We started to offer these for sale, in our price lists and at our auction sales. No one who became aware how many we had could believe it. It was a great numismatic find.
Al Overton, a dealer, collector and author, visited Stack’s a number of times to review the issues prior to 1836 and recorded many of the varieties that showed up in our Early Half Dollar Hoard. He later included these in his book on Early Half Dollars from 1794 to 1836.
Other Authors and Collectors Who Helped Us
For example, Dr. William Sheldon, the dean of Large Cents at the time, used our inventory, our offices and our collections in order to make a condition census (how many of a highest-grade known of each date and variety might exist) and worked with my father Morton to write his first book, Early American Cents: 1793-1814. It was first published in 1949 and quickly became the bible of Early American Cents.
Therefore with all the activity in the coin market that manifested itself in the early 1950s, plus the major sales we had for public auction, the staff and all five Stacks at the time kept us busy.
Among the Stack Family the work was divided. Morton was our chief cataloguer, and he started to train Norman to follow his work. Joseph was really our “Man on the Road”, for he traveled endlessly from city to city, town to town, East and West and North and South, meeting and working with, buying and taking on consignments from collectors he knew and served nationwide. Joe trained his son Ben to also go on the road and Ben liked doing it. I ended up as a coordinator, manager and personal pacifier in the shop, and I met and served many a collector–young and old, with a few dollars or virtually unlimited funds–to build collections, hoping always that when the collector decided to sell he would think of “Stack’s”.
Of course, each of the “young Stacks” was involved with the chores of the others, each one traveling, each attending shows, each one cataloging, each manning the counter and stocking coins, working together to make things happen.
In fact, though my father Morton was in charge of getting our catalogs out, which could be virtually each month, I learned from him about printing. At that time illustrations were made photographically than transferred to copper engravings, which were attached to blocks of wood, and inserted into catalogs so the printer could create an illustrated catalog. So I learned photography of coins, about making the copper “cuts” for illustration, about setting the linotype stripes that were carrying the wording, about binding and even the mailing of catalogs.
I traveled in my early days down to Federalsburg, Maryland, where our printer operated out of, originally with my father, and waited while the catalog was set into type, the pages made, the catalog printed and mailed, and went home with bound copies to our office. That is the type of training I received to do the job when and if I had to.
Therefore, our seniors made us juniors professionals and how to run a coin business which was growing in importance each year since 1933. It was an exciting time, a great learning period, and the things I was taught stick with me to this very day.
Two Great Shocks
In mid-1950, Norman, who was working very closely with my father, was drafted into the Army because of our involvement in the Korea War. Ben and I, having married our wives in 1949, were exempt from the first draft because only single men were selected. Norman had to appear for service by December 1950. After basic training eventually he was assigned to a transportation division in Germany.
Ben, the very same year, went to his father Joseph and insisted that since he was the oldest of the juniors, Joe and Morton should make him a partner. This was a very deep wound for my uncle Joe, especially when Norman was to be drafted, and Ben with this attitude virtually gave him a heart attack. They fought about it, with Joe saying it was his plan to possibly give both Ben and Norman a partnership when Norman returned from service. The debate got so intense that Ben picked himself up, shouted to his father, “You will fall apart without me here!”, and stormed out of the shop.
A few months later, Ben moved himself and his family to Las Vegas to open up a coin shop there. He told people that he wanted to open in Vegas because it was a growing city with lots of money being spent and gambled, and he felt he could do well out there (the future of Ben in Numismatics will be told later).
My father Morton, during the same period, fell and broke his upper arm. The break was so bad that they had to use “pins” to set it again. Unfortunately the break got infected and Morton developed a form of osteomyelitis that required treatment and medication three time a day. A private nurse visited him three times each day, removed the old bandages, cleaned the infected wound and redressed it. It was another loss we had in the operation of Stack’s.
But the many collector and dealer friends we had developed over the decades all offered to come in to help out, by sorting coins, doing attributions and just generally being helpful.
To mention a few, there was William Blaisdell, Ray Gallo, Doug Smith, Harold Bareford, Joseph Spray, Fred Knoblach, Oscar Schilke, Martin Kortjohn, Ed Rice, and many others. Each, when they had time, would stop into the shop, spend a few hours and be of great help. That was the relationship the Stack Family had with the collector.
Fortunately we were able to hire John Burnham, (who later became curator of the Yale University Coin Collection) who was proficient in coins of the United States. the Federal as well as the Colonial period, and the currency of the period. We also re-engaged Hans Holzer, a European expert, and of course, we already had on staff Dr. Vladimir Stefanelli, and his wife Elvira. both accomplished numismatists, (who later became curators at the Smithsonian), in addition to our regular staff.
As to the functions of the Stack family, my uncle Joseph continued his visits around the country, and with airline travel being available to many more places, went and came as fast as he could, bringing back collections for auction and additions to our stock.
Morton, confined to home, also would not sit still. He had coins brought to his home by me every evening, where he would arrange them for cataloging and did the necessary research at home. He had one of our smartest and most efficient secretaries come out four to five times a week, and he, not being able to use the broken arm to write with, dictated for about six months to her. Her name was Rose Zelman, a dedicated person who was with Stack’s after working with my father for some 40 years. She would take her notes back to the office, type a manuscript, and bring it back to Morton for proof reading.
Yes it was a tough period, but by working as a team the firm of Stack’s advanced in growth and recognition.
During this hectic period, we all worked very long days, on weekends when necessary, but we got the work done. We still maintained a schedule tat we had established before all the problems broke loose. I was still in charge of the shop, but I also stocked, catalogued and worked with everyone us in every conceivable way to maintain the pace that we had. It wasn’t easy, but it had to be done.
By early Spring in 1951, Morton had overcome the horrible infection he had in his arm and came back to work daily to continue his responsibilities in the office.
* * *