By Pete Smith for CoinWeek….
Max Mehl claimed that he spent a million dollars advertising to buy a 1913 Liberty nickel for $50. Unfortunately his expensive ad campaign was a total failure. He was never able to buy that $50 1913 nickel.
Yet somehow he became the most successful coin dealer of his era. In the 1920s, he had 40 employees opening mail, sending out catalogs and selling coins. He claimed that his office in Fort Worth received more mail than the entire rest of the city.
Benjamin Maximillian Mehl was born in Lodz, Russia (now Poland), on November 5, 1884. He came to America in April 1895 with his parents, three brothers and a sister. As a young man he worked as a shoe clerk before entering the coin business. His first ad ran in The Numismatist in December of 1903.
In February of 1904 Mehl placed a full-page ad in The Numismatist. Near the top it stated, “I beg to offer, subject to be unsold, the following Choice Coins.” Near the bottom, “Send 25c for my HUB COIN BOOB.”
At this time dealers could buy The Hub Coin Book from the publisher, Alexander and Co, and imprint their dealer name and address on the cover. Mehl sold copies of the book and sent them out to promote his business.
Mehl spent $12.50 to place an ad in Colliers Magazine in 1906. With this, his advertising branched out into the popular media. This continued to prove to be a successful advertising strategy.
In 1906 Mehl offered his Star Coin Book for a dime. This was inspired and heavily copied from the Hub Coin Book.
Mehl is credited with popularizing the hobby, once dominated by more wealthy collectors. People began to search their change hoping to find “a fortune in your pocket.” Streetcars were delayed while the conductors examined nickels presented for the fare.
Mehl married Ethel Rosen on August 18, 1907. They had two daughters, Lorraine, born in 1912, and Danna, born in 1917. As children they attended ANA conventions with their parents.
Mehl and Wayte Raymond discussed a partnership in 1912. Mehl went to New York briefly to join Raymond before returning to Fort Worth. When Professional Coin Grading Service (PCGS) created their CoinFacts Dealer Hall of Fame in 2010, Mehl and Raymond were among he first six honored.
The 1804 dollar is a great rarity only slightly more available than a 1913 nickel. Mehl sold several of them. In his 1913 sale of the Granberg collection, he described an 1804 dollar with the 4 in the date unlike the 4 on an authentic coin. Although he claimed it was authentic, faced with harsh criticism, he withdrew it from the sale.
By 1916, Mehl was successful enough to construct a building for his offices. He hired architect Wiley Clarkson to design the building at 1204 Magnolia Avenue. It had commercial space on the ground floor with apartments on the second and third floors. Above the doorway was the image of a Fugio Cent in cast stone. Long after his business closed, the building became vacant and fell into disrepair. It was saved from demolition, remodeled and repaired, and remains in Fort Worth today.
Sometimes he would offer coins at the bottom of the price range for rare coins. In Mehl’s Coin Circular for January 1923 he offered quite a bargain:
“I have a lot of 500 large copper cents – poor and holed – I don’t know what they are good for. I want five dollars for the lot – you pay the freight. At that price they are cheap enough to throw at cats.”
The March 1929 issue of The Numismatist ran a long story on Mehl under the title, “A Texas Master of Coins.” The article was written by Peter J. Molyneaux and had previously been published in a Texas magazine. The article ran from page 176 to page 191 and included five full-page photographs of the Mehl offices.
The article said that Mehl received more than 275,000 inquiries in the previous year (1928) and that Mehl had processed more than 30,000 shipments. “A little book on rare coins, which he publishes, and which retails for one dollar, has had an average circulation of 70,000 copies a year for the past five years, and since it first appeared twenty years ago more than a million copies have been sold.” The author stated, “like most men who have attained genuine distinction through personal achievement, he is extremely modest and unassuming.” In the article, Mehl told the author, “He has on hand at all times between $40,000 and $50,000 worth of rare coins, and more than $250,000 worth passes through his hands during an average year.”
Another Texas numismatist, Mark Borckardt, found Mehl in the 1930 census. Mehl lived with his wife, daughters, a maid and a servant. Mehl’s profession was listed as “Pneumatic Broker.”
During the Depression Mehl advertised “Will pay $50 for a nickel of 1913 with Liberty Head, not Buffalo.” Only five 1913 Liberty Nickels were struck and they lacked Mint authorization. Mehl knew they were in strong hands and none would be offered. His intention was to make money by selling coin books instead of buying 1913 nickels.
Mehl was a great promoter of the hobby and highly successful businessman. Apparently this was not obvious when meeting him. In United States Numismatic Literature, John Adams described Mehl as “Lilliputian in stature and colorless in terms of personality.”
The Mehl company was the victim of a robbery in 1933. On April 24 three robbers entered and ordered seven employees to lie on the floor. Owner Mehl was ordered to open the safe. During the robbery Ray Jones, a mail carrier, arrived with a special delivery letter and frightened off the thieves. They escaped with a diamond ring valued at $1,000, three rare half dollars valued at $7 each, and $15 in cash.
In his compilation of American Numismatic Auctions, Martin Gengerke listed 116 auction sales for Mehl from 1903 to 1955. These included some of the blockbuster large format catalogs of their time. Consignors included such names as James M. Manning (1921), James Ten Eyck (1922), William Forrester Dunham (1941), Albert A. Grinnell (1943), William Cutler Atwater (1946), and Will Neil (1947).
Unlike the familiar public sales of today, these sales were conducted by mail.
Mehl died on September 28, 1957. Mary Ellen Ferguson carried on the Mehl business until her death in 1961. She had served as Mehl’s executive secretary for more than 40 years.
The company relocated to Costa Mesa, California, under the direction of Kenneth Nichols. He was a PNG dealer active with K & G Numismatics in the 1960s. The Mehl company continued to run monthly ads in The Numismatist until July of 1966. Such ads ran in the ANA journal for 703 issues over more than 58 years. The company then faded from active business but Mehl is remembered as one for the great dealers and promoters for the hobby.
Some members of the Numismatic Bibliomania Society (NBS) received an intriguing flyer in the mail in March of 1992. It came from Martin Nathaniel Daycius of M. N. Daycius Galleries of Fort Worth and offered books and auction catalogs from a “dealer long deceased.” The sale would be conducted at 1204 Magnolia on April 1, 1992, April Fools Day.
George Clapp once called Mehl mendacious and MENDACIOUS became Clapp’s cost code after the 1935 ANA convention. The gallery name had a familiar ring to those in the know.
Some bibliomaniacs fell for the hoax. Obsessive collector Armand Champa hired an agent to check out the sale. He found the building abandoned and condemned. Although there was much speculation about the perpetrator of the hoax, he has not been publicly identified.