By David Thomason Alexander for CoinWeek….
Few figures involved in the world of 20th-century commercial numismatics made as great an impression in their day as New York attorney and telemarketer Stanley Apfelbaum (born 1931, died 1990). For nearly 30 years, he was a pioneer and leading figure in the controversial, rough-and-tumble field of coin telemarketing – the sale of coins over the telephone to buyers generally ignorant of the product and of the realities of the real coin market.
Apfelbaum’s legal career began with study at New York University and St. John’s University Law School. Graduating in 1956, he passed the New York State Bar exam and practiced briefly as a litigator. The New York bar exam is no walk in the park, as lawyers know; it took the late Robert F. Kennedy five tries to pass that formidable barrier.
Apfelbaum was later disbarred, but this did not perceptibly slow down his numismatic career. Details of his personal life are little known and generally irrelevant to his sometimes stormy career. He was married twice, with four children and four stepchildren. He died at age 59 of an undisclosed form of cancer.
First Coinvestors, Inc.
In the early 1970s there was virtually no regulation of coin sales anywhere in the U.S. During these years there occurred a great flowering of dynamiting over the telephone by fast-talking commission salesmen. Apfelbaum went public in 1969 as First Coinvestors Inc. (FCI) actually achieving listing on the New York Stock Exchange. This stock was hustled in the FCI Rare Coin Advisory in the 1970s with marvelous claims of increasing value but in the long run proved worthless.
Telemarketing by its very nature requires the continuous acquisition and dispersal of thousands of coins week by week and month by month. Properly understood, rare coins are pieces that cannot be found by the hundreds or thousands for quick resale over the telephone or by direct mail solicitation. In 1970s’ telemarketing, however, “rare coins” came to mean “coins that may be rather old, of which we have obtained a healthy supply.”
Whenever possible, Apfelbaum employed numismatists of real reputation to burnish FCI’s image with their own. These individuals were frequently coupled with an array of “societies” and “clubs” cobbled up to lend luster to material that was often of indifferent quality and value. Additional “experts” were created and heavily advertised to give an appearance of solidity to the oft-exaggerated claims of importance and value of the coins offered.
“I Own the Man!”
The most ruthlessly exploited of these figures was numismatic genius Walter Breen (reportedly born 1928 or 1930; died 1993). Apfelbaum often asserted “I own the man!” Breen later published a Dickensian and largely false autobiography alleging that he was a foundling, at one time claiming to be the Lindbergh baby. A noisily proud member of the organization of geniuses MENSA, he became a figure of note in the flashy and eccentric world of science fiction fandom.
Both Walter and his wife Marion Zimmer Bradley were pioneers in what was later known as the gay rights movement, and his proclivities were well known to some in the coin field who chose to look the other way. In 1964, Breen wrote an advocacy book (Greek Love) under a pseudonym. After the downfall of FCI he was arrested in California for molesting eight- and nine-year-old boys and died in prison in 1993.
Breen first appeared on the numismatic stage in the early 1950s after discharge from the Air Force. “Discovered” by dealer John J. Ford Jr., he was commissioned by the great publisher-numismatist Wayte Raymond to conduct numismatic research in the National Archives.
It can be fairly said that Breen transformed the world of U.S. numismatics through these researches.
His monographs and books were many. The earliest were short studies published by Lee F. Hewitt of Numismatic Scrapbook magazine, several dealing with die varieties of early U.S. gold coins. After tying up with Apfelbaum, several full-length books were published under the rubric of F.C.I. Press.
A book of great potential value as well as frustration was his 1977 Encyclopedia of United States and Colonial Proof Coins, 1722-1977. Proof coins, struck on polished blanks with polished dies, are among the rarest and most desirable U.S. coins. For more than a century “Proof is better” dictated value and inspired endless dealer and collector attempts to show that whatever specimen they were trying to sell or buy was “Proof.”
Breen’s attempts to decree what was really Proof and what was not led to endless wrangling with no clear-cut agreement. Most ambitious was his massive 754-page Complete Encyclopedia of U.S. and Colonial Coins (1988), published by Doubleday with subscript F.C.I. Press. This book included a staggering amount of information and nearly all U.S. coins since the earliest colonial issues and is still widely consulted today.
A book that took on a note of sinister comedy was the 1981 Encyclopedia of United State Silver & Gold Commemorative Coins, 1892-1954. As published, it bore the names of Anthony Swiatek and Walter Breen, although Swiatek was the primary author (responsible for more than 90 percent of the book, which bore the names F.C.I. Press and Arco Publishing).
I became aware of this title much earlier. As a new member of the weekly newspaper Coin World staff in early 1974, I was told one morning to drive down to Dayton International Airport to pick up a “New York school teacher who’s got some book idea!”
Amos Press did not then publish books but I dutifully intercepted the author, a young Brooklyn science teacher carrying an amazing manuscript bursting with all the information the author could find about each U.S. commemorative issued up to that time. Publisher J. Oliver Amos and Editor Margo Russell agreed to run the manuscript serially as a Coin World column.
Swiatek continued striving to find a publisher and fell in with Stanley Apfelbaum and FCI. Apfelbaum decided that here was a golden opportunity to “Breen up” the manuscript and exploit it as a selling tool for FCI. Walter obsessively hated commemoratives, calling them “speculators’ trash.”
He fitted each issue into a skeleton formed by a barrage of pseudo-lawyeresque language including Corpus Delecti, Suspects, Accessories, Modus Operandi and other hostile foolishness without Swiatek’s knowledge or consent.
Apfelbaum inserted pages of unauthorized and misleading FCI “investment” blither heavy with Breen quotes. These included ballyhooing the ultra-common Booker T. Washington-George Washington Carver half dollars as wonderful investment opportunities. Amazingly, the book still contained enough of Swiatek’s writing to make it worth consulting and some 5,000 copies were sold.
The 23rd Polygraph
Apfelbaum invaded the world of higher education by creating the Institute of Numismatic & Philatelic Studies at New York’s Adelphi University in 1978. A number of prominent numismatists, FCI staffers and hobbyists flocked to take the courses offered, taught by such professionals as Walter Breen and Anthony Swiatek. Breen appeared in flip-flops, tie-dyed shirts and his usual unwashed shorts.
Registrants received an elaborate certificate of participation that was impressive to gaze upon. Unfortunately, it soon became obvious that a primary (but unspoken) purpose of courses and certificates was to certify FCI telemarketing salesmen as qualified numismatists!
For a time, FCI auction sales were held under the banner of Pine Tree Rare Coin Auctions, directed by the hyper-energetic Herbert M. Melnick. For Apfelbaum, Pine Tree proved a rather mixed bag, as auction personnel had to devote their time to bringing in consignments, cataloging and photographing coins. Few could double-up as telephone hustlers.
Sales were soon given such names as “Breen I” and “Breen II”, though no coins originated with Breen (many were, however, related to FCI’s spurious “Breen Type Coin Program”). FCI later floated solicitations to join something called the “Walter Breen Inner Circle”, which must have been an acute embarrassment to those customers who paid to be associated with this “Inner Circle” after Breen’s conviction and imprisonment for child molestation.
Herb Melnick described the inner realities of FCI when he visited Coin World to announce the birth of the new firm NASCA in the late 1970s. He volunteered that Apfelbaum’s increasing paranoia demanded polygraph tests of every employee: “I didn’t mind the first four of five, but the 23rd polygraph bothered me!”
The Name Game
A notable fiasco in FCI’s name game was the 1975 acquisition of Don Taxay, an extraordinary numismatist of the same general caliber as Walter Breen. In fact, Taxay and Breen had teamed up briefly in 1963 to form the Institute of Numismatic Authenticators to examine, authenticate and certify great rarities.
This promising effort faltered thanks to Breen’s deteriorating mental state. He failed to acknowledge receipt of coins, and lost many in the litter of his squalid cold-water walkup apartment in lower Manhattan. Coin World and the Professional Numismatists Guild (PNG) had to send a working squad to find, identify and return the coins to their no-longer-trusting owners.
In the wake of this disaster, Coin World policy dictated elimination of the name Breen in any and all stories. This continued until Apfelbaum and his lawyers arrived and told publisher J. Oliver Amos “I own Breen and I’m going to merchandize him to the hilt. You will restore his name to Coin World or else!”
Walter Breen promptly reappeared in the pages of the newspaper.
No mention of the authenticators’ fiasco was made when the arrival of Don Taxay at FCI in 1974 was greeted with a blizzard of self-congratulation and overblown praise in the FCI Advisory. “What could be better than one great expert? TWO, of course!” In the event, Taxay was placed in charge of the “Colonial American Coin Club” but lasted only about six months. He and FCI parted with an exchange of ads filled with mutual vituperation.
Some of Apfelbaum’s other discoveries quickly faded from sight. They included Donald Hoppe, who was touted as a guru of gold investment when buying gold became legal in the early 1970s. It soon became obvious that Americans had forgotten all about gold after President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s executive orders banned gold ownership in 1933 and it would take years to re-introduce them to the precious metal.
Other “names” of varying fame fizzled more quickly, including Lance Rosenberg, Elsie Gil of “Rare Gold Management,” tax man D. Larry Crumbley, one-time Pennsylvania educator Fritz Weber, and silver dollar giant A. George Mallis. Mallis successfully extricated himself from the FCI debacle and lived on as a senior statesman of the Morgan dollar field working with LeRoy Van Allen in the silver dollar boom that was to come.
Apfelbaum brought Sylvia Haffner aboard to dynamite interest in and sale of modern Israeli coins, then experiencing a marvelous boom in the wake of the 1967 Six-Day War. To his chagrin, Haffner refused to recommend modern Israeli material since, in her view, it simply did not have the investment potential Apfelbaum demanded that she endorse!
Ancient Judaic coins fared better. The startlingly common copper prutot or lepta issued by the Hasmonean kings and procurators of Judea could always be exploited as “widow’s mites” from the New Testament and vast numbers of common Roman coins could be marketed by emphasizing their proximity to early Christianity.
A Man of Surprises
Apfelbaum was notorious for harsh treatment of his employees.
Late in the 1970s, Long Island was hit head-on by a disastrous blizzard. The New York State Police closed all roads to allow unimpeded snow removal, but Apfelbaum activated the phones and ordered ALL to report for work immediately or face dismissal. Similarly, he once ordered every Jewish employee taking off the High Holy Days to present signed notes from their rabbi attesting to their presence at services, “or else.”
In addition to “cold calls” by telephone salesmen, FCI relied on wide distribution of the cheaply printed and poorly designed FCI Rare Coin Advisory, a thin, blue-covered journal published by ARCO in New York City. Vast numbers of grossly overgraded U.S. coins were included in FCI offerings, with many advertised in the Advisory.
Many complaints were received of mistaken identification of die varieties and the offering of poorly disguised damaged pieces, like a rhodium-plated early dime advertised as “Gem BU.” It was sometimes easy for a wealthy but clueless medical man to sink $800,000 into a collection of FCI coins and only be able to recover $300,000.
It must be remembered that there were no universally accepted grading standards in the 1970s and that meaningful third-party grading services were still in the future in the early years of FCI. Apfelbaum made headlines by being formally expelled from the American Numismatic Association (ANA) in 1973 for grading offenses, but then transformed himself into the “Mary Magdalene of grading,” proposing an ANA Grading Board in 1973.
In 1975 ANA President Virginia Culver appointed him to the new Grading Board, along with such diverse figures as Abe Kosoff, Dennis Loring and A. George Mallis in April 1975. This board’s deliberations led to the widespread adoption of the 70-point grading scale created by the late Dr. William H. Sheldon and to the publication of an ANA Grading Guide. They also birthed the American Numismatic Association Grading Service, or ANACS.
Through all of this, Apfelbaum remained a man of surprises, occasionally coming up with concepts of unexpected originality.
Early in 1975, he announced FCI’s contribution to the Bicentennial of the American Revolution. The country was flooded at that time with Bicentennial medals from the Federal Government, states, cities, and organizations of all kinds.
Some of these, especially medals struck by the original Medallic Art Company of New York (later of Danbury, Connecticut) boasted fine designs by some of America’s most accomplished medallic sculptors. Others, notably those struck locally or made by the Franklin Mint and copy-cat companies, were churning out a flood of low-relief, dollar-sized pieces of minimal artistic merit.
The May issue of FCI Rare Coin Advisory bore a view of a large-diameter recreation of the historic Libertas Americana medal first struck by the Paris Mint for U.S. envoy Benjamin Franklin in 1782 in 48mm gold, silver and bronze. Its engraver was Benjamin Dupré, who created dies using Franklin’s concepts drawn from ancient mythology.
A head of Liberty with cap of freedom on pole dominated the obverse with date 4 July 1776, a design inspiring the 1793 American copper coin obverses. The reverse showed France as the goddess Minerva defending the infant Hercules (the colonies) against the cowardly lioness of England. The baby strangles two serpents symbolizing American victories at Saratoga and Yorktown.
Franklin distributed the medals to King Louis XVI, Queen Marie Antoinette, and other European rulers and statesmen while Congress bestowed yet others on deserving civil and military figures in the infant U.S. Although the Paris Mint has continued striking thousands of medal types since the 1500s, Libertas Americana was only restruck in the early 1980s and not in the 77-millimeter, eight-troy-ounce format now publicized by FCI.
With its large format and date 4 JUIL. 1976, this medal could not be confused with the original strikes. An incuse edge inscription states COPY (sans serif) OF DESIGN BY BENJAMIN FRANKLIN: ORIGINALS STRUCK IN 1783. S.I.C.M.M, PARIS – FRANCE – GO* No. (serial number) * ARGENT *, tiny winged A privy mark of a commercial issue.
SICMM identified La Societé International Des Collectioneurs Des Monnaies Et Medailles. French language errors in this inscription included omitting the final “e” off INTERNATIONALE and capitalizing the prepositions. This purported society was identified in tiny print as “A Subsidiary of First Coinvestors, Inc.”
Front man for the promotion was a uniformed figure identified as the Marquis de Menars, a descendant of Charlemagne and Louis XV. The hustle was accompanied by a flurry of printed matter and a flood of breathless gushing prose through the FCI mailing list and through the American Express Company. FCI advertised that it had 500 silver medals for sale at $250 each.
Faced with ANACS and greatly increased public awareness–not to mention decades of complaints and legal actions–the once-mighty FCI filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 1989. By then Stanley Apfelbaum had already launched American Coin & Stamp Ventures in 1986. The bloom was definitely off the telemarketing rose by the end of the ’80s though both Florida and Minnesota remained as hotbeds of the rawest forms of telephone hustling for years after.
Stanley Apfelbaum faded from public consciousness. His obituary in the January 1991 issue of The Numismatist, journal of the ANA, was an exercise in unsatisfying brevity that wholly ignored his legal troubles and ultimate disgrace. Four lines were devoted to the grading wars; none to his ANA expulsion. The briefest mention and swift oblivion seem to have been the goals and if so, they succeeded.
As a British poet intoned, studying the statue of an Egyptian pharaoh lost in the desert, “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings! Look upon my works ye mighty and despair!”