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Farran Zerbe: Numismatist – Promoter – Hustler


By David Thomason Alexander for CoinWeek …..

Historians state that “Everybody was Somebody” in the small population of the 13 colonies at the time of the American Revolution. People who would be lost in a population of 300 million had a vastly greater opportunity to shine in a population of 10 or 12 million. So it is today with numismatic organizations. A founding group of fewer than one hundred assures that each individual will be remembered.

So it was that an individual short in stature, limited education and seemingly unlimited energy, Farran Zerbe (1871-1949), emerged as an early leader of America’s national collectors’ organization, the American Numismatic Association (ANA).

The organization of the ANA in 1891 represented more than the birth of just another coin club, however ambitious its announced goals might have been. The new ANA represented a fundamental departure from the bases on which the few existing numismatic organizations rested.

Societies had been functioning since the Civil War in a very few eastern cities, notably Boston, New Haven, New York, and Philadelphia. All were fundamentally elitist groups whose members were generally gentlemen of wealth, leisure, education and social standing, determined to maintain numismatics as a preserve for themselves and their class.

The Boston society provided an outstanding example of such exclusivity when it denied membership to Lorin G. Parmelee, one of America’s greatest and most legendary early collectors. He may have owned a Brasher doubloon and an 1804 dollar, but Parmelee was a bean baker – a tradesman unfit for the company of gentlemen!

Collecting in small towns and rural areas could only flourish after Rural Free Delivery expedited the mail and until the expansion of America’s railroads linked the hinterland to the urban centers. This was the hour of what historian John Kleeberg calls the “small-town intelligentsia”: doctors, dentists, lawyers, and clergymen began to discover numismatics and spread an appreciation of coin collecting across the map.

ANA founder George Heath

ANA founder Dr. George F. Heath personified this small-town leadership. A distinguished medical professional in the small mid-western city of Monroe, Michigan, he served as its mayor for several terms. In his spare moments he printed a simple newsletter first called The American Numismatist beginning in 1888, in which he presented short articles about coins of all kinds and offered duplicates from his collection for sale.

With its name officially shortened to The Numismatist, the publication came to be the “Official Organ” of the infant ANA as the new organization sprang into vigorous life serving collectors in the U.S. and Canada. Few among the membership ranked as great scholars or millionaires. The ANA began its career of serving what would one day described as the average collector.

While the organization was taking shape, an up-and-coming youngster had begun his epic numismatic career as a newsboy in the small industrial city of Tyrone in south-central Pennsylvania. Joseph Farran Zerbe was born April 16, 1871 to James Albert and Bridget Mary (née McAvoy) Zerbe. The Zerbe family was reasonably prosperous though by no means wealthy, and a public school education equipped the boy for the world.

Dropping the “Joseph” early in life, Farran was soon at work as a paper carrier for the Tyrone Daily Herald in 1880-1889. One fine day in 1882, a customer fobbed off on the unsuspecting youth a French silver 50-centime piece as a dime, launching his lifelong interest in foreign coins.

According to the March 1900 issue of The Numismatist, he was soon conducting a varied retail business in his native Tyrone as “Coin” Zerbe, offering all kinds of necessaries or variety goods at his store as well as coins through the mail.

He led a relatively uneventful family life despite frequent travel over the next decades. His first wife was Bessie Garner, nearly 10 years his senior, from whom he was apparently divorced around 1918. Zerbe had been experiencing mental health problems but neither divorce nor mental illness were considered fit subjects for public discussion in those years and few details are known. His second spouse was Julia Gertrude Mahoney, who died September 10, 1932.

Farran Zerbe developed an interest in numismatic writing despite an inadequate education in the English language that persisted throughout his career. In 1899 he published a slim pamphlet, “Just What You Should Know, Nut Shell Facts on Coins, Stamps & Paper Money”, that is today a major rarity. He joined the ANA in 1900 and the March 1900 issue of The Numismatist noted his business name of Coin Zerbe in Tyrone in its review of American coin dealers.

From 1900 until the late 1920s, Zerbe played several roles on the numismatic stage: coin dealer, ANA leader and publisher, exhibitor-showman, writer, and later curator of a nationally publicized museum in New York City. Frequently these roles overlapped and generated varying degrees of controversy.

Along with millions of other Americans, Zerbe attended the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago during 1893. Here he first encountered United States commemorative coins being sold at twice face value: the Columbian half dollar at $1 each and the Isabella quarter at 50 cents. This pricing concept stirred up much intensive and enduring controversy at the time.

A veritable blizzard of medals also appeared for the Chicago event, including the large-diameter official exhibitors’ medal designed by the great sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens depicting the October 1492 landing of Columbus on San Salvador. The first reverse bore a nude youth holding victors’ wreaths, a design that attracted praise from artists and savage criticism from more prudish observers.

The dour Chief Engraver of the United States Mint, Charles E. Barber, hated and feared all outside artists and profited from this controversy to unilaterally adopt his own banal tablet and squashed ship reverse for this landmark medal. In doing so, he launching a vigorous dispute between Mint engravers and the nation’s sculptors that has echoes to this day.

columbian2Some writers stated that Farran Zerbe ran the Chicago Fair’s coin department, but this is unlikely. Nevertheless he certainly learned a great deal by carefully monitoring its operation. Optimistic fair officials reported coin sales as booming, which they never were. In fact, thousands of unsold Columbian half dollars were dumped onto the open market at face value by Chicago banks to the anguish of those who had trustingly paid the double-face issue prices.

The idea of paying a dollar for a half dollar was scandalous to many in an era when a dollar represented a significant amount of money. Interestingly, ANA founder Dr. Heath was among those who had opposed the “souvenir coins”, as the commemoratives were first called, calling them both overpriced and unnecessary.

By now, Zerbe had assembled and launched his massive traveling exhibit, Moneys of the World, which publicized Farran Zerbe himself as well as coin collecting and the ANA. Here was the flamboyant showman Zerbe, more suggestive of a circus barker than a serious numismatist. Not publicized were unseemly disputes between Zerbe and several collectors who loaned rarities for the exhibit and were never able to recover their property.

Zerbe developed remarkable skill in self promotion. The Pittsburgh Times of March 11, 1903, reported his gaudy proposal for the creation of a monstrous gold coin for the upcoming Louisiana Purchase Exposition (LPE) to be held in 1903-1904 in Saint Louis. This unique piece would have a diameter of 40 feet and a thickness of 30 inches. Its nominal face value would be $1,000,000,000. This proposal gagged the U.S. Mint, reinforced appraisal of Zerbe as a huckster and was never carried out.

The exposition in Saint Louis was a boisterous affair, occupying a broad tract near the Mississippi River. A dazzling array of features were brought in to make this a truly international event, including hosting the 1904 Olympic Games as a department of the fair. Athletic attendance proved meager, placing its octagonal Olympic medals high among the rarities of the Olympic series.

German showman Carl Hagenbeck’s animal exhibit brought visiting New York numismatist Albert Frey the title “King of Elephants” as he plied baby pachyderms with pockets full of peanuts while launching a lifetime feud between him and Zerbe. The sprawling entertainment area of the fair became famous as “The Pike”, and the term “piker” entered the language as synonymous with lazy, pleasure-seeking layabouts and would haunt Zerbe’s steps six years later.

The ANA was now 15 years old and decided to hold its 1904 convention at the fair. Zerbe, a member for five years, was now on the rise. Elected ANA president was New York’s numismatic scholar Albert Romer Frey (1858-1926); Farran Zerbe became first vice president and Frey developed a lifelong hatred of the brash Zerbe. Other officers elected included Second Vice President Jeremiah Gibbs and Secretary Howland Wood. ANA founder Dr. George F. Heath served as treasurer.

mckinley1903The notably modest Heath had shunned high office up to this point while personally maintaining The Numismatist. Zerbe was also official director of Exposition coin and medal sales, sending in anonymous articles publicizing the gold dollars struck at the Philadelphia Mint portraying presidents Thomas Jefferson and William McKinley without revealing his position as chief of the Fair’s Souvenir Coin Department.

In November 1903, Farran Zerbe had claimed to see bold demand developing for 1903-dated coins during the approaching holiday season. No such uptick in coin sales followed, and Zerbe resorted to raising the price to $3 per coin, as if demand had really increased. In an attempt to further boost sales, he advertised a wide range of bangles, charms, stickpins, broaches and spoon handles free with each coin ordered. Zerbe had hoped to trigger a sellout that never came.

Only a small fraction of the 1903 and 1904 pieces were sold but his blatant promotions personally antagonized many collectors and intensified the opposition to his vulgar “huckersterism”. The appearance of tiny souvenir tokens inscribed LOUISIANA GOLD ½ and ¼ around a large fleur de lis bearing initials LPE added to dissatisfaction with Zerbe’s methods.

Described as struck from “a metal mined in the Louisiana Territory”, these diminutive pieces were never advertised as coins but as tokens or medalets inspired by Georgia and Carolina pioneer gold of the preceding century. “Louisiana Gold” did not refer to the present day state of Louisiana but to the vast, sprawling territory that was later subdivided into 14 states.

His statements that the tokens contained “metal mined in the Louisiana Territory” suggested deliberate evasion and low-brow commercialism to such critics as irascible New York professional numismatist Thomas L. Elder, who dismissed the tiny pieces as a “fraud upon the public”.

A native of Dayton, Pennsylvania, Elder was now among the nation’s leading professional numismatists and auctioneers. Possessed of a considerable skill as a writer and often driven by a ferocious temper, he was famous for freely expressed opinions on issues of the day, unsparing on his attacks on perceived enemies (Thomas DeLorey, “Thomas L. Elder, a Catalogue of His Tokens and Medals,” The Numismatist, June 1980).

Elder formed an especially venomous opinion of Farran Zerbe, as well as an opposition to his doings that would boil over in the fiercely disputed ANA election of 1909. This still lay in the future as Zerbe plugged away at sales of souvenir gold coins of the LPE and the Lewis and Clark Exposition that followed. Fast forward and we find his greatest sales opportunity coming in 1915 at the Panama Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco.

The ambitious Pan-Pac souvenir coin program was highly imaginative and included both octagonal and round gold $50 pieces, $2.50 and $1 coins and a silver half dollar. These were sold singly and in a variety of sets and ornate hand-hammered copper frames of considerable cost.

panpacsetHailing the opening of the Panama Canal, this event was a milestone among all international expositions of the years before World War I. Like the earlier expos, however, its far-reaching commemorative coin program failed to develop the volume of sales needed for complete success, even though Zerbe kept the sales office open months after the fair officially closed.

Zerbe had served as ANA president for 1907-1909 and took another monumental step forward following the death of Dr. Heath in the summer of 1908. Zerbe hot-footed it to Monroe to purchase The Numismatist from Heath’s widow. He later confessed his amazement at the tangled mess Heath left behind.

The good doctor’s office was littered with fragments of official ANA correspondence, hand-written addresses, unanswered mail and general disarray. Worse yet, there was no file of unpublished articles awaiting editing for future publication. The cupboard was bare, but possession of the “Official Organ” combined with the presidency gave Farran Zerbe gave near-total power over the organization.

As the 1909 Montreal convention approached, President Frank C. Higgins of the newly organized New York Numismatic Club (NYNC) and Thomas L. Elder attempted to re-nominate Zerbe for another term. He declined the honor, citing the time required to publish The Numismatist. Instead he nominated his own hand-picked successor, Dr. John M. Henderson, a respected dentist of Columbus, Ohio.

Elder and the NYNC leaders put forward an full alternative slate of officers and directors, headed by NYNC’s Higgins, a numismatist and scholar of European and American reputation, accomplished researcher and writer who had contributed heavily to the post-Heath overhaul of The Numismatist.

The NYNC leadership could not access the ANA mailing list to distribute its skillfully compiled campaign booklet spelling out far-reaching improvement of the national organization. Dealers would be barred from all ANA offices, which would be held by leading numismatists from all parts of the U.S. A third vice-presidency would be created to represent Canadian collectors.

It is not known how many NYNC booklets were printed or sent out or to whom. It was nearly impossible to find a copy in 1993 for the present writer’s article “Incunabula of the 1909 ANA Election” for the Numismatic Bibliomania Society (NBS) journal The Asylum. A copy was found by NBS treasurer Frank Van Zandt and revealed the true content of the NYNC platform.

However reasonable the NYNC program may have been, Zerbe had control of the “Official Organ” and mailing list and used both ruthlessly to advance Henderson’s candidacy and to misrepresent the Higgins platform. No pro-Higgins material was allowed to appear in The Numismatist but any opposing views by members of that club were trumpeted. Zerbe labored to make the election a regional battle against “the East”. He urged that the ANA continue to be governed “by the modest standards” that had prevailed thus far.

Thoroughly aroused, Elder now unlimbered his big guns, writing anti-Zerbe letters and issuing savagely anti-Zerbe campaign tokens depicting his opponent as a braying zebra-striped jackass atop “Piker’s Peak”. The 1904 Pennsylvania Gold tokens were attacked with searing sarcasm.

Zerbe, the tokens’ target, was now frantic with anger and used the “Official Organ” against his opponents by opening its pages to any messages hostile to Higgins and Elder to such a degree that a number of prominent collectors including Chicago’s millionaire Virgil M. Brand resigned in protest of the corruption of The Numismatist.

Inserted with the August issue was a 56-inch scroll, “The ANA Campaign and its Question, the Association Defiled and Defied”, identified by its sometimes casual grammar as the work of Zerbe himself. ANA by-laws of the time allowed all members to submit a written proxy vote if they were unable to attend the convention.

This scroll would be the last thing ANA members would see before filling out their proxies. In preparing his massive two-volume ANA Centennial History in 1991, researcher Q. David Bowers revealed that Zerbe printed and carried 200 blank proxies with him to Montreal, “just in case.”

Seeing that he was seriously outnumbered, Higgins moved that his opponent Henderson be unanimously acclaimed the next ANA president. Zerbe demanded that the votes be tabulated and published and when that was disallowed he published his own estimates of what the vote would have been.

The healing of the wounds of 1909 proceeded slowly, particularly after Zerbe instituted a total embargo of all news that might include any publicity for Elder for the next two years. Before the end of Zerbe’s ownership, Elder responded by publishing his own monthly publications, The Numismatic Philistine and The Elder Monthly.

During 1911, Zerbe sold The Numismatist to Canadian benefactor W.W.C. Wilson, who in turn donated it to ANA. For the first time the “Official Organ” belonged to the national organization and was safe from the kind of manipulation shown in 1909.

Farran Zerbe continued to travel with Moneys of the World over the following decades. In 1919 he published a definitive catalogue of the octagonal Lesher Referendum Dollars in the American Journal of Numismatics (not The Numismatist!).

To his surprise, the flamboyant Fort Worth, Texas, coin dealer B. Max Mehl was so impressed by this Lesher catalogue that he published the story without troubling to contact its author in May 1919. Zerbe protested and amicable settlement was achieved.

These silver coin substitutes were conceived by Joseph Lesher of Victor, Colorado, to increase demand for the state’s silver output. Bearing the names of issuing merchants, these privately struck dollar tokens were circulated only among those willing to accept them, hence the word “referendum”.

In 1926, his masterly study of Bryan money and the ongoing Free Silver campaigns appeared in the November 1926 issue of The Numismatist and later as a separate booklet. These lampooned democratic presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan and the Free Silver forces advocating free coinage of silver on a 16:1 ration to gold, creating cheaper money to relieve farmers and the working class.

zerbe1921Zerbe received Presidential appointments to the prestigious United States Assay Commission in 1909 and 1923. His journeys to the West included founding the still-flourishing Pacific Coast Numismatic Society in San Francisco where he is still remembered with considerable warmth. In and out of New York in the 1920s, Zerbe found himself elected to membership in the New York Numismatic Club. Lingering memories of the close-quarter fighting of 1909 gave this election a distinctly ironic flavor.

Silver dollar specialists still dispute Farran Zerbe’s role in the creation of the 1921 Peace silver dollar and in the creation of a variety of the 1921 Morgan dollar long described as a “Zerbe Proof“. Legend long asserted that these coins were specially struck with Prooflike surfaces as a kind of consolation prize for the long delay in creating Peace silver dollars in which he had a close involvement.

He remained a frequent contributor to The Numismatist, with most of his submissions appearing anonymously or under such colorful noms de plume as “Portuguese Joe”.

Another landmark in his long career came in 1928 when he sold his Moneys of the World exhibit and numismatic library to the Chase National Bank in Manhattan. This bank played an unusually active role in numismatics, including sponsoring an in-house Chase Bank Coin Society that took its own part in the 1939 and 1952 ANA conventions in the city.

Zerbe remained as curator until failing health led to his retirement in 1939. He was succeeded by Vernon L. Brown who remained on duty until the early 1960s. The author recalls visiting the museum in 1956 and 1957. The first visit took place while the original exhibit layout was in place, presenting hundreds of coins under effective security.

By 1957, the exhibit had been transformed by what one resentful visitor called an “inferior dreckerator”, who eliminated more than half of the coins from the display and installed trendy but notably unsafe exhibit furniture that expedited the theft of dozens of coins from Plexiglas-fronted cases with open sides.

In February 1978, the exhibit went on loan to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., becoming its property in December despite the promise of some rarities to the New York-based American Numismatic Society (ANS). During the 1990s the entire exhibit of the National Numismatic Collection was dispatched to the sub-basement for several years.

Death came to Farran Zerbe on Christmas Day, 1949 just before his 79th birthday. In 1951 the ANA announced creation of the Farran Zerbe Memorial Award for outstanding leadership in numismatics and Zerbe himself was among the first honorees of the newly established ANA Hall of Fame.

Time passed, and Zerbe’s role in the early years of the ANA gradually faded from public view. During 2016, Chester L. Krause died. “Chet” was widely admired as the founder of Numismatic News and Krause Publications with its extensive roster of books. Proposals were received for the renaming of ANA’s top service recognition as the Chet Krause Award.

No matter what the outcome may be for that proposal, as long as the ANA exists, Farran Zerbe will continue to live.

* * *

David Alexander
David Alexander
David Alexander has been an avid coin enthusiast since the age of nine. He has spent most of his professional life immersed in numismatics, writing for Coin World for several decades, and is an expert cataloger with a specialty in world coins and medals. A Life Member of the American Numismatic Association (ANA), Alexander has received numerous accolades over the course of his career, including the ANA's Glenn B. Smedley Award and the Silver Medal of Merit. In 2013, Alexander was named ANA Numismatist of the Year. Alexander is also the founder of the Medal Collectors of America and is a Fellow of the American Numismatic Society (ANS).

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  1. Pedantic quibble from a French-speaker: The plural of “nom de plume” is “noms de plume” rather than “nom de plumes”. [Think “attorneys general” rather than “attorney generals”]


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