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Harvey Stack – Growing up in a Numismatic Family: The History of Stack’s – 1974

Early Days of Stack's - 1974

By Harvey StackCo-Founder, Stack’s Bowers Galleries ……

A Great Year and a Great Challenge

The year 1974 became another great year for Stack’s. We sold a few major collections at public auction and our over-the-counter business was strong as new collectors seemed to be entering the field. We opened several new accounts: from beginning collectors to young folk, to extremely advanced and dedicated collectors who once again were enhancing their collections by acquiring rarities as they became available.

With the Hobby Protection Act offering some assurance that counterfeits and copies would be more policed, and the new numerical grading system offering another kind of assurance, collectors developed a sense of confidence they might have lacked in earlier years and started to expand their collections. It was a year that more major collections were started and expanded, and the value of numismatic coins started to grow.

Stack’s was fortunate in getting collections to sell, and we had nine separate sales during 1974, with many great rarities among the offerings. But first, let me tell you about the great challenges we dealt with that year.

The Passing of Joseph Stack

Joseph Stack
Joseph Stack

Joseph B. Stack took sick at his home in Palm Beach, Florida, and died in April at the age of 83. He was the older brother of my father, Morton Stack (who passed away suddenly in 1966); the father of Benjamin and Norman; and the grand uncle of Larry. Joseph was dedicated to numismatics, enjoyed being with our customers, and traveled to and made friends of collectors all around the United States. He was an incessant cigar smoker, always had a smile on his face, and enjoyed a good conversation. Dealers liked him as well, for he was always fair and helped them make successful deals obtaining coins for future sales.

Along with his brother Morton, Uncle ” J.B.” was one of the founders of Stack’s, going strictly into the coin business in 1933. Joseph enjoyed the job as a “leader of the pack” of the family business. Among his many friends was John W. Snyder, former Secretary of the Treasury in the Truman Administration, who was an avid collector. Snyder just loved coins as a hobby. In fact, after Truman left office in 1952, he promised the President that he would provide a collection to be exhibited at the forthcoming Truman Library in Independence, Missouri.

The Stack family, working with Secretary Snyder, designed and furnished a full type collection of coins used and issued during every president’s terms of office. It was, therefore, an educational exhibit to provide information as to what coins and designs were struck during each administration. When the Truman Library opened in 1958, the Snyder Collection was a feature item on display.

Unfortunately, there was a break-in at the library about a year later and the coin collection was stolen. All were heartbroken, and the Stack Family took it upon ourselves to rebuild the collection, accepting public donations in cash or coins, which was a quite liberal event. Within one year, a similar display was re-mounted, under a more secure exhibit, and is still on display.

As an interesting note, when Snyder announced his forthcoming gift in 1952, he brought President Harry S. Truman into Stack’s offices on West 46th Street to accept a group of coins to help start the display. My Uncle Joseph was a proud man to have a president visit him at Stack’s.

The Great Numismatic Challenge

I received a major phone call early in January. It was Dr. Vladimir (“Val”) Clain-Stefanelli, the curator of the National Numismatic Collection at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.

The conversation started with the plea, “Can you help me out? I have a very serious problem and hope you can find an answer to what could be a dilemma!” Knowing Val since 1949, and having had his wonderful wife, Lisa, as part of our staff till 1954, I had never heard such a troubled voice from him on the phone.

I quickly asked, “Are you alright? Is Lisa O.K.? Is Alex (their son) O.K.?”

He answered immediately, “Everyone is O.K.” I then asked, “Are all the coins in the Smithsonian safe, not stolen?”

“NO,” he answered, “worse than that!”

I immediately thought that there was a fire or the building fell down! He assured me that all was well, but the Smithsonian might lose a major part of their collection and displays if I could not give him a resolution to the problem.

“Wow, why, how? …,” I exclaimed.

The answer came back quickly, somewhat in a splutter and somewhat excited. The good doctor took a breath and related what had happened.

“As you know, we are preparing for a great monetary exhibit of our colonial coins, foreign coins used in our country before it became a nation, and of course a follow-through of all the designs and patterns used for our currency through the years, and the display was to be here at the Smithsonian in 1976 to honor our 200th anniversary as a nation! We’ve been developing this exhibit since last year, selecting the coins and currency which would best tell the monetary story of our Republic.”

“Yes,” I responded, “I have worked with you getting some special examples ‘on loan’ that are presently in private collections to enhance your Bicentennial display. So, tell me, as calmly as you can, WHAT HAPPENED?”

“You are aware that most branches of the government have been asked to prepare displays for 1976, the bicentennial of our nation’s founding. Each department at the Smithsonian has planned special exhibits. Of course, for our Numismatic Department, Lisa and I have spent endless hours planning what to show, in order to demonstrate how coins were made and used from our colonial days to the present by showing all the denominations and designs that were used, the models and patterns that were considered and also the drawings that precluded the final designs. It was to be a comprehensive display that was to induce people to see how we grew from our first days to the present era of our coinage.

“Of course you know, that the Treasury as early as 1831 has sent examples of what they had in their files and trays, for they felt we were a better place to store these great artifacts of money. Naturally we have and will use many of the coins given to us by private people, including the thousands of coins you gave to us, and the things that we have acquired over the years that we purchased or received as gifts, but WE NEED TO INCLUDE MANY OF THE COINS THE MINT SENT TO US OVER THE DECADES”

“I don’t for the moment have a good answer,” I responded, “but let me give this some thought, and I will be with Norman in the office soon – maybe we can think of a way to keep all the coins at the Smithsonian.”

That morning after arriving in the office, I sat down with Norman in our office, which was fitted with a face-to-face “partner’s desk” that my father and uncle used. I shared the problem that Val (Dr. Stefanelli) presented me and asked Norman what ideas he might have. As we talked, something came to me.

Louis Eliasberg
Louis E. Eliasberg

Since Norman and I had gone to Baltimore the year before, doing some work for Louis E. Eliasberg, and I remembered that he wanted to gain some recognition for his collection before selling it. What if we could get HIM to consider showing his collection at the new Mint facility in Philadelphia, say for a year or two, that would satisfy his desire to give his collection more publicity and the recognition nationally that it was considered the only complete collection of United States coins–in all metals: gold, silver and copper–ever assembled! Millions will visit the Mint along with the many landmarks of the days of the Founding Fathers. Millions upon millions of visitors to Philadelphia would be attracted to visit the new Mint to see where our coins are made, and also see the Eliasberg Collection up close.

“Wow, what an idea!” Norman exclaimed. “If we could get Eliasberg to do that, and then sell the Mint on this super, unique display, we could solve the problem for Val. Why not call Lou, tell him that this is the chance he wanted, and then we will try to help Val in selling it to the Mint!”

So I got my thoughts together and called Lou on the phone. He was out of the office for about an hour, so I left a message with Miss Doris Everding, Lou’s personal secretary, who had worked with Eliasberg for over 30 years. She assured me Lou would call back.

So I waited, and about an hour later the phone rang and Lou was on the phone.

“How are, my boy (his customary greeting)? I understand you have something special to talk to me about. So go ahead!” I reminded him of his desire to get more recognition for his collection. Would he consider putting it on display at the New Mint in Philadelphia during the Bicentennial celebration? I suggested it would be a great place to get the exposure and attention to his collection. More people would see it displayed in this manner than would see it at a nationwide train exhibit that we had talked about the year before. There would be no expense for moving, ensuring and guarding the collection, and it would still get more exposure than either of us thought it ever could.

There was complete silence on the phone for about a minute, which felt like an hour, and then in Eliasberg’s loud and clear voice, I heard, “What a super idea! I wish I’d thought about it, but bravo to you and the Stack Family for helping me solve my problem. I love it! Can you really sell it to the Treasury and Mint?”

“I think so,” I said, “but of course I had to speak to you first. If you like the idea, then I will propose it to Dr. Stefanelli at the Smithsonian, and to his senior officials, and together we will submit the idea to the Treasury and Mint.”

We started that day. First I called Dr. Stefanelli and told him of our idea.

“What did you say? Did you sell Eliasberg on displaying his full collection at the Mint in 1976 and 1977? Did you have to twist his arm, or threaten to take away his cigars?” Val asked in an excited tone.

“Now the ball’s in your court”, I said. “You were approached by the Treasury and Mint to give up parts of your National Collection, parts that THEY gave to YOU! Now you can offer them a better idea. First, the Eliasberg Collection is considered unique as it is hailed as the ONLY COMPLETE COLLECTION OF UNITED STATES COINS EVER ASSEMBLED. That in the 1940s and ’50s it was on display in many banks in Baltimore and always attracted huge crowds. The collection is made and displayed so that interested viewers can see BOTH SIDES of the coins on exhibit. The coins are mounted in huge frames in circular vertical racks, and more than one person can view the items without interfering with other viewers. The coins are already labeled, and all that would be required are large, flat display tables to stand the racks on. The cost of moving the collection from Baltimore to Philadelphia and providing guard service during the display would be about the only cost the Mint would have. Either Mr. Eliasberg, who is not too well right now or his son Louis, Jr. will pack the collection for shipping, unpack it and set it up in the Mint and then be available to repack it when the display is concluded.”

Eliasberg's 1893-S Morgan Dollar
Eliasberg’s 1893-S Morgan Dollar

So after hearing me out, Val went to the Chairman of the Museum of American History, where the Numismatic Collection was displayed and stored, who then contacted Mint Officials, who then went to the office of the Treasurer. They had me come down to Washington to explain and make a trip with staff to Baltimore to see what was going to be on display. Some security terms were negotiated with Eliasberg, and within two weeks the idea was accepted. The Smithsonian kept all the coins that the Mint wanted.

It was truly a “once-in-a-lifetime” experience. Dealing with government officials is not my cup of tea!

(When I get to the year 1976, I will tell a story about how the deal was almost quashed!)

I should relate at this time, that the reason Louis E Eliasberg was considering selling his collection is that in 1973 he learned that he had a debilitating health issue, and was given only a few years to live. If possible, he wanted to see his great collection on display for as many people to see it as wanted to enjoy knowing that a collection like this once existed. It is to me, the best example I know that showed the PRIDE OF OWNERSHIP that a dedicated numismatist has. It was a real learning event for me and my family!

Noteworthy Auctions

Even with the challenges that we overcame and the publicity Stack’s received, we had to take care of our regular business. Interest in buying and selling coins grew, and we dedicated ourselves to our clients. Some had decided that 1974 was a year to sell, and our public auction program brought some great collections to market.

We offered another portion of the Massachusetts Historical Society’s collection, formed by the famous Adams Family, in the early part of the year. The sales were meant to help fund the preservation of all the historical documents that were in the Museum’s possession. It was another extensive offering of some 1,704 lots from that great historic collection.

In March of 1974, we offered the Estate of Phillip Spiers, which was a comprehensive collection of U.S. coins and paper money.

In April, we offered Part 2 of the Alfred Globus Collection of Gold Coins of the World, which was a prize-winning collection.

In May and June, we sold several smaller collections of high quality, which offered many scarce pieces for our general mailing list.

By September, we cataloged the outstanding collection of the Estate of S.G. Steckler, who was a client of Stack’s for over three decades and featured many early U.S. Proof sets starting in 1858 to date.

Henry C. Gibson’s Collection of United States Gold Coins, featured a vast and almost complete offering of all the standard issues of Pioneer and Territorial Gold Coins–with many acquired from sales of ours, such as the George Walton Collection–plus an outstanding collection of rare dates and quality pieces of all denominations of United States gold. This was offered in November, in a separate catalog. On the following day, we then offered a selection of colonial coins under the nom de plume of Donald Grove, which was the name that Donald PARTRICK asked us to use so that few would know that he was selling some of his vast collection. Even though most were duplicates of his primary collection, they were of very high quality and rarity and attracted very enthusiastic bidding.

In December, we were privileged to catalog and sell the W. Earl Spies Collection of Early U.S. Silver Dollars, which comprised most of the varieties listed in Bolender’s specialized reference book Early Silver Dollars 1794 to 1803. This was unquestionably the most complete offerings of Early Silver Dollars to come on to the market in many decades. The attendance at the sale was astounding as specialized collectors from all over the country flocked to the auction to acquire some of the great rare varieties that Spies had assembled.

* * *

So as discussed above, 1974 was a hectic year. We had great auctions. We helped with the challenge from the Mint to get coins from the Smithsonian, and we lost my uncle, Joseph B. Stack. With my father, Morton, passing away seven years earlier, we were fortunate that my son Larry entered the firm, and we all dedicated to make and maintain the company as a “Leader in Numismatics”. With Larry on board, we had four (4) Stacks to help our clients and a committed staff of superb numismatists to back us up!

Links to Earlier Parts:

1928-35 | 1935-45 | 1945-51 | 1951-52 | 1954 | 1955-56 | 1957 | 1958-59 | 1960 | 1961-62 | 1963 | 1964 | 1965 | 1966 | 1967 | 1968-69 | 1970-71 | 1972 | 1973

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