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Harvey Stack – Growing up in a Numismatic Family: The History of Stack’s – 1983

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

Stack’s Turns 50

1983 was a super year for Stack’s. As the markets got stronger, old-time collectors regained their confidence and an avalanche of new collectors seemed to enter the hobby. This meant that Stack’s experienced great growth, both in over-the-counter business and at our auctions, and what happened in the company’s 50th year was just outstanding.

We acquired one of the largest hoards of U.S. $20 gold double eagles (mostly Saints) available since the lifting by our efforts of the embargo on importing gold in 1967.

In addition, there was a growing awareness of the need for Third Party Grading by numismatic professionals.

Also, several old-time collectors entrusted excellent collections of primarily United States coinage to our care for public auction.

A Host of Saints

In the early part of the year, Stack’s was contacted by a major foreign bank to see if we would be interested in acquiring a large holding of U.S. gold coins consisting mostly of Saint-Gaudens double eagles. We learned that this was one of the major banks who received and stored U.S. gold coins as payment from the U.S. government.

Once we saw the size of the inventory, (the exact number still remains a secret), we decided that in order to acquire such a hoard we should partner with one of our New York colleagues–Manfra Tordella & Brookes (MTB), a private bank that specialized in foreign exchange and international banking–to finance and sell this great “find” nationwide. When we saw the lot, we were further surprised that most of the coins were “Mint State”, having been stored in sacks and not disturbed for decades. Of course, this was a bonus, and we were lucky enough to make the deal and bring the coins home.

MTB and Stack’s reviewed the marketing of these coins and then distributed them to both the collector market and private clients nationwide. The attention required to maintain the value of the deal was extremely time-consuming but the compensations were ultimately worth it.

Third-Party Grading Gains Greater Acceptance

Though as far back as 1973, the American Numismatic Association (ANA)–with the help of most of the major coin dealers–worked diligently to protect the collector market from promoters, counterfeiters, and coin doctors. The ANA created a service on behalf of interested collectors that would examine coins for a fee and send back to the submitter his or her coin with a photo ID to let them know the grade and authenticity of the coin.

ANACS original grading photoPrior to this, “adjectival” grading had been the way coins were normally graded. However, after Dr. William Sheldon wrote his book on United States large cents: 1793-1814 and introduce “numerical” grading to the hobby, most large cent and half cent collectors adopted his new system. For, as Dr. Sheldon pronounced, the grade of the coin can be described by a number; its surfaces, color, strike, and major characteristics such as bag marks could be expressed in numbers, with adjectival letters helping to qualify it. Sheldon also produced a basal value for each date and variety, which multiplied by the number grade would suggest the rarity and possible monetary value of a given copper coin.

Though many afterward had tried to use the Sheldon System for other coins of other metals, its use led to many disagreements and so the system developed by the ANA through ANACS was used for many years (albeit not very successfully). But an ANACS certificate did give some assurance to the buying public. As more and more coins were submitted and delays began to occur in getting the certification back, the ANACS service increasingly became unable to satisfy collector demand.

In 1983, a group of advanced dealers decided to form a service of their own, and the Professional Coin Dealers Service–or PCGS as it came to be known a few years later–was born.

With leading professional David Hall as president, PCGS introduced a different kind of service than ANACS provided. They had small groups of examiners to agree as to the grade of a coin and then enclosed it in a SEALED plastic holder (commonly known as a “slab”) along with the certification label and provided a guaranty of what was encased. The idea caught on quickly and the PCGS holder started to be used nationally.

Though Stack’s did not use the system initially and relied mainly on adjectival grading and description, numerical grading is now used almost universally by dealers and collectors in the United States (not so much oversees, or for ancient coins). Nevertheless, our biggest problem with the system was that it was conceived for large cents, which are made of copper and tone readily, and Sheldon’s idea was to use adjectival grading in tandem with numbers to describe the amount of the natural red color inherent in most copper coins. It provided no indication for the toning, color, and clarity of silver, other types of copper (from small cents on), and gold. Most of our collectors who were not involved with copper coins preferred adjectival grading, and we acted accordingly.

However, PCGS spent almost three years in getting their services running and accepted. Though Dr. Sheldon as early as 1949 was explaining the combined use of adjectival and numerical grading, no real understanding of how to apply numerical grading to other coinage existed in the hobby at this point.

Major dealers in America tried to introduce the additional system as early as 1986 (after PCGS had established themselves and became somewhat accepted) and another company, Numismatic Certification Service (NCS), which started in 1986, took on the role of providing services to verify grade, genuineness, and a coin’s state of preservation. The idea that more people, especially those who started in later years, need help and verification created a market for the services and became another way to express a grade. In the early days, as with earlier issued coppers, many disputes and rejections occurred, for the standardization of third party grading was very difficult to establish precisely.

Price lists, auction catalogs, and showcases started to use the numerical grade in tandem with adjectival grades and greatly helped spread its usage – though the Red Book, as far back as the mid-1970s, did list and try to explain the system but not all understood. Adoption took quite a while to catch on, but today in 2019 it is widely accepted.

Public Auctions & Famous Pedigrees

FEBRUARY: The first major collection sold by Stack’s in 1983 was offered on February 2: the Eugene J. Detmer Collection of United States and Foreign Gold and Silver coins, which totaled some 1,364 Lots. Detmer was a famous mechanical engineer who served in the U.S. Navy during World War II. His interest, which he picked up while serving overseas, was first in learning about early coinage and we offered some 484 lots of ancient, gold, and silver coins in very high quality.

Eugene J. Detmer CollectionHe amassed nearly 1,000 more special and choice coins from all series. In U.S. gold he bought an 1854-D $3.00 gold as it was the only one of this denomination struck in Dahlonega; a $4.00 Stella because of its uniqueness of denomination; a selection of other U.S. Gold, $1.00 to $20.00, based on grade; and some early $5.00 and $10.00 eagles, because they were among our earliest gold coinage. In later gold, he had an almost complete set of Indian Head $10.00 coins, which included both varieties of 1907, 1920-S, 1930-S, and the rarely offered 1933. In double eagle $20.00 gold, he owned some great rarities, i.e.: 1854-O, 1855-O 1856-O, l861-S Paquet, l870-CC, l882-87, l920-S, 1921, 1926-D and S, l927-S, 1929, 1930-S, 1931, 1932-P and D – plus gold Proof Sets from 1899 and 1905. He also amassed a great type collection of Pioneer and Territorial gold coins.

Overall, this was an important collection to offer in 1983, bringing out old and new collectors to participate in the sale.

MARCH: Stack’s March Sale featured another outstanding collection, of Ancient and Foreign, and a splendid general collection of United States Gold, Silver, and Copper Coins. It contained over 1,300 lots that had coins on many collectors “want lists” and so they came in droves to participate.

There was an extensive collection of U.S. gold, from $1.00 to $20.00, but the highlight was a group of U.S. silver dollars. Again, because of the scope of this sale, we attracted a large number of mail bids and members of the general public and set many record prices. The market was trying to find many of the coins we had for sale, and collectors bid enthusiastically.

APRIL: As what had been customary for almost two decades, Stack’s was awarded the privilege of conducting the annual New York Numismatic Convention sale. As we tried to offer coins of interest to collectors of all fields we offered Ancient Judaean Coins, Foreign Crowns and Talers of the World, and United States coins, from the half cent to the double eagle. Additional coins from the noteworthy Robison Collection, the funds of which were to be shared by Cornell University and Rensselaer Polytech, as it was in our earlier sales of the massive and outstanding collection.

In addition, we had a lovely group of Colonial coins and a massive run of U.S. Gold with duplicates. It contained 1,503 exciting lots of major collector interest.

JUNE: Once again, we offered numismatic items for all different areas of collector interest. Our June sale had a wide selection of United States Gold, Silver and Copper Coins from the early Colonial period in all grades. It consisted also of a splendid array of Pioneer and Territorial coinage, and also an important group of U.S. Currency notes. This sale had 927 lots of interest.

Auction '83JULY: Once again, Stack’s, Paramount, Superior, and Rarcoa banded together to offer their annual Apostrophe Auction (called this year Auction ’83) Each company gathered together some 500 lots each, for a total of 2,000, containing many great rarities and type coins that, as usual, drew in active bidders from all parts of the country. As it was the custom there were four separate sessions, each company offering an array of U.S. Type Coins, rare and wanted dates and mints, and major pioneer and territorial specimens.

The lots were almost all either solid Mint State or Gem Proofs.

I may be a little biased, but the Apostrophe sale was the summer event each year it was held, with many bidders scheduled their summer holidays to attend.

SEPTEMBER: Once again Stack’s was privileged to serve a museum or educational institution – this time we offered from the J. Pierpont Morgan Collection, a premier collection of ancient coins that totaled 101 lots. The quality and rarity of the offering brought dealers and collectors from all parts of the United States and around the world.

After the sale of the Morgan collection, we prepared another special catalog that featured the collection of Dr. George J. Oviedo, Jr., which contained one of the most complete and high-quality selections of U.S. Half Dollars that had been offered in many years. On its own, it rivaled in quality some of our previous offerings of the series as it contained coins from the collections of Dr. E. Yale Clark, Reed Hawn, and James A. Stack (no relation) – all of which were sold at previous Stack’s public auctions. Though not complete it boasted a 1794, a 1795 3 Leaf, five different varieties of 1795, both varieties of 1796, a 1797, an 1801, an 1802, and a number of varieties to 1807.

Highlights in the Capped Bust section were a superb 1815, an 1818/17 specimen Proof, an 1836 Lettered Edge also in Proof – plus a substantial number of dates and varieties included from 1807 to 1839-O. Within the late design was one of the highlights of the early half dollar series, the extremely rare 1838-O (a world-class rarity). The balance of the half dollar series, from 1840 to 1947, though not complete, had many superb and condition census dates and mints, in Mint State and brilliant Proofs.

In addition to the above, there were offered in the same sale rare and choice type coins in all metals, rich in early dates and mintmarks.

OCTOBER: Dr. Jerome S. Coles (known as Jerry to his close friends and the Stack Family) started collecting gold coins of the United States in the early 1960s. He had acquired Norman Stack’s book, Type Coins of the United States, and used the gold section as his guide to what he might need to collect. As he progressed, he became enamored with the early issues of U.S. Gold (those issued from 1795 to 1834) and tried to get as many examples as were offered by us as he could.

As a number of catalogs crossed his desk that featured Pioneer and Territorial gold coins, his interests went to those as well, and he attempted and almost completed one each of what issues were made, mostly by private firms. Other than the famous George Walton Collection, and later Amon Carter (both sold by us), has there been a collection as complete and as high in quality as those in the Coles Collection.

Jerome Coles was a noted surgeon, who left his practice in 1946 to join the Philip H. Hunt Chemical Co., and by 1950 he became the CEO of the corporation. The Hunt Co. was one of the largest photographic chemical manufacturers and served all processing companies world wide. Dr. Coles became later Chairman of the Board of New York University Medical Center in New York, for decades. Jerry (as he preferred us to call him) attended most of the important auction sales we conducted, and bid enthusiastically to acquire the coins he desired.

The unforgettable highlight of the Coles Collection was the virtually complete offering of his remarkable and extremely rare Pioneer and Territorial Gold Coins. It began with the Bechtler coins, (21 different), Augustus Humbert and the U.S. Assay Office array of 10 different “slugs’ (Octagonal $50.00 gold) plus the lower denomination issues, Baldwin (cowboy), Kellogg & Co. (Round $50.00) and all denominations from $2.50 – $20.00 gold, Miner’s Bank, Moffatt & Co. $16.00 ingot, plus the other denominations, N G N, Pacific Co., Mormon and Oregon issues, Parson & Co., Clark Gruger, Conway & Co. – to give an idea of how complete his collection was when offered.

Special Note: During the 1960s and up to when the Coles Collection was sold, a number of important collections of Pioneer and Territorial collections were also assembled and sold (none as complete as the Coles collection, however). However, since the Cole sale, no extensive and representative collection has been formed and eventually made available – even after the Walton and Carter collections. The sale of the Coles collection was a history-making event.

DECEMBER: If one had predicted that one of the most famous and best collections of United States Colonial and Early American Coins would be marketed in the same year, Stack’s–a well-known coin auctioneer–would have replied “No way!” But it was.

The John L. Roper II Collection

For the concluding month of 1983, Stack’s was awarded the opportunity to offer the spectacular collection formed by John L. Roper II, consisting of 684 lots of many of the choicest and rare coins of the highly collected Early American and Colonial series. One of if not the most important collection ever formed and sold at public auction.

John L. Roper II was a native of Norfolk, Virginia, whose ancestors were among the earliest settlers in this colony. Mr. Roper, whose friends called him “Jack”, was for decades the CEO and President of the famous Norfolk Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Co. in the United States. Before, during, and after World War II, they refitted using their drydocks many of the commercial and warships from worldwide companies. In the early 1970s, the company, under his and his sons’ direction, built a new dry dock facility to accommodate the largest ships that sailed the seven seas. Jack was dedicated to the City of Norfolk, an active officer in several banks, and a diligent contributor to many charities. He loved the history of the Virginia settlement and the development of Norfolk. He decided to collect the monies used in the colonies as a tribute to them.

The Roper Collection contained a major assemblage of all coins struck in the colonies, including some varieties.

As a major officer of the United Virginia National Bank, he offered his collection for display in the lobby of the bank, in a museum setting so others could view a survey of the country’s monetary development. Though the collection was to be on display for just three to six months in the early 1970s, hundreds of thousands of children, and over one million people visited the display. Therefore the coins, being so popular, remained on display for about two years.

It was later in the decade that he first discussed with Stack’s about having his collection cataloged for auction, with as much reference material included as possible.

John L. Roper passed away in April 1983 and left instructions in his will that Stack’s, who had worked closely with him for many, many years, would offer his collection at public auction as they had previously agreed to do when discussing his estate. Mr. Roper was a close friend of R.L. Miles, Jr., whose collection we also helped build and sell, likewise at public auction.

In order to prepare a catalog that could be a “reference text” and a guide to those who wish to study and collect the coins of Colonial America, we had a team dedicated to the task. Norman, Larry and I represented our in-house staff, and we also engaged numismatists David Sunderman and Richard Picker, two eminent specialists in Colonial America, to produce the guide. We wanted to fulfill our promise to “Jack” Roper, and we did.

The completeness of the various types of Colonial American coinage is by far one of the most important collections to come to market in many a decade. Below are listed the colonial issues, and to the extent that Roper had representation, I am listing in parentheses the number of each:


Overall, the John L. Roper II Collection offered the greatest opportunity to once again acquire some of the greatest rarities, varieties, finest-known examples that had been available for many, many decades earlier. It is known as the “Finest and most complete type collection of Colonial American coins offered for sale at public auction in almost a half a century”!

With the sale of the John L. Roper collection and the other named collections offered during 1983, Stack’s became one of the pinnacle numismatic auctioneers and dealers in the United States. Our sales became “Landmark Sales”, recognizing all the collections we built during this period.

* * *

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 | 1974 | 1975 | 1976 | 1977 | 1978 | 1979 | 1980 | 1981 | 1982

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