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Q. David Bowers: Summertime in Numismatics


By Q. David Bowers, Founder of Stack’s Bowers
“Summertime and the Living is Easy,” as the song from Porgy and Bess goes. Welcome to my latest blog set in the twilight of the month of July. While summer is vacation time for many, numismatics knows no season–although it does slow down. While no figures are available, I might guess that 10% to 15% of our clients are off to National Parks, visiting tourist sites and cities, cruising, or somewhere other than their homes and offices. Today, keeping in touch by email is the reality, including bidding live at auctions, so no one needs to miss much.

Going back years ago and reading the American Journal of Numismatics and The Numismatist, it was common practice for coin dealers to leave New York City, Boston, or other places and head off to Europe. The favorite stopping place there was London, with multiple coin dealers on hand, often with scarce, rare and interesting United States coins to offer. In the 1780s and 1790s when there was hardly any numismatic interest at all on this side of the Atlantic, in England numismatics was a popular pursuit. Thousands of people, at least, and maybe tens of thousands chased after various interesting things, favorites being copper penny-size tokens with various inscriptions ranging from historical to satirical. Today these are called conder tokens after James Conder, who wrote a book on them.

At the same time, collectors in England sought coins from other countries, just as they do today. Among distant locations was the United States, which, after all, had been a British colony a decade or two earlier. More than just a few half cents, large cents, and silver coins were acquired and placed into English cabinets. Years later, beginning in a large way in the 1870s and 1880s, American dealers were richly rewarded with things such as 1793 Chain and Wreath cents, half cents of 1796 and other pieces.

Fast forward to the early 1960s, when I regularly visited England and other European countries in the search for coins. The various British dealers always had some interesting American coins on hand. The three leading dealers were A.H. Baldwin, B.A. Seaby, and Spink & Son. Although I was able to buy quite a few British and other foreign coins from the Baldwin shop, the United States coins had been promised to others, mainly to Emery May Holden Norweb, who had first choice, then to dealer Lester Merkin. Not so with Seaby and Spink, who sold to just about everyone. Although I never found a 1796 half cent or 1794 silver dollar, I did buy many other things.

I would also hire a car and driver and go around the countryside. I recall stopping by Stonehenge, today a major attraction, but which in 1960 stood in a grassy field with grazing animals and no historical marker. On one stop to visit a collector I purchased a number of United States Proof sets from the 1880s and 1890s. We talked for a long time and he was interested in learning about numismatics in America. In one side of his living room he had a very nice hall clock with a pendulum and chimes, which I admired. A year or two later I received a letter from England, from his widow stating that the collector had passed away and had willed his clock to me! This was unexpected and quite exciting and I was about to arrange for crating and shipping when I received another letter stating that his children had no intention whatever of letting this go to America.

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