By Charles Morgan and Hubert Walker for CoinWeek …..
By all measures an enormously successful man, legendary U.S. coin collector Waldo C. Newcomer was born on September 14, 1867, in Baltimore, Maryland. After graduating from Johns Hopkins University in 1889, Newcomer went to work for industrialist Bernard Baker as a clerk at the Baltimore Storage and Lighterage Company. As the company expanded the scope of its business and became the Atlantic Transport Company, Newcomer rose through the corporate ranks, taking the position of Treasurer in 1901 and then Second Vice President in 1903. The insights that Newcomer gained from these positions served him well as he ventured off on his own. By the end of his illustrious career, Newcomer served as the director of a railroad company and took over his father’s commercial transportation service businesses.
But what made Newcomer a figure on the national stage, as well as tremendously rich, was a career in finance as the head of the National Exchange Bank of Baltimore.
One of the richest men in Maryland, Newcomer was active in his community, holding memberships in multiple civics clubs and organizations and investing much into philanthropy. Over the course of a lifetime, Newcomer had been accepted into the society of America’s financial elites. He married socialite Margaret Vanderpoel in 1897 and had connections to both his home in Maryland and New York. Among the numerous clubs and societies that counted Newcomer as a member were New York’s American Numismatic Society and the American Numismatic Association (the latter, which catered to affluent collectors in the country’s interior regions, was then without a permanent home).
Matching this success in his personal, social, and economic life, Newcomer also assembled a coin collection for the ages.
In a period where collectors were more-or-less satisfied to collect one coin per date, Newcomer assembled a complete collection of Carson City coinage (nearly a century before the Battle Born Collection). He also collected early U.S. and colonial coins by variety, had an impressive assortment of rare patterns, displayed a penchant for pioneer, territorial, and private issues, and enjoyed sharing his latest acquisitions with his fellow club members at the ANA and the ANS.
That the memory of Newcomer and his collection has faded in recent decades is a shame. While many old-time collectors and the coins they owned are still topics of discussion among the hobby’s chattering class, the arrival of and great publicity behind Louis Eliasberg, Sr.’s purportedly complete collection of U.S. coins knocked some of the wind out of the sails of the collections that came before, at least in terms of popular numismatic memory.
So how great was the Newcomer collection, and how does it stack up among the greatest collections of all time?
A precise answer may be hard to pin down, as there was no grand auction of his holdings, but more is known about the scope and composition of the Newcomer Collection than one might think. Detailed descriptions about his coins are scattershot but they do survive in the form of hard-to-find catalogs and rare, collectible, first-hand documents. In addition, pedigree research and the first- and second-hand accounts of experienced dealers and numismatic scholars paint an impressive picture of what Newcomer achieved as a collector.
According to researcher George Fuld, who published a lengthy exploration into Newcomer’s holdings between 2006 and 2008, the U.S. section of the collection was nearly complete, lacking only a single double eagle and the 1822 half eagle, of which only three are known. Fuld stated that Newcomer had a complete series of U.S. copper and silver coins. Helping Newcomer in assembling the collection was numismatist George Williams, who spent more than 20 years assisting in the effort.
Taking Fuld’s research as accurate, that would put Newcomer’s collection at or near the apex of all collections assembled in his time.
Seconding this opinion is PCGS, who in 2004 touched on Newcomer’s achievement when it compiled a list of the 10 Most Famous U.S. Ultra Rarities for its Set Registry. In the PCGS list were many of the great story coins of American numismatics: the 1913 nickel; the 1894-S dime; the 1876-CC 20¢ piece; the 1838-O half dollar; the 1804 dollar; the 1870-S dollar; the 1885 Trade dollar; the $4 Stella; the 1907 Ultra High Relief Saint-Gaudens $20; and the 1927-D Saint.
Calling the Newcomer Collection the greatest collection never to appear at auction, it touted the fact that Newcomer’s collection contained six of the 10. Missing was the $4 Stella and the two $20 Saints.
On the topic of the Stella, we’re not sure that this is right as Newcomer was familiar with the pattern and did own one of four aluminum examples that are known.
The 1913 nickel was not available to Newcomer and wasn’t split up until after the coins came into the possession of Eric P. Newman and Burdette Johnson, who bought them as a five-coin set from the E.H.R. Green estate.
As for the lack of the Saint Gaudens $20 coins, who knows? Maybe Newcomer didn’t collect moderns.
Given these facts, it is our opinion that Newcomer’s collection should be considered among the 10 all-time greatest American collections. Probably behind the famous Eliasberg Collection and the record-shattering D. Brent Pogue Family Collection, but in the conversation with the likes of Brand, Garrett, Neil, Newman, Norweb, and Pittman.
Breaking Down the Collection and Recounting a Famous Break-In
Waldo Newcomer was no accumulator. He purchased coins with specificity and employed Baltimore numismatist George Williams to assist him in the building of the collection. Williams worked for more than 20 years on the project, serving as a researcher and buying agent.
When Newcomer found opportunities to improve his holdings, he disposed of his duplicate coins. Someone he worked with extensively was Fort Worth, Texas dealer B. Max Mehl. Mehl was a one-of-a-kind figure in the numismatic industry. A consummate promoter of his brand and numismatics, Mehl had a national reach and a large customer mailing list.
In this press clipping from the summer of 1914, Mehl recaps the prices realized for some of the highlights of Newcomer’s Duplicate Collection. This would not be Mehl’s only bite at the apple.
One thing you might notice immediately is the fact that coins were cheap in the early 20th century. Even though several of these coins sold for more than what would have been an average weekly wage for a union worker, these price levels–even adjusted for inflation–are multiples cheaper than could be had today.
For example, adjusted for inflation, Waldo Newcomer’s duplicate 1861-D gold dollar sold for $3,305 in today’s dollars. The 1861-D is one of the scarcest gold dollars in existence, with an estimated population of fewer than 100 pieces surviving today (most in circulated condition). A January 2020 auction of an AU-50 example realized $60,000. Note that Mehl makes no reference to the coin’s condition in his press release.
Yet besides the low prices, Mehl was lucky to get those coins and the hobby itself was fortunate that an unthinkable tragedy did not befall a number of those important rarities for in 1913, Newcomer’s Collection was stolen by electrician Frederick Holtz. Holtz, also referred to in contemporaneous media reports as either Otto H. House or Otto H. Houst, got access to the coins when he was employed to install a security system at Newcomer’s home. After scouting out the residence, he noticed trays of gold and silver coins kept in mahogany coin cabinets (one of which Newcomer left to George Williams in his will).
After paying for a safe deposit box with a $50 California gold piece, Holtz skipped town and headed to New York City, where he tried to dispose of some of the coins. Suspicions about Holtz’s involvement surfaced after the owner of the safe deposit box company, Stanley R. Walker, brought the coin to Samuel Chapman for an opinion. Chapman recognized the coin as one that he had sold to Waldo Newcomer 20 years before. With the police involved, 151 of the 1,250 pieces reported stolen were discovered in Holtz’s safe deposit box.
As for the rest of the coins, Holtz was able to fence many of the gold pieces but he opted to dump $2,442 of face value silver coins in the Hudson River, finding them too difficult to profitably dispose of. After Holtz was arrested in Kingston, New York on November 14, 1913, the police dragged the river and were able to recover most of Newcomer’s silver coins.
What was lost, Newcomer and Williams worked to replace. Given the wrecked environmental state of the Hudson River today, it’s unlikely that any of the Newcomer silver coins that were not reclaimed in 1913 survive today.
Waldo Newcomer continued to be active in the numismatic hobby and even ran for ANA Governor in 1926. Unfortunately, his candidacy did not garner much support.
Facing financial hardships and a struggling business, Newcomer disposed of his collection by accepting a $250,000 offer from B. Max Mehl in 1931. This was an enormous sum to pay for coins, as the country was in the midst of the Great Depression, and translates to $4.28 million in today’s dollars.
Mehl set out to catalog the extensive collection but never completed the task. He began selling the coins in March 1932 and prepared black and white plates to market the rarities. The composite image below is taken from one such photographic plate. From left to right are two 1795 dollars (Flowing Hair and Draped Bust types), an 1838 Gobrecht dollar pattern, and a rare 1884 Trade dollar (we’ll talk more about the 1884 Trade dollar in a bit).
What Mehl couldn’t sell was sold through dealers Wayte Raymond and J.G. MacAllister, who listed many of Newcomer’s coins in a series of auctions in 1934 and 1935. These sales were held at their West 47th Street gallery in New York. At the time, New York City was the epicenter of the numismatic hobby. Both auctions garnered attention in the New York Times; especially notable was the $875 (today $16,624) paid for an 1862 $20 gold coin issued in British Columbia, and the $860 ($16,339) realized for an Uruguayan gold doubloon that was offered in the February 1935 sale.
Newcomer’s Coins Today
A full accounting of the Newcomer Collection is beyond the scope of this article.
The connection that some coins have to Waldo Newcomer’s stewardship of them is likely lost forever. For other coins, especially the great rarities, attribution is more likely. And this research is made easier by decades of numismatic scholarship and the ease of use of online auction records and websites like the Newman Numismatic Portal.
The following sampling of Newcomer rarities is just a taste of a collection the likes of which would be nearly impossible to replicate today.
The 1884 Trade Dollar
The 1884 and 1885 Trade dollars are the stuff of numismatic legend. Thanks to original numismatic research carried out by Carl W.A. Carlson and reported in 1997 by Q. David Bowers, many assumptions surrounding the 1884 and 1885 issues were corrected.
According to Carlson, United States Mint records kept by A.W. Straud, the foreman of the die makers’ room, indicate that one obverse and one reverse die for a Proof 1884 Trade dollar was delivered to the production floor by the engraving department on January 3 of that year. Proof coinage commenced and over the course of two weeks, 264 pieces were struck. These were delivered to the Mint cashier on January 19. At this point, Philadelphia Mint Superintendent Archibald Loudon Snowden likely purchased 10 examples, leaving the remainder available for order.
The Mint, however, did not publicize that the coins were available, and shortly thereafter the Treasury Department ordered the cessation of Trade dollar production. At this point, the 254 unsold 1884 Trade dollars were recovered by the Mint and destroyed, leaving collectors with only the 10 coins purchased by Snowden.
The Newcomer piece survives conditionally intact. It is a beautifully-toned near-gem example that grades PCGS Proof 64+ Cameo. Based on the most recent grading opinions by PCGS and NGC, this coin ranks fourth in the Condition Census, behind only the Dunham, Eliasberg, and Menjou specimens.
After Newcomer, this example was offered for sale by B. Max Mehl but did not sell until it was consigned in J.C. Morgenthau’s May 1935 auction, where it was purchased by Colonel Green. Burdette Johnson acquired the coin in the early 1940s and, over the course of the next few years, Mehl would get another two cracks at selling the coin. Its most famous owners since Waldo Newcomer were Texas mega-collectors Amon G. Carter Senior and Junior.
Stack’s Bowers offered the coin for sale in March of this year as part of the E. Horatio Morgan Collection, where it brought $552,000.
Oh, and Newcomer owned an 1885 Trade dollar as well.
1795 “Jefferson Head” Liberty Cap Cent
This “non-collectible” 1795 example traces its provenance to before 1883.
Waldo Newcomer likely acquired the coin from New York dealer Harlan P. Smith’s sale of the Dr. Edward Maris Collection. Maris was an interesting numismatic figure in his own right; not only did he write a standard reference on the United States Mint’s copper issues of 1794 in the 1860s, but he also owned a number of famous patterns, including a Quintuple Stella. Maris’ collection was dispersed in 1886.
This coin was included in the collection sold to B. Max Mehl in 1932 and sold through dealer James G. MacAllister in 1935. From there, the coin passed through a number of collections including the collections of Dr. William H. Sheldon and R.E. “Ted” Naftzger, Jr. More recently, it was held in the ESM Collection, which Stack’s Bowers offered in their August 2020 auction, where the coin brought $408,000.
One of the Finest-Known Higley Coppers
This beautiful colonial coin is the finest known of this particular variety and one of the finest known of all 15 Higley varieties.
It was described on Colonel E.H.R. Green’s envelope as being an uncirculated specimen that cost Newcomer $1,600. Heritage Auctions traced the pedigree back to the collection of 19th-century collector Sylvester Crosby. When Waldo Newcomer bought the coin is unclear, but Green’s possession of the Newcomer coins would have been shortlived as the super-collector died in 1936.
Eric P. Newman and Burdette Johnson bought the Green Collection from his estate over the course of several years, starting in 1939. On the envelope, you can see Johnson’s “BCG” initials scratched over in ink. In handwritten script at the bottom of the envelope is the words “bought for, the date, with (illegible) and an arrow pointing to the figure $850, which is typed in red ink. Newman and Johnson got the deal of the century when they acquired the Green Collection and it appears that Green’s estate took a significant haircut on some of the coins.
At Heritage Auctions’ May 2014 Newman Sale, this coin realized $470,000 with Buyer’s Premium.
1804 “Class III” Dollar
Much has been written about the 1804 dollar and its rightful place in the pantheon of great United States coins. At the time that Waldo Newcomer owned this example, numismatists had established fairly accurate opinions about the overall rarity of the issue but it had yet to be as truly defined as it would be in 1964 with the publication of Eric P. Newman’s The Fantastic 1804 Dollar.
Newcomer’s example, a Class III dollar exhibiting artificial wear (PCGS AU58), was produced by the Midnight Mint sometime between 1857 and the 1870s. The coin’s provenance can be surmised from there. John Haseltine, a Philadelphia coin dealer with insider status at the Mint, displayed the coin in 1876 and then sold it to New Hampshire collector Phineas Adams. Around 1880, Adams sold the coin to coin dealer Henry Ahlborn, who sold it to collector John Lyman. After Lyman’s passing, S. Hudson Chapman sold the coin to Waldo Newcomer, who displayed the piece at a 1914 ANS meeting. From there, the coin entered into the collections of Colonel Green, F.C.C. Boyd, and Amon Carter, Jr.
Heritage Auctions sold the coin for $2.3 million in 2009.
1787 Brasher Doubloon
Newcomer owned a lightly circulated (pictured above) Brasher Doubloon (EB on Wing) that was discovered in a Philadelphia cellar in 1897. Newcomer reported that he paid $3,900 ($67,225 in today’s dollars) for it when it was the winning bidder at the Allison W. Jackman Collection sale in 1918. The “Philadelphia Sewer” specimen, as it erroneously is known, was sold to Colonel Green after Newcomer’s passing, then to media baron William Randolph Hearst, B.G. Johnson, F.C.C. Boyd, and Mrs. R. Henry Norweb before being placed in the permanent collection of the American Numismatic Society in 1969.
Waldo Newcomer, like many in the financial services industry, saw his fortunes change dramatically at the outset of the Great Depression. At 66 years old and in ill health, he resigned as chairman of the Baltimore Trust Company and left the city for the warmer climes of Honolulu, Hawaii. His life came to end on June 29, 1934. According to news reports, he was battling a serious heart condition. The New York Times said that he died suddenly. The Numismatist reported the same.
The vagueries of this verbiage–and perhaps some insider knowledge that we are not aware of–led several in the numismatic community to believe that Newcomer actually died of suicide. Walter Breen purported this to be the case and numismatic researcher George Fuld, in his writings on Newcomer, shared this opinion. We have seen no evidence that this is the case.
Regardless of how Newcomer left this world, he left an important numismatic legacy. The best of his material entered into the collections of the hobby’s wealthiest and discerning collectors. The coins that can be traced to Waldo Newcomer is illustrative of a collector with a keen numismatic mind and a desire to see the full picture of the creation of the American financial empire as told through coins. It was a passion that has long been the stuff of our hobby.
Interestingly, enough, despite the fact that just two decades earlier the Newcomer coin theft was the talk of the town, the New York Times reserved most of the final column inch of his obituary to describe the various social clubs and organizations to which he belonged. No mention was made of coins. Maybe they didn’t know the man as well as we do.