By Thomas H. Sebring
In August of last year, while attending the ANA Convention in Philadelphia, I celebrated my 84th birthday and roughly 73 years as an avid numismatist. After the Convention I began to reflect on the memorable experiences of those many years.
I thought readers might be interested in some of my more memorable experiences during my long numismatic journey and my view of the hobby then and now. A few of these stories I’ve covered in articles in The Numismatist in the past but most I’m reviewing for the first time.
An Early Start
When I was 11 years old a classmate showed me a number of U.S. large cents from the 1830s and 1840s. I thought they were the most wonderful things I had ever seen and I was determined to own them. After several days of hard bargaining I obtained the large cents in exchange for my prized collection of Indian arrowheads.
I was very proud of the coins and was continually pulling them from their little box to show to my family. It wasn’t long before when I entered a room with my little box my family exited the room in all directions.
My widowed grandfather, recently retired, was living with us. A very kind, gentle man he went out of his way to be helpful to others. One afternoon when I returned home from school my grandfather met me at the door with a satisfied look on his face. “Look Tom,” he said. “I took some Brillo and scrubbed and polished those old pennies of yours.” I stared with horror at my once beautiful coins which had been buffed to a hideous yellow with considerable portions of their design scrubbed away. I hid my shock, thanked my grandfather and put the shiny horrors away.
My grandfather died suddenly a few months later to our great grief. Over the years I disposed of all but one of the abused large cents. I kept one, along with the family Bible, which was passed down to me in memory of a wonderful man.
A Dormant Virus Erupts
In addition to the previously mentioned large cents, I also accumulated during my boyhood a small collection of Indian Head cents, Liberty Head nickels and Barber silver coins. Some had been given to me and some had been sorted out from my paper route collection money.
My collecting virus lay dormant during my college years at Columbia and my Army combat service in Korea. After returning from Korea I married a high school classmate (we have now been married for 57 years) and I enrolled at the Wharton Graduate Division of the University of Pennsylvania to pursue an MBA.
While in Philadelphia, my wife, Pat, and I used to do our grocery shopping at the A&P a few blocks from our furnished apartment on Pine Street. While browsing one Friday night through the cereal section, I was fascinated by a promotion displayed on boxes of Wheaties. It announced that each box contained a genuine foreign coin. Furthermore it stated that a set of coins from 15 different countries could be assembled complete with a custom holder in which to display them.
The latent virus erupted and I put 10 boxes of Wheaties in the shopping cart. My wife tried without success to remind me that neither of us cared at all for Wheaties. I assured her that I would consume all 10 boxes, with or without her help.
When I got home I found that the 10 boxes contained six different coins. Not a bad start, but I was still nine coins short of the complete set and the cupboard was filled with boxes of Wheaties. Now when you make a pact with my wife, it’s set in granite, and she held me to our “Wheaties Contract” each and every morning. There were no eggs, no bacon, no toast – just a big bowl of Wheaties, with seconds (and thirds if I wanted them).
It took 23 boxes before I completed my set of 15 coins, and I manfully managed to whittle our Wheaties stock to one box before we left our apartment at the end of the school year, leaving that last lonely box in the cupboard. I have not eaten breakfast cereal since.
Coin Collecting and My Wife
In the early days of our marriage, my wife did not understand but tolerated my love of coins. When her friends would ask what my hobbies were she would reply, “He plays with little bits of metal.” Her tolerance came to an abrupt standstill in 1957 in Marblehead, Mass., where we were living while I was on a management training assignment with GE.
I was in full-scale collecting mode by then, concentrating on putting together an early U.S. type set. The numismatic market was very placid at that time, and even someone with my very limited budget could make steady progress. Most of my purchases were from Ambrose Brown, an old-time dealer who advertised in The Numismatist and The Numismatic Scrapbook, and also sold from his home in Marblehead. One week I might buy an uncirculated 1830 dime for $6 and the next week an EF 1834 quarter for $4.
One Saturday morning I had returned, bursting with excitement from my weekly trip to Ambrose Brown. I said, “Look what I’ve got – an uncirculated 1878 three dollar gold piece!” Pat said she hoped I hadn’t paid over $5 for it.
I replied, “It was a real bargain, only $50!” She stood there aghast and said, “We’ll talk about this later. Give me the checkbook, I’m going grocery shopping.” When I didn’t hand over the checkbook, she asked in a very frigid tone how much was in it. I told her $3.65, which was all the money we had until my next pay day a week later!
That was when she initiated “Pat’s Three Rules of Coin Financing.” Rule one was, “Thou shall never spend household money on coins.” Rules two and three were, “Thou shall always follow rule number one.”
Needless to say, our coin collecting relationship got off to a very rocky start. However, when Pat began to attend ANA and regional conventions with me, she enjoyed the social contacts. Over the years established her own friendships in the hobby.
Early in my collecting career I developed an interest in U.S. colonials and purchased a few well-worn New Jersey and Connecticut cents at prices I could then afford. Years later, my interest intensified and I began to put together what ended up as a small but important collection. Condition and provenance were of prime significance to me. A coin from the collection of a famous collector was especially important. I obtained most of the coins from New York auctions, which I would attend personally. It was a lonely trip, and I tried hard to get Pat to accompany me. Intense negotiations were finally successful, but her price was high! A matinee Broadway show of her choice and a nice dinner (she like the Russian Tea Room). My trips immediately began to be much more pleasant.
The Mysterious Lady in Black
During the period of my most intense Colonial interest, a remarkable opportunity developed. In October of 1984, the Richard Picker collection was to be offered by Stack’s in New York. Picker was a famous dealer in Colonials from who I had personally bought several pieces over the years. He was renowned for not putting grades on his coins. In you asked him, “What is the grade on that Kentucky Cent?” He would reply, “That’s a $300 coin.”
This catalogue features the one coin I wanted more than any other – a fantastic Baltimore Shilling originally from the Coulton Davis collection in 1890. In addition, there was a wonderful large planchet Massachusetts shilling, Noe 4 ex. Harlan P. Smith Sale, 1900. Unfortunately, my planned trip was cancelled at the last minute by a major off-site business meeting scheduled for that weekend by my boss. Too late to get in a mail bid, or arrange for someone to bid for me, I was frantic. What to do? My solution was to ask Pat to attend the auction and bid for me. I explained to her how to register, where to sit, how to bid with her numbered bid card and what my bid limits were for each coin.
Driving home from my weekend business trip, I wondered if I had done the right thing in asking her to bid for me at a high-powered major auction. When I got home, I was delighted to find that she had obtained both coins at my maximum bid limits. She told me that after she had obtained the second coin, she could hear voices in the back saying, “Who’s the woman in black,” and, “Who is she bidding for?” She also informed me that was the one and only time she would perform that service for me. The Lady in Black had retired.
In the mid 1960s, newspapers began to report fabulous finds of gold and silver from recently discovered shipwrecks. The most famous of these was the recovery of huge quantities of gold and silver coins, many of great numismatic value from the Spanish Treasure Fleet of 1715, which was salvaged off the East Coast of Florida near Fort Pierce. Other stores of treasure searches and recoveries appeared, and I followed them with great fascination.
My interest took on a more concrete form when in 1969 I purchased from Stack’s, an 8-reale silver cob along with an autographed copy of Kip Wagner’s book, Pieces of Eight. It was a magical book and I read it in one late-night session. As I read, I kept pulling out the silver cob with its clearly discernable cross on one side and the heraldic shield of Spain on the other. Genuine Spanish treasure from an authentic Spanish galleon I held history in my hand!
That coin started me on a new phase of collecting that has afforded me tremendous enjoyment for more than 40 years. I began to buy every book I could find about shipwrecks and marine archaeology. I started a file of clippings and articles about shipwrecks and salvage. I started to search out and buy treasure coins through dealers, auctions and in some cases directly from the original salvors. Coins from the Akerendam, Vergulde Draek, Association, Concepcion and many other wrecks found places in my burgeoning collection.
Researching the subject voraciously, my collection of books grew at a rapid rate, and my interest broadened from sunken treasure to the general field of marine archaeology to the extent that I enrolled in a survey course on the subject at the University of Pennsylvania. In the process, I found that the coins themselves were less interesting than the historical knowledge to be gained from the study of the circumstances of the wreck – the voyage, the sinking and the salvage. The coins, fascinating to a collector, are also critical artifacts that help to unravel the story of the ship from which they were recovered.
The many pleasurable hours of research on the subject of sunken treasure and shipwrecks led to something even more enjoyable – writing and speaking on the subject and exhibiting my growing collection. The stories I enjoyed also seemed to bring pleasure to others, and in 1986, I put some of them in my book, Treasure Tales, Shipwrecks and Salvage.
A Memorable Acquisition
At the Boston 2010 Numismatic Literary Guild Bash, a group of us were having a pleasant conversation prior to the beginning of the Bash events when one of our group posed a very interesting challenge to us. He asked each of us to describe the most memorable acquisition of our numismatic careers. The stories were all fascinating, and when my turn came, I had no trouble describing my most memorable acquisition.
In 1986 I had been collecting sea-salvaged coins for some time. I had only recently learned that a number of medals had been struck to commemorate the salvage and even the capture of Spanish treasure. In February of that year, I was scanning the catalogue of Downie Lepcyk Auction No. 66 scheduled for March 5-6, when I noticed a medal listed as “The Expedition to Vigo Bay 1702.” I was familiar with the Battle of Vigo Bay in Spain during which a huge amount of Spanish silver had been captured by British and Dutch warships. (Some of the captured silver had actually been used to strike British silver coins with the identifying mark “VIGO” on them.)
The identification of the medal “MI 239/24” was at the time mysterious to me. The condition of the medal was described as VF-EF and the auction estimate was $75. I bid over that amount and my bid was successful at $70. In early May I received a surprising postcard from Downie Lepcyk. “We have a buyer for lot No. 1576 which you bought at our recent auction. Please advise if you are selling and at what price.” It was nice to know that someone wanted badly to acquire my medal but I was happy with it and never responded to the inquiry. Now alerted to the fact that such medals existed, I began to search for them. My problem was that I was unable to search for them on an organized basis. Fortunately, several numismatic friends told me I needed the “Betts Book.” I finally found a reprint copy of American Colonial History Illustrated by Contemporary Medals by Wyllys Betts (a wondrous book that led me to another collecting area).
To my delight the book listed seven more Vigo medals in addition to the three I now owned. In regard to the medal we are now discussing, it was listed as Betts No. 93. The MI number for this medal obviously referred to another reference book. That book was Medallic Illustrations of Great Britain and Ireland,” and I was able to obtain a copy somewhat later and I quickly found my medal in the book.
The story of my medal was not over. I wrote an article about my acquisition that was published in The Numismatist in September of 1998, “A Medal with a Pleasant Surprise.” Not long afterward, I received a letter from John Adams, a renowned numismatist, and a driving force behind The Medal Collectors of America. He congratulated me on my Article and my acquisition of a Betts No. 93 medal. He also informed me that to his knowledge, this was the first Betts 93 to appear at auction in more than 100 years. (Another did appear a few years later in the auction of the Lot La Riviere collection.)
This left me with the mystery as to the prospective buyer of my medal who had an intense desire for it and apparently a fat wallet. Whoever he was he had apparently missed the medal initially because it was identified in the auction catalogue by its Medallic Illustration number and not its Betts number. If it had been identified as a Betts 93 there would probably have been feverish bidding for it.
I now have my own entirely unsubstantiated theory as to my mystery buyer. As a lover of Early American coins and medals, one of my great joys is perusing the John J. Ford Jr. Auction catalogues. There was very little in early American coins, medal and paper money he did not own. In Catalogue No. XIII, I was reviewing his Betts medals and came to the section on Vigo medals. He had a fantastic collection of 27 pieces, almost all in superb condition and more than one example of most. He even had two examples of a type not listed in Betts. The one Vigo medal he did not have was a Betts 93. I think there is a good chance that my unknown buyer may well have been John J. Ford, Jr.!
My Love Affair with the Central America Treasure
The finding and raising of the golden treasure of the S.S. Central America sunk in 1857 had all the elements of a truly spellbinding saga; a hurricane striking and sinking the hapless steamship, the heroic struggle of Captain Herndon to keep the ship afloat, the loss of hundreds of lives, and the courageous rescue of all of the women and children. From a financial standpoint, there was the loss of millions of dollars in gold coins and bullion.
After the discovery of the wreck and its golden cargo in 1987, there were years of legal wrangling between the Columbus America Discovery group, which found the wreck, and the insurance companies that had insured the ship. Both groups claimed full ownership using competing legal theories. In the meantime, those of us who wanted to own a piece of this historic golden cargo waited impatiently.
In 1992, while perusing the Bowers and Merena catalogue for the Witham and Sansouci collections to take place that September, I was fascinated to find that there was a medallic souvenir of the S.S. Central America wreck. It was listed as lot No. 2235 and described as “Central America 1958.” The medal was struck to honor the heroism of Navy Capt. William L. Herndon, whose strength of will kept everyone working to keep the ship afloat until help arrived. It was described as “very rare.” (It was only much later that I found out just how rare this medal was.) I attended the auction fully expecting to encounter feverish bidding for this item. To my surprise, there was only one other floor bidder and I obtained it for a reasonable price. In October of 1993, I wrote an article published in The Numismatist titled “Captain Herndon and The Central America Medal” describing the tragic voyage and Captain Herdon’s courage and dedication to duty.
The legal wrangling over the S.S. Central America’s gold was finally resolved and in 1999, the first $20 gold pieces were sold in limited quantities by several large coin firms. On the first morning they were offered, I was on the phone to Bowers and Merena and I bought a beautiful Accessory Uses 58 1857 $20 gold piece.
Now I had the Central America medal and a $20 gold piece from the wreck. What I now wanted was a gold nugget from the ship. (An ingot was far beyond my means.) My opportunity arrived in the Sotheby’s June 2000 auction of the insurers’ portion of the gold, postponed from the original date of December 1999. I had targeted a significant nugget weighing almost one ounce and was successful in obtaining it. Now I had a wonderful representative set of Central America collectables.
My association with the Central America Treasure reached a new phase in early 2006 with a call from Gail Baker, the ANA Director of Education. She said they had asked Bob Evans, the Chief Scientist of The Columbus America Discovery Group to teach an ANA Summer Session course on shipwreck coins. She said he wanted a co-instructor and asked if I would be interested. Would I! Bob was one of my numismatic heroes.
I enjoyed that Summer Seminar session as much as anything I had ever done. Bob was a real numismatist, a great storyteller and a very pleasant person to work with. He also proved during lunch time at the Colorado College lounge piano, to be a superb musician. Bob is still involved with the Central America Treasure and was in charge of the Ship of Gold Exhibit at the Boston ANA Convention. We had a very pleasant talk there.
Letting Go is Hard To Do
The most difficult thing for most collectors to do is to plan for the disposal of their collections. It involves facing your own mortality and recognizing that you are only transitional owner of these items. In 1996, I decided it was probably time to start disposing of a large part of my collection while I was still in control of it.
I called Dave Bowers and he said Bowers and Merena would be happy to handle my coins. The collection consisted primarily of my prized Colonial collection and a type collection of early copper, silver and gold. The auction catalogue carried my name and that of Gunther Garbe, whose extensive collection of U.S. large cents was in the auction. The auction was well handled and my coins sold well. Of course there was now a feeling of pain that my prized coins now belonged to others.
I still had my collection of shipwreck coins and related medals, and I continued to collect them aggressively. However, in 2004 I began to think it was time to let go. I called American Numismatist Rarities and they expressed interest in auctioning the collection. By that time there were very few identified shipwrecks that were not represented by a choice gold or silver coin in my collection. the one condition I made in consigning the coins to ANR was that the cataloguer had to be John Kraljevich. John is a brilliant numismatist and a good friend. I’ve known him since he was about 10 years old when he joined our West Chester, Pa., Coin Club. By the time he was a senior at Malvern Prep, he was president of the club!
My shipwreck coins and related medals were sold in Orlando just prior to the 2004 F.U.N. Convention. There were two very gracious forwards to the catalogue, one by John and the other by Bob Evans. John also did a magnificent job of cataloguing – he unearthed additional information about some of my key items of which I was unaware. As I read the catalogue, I was tempted to submit some bids myself.
The auction was a great success with most of the key items selling for well over estimates. I was pleased to see by prized Betts 93 medal sell to a friend from the Medal Collectors of America organization, and I was also happy to see Dave Bowers obtain my beloved Central America medal. After the sale, I asked Chris Karstedt, then president of ANR for some additional copies of the catalogue, in addition to the two I had been sent. She said it had instantly become a reference book and all copies were gone. When I found one for sale at the Boston ANA Convention, I found it would cost me $75!
Books! Books! Books!
Many years ago, a dealer named Aaron Feldman uttered a statement well known to most numismatists, “Buy the book before the coin.” What he was essentially saying was that a knowledgeable, well-informed collector will be better equipped to make his numismatic purchases. (This means obtaining additional books to supplement the wonderful Red Book.)
Part of the fun of collecting coins is to know their history, and along with my growing collection, I began to assemble books specific to my collecting interests. Fortunately, there were available reprints of many classic numismatic publications, and I was able to add such classics as Early American Coins by Sylvester Crosby, The Silver Coinage of Massachusetts by Sydney Phillip Noe, Ryder’s Book on Vermont Coinage and other classics to my rapidly growing library. In the process, I discovered that you don’t have to own a coin to enjoy it.
My library grew even more rapidly when I became deeply interested in shipwreck coins and their history. I immediately began to search out every book I could find on shipwrecks and marine archaeology. Pat was aghast as even the new bookshelves I had put in could not handle the deluge, and I was forced to store books on the floor.
After I sold my Colonial and Early U.S. collection at auction, I was forced with the decision of what to do with the related numismatic books. I decided to sell them at auction, and I consigned them to book dealer Remy Bourne. The books sold well. (I confess there were a few books I could not part with.)
After I sold my collection of treasure coins and related medals in 2004, I had to decide again what to do with another major library. My good friend Dan Sedwick suggested I consign the books and auction catalogues to his series of highly successful treasure auctions. The books did very well and the auction catalogues even better.
My wife then assumed that with both of these libraries gone and many of my previously crowded bookshelves now empty, that my book collecting days were over. Alas for her! During this period (partially because of the connection to the treasure) I had developed an intense interest in pirates. I then began to buy any book on the subject I could find. Someday I may dispose of this library as I did the first two, but in the meantime, I’m enjoying the books immensely. I’ve even been giving talks on the subject of pirates to local and national numismatic groups.
A Collecting Virus Never Dies!
Now with my two major collections sold and most of my library gone, there was a very visible void in my numismatic life. What to do? All I had left from my sunken treasure collection was a number of pieces from various wrecks in horrible condition – so worn and corroded that they are not suitable for auction. What to do with them?
It suddenly occurred to me that I could begin a new collection of shipwreck coins with the aim of obtaining a coin from every known wreck in terrible condition. At the next ANA Convention, I described my new collecting plan with Dan Sedwick, the country’s leading treasure dealer and a good friend. Dan was happy to provide me with some coins in appropriately lousy condition, and was sure over time he could provide many others.
There was one major exception to my plan to purchase only low-cost poor-condition treasure coins. In October of 2010, the only coin to be offered from sale from the pirate ship Whydah, salvaged by Barry Clifford, appeared in Sedwick’s Treasure Auction No. 10. With my strong interest in pirates, this was something I could not reisit and I was able to obtain it at a high price. I have since written an Article about the coin, given talks about it and exhibited it at the ANA Convention and other numismatic gatherings.
There was one thing missing with my new collection of lousy treasure coins. As a collector, I enjoyed exhibiting my coins, and it would be hard to exhibit these deplorable specimens. It suddenly occurred to me that I could develop an interesting exhibit focusing on the different types and levels or corrosion found on various shipwreck coins and the types of chemical processes that created the corrosion. I displayed this exhibit in the Latin American category at the 2006 Denver ANA Convention and to my surprise, it took first place.
Now my long love for U.S. Colonials asserted itself, and I started a new collection of these wondrous coins. No more Baltimore shillings, Massachusetts silver or 1792 half dismes. I began to look for state coins and other more obtainable coins in V. Good to Fine condition rather than choice specimens with illustrious provenances.
So after all these years of carefully building and then disposing of two major collections, I’m collecting again, searching out coins I would have spurned years ago, and I’m happy as can be. This truly is a virus for which there is no cure.