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Old friends gather, new ones made

This article was originally printed in Numismatic News.
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Boston’s American Numismatic Association convention brings back fond memories for me. I served on the 1973 convention committee under General Chairman Arthur M.  Fitts III, who became a lifelong friend. My task that year, as I got ready to graduate from Washington’s Georgetown University School of Foreign Service, was to handle national and local publicity.

In those days, the ANA depended on its volunteers, and there were some of us who simply moved from convention committee to convention committee – people like Paul Whitnah, now of M&M Travel, then of American Airlines; the late Evie Kelley of Albuquerque, who with Berta Parker made a dynamic threesome running the communications booth that was used by the entire convention community in a pre-cell phone era.

The convention that year was in Boston for the first time since 1960 – it had also been there in 1948 and earlier 1921 – and there was substantial excitement at the New England location that pointed to the NE, Pine Tree and Oak Tree shillings, and the roots of colonial American numismatics.  The location was the Hynes convention center, beside the Prudential Center skyscraper that towered over nearby Boston Common.

 (The convention would come back in 1982 as well – so that in the 119 years of the ANA’s existence, it has been to this historic location a total of five times).

Boston’s colonial history, so vital to the origins of the United States, are mingled throughout the city.  Here, Benjamin Franklin spent his youth; John Adams practiced law, defending among others, the British soldiers who in 1770 participated in what is referred to today as the Boston Massacre; Crispus Attucks died, and the movement for American independence truly began. All have been honored on American coinage.

The year 1973 was a transitional one for me; I graduated from college, moved to Iola, Wis., to become an assistant editor of Numismatic News, applied to law schools and had my first serious scholarly work published in The Numismatist, the ANA’s monthly magazine, entitled “The Age of Gold,” which established that more than a third of U.S. gold coinage had made its way to the melting cauldrons.

It was one of the few articles under my byline in The Numismatist that had no footnotes. As it also turned out, it established my bona fides to comment on the quest to restore the ability of Americans to own gold in coin or any other form.  That had been taken away in 1933 when FDR effectively nationalized gold ownership except for “rare and unusual” coin.

Working on ANA’s national convention publicity, and local publicity in Boston, I sent out weekly press releases to the list of about 190 coin columnists nationwide that I had assembled over the previous three years while serving as editor of The Young Numismatist, a quarterly publication whose first issue came out in January, 1971. I did my last issue in 1974-1975.

I did all this from my home rented with three other guys in Arlington, Va., off Clarendon Circle, now a fashionable address but then a place students could afford; the rent for me, by the way, was $52.50 a month for my quarter share, utilities not included.  My girlfriend, Barbara Bondanza, edited many of the releases, which were typed on a mimeograph master that somehow had the convention logo on it.

Covering Washington developments that year for Numismatic News was exciting; Bicentennial coinage became a reality after congressional hearings, as did the Hobby Protection Act. At one of those hearings that Chet Krause attended, he invited me to come to Iola for the summer and become an assistant editor – doing KP duty. Going there changed my life.

Law school still hanging in the balance – I was on Georgetown’s waiting list – saw me say yes, and the ANA press release program moved to central Wisconsin, where the resources of the mailroom helped move the release schedule on to two and even three times a week.  It served double duty, since I could use the press releases I wrote at night for my day job.

I  recall walking the Freedom Trail at the 1973 ANA convention. Years later, I took my then six-year-old daughter, Pam, on the same walk – and that night during a lovely dinner with Arthur and Prudence Fitts, Pammy fell asleep in the restaurant banquette.  (She is now a 23-year-old paralegal in Coral Springs Fla.).

Just last year, my wife Kathy and I were in Boston, the terminus of a cruise that started in London and went by way of Scotland, Iceland, Greenland and Nova Scotia; we also walked the Freedom Trail, but I must confess that at 58, rather than 22, I found it exhausting.

I joined the ANA in 1967 as a junior member and went to my first convention at Philadelphia in 1969; I’ve missed exactly one summer gathering since then – when Kathy and I went to St. Petersburg, Russia, two years ago.  This year in Boston will be the 40th that I have attended.

One of the reasons that I go is to socialize with old friends.  Many are gone now; some are retired. Maury Gould, John Jay Pittman, Jim Miller, Al Baber, Aubrey and Adeline Bebee, Lester Merkin, Abe Kosoff, Tom McAfee, Bob Medlar, Ben Stack and a host of others, each of whom remind me of a story or two. Like Lester Merkin, who took a bourse table with exactly two 2×2 boxes of unslabbed coins to sell, sold out in the first morning of the show’s bourse and spent the rest of the time schmoozing.

Or McAfee, who sold me the first really rare coin that I had bought, an 1883 choice BU Hawaiian quarter, at the 1969 ANA in Philadelphia.  I looked at a couple and asked him what he thought the condition was – and he told me that one coin was $19, another was $21, and a third one was $25.

Thinking he misunderstood me, I reiterated my inquiry about grade. McAfee made it clear that the coin was uncirculated, but left the rest to my own eyes to discover. He never had a problem with whether the coin was MS-63, MS-64 or MS-65 (or beyond); it was simply what you were willing to pay for it.

My choice, by the way, was $19, which I paid with $1 down and $3 a month for six months.  (The grade, when I sold my Hawaiian collection in the mid-1990s, was MS-63+). It turned out to be a good deal for McAfee to make the sale on credit  to a young college student. I turned into a good customer.

Over the next quarter century, I bought a complete set of Hawaiian coins from McAfee, including the pattern nickel and  both pattern dollar varieties; then, I perennially upgraded them, trading in with him after I paid off the coin to a seeming lifetime of servitude that ended when the collection was sold to finance the down payment on a new home.

Some of the retirees include Harvey Stack, Chet Krause and Clifford Mishler, then a senior executive at Krause Publications, now president of the ANA.  Harvey is worth a column or two on his own, especially to recall how the Apostrophe Auction group from 1979 to 1990 created a spectacular offering just prior to the ANA.

Never in the same city, but in the same standard metropolitan statistical area (SMSA), Auction ’79 and its successors put together rarities that (first year) included a Brasher doubloon, and in succeeding events, every major rarity that can be conceived. The concept: step out of the ANA shadow and make an auction sale a true “event”.

The group composed of the Stack family (Harvey, Ben, Norman and the next generation, Larry and Susan), Ed Milas from RARCOA, David Akers, originally  from Paramount, later David W Akers, Inc., and Larry, Ira and Mark Goldberg, then of Superior. I was their lawyer, and licensed them in states that had never before issued an out-of-state auction license.

In the process, in an hysterical phone call, I called to the mayor of a small town outside Pittsburgh to plead my case for a license and, to my surprise, she answered her own phone.  (When I became mayor of my own municipality, 1999-2005, I did the same thing).  The Apostrophe Auction group eventually split apart, though all the principals remained vibrant auctioneers.  Akers crowning achievement: the $40-million plus Pittman collection.

My path crossed with John Jay Pittman at several ANA conventions. I knew the relationship solidified when he took me to lunch and picked up the tab. During his term as ANA president, 1971 to 1973, I saw him frequently in Washington, tirelessly lobbying for the ANA and coin collecting in general.

Though he’s gone more than 14 years, Pittman had a profound influence on me, my life, and American coin collecting.  One of the world’s truly great coin collectors, he still  epitomizes the credo of investing in affordable rare coins.

 He was a salaryman who worked as a chemical engineer for Eastman Kodak while also living the life of an occasional “vest pocket” coin dealer – perhaps the greatest one of all time.

Pittman had a good eye, an understanding wife, and the good fortune to be around at a time when coin investing was in its nascency. Collecting over a seven-decade period during the middle to late 20th century, he had a world class collection of coins, tokens, medals and paper money.

Unlike well-known great collections such as Eliasberg containing the first complete set of U.S. coinage ever assembled, Garrett (replete with late 19th century proof sets purchased directly from the Mint) or the Norweb family collection (with significant holdings of American, British and Canadian coinage), Pittman’s holdings truly spanned the globe.

Its holdings of early American proof gold coinage was rivaled, perhaps, only by the exemplars in the Smithsonian national museum.  The British proof patterns, and indeed, the overall United Kingdom coinage, is nearly the equal of the assemblage in the British Museum. 

 Japanese coinage in this collection is probably second only to the holdings of the Bank of Japan. Canadian coinage rarities include every major one – making it a clear second to the collection of the Bank of Canada and the Royal Canadian Mint.  Its Mexican and South African holdings are legendary for their scope.

 It is probably a fair assessment that no one national museum has trans-national numismatic holdings that equal of Pittman’s magnificent pieces.

During his term as ANA president, Pittman testified before Congress in 1973 that the half dollar and dollar didn’t circulate, and that the Bicentennial tribute as proposed was inadequate. Specifically, he suggested a solution: adding the quarter as a circulating bicentennial commemorative.

Rep. Leonor K. Sullivan, D-Mo., gave him credit for the proposal. She wrote that she was “impressed by Mr. Pittman’s plea for inclusion of the quarter, the subcommittee urged the Treasury to restudy the feasibility. … Mrs. Brooks [the Mint director] subsequently reported that it would be possible…” 

Pittman was honored repeatedly by the ANA. His numismatic service led to receipt of the ANA Medal of Merit in 1962; the Farran Zerbe Memorial Award for Distinguished Service in 1980; Honorary Life Membership in 1991; the Lifetime Achievement Award in 1994; and the Glenn Smedley Memorial Award in 1995.  In 1992 he was inducted into the ANA’s Numismatic Hall of Fame.

He was also instrumental in asking me to run for the ANA board. The time was Ben Stack’s funeral in early 1985. I ran, I won and served with Pittman through my presidency (1993-1995).  He died in 1996 just before his 83d birthday.

John left me with something else.  When he treated me to lunch, I was a college kid. When we served on the ANA board together, I was by then a practicing lawyer.  It turns out he and I shared a taste for fine wine. And his wife, Gehring, whom I adored, liked Verve Clique champagne. The three of us often shared a bottle – on me.

Being a lawyer in New York City brought me to some of the best and the brightest in the numismatic law field.  George Hatie, ANA’s longtime legal counsel, became a lifelong friend. So did Max Schwartz, the Professional Numismatists Guild’s legal counsel, Dick Dusterberg, and Ellis Edlow, also ANA’s legal counsel.

For about a dozen years, I served as PNG’s general counsel (1981-1993), ending only when I was about to become ANA president.  I worked as ANA’s legislative counsel from 1978 to the end of my presidency in 1995.  And I have served on the Industry Council for Tangible Assets board of directors since its founding in 1983.

But one of my funniest story involves New Jersey politics, where I rose from a councilman to mayor to freeholder or county supervisor (eight years to date).  I got a call from Donald Scarinci, a lawyer I knew by reputation (excellent) and whose expertise was municipal government. He called about an issue facing one of his clients.

The business part of the conversation over, he said, “I have a question to ask. I am a coin collector.  Your name is similar to someone who writes about coins for the hobby press.  Do you know him?” We’ve been good buddies ever since; Donald is now on the Citizens Coin Advisory Committee, appointed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

My favorite acquisition from organized numismatics and the ANA convention? My wife of 17 years, the former Kathy Gotsch, who worked as an executive assistant to ANA executive director Bob Leuver. She served as board secretary during my presidency; we married a year after the position ended. We’ve been attending ANA conventions ever since.

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