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Notes most artistic in U.S. history

A special Stack’s Bowers Galleries auction catalog is being prepared under the supervision of noted numismatist Q. David Bowers for the Aug. 17 auction of the the Harry W. Bass Jr. Collection Part V. The highlighted uncut sheets of Series 1896 Silver Certificates help tell the story of a special chapter in the development of American paper money.
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A special Stack’s Bowers Galleries auction catalog is being prepared under the supervision of noted numismatist Q. David Bowers for the Aug. 17 auction of the the Harry W. Bass Jr. Collection Part V.


The highlighted uncut sheets of Series 1896 Silver Certificates help tell the story of a special chapter in the development of American paper money.

As Bowers relates, Silver Certificates are very popular to collect. No better reflection of America and the “Gay Nineties” could be found than on these notes. This era culminated what Mark Twain called the Gilded Age.

In 1893, Chicago, Illinois was the site of a great world’s fair, arguably the grandest exposition ever to be held in the United States. At about the same time that the World’s Columbian Exposition was in full swing in Chicago, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing in Washington D.C., was beginning to plan a new issue of bank notes, that would break from traditional bank note design and offer compositions executed by talented artists of the day.

In the fall of 1893, authorities at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing approached a small group of prominent muralists, painters and designers to submit proposed designs for the new series of notes. Some of these gentlemen had done work for the Columbian Exposition, having designed the diplomas for domestic and foreign exhibitors, and worked on decorations for exposition buildings. Denominations of $1, $2, $5, $10, $20, $50, $100, $500 and $1,000 were planned for a series of Silver Certificates that would replace the notes currently in use, whose designs had been in circulation for several years.

Several proposed designs were submitted for the notes, and four of them were selected for further development into compositions that would be conducive to bank note production. However, just three denominations would be issued, the $1, $2 and $5. The remaining denominations were abandoned. The face designs featured beautiful allegorical vignettes titled, History Instructing Youth on the $1 note, Science Presenting Steam and Electricity to Commerce and Manufacture on the $2 note, and Electricity Presenting Light to the World on the $5 note. From the vignette titles alone, one can easily imagine how this series of notes stands as a monument to the achievements and contributions of Americans.

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The back designs feature portraits of famous Americans who have come to symbolize who the great figures of American history are, as well as the types of contributions they have made to our ultimate success. The $1 note features George and Martha Washington, representative of our elected leadership, the $2 features Robert Fulton and Samuel F.B. Morse, representing the inventive minds that have advanced science and technology in America and the $5 note features Ulysses S. Grant, and Philip Sheridan, defenders of our Union during the Civil War.

The submitted designs were those of muralists and the compositions were very different than any American bank note designs that had come before. The designs were thoughtful, complex, masterfully executed and controversial. As a result, the development of the notes seems to have taken more time that was expected. The notes were finally released as the Series of 1896, and they are generally recognized the most highly revered designs to appear on currency of the United States.

A complete collection of Silver Certificates of the Series of 1896 consists of just three notes, the $1, $2 and $5. The Bass Collection V offering utterly transcends completeness with 55 items relating to the series. There are multiples of the regular-issue notes in uncirculated condition, which in itself would be a highlight of most collections. However, the Bass Collection includes proof notes, progressive proofs and essays, some of which are undoubtedly unique and others were unpublished at the time Harry acquired them. In addition, therein lies one of the most interesting currency items known in the federal U.S. Series, the bound book containing the original three sheets of issued notes.

The $1 is the lowest and most available denomination in the 1896 Educational Note series, a high water mark in bank note artistry. On the face is History Instructing Youth, with the goddess and her pupil positioned approximately where the Lee mansion is, across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. She points to the Washington Monument. The panorama of America spreads before them. To the right a book is opened to reveal the beginning text of the Constitution. Around the border at the left, top, and right within wreaths are the names of famous people in American history: Longfellow, Sherman (presumably William Tecumseh, not John), Lincoln, Irving, Cooper, Fulton, Calhoun, Clay, Jackson, Adams (either John or John Quincy), Jefferson, Washington (within a wreath larger than the others), Franklin, Hamilton, Perry, Marshall, Webster, Morse, Hawthorne, Bancroft, Grant, Farragut and Emerson. All have a small red seal with spiked border. The design is by Will H. Low, a talented artist in the private sector, with engraving by Charles Schlecht, and with some changes by Thomas F. Morris. On the back of the note George and Martha Washington appear in separate portraits within ornate borders, designed by Morris, and engraved by Alfred Sealey and Charles Burt.

$2 Silver Certificate introduced one of the most elegant of all American designs, Science Presenting Steam and Electricity to Commerce and Manufacture. Illustrated are the goddess Science, two other goddesses, and two youths, representative of ornate art, architecture and design in the fading years of the Victorian era. The artist was Edwin H. Blashfield. This motif was originally made for the proposed $50 denomination, but that value was never issued. Instead, it was adopted for the $2, as here showcased, replacing a design by Will H. Low showing two figures, Peace, a woman, and War, a man (also called Peace and Defense). Roso Marston, a young girl about 13 years of age, modeled three of the figures for Blashfield, all except Steam and Electricity, closest to Science, which were modeled by young boys. By that time she had spent much of her life on the legitimate stage, including in the title role of the popular play, “Editha’s Burglar.” When Blashfield had her pose she was currently appearing as Eunice in “Quo Vadis” at the New York Academy of Music. Among other commissions, she had posed for Augustus Saint-Gaudens. On the back two prominent Americans are depicted: Robert Fulton of steamboat fame, and Samuel F.B. Morse, highly accomplished as an artist but better known as inventor of the telegraph. The face engraving is the work of Charles Schlecht and G.F.C. Smillie. Thomas F. Morris engraved the back as well as some details on the face. Morris passed away in 1898, a great loss to the BEP.

$5 Silver Certificate illustrates Electricity Presenting Light to the World, sometimes called Electricity as the Dominant Force in the World. Adapted from a painting by Walter Shirlaw, this allegory perhaps outdoes any others seen on a federal note. At the center, Liberty (or perhaps Electricity) holds aloft an Edison bulb which casts rays on the scene below. To the left, a god in the clouds uses bolts of lightning to urge fiery steeds onward. At the right a flying goddess attracts a dove, with the U.S. Capitol in the distance. This was the era of electricity, as epitomized by the “White City” at the World’s Columbian Exposition, with brilliant illumination at night. New uses for this power. Thomas F. Morris engraved certain of the details, while the main allegory was engraved by G.F.C. Smillie. The back was conceived by Thomas F. Morris and mostly engraved by G.F.C. Smillie, with portraits of Civil War heroes U.S. Grant and Philip H. Sheridan engraved by Lorenzo Hatch. It is interesting to contemplate that Grant, a great general but considered to be a poor President, is well represented on U.S. currency.

Harry Wesley Bass Jr. is remembered today as one of the greatest American numismatists. On July 2 a plaque honoring his election into the American Numismatic Association Hall of Fame was unveiled at ANA Headquarters in Colorado Springs, Colo., along with memorials for the other enshrinees. His citation included this:

“Bass, a Texan involved in oil exploration and resort development (including Vail and Beaver Creek, Colo.), became interested in coins in 1965. Gold coins became a passion and for the next several decades he immersed himself in the study of varieties and history, in addition to interest in patterns and other series. He founded the Harry W. Bass Jr. Research Foundation to share his findings and knowledge. After his passing, certain highlights from his collection were loaned to the ANA and exhibited in the Bass Gallery at Headquarters. He served a term as president and was a benefactor to the American Numismatic Society.”

He was born Jan. 6, 1927, in Oklahoma City. He spent his childhood in Dallas where he graduated from the day school later known as St. Mark’s Academy. His higher education took place at the University of Texas and at Southern Methodist University, the last being located in Dallas, not far from where he made his home in recent decades.

During World War II he served in the Navy. After the war he represented the family oil interests in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, and then came back to Dallas where he played a prominent part in oil exploration and served as president of H.W. Bass and Sons, Inc.

From 1978 through 1984 Harry Bass served as president of the American Numismatic Society and before and after that date he was a councilor of the Society. Today, the Harry W. Bass Jr. Foundation works closely with the American Numismatic Society in the maintenance of its website, in addition to the foundation’s main emphasis on charitable endeavors.

He died April 4, 1998. He was survived by his wife Doris and four grown children: John Harold Bass, Carol Ann Bass, Robert Stephen Bass and Beverly Bass Haralson, along with seven grandchildren, his brother Richard D. Bass of Dallas, and his stepsons Michael Calhoun and David Calhoun.

To Harry, the field of coins and paper money was a challenge, an inspiration and a focal point for enjoyment.

In many ways he represented the ideal American numismatist. His interest was piqued in 1965 when he bought a roll of quarters at face value from his bank, only to be told a while later that he could sell it for a profit. Determined to learn more he acquired a copy of the Guide Book of United States Coins. A world of collecting opened for him. His very first gold coin purchase was an 1876 gold dollar, Lot 511 in Paramount International Coin Corporation’s sale of May 1966, held in New Orleans.

Indeed, that first sale was a “eureka moment” for Harry. Among other purchases at the event was a $10 gold coin of 1803. Upon inspecting the coin, he was surprised to see what appeared to be an extra star embedded in the rightmost cloud above the eagle on the reverse design. Seeking more information, he turned to the standard references on hand, including a monograph on early $10 coins written by America’s leading scholar at the time, Walter Breen. Unbelievably, although this particular die was described, the curious 14th star had not been noticed. Harry made his first major numismatic discovery, the precursor to many that would follow.

The old adage, “buy the book before the coin” became appropriate as he sought to learn more. By 1967 his library was considered to be very important. In time it grew became one of the greatest ever formed by a private person. Even more important, he used his library, and over a period of time became intimately familiar with collectors, dealers, coins and events of a bygone era, while at the same time keeping abreast of current happenings. As a reflection of this aspect of his activity the American Numismatic Society in New York City named the Harry W. Bass, Jr. Library in his honor.

With sufficient financial resources to acquire just about any coin that captured his collecting fancy, he set about building a cabinet. At first he collected here and there, this and that, acquiring such diverse pieces as tokens issued as advertisements and whimsies by early 20th century dealer Thomas L. Elder, obsolete currency of 1830s issued by the Republic of Texas, a silver tankard inlaid with European silver coins, a selection of private gold coins, a handful of silver coins (highlighted by an important and rare 1794 dollar) and other desiderata.

In time he settled upon early gold coins of the 1795-1834 era as the prime focus of his interest, perhaps from the emotions ignited by his discovery of the new 1803 variety. During the next 30 years he bid and bought aggressively whenever a choice specimen came up for sale or for auction.

Possessed of a firm but gentle turn of mind, Harry Bass tapped the good parts of the hobby, while ignoring non-productive controversies of the day. Further, he was an advocate of the saying, “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” Quick to praise and reluctant to criticize, he appreciated the good in everyone, and became one of the most widely liked personalities in numismatics.

By the time of his death in 1998, he had formed the largest collection of die varieties of early gold ever gathered by a single individual, with no equal in museum collections either. Today, these pieces have been preserved as part of the Core Collection, a rich legacy for observation and study, including through the medium of electronic copying – making information available easily and at a distance, a concept pioneered in numismatics by Harry and his associate in the Harry W. Bass Jr. Foundation, Ed Deane. These gold coins are housed on loan in the Harry W. Bass Jr. Gallery at ANA Headquarters in Colorado Springs.

John D. Dannreuther, working with the Bass Foundation, created what became the standard reference, Early U.S. Gold Coin Varieties: A Study of Die States 1795-1834, with Bass named posthumously as co-author. The volume was released in 2006 by Whitman Publishing LLC.

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