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Pittman kept eye on quality when buying

My friend John Jay Pittman, who was 37th president of the American Numismatic Association, a member of the 1947 annual Assay Commission, and coin collector nonpareil, died about 14 years ago in 1996.  In the three succeeding years, 1997-1999, David W.  Akers sold the Pittman collection at public auction.
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My friend John Jay Pittman, who was 37th president of the American Numismatic Association, a member of the 1947 annual Assay Commission, and coin collector nonpareil, died about 14 years ago in 1996. In the three succeeding years, 1997-1999, David W. Akers sold the Pittman collection at public auction.


“JJP,” as some called him, served on the ANA board from 1959 until he became president (1971-1973) and then ran for re-election. In November 1984, we sat together at Ben Stack’s funeral, and he used the opportunity to persuade me to run for the ANA board of governors.

He supported my candidacy and served with me for 10 years on the ANA board (including my two years as president, 1993-1995).

There were those who admired John Jay’s numismatic accomplishments as a collector and they were many – more about that in a moment – but my best memories were when we talked politics and planned the numismatic future of American coinage, in which he had an abiding interest.

Politics was twofold with John Jay. ANA politics was his fancy. And for more than 30 years, longer than anyone before (and, with an amendment to the bylaws pushed through by Ken Hallenbeck), no one else is very likely to serve as many years on the board of a national hobby organization (it is now limited to 10 years).

Pittman’s collecting interest spanned the globe. His holdings of early American proof gold coinage was rivaled, perhaps, only by the exemplars in the Smithsonian Institution. The British proof coin patterns, and indeed, the overall United Kingdom coinage, was nearly the equal of the British Museum.

Japanese coinage in his collection was probably second 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 were legendary for their scope.

Significantly, over the last 50 years virtually all of the coins in the collection were placed on display at local coin clubs, regional and state shows and the ANA national conventions – John Jay traveled and spoke all over the country.

Many of the holdings were actually written up in The Numismatist, monthly publication of the American Numismatic Association, as part of the standard show-and-tells from coin club meetings of the 1940s and 1950s.

This extraordinary holding was assembled over Pittman’s lifetime.

What makes the assemblage all the more remarkable is that Pittman, who died on the day before his 83rd birthday on Feb. 17, 1996, did not have the fabulous wealth of a Norweb, Eliasberg or Garrett. He worked as a salaried employee – a chemical engineer for the Eastman Kodak Company – and bought his coins the way most collectors do, one at a time, over many years.

Collected from about 1940 until 1996, cumulatively the coins constituted more than 12,000 lots when sold by Akers.

To put that in historical context, that would be some 5,200 lots more than the fabled John Story Jenks sale of 7,300 lots sold over a 10-day period in 1921, garnering a then-incredible sum of $61,379.46. Pittman’s collection brought over $40 million in a three-catalog auction.

Pittman was a native Tarheel who grew up near Rocky Mount, N.C. He spent part of his youth as a hobo, riding the rails to New York City and then returning to attend and to graduate from the University of North Carolina.

“The school was founded in 1789,” he once told me, “the same year as your school, Georgetown University. Whenever there are academic processions, our schools stand together.”

By 1943, Pittman had already been collecting with sufficient intensity that he felt it appropriate to join the American Numismatic Association. His membership application was signed by George Bauer, Floyd Newell and William Hutcheson, and published in the September 1943 issue of The Numismatist.

Membership number 9759 was given to him. He later converted it to life member 152. This began his lifetime of membership in, and service to, the organization.

Pittman put his own stamp on things and was his own man. During his term as president, 1971-73, the hobby was in the midst of excitement over the coming Bicentennial, and the initial proposal of the United States Mint to commemorate the occasion with a half dollar and dollar bearing the dual date 1776-1976.

Pittman testified before Congress that the half dollar and dollar didn’t circulate and that the tribute was positively inadequate. He suggested adding the quarter as a circulating Bicentennial commemorative.

His role in creating the Bicentennial quarter is not given the credit for which he is due, even though in the official House report on Public Law 93-127 Rep. Leonor K. Sullivan, D-Mo., specifically gave him credit for the proposal.

Mrs. Sullivan wrote in the House Report that she was “impressed by Mr. Pittman’s plea for inclusion of the quarter, [and] the subcommittee urged the Treasury to restudy the feasibility ... Mrs. Brooks [the Mint director] subsequently reported that it would be possible ...”

Pittman was also instrumental in working with Congress for the passage of the Hobby Protection Act in 1973.

For more than two decades following his early retirement from Kodak in Rochester, N.Y., in 1971, Pittman reached out to enrich the hobby with his background in chemical engineering, metallurgy and wealth of historical and political knowledge.

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.
Although I have written about John Jay’s collection extensively, when I started to put together my new book for Krause (Invest in Affordable Rare Coins: Build your retirement portfolio with can’t miss coins), I thought it was appropriate to devote a chapter to John’s accomplishments as a numismatist.

One thing that I did was decide to test John’s legendary “fine eye” against others in the marketplace. What better way to do this than with the coins comprising the Salomon Brothers coin portfolio index, which they started with Stack’s in 1978 and ran through 1990. (I’ve carried it on for many more years, but that is a different story).

Salomon took 20 coins (all silver and copper – no gold) and measured it over an extended period of time. Harvey Stack deliberately chose dates and types that were interchangeable. He also kept the identity of the component parts a secret.

My friends Neil Berman and the late Hans M.F. Schulman revealed the component parts in their 1986 book on investing in the coin market:

1. 1794 Liberty cap half cent, extremely fine;
2. 1873 2-cent piece, brilliant proof;
3. 1866 5-cent nickel with rays, brilliant proof;
4. 1862 3-cent silver, BU;
5. 1862 half dime, BU;
6. 1807 Draped Bust dime, BU;
7. 1866 Seated Liberty dime, BU;
8. 1876 20-cents, BU;
9. 1873 arrows quarter, BU;
10. 1886 Seated quarter, BU;
11. 1916 quarter, BU;
12. 1815 Bust half, uncirculated;
13. 1834 Bust half, BU;
14. 1855-O Seated half, BU;
15. 1921 Walking Liberty half, BU;
16. 1795 Draped Bust dollar, BU;
17. 1847 Seated dollar, BU;
18. 1884-S Morgan dollar BU;
19. 1881 Trade dollar, proof, and
20. 1928 Hawaiian half dollar.

As an example, the 1881 proof Trade dollar was a choice that could easily be substituted; as a proof-only issue, an 1879 or 1880, or even 1882 or 1883 would work.

The 1928 Hawaiian half dollar (mintage around 10,000 pieces) would substitute for many of the 144 commemorative halves; the modern era commemoratives were ignored because they were not yet a reality.

And so I used this approach for Pittman’s collection. In 1997, a year after he died, at around the time of the first sale of his collection, and for the following year, I took the prices realized and applied them:

The first price is Salomon, the second is Pittman. If the Pittman coin is different, it follows the second price.

1. 1794 Liberty cap half cent, EF, $2,750, $4,675;
2. 1873 2-cent piece, brilliant proof, $1,500, $1,320;
3. 1866 5-cent nickel with rays, brilliant proof, $2,000, $1,320, 1873 proof nickel
4. 1862 3-cent silver, BU $160, $660;
5. 1862 half dime BU $150, $1,265;
6. 1807 Draped Bust dime BU, $4,000, $49,500;
7. 1866 Seated dime, BU $1,200, $770;
8. 1876 20 cents, BU $800, $2,090;
9.1873 arrows quarter, BU, $1,200, $413;
10. 1886 Seated quarter, BU, $850, $2,640;
11. 1916 quarter, BU, $6,200 $4,125, 1923-S quarter choice BU
12. 1815 Bust half, uncirculated, $8,000, $3,300;
13. 1834 Bust half, BU, $600, $14,300;
14. 1855-O Seated half, BU, $700, $7,150
15. 1921 Walking Liberty half, BU, $2,600, $9,900
16. 1795 Draped Bust dollar, BU, $18,000, $13,200;
17. 1847 Seated dollar, BU, $1,100, $935, 1846-O XF-AU;
18. 1884-S Morgan dollar, BU, $16,500, $6,600 1881 Morgan dollar gem proof ;
19. 1881 Trade dollar proof, $2,000 $1,870 1882 proof Trade dollar, and,
20. 1928 Hawaiian commemorative half dollar, $4,500, $819 Lafayette dollar, AU.

Total Salomon: $74,810
Total Pittman: $126,851.50

Here are some of John Jay’s “cost” for his mini index, which I created from the auction catalogs: he acquired the half cent in 1954 at a cost of $24. The 1807 dime cost $11 from Bluestone in 1946. Another Bluestone auction item was the 1834 half dollar for $20.50 and the 1795 dollar for $42 in 1954).

It wasn’t a set of precise matches and when I picked substitutes, I low-balled (but of course used it against the actual price realized. (By the way, the price as of Dec. 31, 2009 for the portfolio: over $189,000.

Pittman’s collection might well be impossible to rebuild today, but his approach of “why not the best” paid off handsomely.

More Resources:

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2010 U.S. Coin Digest, The Complete Guide to Current Market Values, 8th ed.

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Standard Guide to Small-Size U.S. Paper Money, 1928 to Date

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