Great Coin Collectors, Great Collections
Notable Numismatic Collectors
Famous Coin Collectors
Coin Collecting is considered the world’s oldest and most rewarding hobby of them all. Coins tell the story of humanity from the beginning of early monetary systems to today’s economic structure. Every coin has a story to tell, where you can hold history in your hands.
Rare coin collecting was originally known as the Hobby of Kings, because many members of Royalty have engaged in this passion, over many continents, spanning many decades. Rare Coins have been collected for centuries. Coin collecting dates back to ancient Rome from the 1st Century, and today the hobby has elevated to a science that is enjoyed worldwide. There are many notable American collectors that have built historic U.S. coin collections since the opening of the U.S. Mint in 1792.
While it may have formerly been known as the “hobby of kings,” today it has become the “king of hobbies.” In fact, due to a groundswell of new collectors in the past ten years, the U.S. Mint recently estimated the number of coin collectors in America alone to now be upwards of 140 million. The rich and famous have always collected coins as part of their ancestry or for investment and pleasure in the joy of owning a rare coin that no one else has. The following are some of the more notable coin collectors and their rare coin collections.
Mint Cabinet Collection
In June 1838 the Mint Cabinet was begun by Adam Eckfeldt, the chief coiner at the U.S. Mint. He presented many valuable pieces which he had collected earlier. Working at the U.S. Mint since its beginnings in 1792, Eckfeldt was in the perfect position to be surrounded by the finest specimens of early coinage.
He began his personal collection early on, and often spent money on coins from his own funds to acquire special coins for the Mint. At the time it was a practice to keep on hand representative samples of current and recent coinage, and these were incorporated as well. He would set aside the finest U.S. coins from each year, in hopes to someday establishing a conservatory of coins. Eckfeldt put aside his “master coins” which he struck with extra care using new dies and polished planchets. He also put aside interesting foreign coins sent in to the mint as bullion. This collection was turned over to the Smithsonian between 1923 and 1928. Although there is no count of the objects sent over from the Mint, based on the 1914 Mint compilation, there were approximately 14,000 items.
The Smithsonian Collection is known as the National Numismatic Collection (NNC) which is the national coin cabinet of the United States. The collection is part of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History, located in Washington DC. The Smithsonian’s NNC is one of the largest numismatic collections in the world, and the largest in North America, and includes approximately 1.6 million objects of numismatic value. The Smithsonian now houses nearly 20,000 United States coins, including Colonials, Territorial issues, patterns, and other Americana issues. The Smithsonian Collection also contains more than 460,000 world coins.
The majority of the collection comes from two sources. First was the U.S. Mint Cabinet Collection, begun in 1838 when Adam Eckfeldt, the Chief Coiner, turned over to the Philadelphia Mint the special coins which he and other coiners collected and had set aside over the years. The second major source was the fabulous Josiah Lilly collection of gold coins which was donated in 1968, this requiring an act of Congress to allow the family to take millions of dollars in tax deductions!
Josiah Lilly – 1893-1966 (73 years old)
Josiah K. Lilly, Jr., a third generation chief executive of the Eli Lilly Pharmaceutical Company, was a collector extraordinaire. He was one of a kind, with the money to fulfill his collecting desires. His love for gold coins, postage stamps, early editions of English and American literature, antique America guns, military history, and uniforms, surely qualified him as “Mr. Collector” of the mid-20th century.
At his death in 1967, his collection of world gold coins numbered 6,125 specimens. It comprised 1,227 U.S. gold coins, 1,236 Latin America coins, 3,002 European coins, and hundreds of ancient, African and Far East gold coins. It was truly a landmark collection as it contained many “finest known” and several unique specimens. There were no duplicates, as each of these coins were different. Lilly assembled his epic coin collection over a 17 year period.
The executors of the J.K. Lilly estate fully realized what a unique collection they had, and sought to maintain it intact. They realized that no amount of time, effort, or money could ever duplicate it. The Curators of the National Numismatic Collection lobbied to help obtain the “jewel of coin collections” for a permanent home in the National Numismatic Collection. In exchange for the donation, the Lilly family was granted a tax deduction of over $5.5 million, a sum unequalled at the time. Today, if the Lilly family kept the coin collection for themselves, they would have an asset valued at more than $400 million today… but some things are more important than money.
ANA Museum Collection
The American Numismatic Association headquarters in Colorado, houses the ANA Money Museum which includes over 250,000 objects encompassing the history of numismatics from the earliest invention of money to modern day. The showpiece of the museum is the Harry W. Bass Jr. coin collection. This is the most complete collection of US gold coins, experimental pattern coins and paper money. Many of the coins in this collection are extremely rare, one-of-a-kind specimens.
The museum has a variety of exhibits which are changed periodically. In addition to its extensive coin collection, the museum has outstanding displays of U.S. paper money, tokens, bank drafts, and other items of historical interest. The museum offers changing exhibits about money in history, art, archeology, banking and economics, and coin collecting, and houses the largest numismatic lending library in the world.
Harry W. Bass – 1927-1998 (74 years old)
An active collector and quintessential philanthropist, Harry W. Bass Jr. was a life member of the ANA for more than 30 years. He was awarded the Medal of Merit in 1989 and was inducted into the Association’s Numismatic Hall of Fame in 1998. Bass’ interest in numismatics began in the mid-1960s. He joined the ANA in 1966 and spent a year studying the subject before he actively began coin collecting.
Soon after entering the field, he defined his goal; to collect United States-issue gold coins from 1795 to 1933 by date and mintmark, with special attention to die varieties of early U.S. gold. He made many important numismatic discoveries while creating the most complete collection ever assembled, including many one-of-a-kind specimens. Harry W. Bass formed one of the greatest collections of early U.S. gold types and patterns ever. Bass was an extraordinary man, and his magnificent collections clearly are the finest of their kind. Central to the collection is a renowned set of essentially all known die varieties of the early (1795 to 1834) United States gold coin denominations in the finest possible condition. The American Numismatic Association concluded arrangements with the Harry W. Bass, Jr. Foundation of Dallas, Texas, to accept the late numismatist’s “core collection,” on indefinite loan and available for viewing to the public.
Virgil M. Brand – 1862-1926 (64 years old)
Coin collector Virgil Brand was born in Chicago, where he eventually worked as a bookkeeper in his father’s business, the Michael Brand Company Brewery, after the death of his father, Virgil formed the Brand Brewing Company with his two brothers and a cousin. As Virgil’s fortune grew, he developed an interest in coin collecting in 1879. Brand excelled in numismatics, he became one of the most active rare coin buyers in America, eventually amassing one of the greatest private collections of all time. In 1907 he formed the Chicago Coin Company, and when it closed in 1915, the entire unsold inventory was transferred to Virgil Brand, who also served as president of the Chicago Numismatic Society.
Virgil Brand added to his collection at an incredible rate without regard for duplication, he collected multiple items of great rarity. History has called him “a numismatist’s numismatist.” At his death in 1926, his collection contained well over 350,000 coins, valued at $2 million or more at that time.
Colonel EHR Green – 1868-1936 (68 years old)
Edward Howland Robinson “Ned” Green, also known as Colonel Green, who was an American businessman, and the only son of the notorious miser Hetty Green (the “Witch of Wall Street”). She was famous as a phenomenally successful businesswoman, reading the financial pages of the newspapers for her father’s benefit from the age of six, eventually amassing a fortune, but never wanting to spend it. She died the richest woman in the world at the time. After his mother died in 1917, he inherited massive amounts of money, and he spent her money as passionately as she had hoarded it.
Green purchased multiples of many major rarities. He had an incredible collection of coins, and was known to buy entire dealer inventories, as he was as much a hoarder as a collector. He owned many greatest rarities, including all five 1913 Liberty Head V Nickels, the 1804 silver dollar, and the 1787 Brasher Doubloon. At his death in 1936, his coin collection was estimated at $5 million, a staggering sum at the time. The massive collection was sold privately in the late 1930s and early 40s, in groups to major coin dealers.
Louis E. Eliasberg, Sr. – 1896-1976 (80 years old)
Louis E. Eliasberg, Sr. was an American financier and numismatist from the mid-1920s until the late 1970s. Early on he set a goal to own every Federal issued U.S. coin. As a highly successful banking executive in Baltimore, he was fortunate in that many great rare coin collections came on the market in the 1940s. In 1942, the New York firm of Stack’s sold the entire John H. Clapp collection to Eliasberg for $100,000, which brought him close to achieving his goal to own every single U.S. coin issue. He was able to pick up remaining rarities from such collections as F.C.C. Boyd, and others. On November 7, 1950, Eliasberg was able to achieve his goal when he purchased the last US gold coin and silver dime missing in his collection.
Eliasberg had reached his collecting goal within a decade. He had completed a coin collection containing a specimen of every U.S. coin of every date, metal, denomination, and mint mark ever struck which were known as of that date. The Eliasberg collection did not distinguish between proofs and circulating strikes and die variations were not emphasized. No one had ever accomplished this coin collecting feat before, and probably no one will ever accomplish it again, making his the most comprehensive U.S. numismatic collection of all time.
Eliasberg was known as “The King of Collectors.” He loved sharing his collection with the numismatic community through various exhibitions, and he was even featured in an article in LIFE magazine on April 27, 1953. From 1950 until his death in 1976, he concentrated on keeping his collection current, adding a few better condition pieces consistently over time. After his death, he divided his collection between his two children, who auctioned the Eliasberg collection over three sales from 1982 to 1997, realizing around $50 million
John Jay Pittman – 1913-1996 (83 years old)
John Jay Pittman was an ordinary working guy, who made a fortune by collecting classic U.S. gold and silver coins over time. John Jay was the oldest of seven Pittman children, he learned early on the value of money, working since he was 7 years old, and he did whatever it took to survive. Early in life, after his grandmother gave him a handful of coins, he was bewitched by the lure of history, people, and far-off places. His hobby for coin collecting became a lifelong passion. He realized knowledge was the key to the future, reading and studying became a passion. He worked his way through school, and after graduation he went to work for Kodak as a Chemical Engineer, and moved to Rochester, N.Y. in 1936, only earning $15,000 a year.
Pittman, was of modest means, but through instinct, knowledge and sheer force of will, he assembled one of the most stunning collections of United States coinage ever. He proved that the most successful path to rare coin investing is to “Think like a collector” which he did, all on a very limited budget. Pittman focused on undervalued rare and esoteric coins, rather than trying to purchase major rarities. He avoided participating in high priced auctions, and played the waiting game to purchase the right coins at the right price. JJ Pittman learned how to double, triple, quadruple his profit over time with rare coins. He invested less than $75,000 to build his collection from the 1950s to the 70s. John Jay Pittman received an excellent return on investment during his lifetime, through the excitement and enjoyment of his coin collection, and after his death, his family enjoyed a health ROI on his rare coin investment.
After his death in 1996, his family took his collection to auction. The Pittman sale was one of the most exquisite coin collections in the history of the world, yielding an astonishing 30,000 percent return on investment! Because of his foresight, his family will never have to worry about money again. His $75K coin collection was auctioned off between 1997 to 1999 in three public auctions for over $30 million dollars! Friends and family watched in awe as coin connoisseurs spend record amounts. They shook their heads in disbelief, saying, “He was right all this time about those dang coins!”
Many U.S. Presidents have had a passion for coins and collecting. From George Washington, who greatly desired that America have its own coinage and signed the Mint Act of 1792, to Alexander Hamilton, Secretary of the Treasury, who prepared plans for a national Mint, and Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of State at the time, did much of the initial groundwork to establish the United States Mint.
• President Jefferson was a numismatist who built a diverse collection from around the world. He had an array of coins and money ranging from contemporary European issues to ancient coins.
• President John Quincy Adams was one of our nation’s most prominent coin collectors in his era. His involvement was in general numismatic motivation, and had interests in the evolution of currency.
• President Roosevelt, nicknamed FDR, collected coins, and has appeared on the dime since 1946. As a Polio victim, he led the efforts for the March of Dimes in the eradication of polio.
Actors & Entertainers
Movie stars have always used gems and jewelry to build up their image, but privately many of them collect rare coins. From old time stars like Joan Crawford collected boxes that were rumored to be filled with rare coins, to current Hollywood stars like Kate Hudson and Matthew McConaughey, who got caught up in coin collecting after their 2008 movie, “Fools Gold,” which was based around lost ancient Spanish coins.
Many movie stars that are intrigued by numismatics. James Earl Jones is an acclaimed actor known for a wide variety of movie roles, is also a numismatist. He is featured in a film documentary about coins called “Money: History in Your Hands.” Nicole Kidman is one of Hollywood’s biggest mega-stars and a coin collector. She has a fascination for ancient coins and has begun collecting them. Comedy acting star, Jack Black, admits to being a numismatist with interests from U.S. issues to ancients. Jack had an 1847 he was excited about, until a friend gave him 3 coins, one being Roman first century.
Some TV Stars also have developed a love for collecting rare coins. Buddy Ebsen, the actor who played Jed Clampett on The Beverly Hillbillies, was an avid coin collector. He loved the hobby and respected the history behind each of the U.S. gold coins he owned. Penny Marshall, known as Laverne on Laverne & Shirley, and a noted Hollywood Director, collects coins. Her nickname was “Penny” because she once saved pennies to buy a horse, and today, she still attends coin shows. Famous actor, John Larroquette, has also become intrigued in coin collecting. He has recently been seen at a number of custom coin conventions and rare coin shows.
Music & Sports Stars
There are notable Musicians who became avid coin collectors over the years, from old time favorites like Hoagy Carmichael, who was one of America’s great composers, and was also one of the great coin collectors of his time. Hoagy’s famous coin collection brought top dollar because they were some of the most beautiful known. Today, even mega-stars like Paul McCartney, have a love for collecting coins. In the 1960s, the Beatles were pelted with pennies on stage, which they collected after the show. This started McCartney’s interest in collecting coins from around the world.
The sports world has many professionals who have the money to create great coin collections, like Basketball Star, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Besides being a NBA Legend, Kareem is known for his passion for guns, gold and glory. He started collecting sport cards as a kid, and expanded his interests into rare gold coins. Even NBA Lakers Owner, Jerry Buss had been collecting coins since he was 10 years old. He said he doesn’t “invest” in coins, he “collects” them. He purchased extreme rarities like the 1913 Liberty “V” nickel, 1894-S Dime, and 1804 bust silver dollar. Hockey Star, Wayne Gretzky, the king of hockey, is himself is a member of the ‘king of hobbies‘. His interest stemmed from a financial standpoint rather than a cultural or historical curiosity. Baseball Star, Andre Dawson, a Hall of Fame inductee and world renowned baseball player, is also a serious coin collector. His collection, considered one of the finest, was recently auctioned off for a lucrative sum.