Colonial numismatics specialist Joseph R. Lasser, whose generous
contributions of coins, paper money and funding to the numismatic
department of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation helped that
institution build a significant collection, died Jan. 17 at the age of 87.
Mr. Lasser, of White Plains, N.Y., was born Sept. 25, 1923. He was
a longtime numismatist specializing in British and Spanish colonial
numismatics in the Americas, often publishing in various journals and
presenting papers about his areas of interest at various educational
seminars and forums.
He was a fellow of the American Numismatic Society (where, for two
years, he served on the ANS Council from 1991 to 1992) and a life
member of the American Numismatic Association and Society of Paper
He served in the U.S. Army Air Corps, 9th Air Force, during World
War II, stationed in England, France and Belgium. Mr. Lasser flew 41
missions over Europe as a navigator/bombardier during the war. He
returned home in 1945 and entered Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa.,
where he graduated with a degree in business administration.
Mr. Lasser became an investment manager in 1947, a career he
pursued until shortly before his death (he continued to go to the
office three days a week until November 2010). Mr. Lasser suffered a
stroke in June 2010 and had largely recovered from that illness until
in November he experienced a second, devastating stroke, according to
his son Jim.
Mr. Lasser became interested in coins at a young age when he took
his first job for his father, who maintained a foreign currency
exchange office for tourist ships docking in New York City. Mr. Lasser
would take U.S. currency to the ships and return with foreign money in
a brown paper bag, according to his son.
In addition to his interest in the foreign money he was seeing at
the exchange office, he also took an interest in the U.S.
commemorative coins of that era (the 1930s), including in the half
dollar commemorating his hometown of New Rochelle.
According to the January 2006 auction catalog by Ponterio &
Associates for his collection of Colombian cobs (a particular
interest), his father had to join the American Numismatic Association
because he was too young to join himself. Mr. Lasser became a member
of the Westchester County Coin Club in New York at the age of 13.
His first numismatic mentor was Julius Guttag, a famous early 20th
Mr. Lasser’s interest in numismatics took second place to raising
his family, which he started after World War II, but as his children
grew older in the 1970s, he resumed his interest. In the years that
followed, Mr. Lasser would become a widely admired figure in Colonial
numismatics. Over the years he built a significant collection of early
American coins and paper money, much of which he had donated over the years.
Mr. Lasser was widely acknowledged as a generous benefactor to the
numismatic collection of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation in
Virginia, which preserves and operates the restored 18th-century
Colonial capital of Virginia, where Colonial life is re-enacted daily.
He and his family donated coins and paper money worth millions of
dollars starting in 1994. The highlights are many.
In 1995, Mr. Lasser donated a collection of more than 970 pieces
of American Colonial and Continental Currency notes to Colonial
Williamsburg. The dates of the notes in the Lasser Collection range
from 1708 through 1789.
According to Williamsburg officials, the donation enhanced
Colonial Williamsburg’s extensive collection of original documents and
modern research references relating to the American Colonial period.
Virtually all known signatures on Continental Currency are found
on the notes in the Lasser donation. The donation included a number of
one-of-a-kind examples of Colonial notes and others so rare they have
never been available publicly.
In 2002, Mr. Lasser and his wife, Ruth, presented Colonial
Williamsburg with what the foundation described as “a highly
significant collection of 18 colonial American coins totaling more
than $460,000 in appraised value.” Among the coins donated were “an
exceptional denomination set of 17th-century Massachusetts silver,
including a large and small planchet Pine Tree shilling, a Pine Tree
six-pence, a Pine Tree three-pence and an Oak Tree two-pence.”
In addition, the donation included a high-grade Rosa Americana
type set, two 1737 Higley coppers, a 1792 half disme pattern, a 1793
Flowing Hair, Chain cent and more.
Erik Goldstein, curator of Mechanical Arts and Numismatics at
Colonial Williamsburg, in 2003 credited the donations of Mr. Lasser
and his wife as helping Colonial Williamsburg “become prominent as a
center for the study of 17th- and 18th-century numismatics.”
In 2004, the extended Lasser family donated an example of the rare
1792 Birch cent to the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Birch cents,
struck in 1792 at the Philadelphia Mint, are the first copper patterns
struck by the United States.
As part of the 2004 family donation, Joseph and Ruth Lasser also
donated several groups of Colonial coins, medals and paper money, and
a collection of 14 French fractional issues of the 17th and 18th
century. The couple also donated a collection of more than 190 pieces
of paper money, coins and medals relating to early American history
and George Washington.
Among the items donated were a 1652 Massachusetts New England
shilling, a 1766 Pitt token, a 1776 brass Continental dollar, a 1774
Brazilian gold 6,400-real coin, a 1756 Kittanning Destroyed medal, a
1784 Washington the Great “Ugly Head” token, a 1785 USA Bar copper and
a 1786 Bank of New York £4 note.
“With each gift to Colonial Williamsburg’s numismatic collection,
the Lassers continue to fill voids and expand the parameters of our
holdings,” Goldstein said of the 2004 contribution.
Over the years the Lassers have donated more than 2,700 coins,
medals and paper money items. In addition they have loaned more than
500 other objects to the foundation.
In 2005, Colonial Williamsburg acquired one of only five verified
specimens of the 1774 Virginia “pattern shilling,” funded in part by a
donation from Joseph and Ruth Lasser.
Jim Lasser told Coin World Jan. 20 that the family would
“absolutely” maintain the family tradition of donating to the
foundation. He said his father had been working on the family’s next
donation to Colonial Williamsburg up to the time of his death. He said
he could not provide details of the future donation, other than to
describe it as “spectacular.”
Mr. Lasser was a contributor to various educational forums,
focusing on American colonial subjects.
He presented “Silver Cobs of Colombia, 1622–1748” during the
October 1998 Coinage of the Americas Conference of the American
He presented “Pennsylvania’s Currency Signers, 1723–1785” at the
ANS’s May 4, 1991, Coinage of the Americas Conference.
Both ANS papers were later published in the ANS’s proceedings of
the 1988 and 1991 COAC.
Mr. Lasser spoke about “The Cob Coinage of Cartagena, 1622-1655”
at the April 25, 1992, numismatic conference at the Newark Museum in
Newark, N.J., “New Light on the Oldest Coins of the Americas.”
In addition to the papers published in the ANS’s COAC proceedings,
Mr. Lasser contributed articles to various publications, among them
Coin World. In the Sept. 7, 1983, issue of Coin
World, he wrote about Continental Currency.
Mr. Lasser and Jorge Emilio Restrepo released an English
translation and revision of Macuquinas de Colombia, retitled The
Cob Coinage of Colombia, in 2001.
Mr. Lasser received honors for his numismatic writing, winning the
Heath Literary Award from the American Numismatic Association and a
first-place literary award in 1977 from the Society of Paper Money Collectors.
Mr. Lasser and Goldstein shared second-place honors in the
Catherine Sheehan Literary Award for U.S. Paper Money Studies for
their article, “Worn, Torn & Soiled” published in the September
2008 issue of the American Numismatic Association’s The
Numismatist, in which they described tattered and mended notes
from America’s colonial era.
In 2010, the two authors also shared a Numismatic Literary Guild
award for “Dutch Treat,” published in The Numismatist.
Mr. Lasser was preceded in death by his wife, who died in March
2010. He is survived by three children, son Jim and daughters Jean
Lasser and Carol Lasser; 15 grandchildren; and three great
grandchildren, the last of whom was born just a few days before Mr.
Mr. Lasser’s funeral was held Jan. 18 at Temple Israel, in New
Rochelle, N.Y. ■