Eric P. Newman reflects on life, looks ahead

Published : 05/30/11
Text Size

Anyone who doubts that a man who has reached his 100th year could still have a sense of humor has never met Eric P. Newman.

Shortly before his 100th birthday on May 25, he was asked how he would like to be remembered and Newman quickly responded, “I am not dead yet so do not write a premature obituary.”

“My mother died when she was 55 and my father when he was 65 — I’m the lucky one,” Newman said. “Medicine and numismatics have kept me alive.”

Collectors have no farther than their bookshelves to see evidence of Newman’s enthusiasm for numismatics, filled with works about early American coins and paper money considered the standards on their subjects. And he is most certainly not done in his research and writing career either. He is currently working with a collaborator on a numismatic research project, but refused to provide details on the topic.

To describe Newman as a prolific writer and researcher is like saying the Rocky Mountains are a nice pile of stones.

He is the author or co-author of The Early Paper Money of America; The Fantastic 1804 Dollar, with Kenneth E. Bressett; The 1776 Continental Currency Coinage & Varieties of the Fugio Cent; and U.S. Coin Scales and Counterfeit Coin Detectors, with A. George Mallis, to name a few of his writing accomplishments.

In addition, Newman has written hundreds of articles for periodicals, including Coin World; the American Numismatic Association’s magazine, The Numismatist; the Society of Paper Money’s journal, Paper Money; and the American Numismatic Society’s publications and other numismatic publications.

Team work

When asked the secret to the many writing and research collaborations he has experienced, Newman said, “Circumstances develop where two people can work together [on a problem] that would be difficult for one person to do alone.”

The Fantastic 1804 Dollar, written with Ken Bressett, is just one of several examples of collaboration he offered.

“Ken had all the information about who owned the 1804 dollars and general information about the coins but I was interested in studying the technique of how the coins were made,” Newman said. “The combination was absolutely perfect — I was doing one part of the research and he was doing the other. I submitted all my work to him and that’s how we wrote the book.”

Newman said the key to a successful collaboration is to “have confidence in your team mates.”

A similar situation came about in 1975 when Newman began looking into some English coins found by local treasure hunters with metal detectors at a highway construction site in Philadelphia. Newman later co-authored an article about the find with Peter Gaspar, a professor of chemistry at Washington University in St. Louis. The article, published in the March 1978 issue of The Numismatist, was titled “The Philadelphia Highway Coin Find.”

“He [Gaspar] is a specialist in English minting techniques so he was hitting [the research] from that angle and I was hitting it from the American point of view,” Newman said. “We discovered we were dealing with Colonial-era counterfeits of 1699 English halfpence coins.”

For a successful collaboration in terms of numismatic research, Newman said, “You must realize that the accomplishment is the goal.”

“I’ve been plain lucky to trip over things. But when I started you had to read books in any language available [on the subject of the research] and spend time running down blind alleys over and over again,” Newman said. “Research has changed from hit or miss to finding something [on the Internet] using a word.”

Great beginnings

Newman attributes his boundless curiosity to the family dinner table when he was growing up in St. Louis.

“Everybody would discuss what happened to them that day. We didn’t talk about things of monetary value or divorce or cancer,” Newman said. “Everybody [in the family] would help everybody else.”

He also credits traveling the world with further stimulating his curiosity. Newman said he first traveled to Europe with his family when he was 10 years old. “I blotted up everything and then I went back when I was 14 and I realized how important it is to see and experience the cultures of other countries.”

World traveller

Newman said when he and his wife, Evelyn, were married in 1939, “my wife got the travel bug and we went everywhere in the world where they would let us in — Syria, Mongolia, Afghanistan, Africa, Asia.”

At last count the Newmans have visited more than 150 countries.

They celebrate 72 years of marriage in 2011. Newman said the couple have always been partners — “If I could help her with something I did and she helped me.”

The dedication page in his book The Early American Paper Money, reflects his view of that partnership: “To my talented and charming wife Evelyn whose independent stream of creative ideas and accomplishments has continued to effervesce our mutual enjoyment during my many years of numismatic research.”

Playing favorites

He said his favorite coin is the gold 1792 George Washington President pattern privately made by Obadiah Westwood of Birmingham, England, from dies engraved by John Gregory Hancock.

Newman said it’s his favorite because “it’s unique — only one gold piece was made” and the fact that he believes it was a pocket piece carried by Washington himself.

“It was given to him by someone trying to get a contract for minting copper one-cent coins. It’s worn, no denomination on it; because Washington rode so many places on horseback the piece was rubbed constantly by his clothes,” Newman said.

Newman said three silver pieces and a number of copper pieces were struck all with the same design.

Col. E.H.R. Green

Newman is the only person alive today who once owned all five of the 1913 Liberty Head 5-cent coins.

The story behind how Newman acquired those coins and other numismatic rarities really began when Newman was a student at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the late 1920s.

Adm. Richard E. Byrd’s first expedition to Antarctic (1928 to 1930) was in all the newspaper headlines. At the time communication from Little America to the United States was via shortwave radio, and Newman and other students built crystal radio sets to listen.

Newman said the static in the transmissions required frequent resending of messages because only a portion would be heard at any one time.

To help relay the transmissions, Col. E.H.R. Green, the son and heir of millionaire Wall Street investor Hetty Green, offered the services of his radio station in Roundtree, Mass.

That offer and the interest of the MIT students came in very handy during that expedition. A member of Byrd’s crew was diagnosed with appendicitis and required surgery.

“They [Byrd and the crew] had dug under the ice and built rooms heated with oil flame stoves,” Newman said. “But if they used ether during the operation it would blow everything up.”

Newman said he and other students volunteered to contact doctors all over the world, especially Norway and Sweden, via shortwave to see how to do the surgery at temperatures that hovered around 40 degrees below zero with the stoves turned so the ether could be used as an anesthesia on the patient.

To keep the patient warm during the procedure, “We discovered that if you wrapped the person in 2 inches of felt and cut a tiny slit for the operation it could be done,” Newman said. “That’s what they did and he lived.”

Newman said Green came to MIT to thank the volunteers who helped transmit the information to Byrd. Newman remembers the visit clearly, though he said, “I don’t know whether I shook his hand or not.”

By the time Green died in 1936 Newman had graduated from MIT and was back in St. Louis where he had received his law degree from the Washington University School of Law.

He knew that Green “had a gigantic estate; he’d bought endlessly.” Newman decided he wanted a $5 demand note of 1861 for St. Louis. The Chase National Bank was executor of Green’s estate, “so I wrote a letter to the bank and asked to buy the note,” Newman said.

“I didn’t get an answer and I was very disappointed so I wrote again,” he recalled. “I said Col. Green would like me to have that note.”

The bank responded that they wouldn’t sell him the single note; he would have to buy the group of 40 Missouri notes for the appraised value of $600.

“I didn’t have $600 — that was about a quarter of what I was making at the time,” Newman said. “So I talked to my family and they assembled the $600 and I bought the group of notes. By this time I was a complete numismatic nut.”

Burdette Johnson

After his purchase arrived he visited his friend and mentor Burdette Johnson, owner of the St. Louis Stamp & Coin Co., and told him what he’d bought.

“He asked me if I could buy more. I said probably, but I didn’t have the money,” Newman said. “Burdette said he could put up the money. It was the luckiest thing that ever happened to me.”

Newman made many trips to buy the coins and notes in Green’s estate and brought them to Johnson.
“He gave me my choice of anything I wanted and he took an equal value,” Newman said.

Johnson advised Newman on the purchase of the five 1913 Liberty Head 5-cent coins from the Green estate in December 1941. Newman purchased the five coins in two transactions, first acquiring the two best examples in one transaction that also included hundreds of other 5-cent coins. He purchased the three remaining examples of the 1913 coin after consulting with Johnson. Johnson later sold the four 1913 Liberty Head 5-cent coins that Newman did not keep.

Newman began collecting coins as a 7-year-old boy, when his grandfather gave him an 1859 Indian Head cent. He credits Johnson for helping him grow as a collector. The two met when Newman was 10 years old and Johnson was 36.

“One time he wouldn’t sell me a coin because he said I didn’t know anything about it,” Newman said. “He gave me a book and told me to read it and then come back and tell him what I learned. This changed my life.”

From then on Newman’s life has been dedicated to educating and serving the numismatic hobby.

After practicing law for 52 years, he retired from Edison Brothers Stores in 1987.  

Before and after his retirement, Newman delivered papers at countless Coinage of the Americas Conferences hosted by the American Numismatic Society. He is the recipient of many of the most prestigious awards from the ANA and the ANS as well as the Royal Numismatic Society of Great Britain.

Though he has more memories of the hobby than most people could muster, Newman said he’s never considered writing an autobiography — “I’m too busy living,” is his reply.

Newman Money Museum

In addition to his books and other writings he’s also provided for a 3,000-square-foot museum, which opened in 2006. The Newman Money Museum is housed within the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum on the campus of Washington University in St. Louis.

In 2003 Newman and his wife donated $2 million to the university to build the museum and for continuing expenses.

The museum houses exhibitions, some of them on a rotating basis, from Newman’s extensive collection, which is known as particularly strong in Colonial and early American coins and paper money.

The Eric P. Newman Numismatic Education Society owns the collection. A portion of his library is in the museum and workspace is provided for visiting researchers.

Meanwhile, he’s enjoying life. His family and friends gathered in New York City the week of his birthday to celebrate and enjoy the accomplishments of his 100 years of life. And probably to hear about his next research project. ■

You are signed in as:null

Please sign in or join to share your thoughts on this story

No comments yet