Jack Harpster is author of the upcoming book, The Curious Life of Nevada’s LaVere Redfield: The Silver Dollar King, to be released on Nov. 4, 2014, by The History Press of Charleston, S.C. This commentary is adapted from the book.
During his nearly four decades in Nevada, LaVere Redfield would collect more than just the 407,000 silver dollars that have become legendary throughout the numismatic community as the “Redfield Hoard.” He also accumulated — hoarded, most people would say — canned food, postage stamps, nails, aircraft wheel blocks, architectural tables, children’s games, and magazines, to name only a few of the many products that seemed to have caught the eccentric fellow’s fancy.
After his death in 1974, his wife, Nell, remarked to one of the estate attorneys about a near-fatal 1948 mugging LaVere suffered that may have caused his hoarding tendencies. Noting the conversation in his diary, this attorney wrote: “Today Mrs. Redfield told me that before [the mugging] the basement was clean. After that, he started going to auctions and buying about everything in sight.”
LaVere Redfield loved auctions. Beginning in the mid 1930s, shortly after he arrived in Reno, he began attending government land auctions staged to liquidate acreage in the nearby Carson Range — an offshoot of the Sierra Nevada — once mortgaged to the bankrupt chain of banks previously owned by Nevada kingpin George Wingfield.
Over the next few decades Redfield would accumulate over 50,000 acres of land in the city of Reno and the surrounding mountains, making him the largest private landowner in Nevada. But big-ticket items like land were just one of the things that attracted Redfield to local and regional auctions.
Driving other bidders crazy
At auctions of merchandise, regardless of what the items may have been, Redfield had a bidding scheme that drove other bidders crazy. When someone made a bid on the merchandise, Redfield would respond, “And one dollar.” No matter how high other bidders might go, after the latest bid Redfield would always intone, “And one dollar.” Eventually he won almost every auction he attended, simply because other bidders soon realized it was impossible to out-bid the richest man in town. But Redfield — always the frugal one — was not about to raise the bid by a whole dollar if the items at auction were low-priced material. Insurance broker and onetime Nevada Insurance Commissioner Lou Mastos once attended an auction of used office furniture and equipment, and he found himself bidding against Redfield for a particular item.
“Fifteen dollars,” the auctioneer intoned. “And ten cents,” Redfield responded, according to Mastos. “So I went twenty-five cents higher,” he recalled. “And ten cents,” Redfield droned.
After this went for a spell, Redfield approached Mastos: “Son, you really want that piece, don’t you?” he asked. When Mastos said he did, Redfield nodded and said, “Then you can have it,” and he stopped bidding. It was a game for Redfield, whether he needed the item he was bidding on or not. Hundreds — perhaps thousands — of the items he purchased at these auctions would simply be stored in the huge basement of his stone house, or in a large rented locker he maintained.
Getting what he wanted
Redfield wasn’t always cooperative at the auctions, however. Jack Douglass, a pioneer Reno amusement-machine route operator, and later co-owner of the Club Cal Neva on Virginia Street, also recalled running afoul of Redfield at an auction.
Douglass owned a small bar, the Montana Bar, on downtown’s East Douglas Alley, that he leased to another man to operate. In the late 1940s the operator skipped town, and the IRS seized the contents of the bar for back taxes. An auction was scheduled to sell the merchandise and furnishings, and Douglass attended to buy some of the items, planning to reopen the bar.
“LaVere Redfield was there,” Douglass said, “and no matter what anybody bid he would go a bit higher. ... I bid against him on [a case of] toilet paper just to push him higher.” But Douglass’ scheme backfired. The rule of the auction stated that the entire inventory of the bar was valued at $2,200 — the amount of the back taxes owed — and anyone who overbid that amount would get everything. Frustrated by Douglass’ toilet paper ploy, Redfield finally said, “ ‘I’ll bid $2,210 for everything,’ and he got it,” Douglass lamented.
Few people besides Nell realized how much “stuff” Redfield had accumulated, until after his death in 1974. At that time one of the estate attorneys ventured into the Redfields’ basement while compiling a list of the estate’s assets. He was astonished at what he found: “I was just amazed. ... There is barely room to squeeze along the center between stacks of crates and boxes clear to the ceiling. There are hundreds of cases of canned foods, now old and so spoiled the cans are puffed,” he wrote in his diary. “There are boxes and boxes and boxes of empty bottles of every kind, shape and size. Stacks and stacks and stacks of old newspapers and old magazines. God know[s] what. Everything imaginable.”
Perhaps the biggest surprise, however, was what FBI and IRS agents discovered later behind a false wall at one end of the crowded basement. It was that 407,000 silver dollars that we all know today as the “Redfield Hoard.”