Margo Russell on the scene of hobby newsmaking events in the 1960s, 70s

By , Coin World
Published : 02/06/15
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Throughout most of the first two decades of Coin World’s 55 years of publishing, Editor Margo Russell was on the scene during many newsmaking events in the hobby.

Mrs. Russell died Jan. 26, 2015, at the age of 95.

Here are a few highlights of some of those newsmaking events in which Russell was an active participant through her editorials and testimony before the U.S. Congress.

Lilly Collection

One of the big stories in the world of coins in 1967 was the transference of the Josiah K. Lilly Collection of gold coins to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Numismatic Collection.

Russell and other hobby leaders were actively involved in testifying before Congress in support of legislation that would authorize a $5.5 million tax write-off to the Lilly estate in exchange for the collection.

In 1968 the collection became one of the main elements on display at the Smithsonian. The main numismatic exhibits were dismantled in 2004 to make way for exhibits of broader interest that may or may not include coins.

In a story published in the July 28, 2014, issue of Coin World, the newly appointed curator of the National Numismatic Collection, Ellen Feingold, said returning more of the Lilly gold coin collection to public display was among her goals.

Hobby Protection Act

Russell’s coverage of a Feb. 28, 1973, hearing before a House subcommittee on Commerce and Finance, published in the March 14, 1973, issue of Coin World, provided collectors insights into the beginnings of the Hobby Protection Act.

Russell was a witness at the hearing and her testimony sounds like it could be given today in light of the increasing tsunami of counterfeits flooding the market.

She testified that “coins and related numismatic items are indelible footsteps of time — objects so historic we can reconstruct entire civilizations from them.”

She continued: “Mr. Chairman, the thousands of readers of the numismatic press and those on the Mint’s mailing list include some of our brightest and most inquiring young people.

“They not only learn history from coins, but an all-important ethic: Misrepresentation and deception have no place anywhere, but especially in numismatics, a multi-million dollar science-hobby-industry.

“Unmarked replicas of genuine numismatic items are flagrant falsification, trickery that can cause problems for generations. Because we believe there are loopholes in our existing laws, replica U.S. Colonial coins, which preceded official U.S. coinage for more than a hundred years, and U.S. provisional coinage, issued by private banks and coiners during the gold rushes of the 19th century are being fabricated in giant quantities.”

Included in her testimony were copies of her editorials concerning the alarming rise in replica “coins.”

Ultimately, legislation calling for more protection was approved by Congress and on Nov. 29, 1973, the Hobby Protection Act became law.

Fort Knox gold

On Page 1 of the Oct. 9, 1974, issue of Coin World, is a detailed report by Russell about the first public check on the gold supply of the United States stored at the bullion depository at Fort Knox, Ky.

“A seven-man congressional inspection team and nearly 100 newsmen came away from Fort Knox, Ky., Bullion Depository Sept. 23 satisfied that all the gold that’s supposed to be there is safe and secure,” according to the story that covered more than half the front page.

Coin World was there to see more than half of Uncle Sam’s gold — one-eighth of all the official gold reserves in the world — 147.4 million fine troy ounces, valued at $6.2 billion ($42.22 an ounce, official price) or about $24 billion on the open market,” Russell wrote.

The inspection was prompted by a conversation that summer between Rep. Philip M. Crane, R-Ill., and Treasury Secretary William Simon concerning rumors that the gold was missing.

Shades of the 1964 James Bond movie Goldfinger, where baddie Auric Goldfinger planned to attack the Fort Knox gold supply?

According to Russell’s report, at least one reporter asked U.S. Mint Director Mary Brooks that very question.

“I think that’s what stirred this up,” Brooks smiled. “I chuckled when I saw it on the late show a few months ago. Hollywood’s idea of what the place is like inside is quite different.”

Brooks went on to say “the movie crews were allowed to film from outside the gate, and this is what the James Bond fans saw on the screen.”

Bicentennial coins

Among the longest lasting coin-related legacies Russell played a part in were the 1976 Bicentennial of American Independence coins.

The 1976 Bicentennial coin program was truly a revolution of sorts. Dual-dated 1776-1976 quarter dollar, half dollar and dollar coins would be struck with reverse designs selected from a national design competition.

No commemorative coins had been produced since 1954 and certainly the idea of circulating commemorative coins was a new one for U.S. Treasury officials to ponder.

Though the program was widely anticipated by enthusiastic collectors, it was not warmly welcomed by the U.S. Treasury Department.

In 1970, Russell was among the collectors, dealers, club officials and hobby periodical editors appointed to the Coins and Medal Advisory Panel by the American Revolution Bicentennial Committee.

The panel recommended changing all six circulating denominations, cent through dollar, and issuing a single commemorative coin unique in design and composition.

But Treasury officials were not impressed, citing excesses of previous commemorative coin programs. However, bowing to hobby pressure, Treasury officials said if Congress approved legislation requiring the minting of special coins to mark the Bicentennial, they would yield their opposition.

By March 5, 1973, Treasury officials said they would agree to new designs on both the Kennedy half dollar and the Eisenhower dollar.

But Russell, and other panel members, continued to push for changes to all six coins, and new legislation introduced May 31, 1973, did so. Eventually Treasury offered a compromise by seeking the redesign of the Washington quarter dollar.

President Richard Nixon signed the Bicentennial Coinage Act Oct. 18, 1973. The act authorized a national design competition, the first time the United States had engaged in a coinage design competition of national scope and open to artists of any ability.

The winners were announced March 6, 1974, with Jack L. Ahr submitting the winning quarter dollar design; Seth G. Huntington’s design selected for the half dollar; and Dennis R. Williams’ design chosen for the dollar.

The Bicentennial coins entered circulation July 4, 1975. A total of 1.7 billion quarter dollars, 500 million half dollars and nearly 250 million dollars were minted.

The fact that circulating commemorative coins were struck to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the nation’s founding actually paved the path for design contests in 50 states and then the production of the 1999 to 2008 50 State Quarters Program with reverse designs honoring each state.

That program was followed in 2009 with a one-year series of quarter dollars honoring the District of Columbia and the U.S. territories.

Beginning in 2010 the America the Beautiful quarter dollar program, honoring national parks in all 50 states, began.

Tributes

Many of those who worked alongside Russell in expanding and protecting the hobby have offered tributes to her following her death.

Russell’s impact on the hobby was recognized by Harvey G. Stack, an owner of Stack’s and a co-founder of Stack’s Bowers Galleries:

“It is with great sadness that I learned of the passing of one of my dearest and wonderful friend, Margo.

“I first met Margo shortly after she took on the editorship of Coin World. We worked together on many of the projects she endorsed, and I am grateful that she always considered me a friend.

“I worked with her in getting Congress to acquire the Lilly Collection for the Smithsonian in 1967, I was the representative for the professional numismatist regarding the development of the Hobby Protection Act, we stood together in the 1970’s to be certain that the new grading services did things right, we helped each other with the development of the expansion of the ANA library and we opposed the promotional aspects within the trade, which was harmful to the real collector, and I worked with her on numerous projects to improve the way Numismatics should be encouraged.

“She fought for the hobby, went to Washington many times to testify on behalf of numismatics, wrote editorials encouraging people to collect and was a force to reckon with on any project she undertook.”

In comments published in the Feb. 1 issue of the E-Sylum, the weekly electronic publication of the Numismatic Bibliomania Society, Coin World columnist Joel Orosz wrote:

“Margo’s place in numismatic history is certainly secure for her accomplishments in transforming Coin World from its late start-up days into a fully-realized numismatic newspaper. Nor should anyone underestimate how effectively she opened the door for the participation of women at every level of numismatics.

“One remarkable fact to note: until January of 2015, it was possible to gather every person who had ever occupied the Editor’s chair at Coin World, from 1960 to date, in a room together — Dick Johnson, Margo, Beth Deisher, Steve Roach — and take a group picture. 55 years! The editor’s chair at Coin World must confer longevity on all those who occupy it!”

Author and numismatist Ken Bressett wrote in E-Sylum:

“I was deeply saddened to learn of the passing of Margo Russell. She was a dear friend not only to me but also to the scores of others who knew her. She was a leader in many ways, but perhaps more than anything else, a guiding influence on the modes and principles of how collectors and dealers should conduct their numismatic activities. My sorrow extends beyond her family and friends but also to those who were not fortunate enough to have known her, for there will never be another quite like this Grande Dame of our hobby.”

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