Before it became the ANA's journal, it was something else: Numismatic Bookie

ANA's 'The Numismatist' wasn't always
By , Special to Coin World
Published : 06/03/16
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Numismatic Bookie column from June 20, 2016, issue of Coin World:

In 2016 the American Numis­matic Association celebrates its 125th anniversary, chronicled by the ANA’s official journal, The Numismatist. But, as the Grateful Dead would sing, “what a long, strange trip it’s been” for The Numismatist: it wasn’t always the ANA’s official journal; it was owned at various times by three different private individuals; and it didn’t even begin with that name. 

The story starts downriver from Detroit, with Dr. George Heath, physician and mayor of Monroe, Mich. A coin collector and “vest pocket” dealer, Heath issued, in September 1888, a periodical dubbed The American Numismatist to sell his duplicates. By its second issue, in November, “American” disappeared from the masthead. A defunct numismatic magazine by that name had been published in Paterson, N.J.; perhaps Heath sought to avoid confusion, perhaps he just liked the shorter title better, but he never explained the alteration.

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Heath enthusiastically filled The Numismatist’s pages with readable stories. 

In the February 1891 issue, he asked: “Whats the matter of having an American Numismatic Association? ... Would it be practicable?” Favorable responses abounded; in the June number, he nominated a slate of officers for the association. The doctor’s choice for secretary, Charles T. Tatman, was the coin columnist for a nationally distributed youth newspaper named Plain Talk, which Heath suggested as the “official organ” of the ANA. Heath’s recommendation was never formally ratified, but Tatman reported ANA news in his column until the summer of 1892, when he left for a European vacation. He resigned, as of June 15, both as ANA secretary and as Plain Talk’s coin columnist, and The Numismatist became the ANA’s official journal by default. 

Heath was a hands-on editor, personally printing every issue through 1893 on his own printing press, and always publishing The Numismatist in the best interests of the ANA. Death came for the doctor June 16, 1908, and Farran Zerbe swooped in a month later to buy The Numismatist from Heath’s widow. Zerbe, of Tyrone, Pa., was also the sitting president of the ANA, and questions quickly arose about the appropriateness of his involvement in ANA politics while personally owning its official publication. A bitterly contested election in 1909 worsened the conflict. 

As 1910 wore on, The Numismatist had been the ANA’s journal for nearly 20 years, but never had the ANA owned or controlled it. Stepped forth W.W.C. Wilson, a Montreal numismatist, who bought the magazine from Zerbe in November 1910, and generously donated it to the ANA. Ironically, it took a Canadian to resolve the conflict of interest bedeviling the American Numismatic Association. Even more ironically, the ANA’s top award is named in Zerbe’s honor, while Wilson, the ANA’s greatest benefactor, is honored not at all in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Collectors benefit from the long, strange trip of The Numismatist, for extensive runs of the magazine can be purchased relatively inexpensively: 1911 to date for about $1,000, and 1894 to date for less than $3,000. The first six volumes, personally printed by Dr. Heath, are another story: a mere dozen complete sets can be definitively traced in individual and institutional libraries, and is likely to top $30,000 on those rare occasions when offered at public auction. Fortunately, a 1963 reprint of the first six volumes goes for about $250. 

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