US Coins

Bowers numismatic hobby anchor for decades

This is the first of six profiles of seven numismatists who have been in the hobby professionally more than 40 years and which was first published in the April 6 Monthly edition of Coin World. Additional profiles will appear in the April 13, April 20 and April 27 Weekly issues.

Walking the bourse floors of coin shows on the national and regional levels representing Coin World editorially the past 27 years, I can’t help but notice the number of familiar faces of dealers that I encounter show after show, year after year.

It has often occurred to me that many of them have stories to relate of their experiences in the hobby, being on the road, the people they’ve dealt with, and the coins and other numismatic items they’ve handled.

These thoughts that provided some of the genesis for this cover article for the April 2015 Monthly issue of Coin World.

Remembering those familiar faces, I took some time and compiled a list of those who have made numismatics their life’s work for 40 or more years, and I sought out their stories.

Some of those whose tales you will encounter here are seasoned professionals of more than 50 years, and in two cases, more than 60.

These professionals related to me how they were introduced to the hobby, many in their youth, and how that interest blossomed into a career. Some speak of how the hobby and business of coins have evolved since they were first introduced to the numismatic world.

Here are their stories.

Q. David Bowers

Q. David Bowers may be the best-known name in numismatics, primarily through his prolific numismatic writings in books and periodicals.

Currently chairman emeritus of Stack’s Bowers Galleries and numismatic director of Whitman Publishing LLC, Bowers has been a professional numismatist for more than 60 years.

Bowers says he became enamored with coins in 1952 at age 13 and would mow lawns, deliver newspapers and work at other jobs to raise money to buy additions to his collection.

It was in 1952 that Bowers met his first numismatist, Robert Rusbar, the tax collector of Forty Fort, Pa. Rusbar provided Bowers with several Whitman coin folders to get his collection started.

Bowers attended meetings of the Wilkes-Barre Coin Club, to which George P. Williams, a local insurance agent and longtime collector, would drive him.

Bowers said he became a part-time dealer in 1953 and the following year was trading as the Bowers Coin Co. He had attended a number of regional shows buying and selling, developing a customer base for Colonial coins and U.S. patterns.

Bowers has subsequently conducted business or been associated with Empire Coin Co., Bowers and Ruddy, Bowers and Merena, and American Numismatic Rarities.

Read the rest of our profiles:

In his early numismatic career, Bowers said, he was also developing a strong interest in numismatic literature and writing, building an extensive numismatic library. In the 1950s, he interviewed numismatic luminaries of the day, including B. Max Mehl, Stephen K. Nagy, Oscar Schilke, Charles Foster, Abe Kosoff, Abner Kreisberg, and many others.

Letter writing became the basis of most of Bowers’ early numismatic business, although he did conduct business at coin club meetings and conventions.

Long-distance telephone calling required a number of time-consuming transfers before a connection could be made. Telegrams were also used.

Some of Bowers’ early coin acquisitions were obtained at prices that would boggle the minds of many of today’s collectors — a prooflike gem 1879 Seated Liberty half dollar for $5; a nearly perfect gem 1854 Indian Head gold $3 coin for $35.

Bowers missed out, however, on buying a gem Proof 1895 Morgan dollar that went to another buyer for $200.

Bowers labeled himself a careful buyer, somewhat “fussy.” He has always sought quality, he said, a standard he has maintained throughout his career.

No true grading standards were widely applied when he began. “It was not unusual to see coins called ‘Uncirculated’ that had many nicks, friction or other problems,” Bowers says.

“Although Dr. William H. Sheldon had devised his numerical grading system in 1949, by 1954, it was still used primarily by those who collected copper cents. Even with the Sheldon rules, which were made for copper cents of 1793 to 1814, actual quality varied from dealer to dealer.” Authenticity was not guaranteed in the 1950s and no independent grading services operated. 

Most numismatists at the time were true collectors, Bowers said, seeking to fill out sets of Lincoln cents, Indian Head cents, commemorative coins or whatever series of interest they had. Since grading practices varied, knowledge of grading, pricing and other aspects were necessary for a collector to buy wisely, Bowers said. The main source for such information was A Guide Book of United States Coins, commonly called the “Red Book.”

In his early days, “Brilliant is best” was the rallying cry through the hobby, Bowers said, with collectors and dealers alike employing advertised chemical means to maintain a coin’s brilliance.

Every once in a while, a collection emerged that had never been touched in this regard, said Bowers. The Garrett Collection, which Bowers and Ruddy auctioned from 1979 to 1981, consisted of pristine coins, including ones with beautiful toning.

“Ditto for the Eliasberg Collection,” Bowers said. “Most Garrett coins sold for multiples of the estimated price, this when the coin market was in the middle of a crash due to speculation in silver. That was the tipping point for toned coins being attractive to collectors. Ever since then toned coins have been in demand, giving rise to an entirely new industry, artificially toning pieces to mask any problems.”

In the early years of Bowers’ career, coin buying at a convention was much different than it is today.

“It took time to buy coins at a convention or from a dealer,” Bowers said. “Today if I were to visit a coin show I could make the rounds of several hundred tables in the bourse area within a day, with time left over. Nearly everything would be pre-graded and in a certified holder.

“Years ago it would take several days, and even then only a portion of the items available could be checked,” Bowers says. “Each coin had to be taken out of a paper envelope, held carefully, examined under glass, and then put back. Some coins were in plastic holders and were easier to view. This is why when a convention today is drawn out, many collectors come and spend just a day or two.”

Bowers has handled thousands of numismatic rarities through retail sales and auctions of major collections like the Garrett, Eliasberg, and Norweb holdings.

“ ‘I have never worked a day in my life’ is one of my favorite sayings,” Bowers said. 

“I consider professional numismatics to be more of an art and a science than a business, although it is a combination of all. I could not have picked a more interesting, more rewarding career.”

Today as a general rule, Bowers says, those who enter coin collecting and concentrate on buying only choice and gem Mint State and Proof coins often burn out quickly, sell their collections and leave the hobby.

Bowers recommends collectors build a good working numismatic library and join a specialized numismatic club “to remain in numismatics for a long time and make it part of their life.”

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