Which numismatic books are most common on the shelves of
Most common are the classic Whitman publications, A Guide Book
to United States Coins (the “Red Book”) and Handbook of
United States Coins (the “Blue Book”), both by R.S. Yeoman.
Coming in second is the Star Rare Coin Encyclopedia, a publication of
B. Max Mehl.
How can it be that a book last published more than 50 years ago is
second only to the ongoing Red Book and Blue Book franchises at
The answer: Benjamin Max Mehl was not only the leading coin dealer
of his time, he was the savviest numismatic promoter of all time.
In 1903, when Mehl started selling coins, the most successful
dealers were East Coast, white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants. Mehl was a
Jewish high school dropout from Fort Worth, Texas, whose residents
like to say that “Fort Worth is where the West begins, and Dallas is
where the East peters out.”
Max quickly grasped that the only way he could compete with the
Easterners was to promote the stuffing out of his business. Other
dealers advertised in coin publications catering to established collectors.
Mehl attracted potential collectors by placing splashy, expensive
ads in national circulation magazines like the Saturday Evening Post.
That primed the pump, but he found his ultimate gimmick in
flogging 1913 Liberty Head 5-cent coins. He knew only five had been
minted; furthermore, he knew who owned them. But he plastered his
national ads with offers to pay an eye-popping $50 for an example; for
a working man in the 1920s, this was two weeks’ salary!
Tens of thousands of people went on wild goose chases for those
coins. Tales circulated of streetcar conductors snarling traffic as
they searched for the ever-elusive 1913 Liberty 5-cent coin.
No one, of course, ever collected Max’s $50, but thousands became
interested in coins while searching their change. Never one to miss an
opportunity to make a buck, Mehl had just the thing for these folks:
the Star Rare Coin Encyclopedia.
Not really an encyclopedia, but rather a cross between today’s
Whitman “Blue Book” (it listed what Mehl would pay) and a retail price
list (it contained pitches to buy coins and books from B. Max), it was
the “gateway drug” that hooked thousands of people on numismatics.
For just a dollar, you were on Max’s “Mehling list,” receiving his
auction catalogs and magazines (over the years, he published three
different periodicals dedicated to moving his stock).
The Star Rare Coin Encyclopedia was phenomenally successful; by
the mid-1920s, he was making almost as much from selling books as from
selling coins (and remember, by that time, Mehl was America’s biggest
He produced 61 editions of his encyclopedia, not to mention 116
auction catalogs, more than 130 individual issues of his periodicals
and dozens of price lists.
JOEL J. OROSZ is a charter member of the Numismatic Bibliomania
Society and co-author of The Secret History of the First U.S.
Mint. He can be reached at Joeljorosz@gmail.com.