Numismatic Bookie column from Aug. 17, 2015,
weekly issue of Coin World:
Every child dreams of buried treasure: digging, with your best
friend, until your shovels pierce a rotted chest, and a rivulet of
gold coins spills into the fresh dirt. Delightful childhood fantasies,
but buried treasure exists only in storybooks, right? Wrong. Two best
friends once unearthed hundreds of gold coins in Baltimore, and not
along the waterfront, but in a cellar!
Fourteen-year-old Theodore Jones lived in the tenement apartment
building at 132 S. Eden St. He befriended 15-year-old Henry Grob, who
lived a block away. On Aug. 31, 1934, the two formed a boy’s club, put
the nickel-apiece dues into a cigar box, and decided to bury the box
for safekeeping. They descended into the cellar of 132 S. Eden, and
dug a hole along a back wall. About a foot down, they hit a corroded
gallon-sized can, which, after being struck with an ax, disgorged gold coins!
The boys surrendered these coins, amounting to $11,424 in face
value, to the Baltimore Police. A “Baltimore gold rush” ensued, with
several people filing legal claims for ownership of the hoard, while
others dug through the cellar, hoping to discover treasure the boys
had missed. Then, on Sept. 2, 1935, the Jones family apartment at 132
S. Eden was robbed of $3,600, an astonishing sum for such a poor family.
The boys explained that this was Theodore’s share of a second
discovery they had made in the cellar, in May of 1935, in the only
spot that treasure-hunters hadn’t searched. This story seemed fishy,
but the boys eventually prevailed in the legal arena, and also won the
inevitable appeals. The coins were auctioned for their benefit. The
last of the lawsuits was settled in January of 1938. By then, Theodore
was in trouble with the law, Henry was dead, and the costly legal
proceedings had dramatically reduced their hauls.
This was the story told for more than 70 years, until author Len
Augsburger took up this numismatic “cold case.” He traveled repeatedly
to Baltimore, visited 132 S. Eden (today a foundry), and carefully
researched the court records. His book, Treasure in the Cellar: A
Tale of Gold in Depression-Era Baltimore, identifies the likely
creator of the hoard, demonstrates that the boys’ “second find” of
coins was a cover story, and traces the surprising outcomes of the
case down to the present day.
Augsburger also tells a sad tale about the auction of the hoard
coins conducted by Baltimore stamp and antiquities dealer Perry Fuller
on May 2, 1935. Many were damaged by clumsy cleaning (some pried apart
with a butter knife), and 39 of the gold dollars had unreadable dates.
A skillful cataloger might have compensated for these problems by
emphasizing the hoard’s history and romance, but Fuller was no Q.
David Bowers. He divided 3,508 coins into 438 lots, and his
descriptions consisted entirely of the coin’s dates and conditions.
Far from hyping them, Fuller, in his introduction to the sale,
admitted to undergrading some pieces: “The coins are in unusually good
condition. Many could be described as uncirculated although we have
described them only as Fine to Very Fine.” The first lot, an 1850
Coronet double eagle, was knocked down for $36, but most realized only
the content of the gold. The auction, disappointingly, brought less
Fuller personally fared even worse: later in 1935, he declared bankruptcy.
Few of the Baltimore hoard coins can be positively identified today,
so if you want an artifact of this remarkable event, buy a copy of the
Fuller catalog. Numismatic booksellers occasionally offer one for $150
The Johns Hopkins University Press will sell you a
copy of Treasure in the Cellar for $26, and you can read this
strange-but-true tale of treasure, triumph and tragedy, told by a
master numismatic historian.
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