US Coins

B Max Mehl literature trove bolsters sale

A complete set of auction catalogs by Texas dealer B. Max Mehl was among the top lots at Kolbe & Fanning Numismatic Booksellers’s Jan. 26 Important Numismatic Books live online and mail-bid auction. 

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The 116 catalogs offered as a single lot represented a rare complete run from 1906 to 1955, with 102 of the catalogs having prices-realized lists. Also included in the lot was a nearly complete set of Mehl’s Coin Circular and a few other publications from the dealer who became perhaps the best promoter of coin collecting that the hobby has seen, before or since. 

An unlikely life

As John W. Adams wrote in United States Numismatic Literature, “The career of B. Max Mehl was an impossibility. He had at least three strikes against him: 1) he was an immigrant Jew in a then-gentile hobby; 2) he was located in Fort Worth, Texas, at a time when 95 percent of the business was done on the East Coast; and 3) Lilliputian in stature and colorless in terms of personality, he adopted a business plan that relied on creativity and promotion. Quite obviously, Mehl did not realize that he was licked before he started. He just knew that it was a lot more fun to sell coins than to sell shoes. From there, he took it one step at a time.” 

Kolbe & Fanning added, “Of his numismatic publications, Mehl’s ubiquitous Rare Coin Encyclopedia provided a steady source of income, his Numismatic Monthly deservedly brought respectability, and his series of auction sale catalogues spanning fifty years allowed him to handle far more than his share of the great American coin collections of the day.”

Coin World columnist Joel Orosz observed in 2015 that the larger than life Texan “was America’s leading coin dealer because of brilliant marketing, not expertise about coins.”

Mehl favored prolific content over detail. Adams writes, “The lack of attention paid to numismatic issues was a serious flaw in all of Mehl’s auction catalogues,” concluding, “However, as unreliable as Mehl’s descriptions have proved to be, the plain fact is that, for over half a century he attracted a major share of the best collections that came to market.” 

Mehl’s early auctions saw limited print runs of fewer than 500 catalogs, of which few survive, while later sales are more frequently seen. The offered set was the first the literature auctioneer had presented since another set sold back in 2005, and this one brought $5,100 with buyer’s fee against the presale estimate of $4,000. 

Renaissance medals

Kolbe & Fanning’s Auction Sale 151 included two key works by George Francis Hill on Italian Renaissance medals. The Renaissance portrait medal took its inspiration from Roman coins, with examples displaying a portrait on the obverse and typically showcasing a symbolic composition on the reverse related to the depicted individual’s status, achievements or ideals, often with an explanatory Latin motto or phrase. 

The artist Antonio di Puccio Pisano, called Pisanello — a nickname that likely referred to his small stature — is credited with popularizing the portrait medal in Italy in the 1430s. The medals served various functions including celebrating achievements like marriage, election victories or construction of a building, or examples could be presented as diplomatic gifts or tokens of friendship. 

One of the most magnificently bound offerings in the sale was a two-volume set of Hill’s 1930 opus A Corpus of Italian Medals of the Renaissance Before Cellini. The binding was spectacular, with the large folio sized volumes bound in matching quarter morocco leather with marbled sides, the spines decorated with four raised bands and dated in gilt, with marble endpapers and all page edges gilt. The books were published in London by the British Museum and describe 1,333 medals with 201 plates of the medals. 

The description called it, “A beautifully bound set of the magnificent original edition of this classic and still most important work, covering in great detail ‘the known varieties of medals produced by Italian artists from 1390 to about 1530.’?” It sold for $3,300 against a $3,000 estimate. 

The massive work consumed Hill for several decades and drew from the collections of Gustave Dreyfus, Henry Oppenheimer, and T. Whitcombe Greene. Famed Italian Renaissance scholar and former director of the British Museum John Pope-Hennessey concluded, “Hill’s volume on the medals had successfully stood the test of time. There were experts on Renaissance medals before Hill, but none of them could approach his mastery of the whole field.” 

Gustave Dreyfus medals

Another key work by Hill offered at Kolbe & Fanning was the 1931 The Gustave Dreyfus Collection. I: Renaissance Medals, published in Oxford, England. The thick folio-sized volume remains in its original blue cloth binding with gilt lettering. It features 141 plates depicting 667 medals and although the hinges are cracked — as typically seen — it was described as “otherwise near fine and in the original binding,” Kolbe & Fanning wrote, “The bindings on these are rarely up to the challenge of supporting their massive size and are generally the worse for wear — while the hinges on this copy are indeed cracked, it is the first copy we’ve offered in its original binding in several years.” It sold for $2,700 on a $1,500 estimate.

George Hill wrote in the catalog’s introduction, “keenly as Gustave Dreyfus appreciated all his beautiful things, he had a particularly soft place in his heart for the Italian medals ... His was perhaps the finest collection that has ever been in the hands of a private collector — the ‘perhaps’ might be omitted but that it is difficult to range the great collections in a true perspective.”

Dreyfus died in 1914, and his collection, which included paintings, sculptures, small bronzes, medals, and plaquettes, was bequeathed as part of his estate to Dreyfus’ widow and five children, who disagreed on its disposition. The widow’s death in 1929 led to the collection’s purchase by Sir Joseph Duveen Bart of Duveen Brothers, the leading New York art dealership of its day. Hill’s work cataloging the medals portion was part of three volumes describing the rich collections. Today the Dreyfus Collection is part of the Samuel H. Kress Collection at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. The National Gallery explains, “Duveen did not wish to separate Dreyfus’ collection of small bronzes, medals, and plaquettes, and it was sold intact to the Kress Foundation for a price that was met by installment payments every three months.” Today parts of the Kress Collection of medallic works are displayed in a dedicated gallery to medals in the National Gallery’s West Building, Gallery 16. 

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