Dr. Jerry Buss was widely known as the majority owner of the Los
Angeles Lakers professional basketball team for more than three
decades, but the coin collecting community also recognized him as a
kindred spirit. He was a coin collector for more than 40 years.
Buss once counted among the rarities in his numismatic cabinet a
1913 Liberty Head 5-cent coin, an 1894-S Barber dime and a Class III
1804 Draped Bust dollar whose combined purchase he authorized simply
by signing a hot dog napkin.
The three numismatic rarities were among more than 2,200 lots
comprising Buss’ collection that Superior Galleries sold Jan. 28 to
Before the auction, Buss hosted a gala reception Jan. 27, 1985, at
his then residence, Pickfair — a 56-acre Beverly Hills, Calif., estate
designed by architect Wallace Neff for silent film actors Douglas
Fairbanks Sr. and Mary Pickford.
The flamboyant Buss, who amassed his fortune in real estate and
other successful business ventures, died Feb. 18 at age 80 from cancer.
Buss was also such a high-profile player in the high-stakes world
of professional poker that the World Series of Poker is naming a
championship tournament in his honor.
Rarities times three
The 1985 auction of the Buss Collection brought total prices
realized, including the 10 percent buyer’s fee, of just over $4 million.
The 1913 Liberty Head 5-cent coin was sold for $350,000 to Texas
collector Reed Hawn for $385,000.
Hawn purchased the piece as a companion piece to the Joseph
Mickley specimen of Class I 1804 Draped Bust dollar that Hawn bought
in 1974 for a then record price of $150,000.
The 1913 5-cent coin, one of five pieces struck, was described in
the Buss auction catalog as Proof 63.
The coin was at one time acquired by collector Fred Olsen in 1941
from St. Louis numismatist Eric P. Newman, who once owned all five
examples, having purchased them from the Col. E.H.R. Green estate.
The Olsen piece later was owned by King Farouk I of Egypt, Edwin
Hydeman and Buss. After Buss, ownership passed to Hawn, Spectrum
Numismatics and Legend Numismatics. It also gained fame from a Dec.
11, 1973, appearance in “The $100,000 Nickel” episode of the
television show Hawaii Five-0.
Buss bought the coin by private treaty for $200,000.
In May 2004, the coin, by then graded Proof 64 by Numismatic
Guaranty Corp., was purchased from Legend Numismatics by an
unidentified buyer for $3 million. Legend had acquired the coin from
Spectrum in January 2003 “for more than $1.84 million.”
The 1894-S Barber dime Buss once owned is an impaired Proof, and
has been described in auction catalogs as anywhere from Extremely Fine
to Proof 60. In the Buss auction catalog, the coin was described as
“Brilliant Proof 60.” It is one of nine or 10 examples known.
The Buss 1894-S Barber dime was sold in his 1985 auction for
$50,600, to actress Michelle Johnson who was quoted at the time as
saying that she acquired the coin because she “really liked it.”
Johnson was also the underbidder for the 1913 Liberty Head 5-cent coin.
Superior sold the 1894-S Barber dime at auction in 1988 for
$70,400. Its current whereabouts are not public knowledge.
Buss’ 1804 Draped Bust dollar was a Class III coin once owned by
None of the silver dollars struck in 1804 were dated that year.
Numismatists recognize three classes of 1804 Draped Bust dollar:
Class I, or “originals,” those pieces struck at the Philadelphia Mint
about 1832 to 1834 (eight pieces), for diplomatic presentations to
foreign dignitaries; Class II, struck in 1858 over a Swiss shooting
taler (unique); and Class III, struck in 1858 or later (six specimens).
From 1868 to 1908, collector William Idler owned the Class III
example that Buss would acquire more than seven decades after Idler’s
ownership. Buss purchased the coin for $200,000 from another dealer in
a private transaction brokered by Ira Goldberg, then a principal owner
of Superior Galleries.
Omaha, Neb., dealer Aubrey Bebee and his wife, Adeline, paid
$308,000 to collect the Idler-Buss coin from the 1985 Buss sale. The
Bebees donated their 1804 dollar to the American Numismatic
Association in January 1991.
Ira Goldberg, now a partner in the firm Ira and Larry Goldberg
Auctioneers, developed a close professional relationship and
friendship with Buss early in his numismatic career. The friendship
remained until Buss’ death.
Ira Goldberg remembers that, while he was a teenager in the 1960s,
working alongside cousins Larry Goldberg and his brother, Mark, and
their respective fathers at Superior Stamp & Coin in downtown Los
Angeles, Buss would frequent the shop on Saturdays.
Buss, then a night professor at the nearby University of Southern
California, would stop in to acquire U.S. coins from multiple series
to fill coin folders and albums. During the day, Buss, who earned his
doctorate in chemistry at USC, worked in the aerospace industry.
Goldberg remembers Buss as “very calculating; smart; friendly,
with a charming personality; not stuffy.”
with aerospace engineer Frank Mariani led to their formation of
Mariani-Buss Associates, which the two men developed into a successful
real estate investment firm with holdings in several states. Buss,
however, had even bigger plans.
Goldberg said Buss always wanted to own a major professional
sports franchise, and while he owned a professional tennis team, he
set his sights higher.
Buss wanted the Los Angeles Lakers — a pro basketball team.
Goldberg told Coin World that Buss had been courting the
purchase of the Lakers with owner Jack Kent Cooke, but the price Cooke
wanted for the team was far from what Buss wanted to pay.
Cooke also owned the Los Angeles Kings hockey team and The Forum,
the massive structure he had built in Inglewood in which his sports
Seeing no movement on Cooke’s part, Buss instead acquired the
rights to the Indiana Pacers, an American Basketball Association team
that was moving up to the National Basketball Association, to which
the Lakers belonged.
Several days later, Cooke, who was in the middle of a contentious
divorce, offered Buss the Lakers, the Kings and The Forum for a
combined $40 million. Buss made the deal happen.
But Buss also had a problem. He couldn’t own both the Lakers and
Pacers because of prohibitions against owning two teams in the same league.
Buss peddled the Pacers to several potential buyers who passed on
the opportunity. He then went to the Goldbergs.
Ira Goldberg said Buss made his case, and the Goldbergs ended up
owning a portion of the Pacers. During the Goldbergs’ brief ownership
of the Pacers, Ira said, they patterned their operations and business
model after those of Buss, who had a proven track record with investments.
Ira Goldberg recalled that, while attending a Lakers game with
Buss in 1980 or 1981, the subject of numismatic rarities was broached.
Buss asked Goldberg, if he could have three great U.S. coins in
his collection, what they would be.
Goldberg’s reply: a 1913 Liberty Head 5-cent coin, an 1894-S
Barber dime and an 1804 Draped Bust silver dollar.
Buss asked what it would cost for him to acquire all three coins.
Goldberg said he told Buss he could get all three coins, but it
likely would cost up to a combined $1 million.
Having no other paper at hand, the authorization Buss signed for
Goldberg to spend up to $1 million to acquire the three coins was
somewhat unorthodox. The authorization was penned on the napkin
wrapped around the hot dog Ira Goldberg was eating during the Lakers’ game.
Buss enjoyed the limelight and the notoriety his ownership of the
three rarities provided.
Buss was a frequent visitor to coin shows in Southern California,
often with a list in hand of the coins he wanted to buy to fill spaces
in his collection.
Larry Goldberg said while Buss’ collection of U.S. coins, save for
the three major rarities, was more of a “hodge-podge,” Buss purchased
the best he could obtain.
In a Feb. 16, 1983, Coin World article by William T.
Gibbs, Buss described himself as “a date and Mint man.” Buss had hoped
to assemble a complete collection of United States coins by date and
Mint mark that would rival the collection built by Baltimore
numismatist Louis E. Eliasberg Sr.
Buss even dreamed of one day owning an example of a 1933
Saint-Gaudens gold $20 double eagle, even though the issue was illegal
Buss had begun his collecting at age 10 in Los Angeles, in 1943.
Although he moved with his family to Wyoming two years later, he
continued adding to his collection by mail order.
Buss returned to California in 1958 to work for Douglas Aircraft.
Not long after returning, he met Mariani, and together they planned
their investment future in real estate. Those investments helped Buss
fuel his passion for numismatics, professional sports and other pastimes.
Not only was Buss often visible on coin show bourse floors, he
also often attended auctions with his want list. If he couldn’t attend
personally, Buss would send a representative on his behalf, Larry
Buss’ ownership of those three major rarities
translated into an extremely successful sale when Buss’ collection
came up for auction in 1985. Collectors wanted even his minor coins,
for the Buss pedigree.
Buss loved to tell stories about how he
amassed his fortunes, Larry Goldberg said, but he wasn’t presumptuous
in his approach.
For whatever reason, Buss was also enamored with one particular
date of Lincoln cent. Larry Goldberg believes it was the 1932-D coin.
Buss amassed thousands of them in bags in an effort to corner the
market, event though the coins were worth only $1 to $2 each.
A journalist reflects
Former Coin World Editor Beth Deisher recalls Buss’
demeanor when she met him during the 1980s prior to a lecture he was presenting.
“What I remember most about Dr. Buss was how unassuming, gracious,
and down to earth he was,” Deisher said, noting she had been
unsuccessful in setting up an interview before his speaking engagement.
Deisher unexpectedly met Buss outside the room where he was to
deliver his remarks and field questions from the audience. They
arrived at the same time.
“He was alone. No one else was there yet,” Deisher said. “He was
wearing blue jeans, a short-sleeved open collar shirt and a
camel-colored sports jacket. I explained who I was (he was a Coin
World subscriber) and that I would like to do a short interview
with him. He said fine, we could talk now. So we both sat down and he
began to tell me his life’s story and how he became involved in
collecting coins. I remember Dr. Buss telling me that he enjoyed
attending coin shows. Even the people who did not know him but would
recognize him, respected his privacy and they let him walk the bourse
or attend auctions without bothering him for autographs, etc.
“We talked for about 20 minutes before people began arriving. He
said that after his talk, if I had further questions, we could talk
again. He talked, without notes, for about 45 minutes and then opened
it to questions.
“He answered questions for about 20 minutes, and lots of people
crowded around him afterward to talk with him. I waited until all had
left the room. I only had one or two follow-up questions, which Dr.
Buss answered. He had with him a brief case, which he opened on a
table in the room before leaving to put in a couple of business cards
several people had given him after the talk.
“He took out a small pad of paper on which he had listed some
coins. He said it contained the coins he would be looking for that
day. We walked down to the bourse together and I saw him several times
on the bourse later in the day.
“I think he spent the better part of the day at the show,” Deisher