US Coins

Marketer B. Max Mehl vs collector George Clapp

B. Max Mehl of Fort Worth, Texas, was America's leading coin dealer because of brilliant marketing, not expertise about coins, according to the author.

Image courtesy of Joel J. Orosz.

One benefit of owning old numismatic magazines is enjoying a great article “hot off the press,” and then, several years later, enjoying it again.

While looking up something else in my complete set of The Asylum, the official journal of the Numismatic Bibliomania Society, I recently encountered a superb article by numismatic bookseller Charles Davis. It was published in 1994 and titled, “Mehl’s French Catalogue as Seen by George Clapp.”

I found the article just as delightful two decades later!

The three players

Davis vividly describes the three players.

B. Max Mehl of Fort Worth, Texas, was America’s leading coin dealer because of brilliant marketing, not expertise about coins. He was publisher of the nationally distributed Star Rare Coin Encyclopedia, as well as an auctioneer.

Dr. George French of Rochester, N.Y., sold his quality collection of large cents to Mehl for a reported $50,000 in 1929.

George Clapp of Pittsburgh was both a collector of large cents and a consummate scholar of the series.

Mehl decided to sell the French cents, not at auction, but rather through a fixed-price catalog appearing in May of 1930. He commented extensively on each of French’s 832 coins.

Mehl’s commentary wandered often into the weeds of numismatic blunders, as well as grammatical goofs.

Clapp, who wrote reference books on large cents still useful today, began to write his reactions to Mehl’s meanderings into his copy of the French catalog (usually, writing on a catalog is considered graffiti, but when a great collector like Clapp annotates, it raises the interest in, and value of, the piece).

Davis transcribed Mehl’s commentary for selected lots, followed by Clapp’s usually snarky, and often witty, annotations:

No. 14. Mehl’s text: The box in which the coin comes is marked as having cost $1,000.00. Clapp’s comment: Pretty high cost for the box. Wonder what the cent cost?

No. 17. Mehl: Only three or four specimens known. Clapp: Of which I have four or five.

No. 86. Mehl: Unique — the only known specimen. Clapp: Bunk! I have three of them and know of three others.

No. 227: Mehl: Probably unique. Clapp: Not even rare.

No. 227 (cont). Mehl: Originally classed as uncirculated. Clapp: I suppose this was when it left the Mint.

No. 301. Mehl: Hardly perceptible nicks due to cabinet friction. Clapp: Must have his cabinet lined with broken stone.

If you want to read all of Clapp’s annotations, his catalog is in the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh. Numismatic booksellers occasionally offer photocopies. So for around $75, you can own what Davis aptly calls “George Clapp’s favorite scratch pad.”

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