This is the first of six profiles of seven numismatists who have
been in the hobby professionally more than 40 years and which was
first published in the April 6 Monthly edition of Coin World.
Additional profiles will appear in the April 13, April 20 and April
27 Weekly issues.
Walking the bourse floors of coin shows on the national and regional
World editorially the past 27 years, I can’t help but notice
the number of familiar faces of dealers that I encounter show after
show, year after year.
It has often occurred to me that many of them have stories to relate
of their experiences in the hobby, being on the road, the people
they’ve dealt with, and the coins and other numismatic items they’ve handled.
These thoughts that provided some of the genesis for this cover
article for the April 2015 Monthly issue of Coin World.
Remembering those familiar faces, I took some time and compiled a
list of those who have made numismatics their life’s work for 40 or
more years, and I sought out their stories.
Some of those whose tales you will encounter here are seasoned
professionals of more than 50 years, and in two cases, more than 60.
These professionals related to me how they were introduced to the
hobby, many in their youth, and how that interest blossomed into a
career. Some speak of how the hobby and business of coins have evolved
since they were first introduced to the numismatic world.
Here are their stories.
Q. David Bowers
Q. David Bowers may be the best-known name in numismatics, primarily
through his prolific numismatic writings in books and periodicals.
Currently chairman emeritus of Stack’s Bowers Galleries and numismatic director
Publishing LLC, Bowers has been a professional numismatist for
more than 60 years.
Bowers says he became enamored with coins in 1952 at age 13 and
would mow lawns, deliver newspapers and work at other jobs to raise
money to buy additions to his collection.
It was in 1952 that Bowers met his first numismatist, Robert Rusbar,
the tax collector of Forty Fort, Pa. Rusbar provided Bowers with
several Whitman coin folders to get his collection started.
Bowers attended meetings of the Wilkes-Barre Coin Club, to which
George P. Williams, a local insurance agent and longtime collector,
would drive him.
Bowers said he became a part-time dealer in 1953 and the following
year was trading as the Bowers Coin Co. He had attended a number of
regional shows buying and selling, developing a customer base for
Colonial coins and U.S. patterns.
Bowers has subsequently conducted business or been associated with
Empire Coin Co., Bowers and Ruddy, Bowers and Merena, and American
Read the rest of our profiles:
In his early numismatic career, Bowers said, he was also developing
a strong interest in numismatic literature and writing, building an
extensive numismatic library. In the 1950s, he interviewed numismatic
luminaries of the day, including B. Max Mehl, Stephen K. Nagy, Oscar
Schilke, Charles Foster, Abe Kosoff, Abner Kreisberg, and many others.
Letter writing became the basis of most of Bowers’ early numismatic
business, although he did conduct business at coin club meetings and conventions.
Long-distance telephone calling required a number of time-consuming
transfers before a connection could be made. Telegrams were also used.
Some of Bowers’ early coin acquisitions were obtained at prices that
would boggle the minds of many of today’s collectors — a prooflike gem
1879 Seated Liberty half dollar for $5; a nearly perfect gem 1854
Indian Head gold $3 coin for $35.
Bowers missed out, however, on buying a gem Proof 1895 Morgan dollar
that went to another buyer for $200.
Bowers labeled himself a careful buyer, somewhat “fussy.” He has
always sought quality, he said, a standard he has maintained
throughout his career.
No true grading standards were widely applied when he began. “It was
not unusual to see coins called ‘Uncirculated’ that had many nicks,
friction or other problems,” Bowers says.
“Although Dr. William H. Sheldon had devised his numerical grading
system in 1949, by 1954, it was still used primarily by those who
collected copper cents. Even with the Sheldon rules, which were made
for copper cents of 1793 to 1814, actual quality varied from dealer to
dealer.” Authenticity was not guaranteed in the 1950s and no
independent grading services operated.
Most numismatists at the time were true collectors, Bowers said,
seeking to fill out sets of Lincoln cents, Indian Head cents,
commemorative coins or whatever series of interest they had. Since
grading practices varied, knowledge of grading, pricing and other
aspects were necessary for a collector to buy wisely, Bowers said. The
main source for such information was A Guide Book of United States
Coins, commonly called the “Red Book.”
In his early days, “Brilliant is best” was the rallying cry through
the hobby, Bowers said, with collectors and dealers alike employing
advertised chemical means to maintain a coin’s brilliance.
Every once in a while, a collection emerged that had never been
touched in this regard, said Bowers. The Garrett Collection, which
Bowers and Ruddy auctioned from 1979 to 1981, consisted of pristine
coins, including ones with beautiful toning.
“Ditto for the Eliasberg Collection,” Bowers said. “Most Garrett
coins sold for multiples of the estimated price, this when the coin
market was in the middle of a crash due to speculation in silver. That
was the tipping point for toned coins being attractive to collectors.
Ever since then toned coins have been in demand, giving rise to an
entirely new industry, artificially toning pieces to mask any problems.”
In the early years of Bowers’ career, coin buying at a convention
was much different than it is today.
“It took time to buy coins at a convention or from a dealer,” Bowers
said. “Today if I were to visit a coin show I could make the rounds of
several hundred tables in the bourse area within a day, with time left
over. Nearly everything would be pre-graded and in a certified holder.
“Years ago it would take several days, and even then only a portion
of the items available could be checked,” Bowers says. “Each coin had
to be taken out of a paper envelope, held carefully, examined under
glass, and then put back. Some coins were in plastic holders and were
easier to view. This is why when a convention today is drawn out, many
collectors come and spend just a day or two.”
Bowers has handled thousands of numismatic rarities through retail
sales and auctions of major collections like the Garrett, Eliasberg,
and Norweb holdings.
“ ‘I have never worked a day in my life’ is one of my favorite
sayings,” Bowers said.
“I consider professional numismatics to be more of an art and a
science than a business, although it is a combination of all. I could
not have picked a more interesting, more rewarding career.”
Today as a general rule, Bowers says, those who enter coin
collecting and concentrate on buying only choice and gem Mint State
and Proof coins often burn out quickly, sell their collections and
leave the hobby.
Bowers recommends collectors build a good working numismatic library
and join a specialized numismatic club “to remain in numismatics for a
long time and make it part of their life.”
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