US Coins

Monday Morning Brief for June 12, 2023: Stolen cent returned

A 1794 Liberty Cap cent stolen from the ANS by a once-respected numismatist has been returned to the society by the family of a large cent collector who died in December 2022. The collector had been planning its return before his death.

Image from the 1923 S.H. Chapman catalog of the Beckwith Collection, courtesy of the Newman Numismatic Portal.

The news that the American Numismatic Society has recovered another one of its large cents stolen from its collection in the 1960s or 1970s by a once-respected numismatist is one more small victory in an ongoing success story. A lot more has to happen, however, before the society can close its books on the sordid story.

Dr. William H. Sheldon once was a respected numismatist and psychologist. He was known internationally as the creator of a new version of somatotypology by classifying people into endomorphic, mesomorphic, and ectomorphic types. In numismatic circles he was known for his groundbreaking book on die marriages for the large cents of 1793 to 1814, Early American Cents. But a veneer of tarnish overlies both accomplishments.

Regarding his views on somatotypology, “Although his research was groundbreaking, it was criticized on the grounds that his samples were not representative and that he mistook correlation for causation,” writes britannica.com.

In numismatics, Sheldon’s name became forever tarnished when it was revealed that he was a thief. While conducting research at the ANS headquarters and museum, Sheldon stole 129 large cents that were part of the George H. Clapp Collection. He masked what he was doing by substituting cents of the same die marriages from his own collection for the coins that he was stealing. The Clapp coins were of higher conditions than his own coins — an upgrade by theft.

The battle to recover the coins eventually entered the judicial system, but not in the form of charges filed against Sheldon, who died in 1977 before his thefts were uncovered. The legal action was between the ANS and the collector who had purchased Sheldon’s collection. The ANS prevailed in court but the victory was bittersweet. The buyer of the coins had sold most of them, so many of the stolen cents were dispersed. Many of the missing coins since have been returned to the ANS by honest collectors and dealers, the most recent return being made by the family of collector Walter Husak. He had become aware of the coin’s provenance and was planning its return before his death last December. His family followed through, returning the coin to the ANS. Kudos to them and all involved in the repatriation.

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