Dr. Sol Taylor

Numismatics in 1908

By Dr. Sol Taylor
"Making Cents"
Saturday, January 31, 2009

rolific author and researcher Q. David Bowers detailed many of the numismatic news items from 1908 in his article in the November 2008 issue of "The Numismatist," the monthly journal of the American Numismatic Association. No one from 1908 would recognize numismatics of the 21st Century, as it was a century ago.
    ANA founder Dr. George F. Heath passed away suddenly on June 16. His successor, Farran Zerbe, assumed the post. Heath was a doctor; the mayor of Monroe, Mich.; a coin collector, part time dealer, and scholar.
    Zerbe, his successor, also was a collector but had a track record quite different from Heath's. Bowers outlines some of the underhanded activities that earned Zerbe a negative reputation among fellow collectors and even got Virgil Brand, a prominent collector, to resign from the ANA board.
    In 1908, the ANA held its annual convention in Philadelphia. In all, some 30 persons attended the convention. Today's conventions often bring in 10,000 and more visitors. Membership in the ANA stood at 536 — an increase of 135 over the previous year. Today the ANA has more than 30,000 members.
    Thomas Elder, a prominent dealer — there may have been 50 coin dealers in the United States at the time — opened the doors of the newly founded American Numismatic Society in New York City on Oct. 6. It featured exhibits of coins, medals, tokens and currency in the newly built structure.
    The famed Wilson coin collection went on sale Oct. 5-7 and the grand total of the sale of 1,409 lots was shy of $13,000 — a significant total at that time for a personal collection. Some 75 persons attended the auction; it was a large attendance at a public coin auction for 1908. Henry Chapman, a leading coin dealer, had advised his clients of the potential at this sale, and no doubt many of the 75 were Chapman's clients.
    A few highlights included two uncirculated 1793 chain cents that sold for $54 and $56.50 respectively. Today each would easily top $300,000 — and if either was "red," the figure would pass $1 million.
    A complete set of 1863 proof gold coins went for  $177.50.  Today's Red Book value ("A Guide Book of United States Coins") is over $150,000.
    Prominent collector John Hazeltine commented that collecting territorial and private gold coins would not even bring face value, and that they often were consigned to the melting pot "because no one would give even five percent over intrinsic value."
    There was no buyer's fee in those days; that started some 20 or 25 years ago.  Auctioneers usually received 10 percent of the bid price as their fee for conducting the auction.
    The other key items also would make any collector today wish he had the presence and money in 1908.
    President Theodore Roosevelt in 1907 had pushed for a more artistic and modern view of America through its coinage and promoted the famous designs by August Saint Gaudens on our $10 and $20 gold coins. Victor D. Brenner got TR's nod for the new Lincoln cent.
    Although the next series of major changes did not occur until 1916 (Mercury dime, Standing Liberty quarter, and Walking Liberty half dollar) the mood for change was started with Roosevelt's initiative.
    No president since TR has expressed the kind of interest he had in our coinage. His distant cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, had a keen interest in stamp collecting.