Obituary: James Charles Risk 1913-2005

by Robert La Rocca

James Charles Risk

James Charles Risk, an ANS Fellow and member for the last 66 years, died on October 23, 2005, in New York City. He was an active member of the Society and an important donor to many parts of the collections.

He was born in Manhattan on May 5, 1913, the only son of Frederick and Katherine (Grasmuk) Risk, and spent his childhood in Forest Hills, N.Y. and Upper Montclair, N.J. Mr. Risk graduated from Dartmouth College, cum laude, in 1937, with a BA in history, took postgraduate courses in European history at Harvard, and also taught history at MIT. When war clouds gathered, he enlisted in the active Naval Reserve and was commissioned as an Ensign. In January 1940, he was assigned to active duty on the destroyer USS Dahlgren, an experimental ship engaged in antisubmarine patrol off the east coast. Subsequently, he was reassigned to the USS Jeffers, performing antisubmarine and convoy escort duty in the North Atlantic. In July 1943, he participated (aboard the Jeffers) in the invasion of Sicily. Eventually, he was transferred to the staff of the Commander, Destroyers, Atlantic Fleet at Casco Bay (Portland), Maine.

In the middle of 1945, he was ordered to report to Admiral Glassford, the second-in-command of the Atlantic Fleet at Palermo, Italy, for the purpose of writing the Administrative History of the U.S. Navy in the Mediterranean. Later, he was sent to Rome, to serve on the Naval Subcommission of the Allied Commission on the Democratization of Italy. As Protocol Officer, he was the liaison with the Vatican as well as the Quirinal Palace. In connection with the latter services, the Lieutenant General of the Realm, later King Umberto II, granted him the title of Knight of the Order of Saints Maurice and Lazarus, and Commander of the Order of the Crown of Italy. His lifelong association with the House of Savoy culminated in his being awarded the Grand Cross of Saints Maurice and Lazarus in 2001. He was the first American so honored since World War II. For services in regards to war relief, he was created a Knight of Grace of the Sacred Military Constantinian Order of St. George and Commander of the Order of Merit of Malta with Swords.

He was discharged from the Navy with the rank of Lt. Commander, and then joined the U.S. State Department Foreign Service. He served in Vladivostok, USSR, and in Saigon, French Indochina (now Vietnam), as Vice Consul. After leaving the Foreign Service, Mr. Risk joined the staff of Coin Galleries in New York, where he worked for thirty-five years, writing many articles.

He had a lifelong interest in numismatics, which led to the study of Royal Orders and Decorations, on which subject he became a noted authority. He wrote a number of books and monographs, including British Orders and Decorations, originally written in 1943, while he was in the Navy, and reissued in 1973; The History of the Order of the Bath and Its Insignia, published by Spink’s (London) in 1972; The Yale University Brasher Doubloon (Stack’s, 1981); and others. Together with David Spink, he discovered an 1804 US silver dollar proof coin presented to the King of Siam (now Thailand) by President Andrew Jackson in 1834. Mr. Risk also continued his vocation as a teacher by mentoring many collectors to form world-class collections.

Mr. Risk was the only living American awarded the distinction of Commander (Honorary) of the Royal Victorian Order (CVO) for his work cataloguing the insignia of the orders and decorations in the Queen of England’s private collection. He was a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London (FSA), a Knight of Justice of the Order of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem (UK) and belonged to the Naval and Military Club, the Royal Over-Seas League—both in London—and the Harvard Club in New York City. Included among the many organizations and societies, he served as Chairman of the American Foundation of Savoy Orders, member of the Executive Committee of the Saint George’s Society of New York, and Life Fellow of the American Numismatic Society. He was a longtime communicant at Saint Thomas Church in Manhattan.

He is survived by two cousins, Marian E. (Mrs. James) V. V. Goodrich of Livermore, Colo., and Karl J. Van Valkenburgh of West Granby, Conn., many second cousins, and a number of dear friends, among whom are John T. Dunlap Esq., Jeffrey A. Ryan, and Dr. Robert LaRocca of New York City.