ANS Groves Forum speech, May 9, 2002
Books on numismatics are the mainstay of the hobby and without the knowledge accumulated in them we would be in very poor shape, but there is no book on how to do research in numismatics, and probably never will be. Practical experience is the best guide, but how does one acquire this experience?
Perhaps the best way to begin is by talking about why research is done at all. Why not just collect coins for profit and forget about why or how they were made? We all know that the mark of the true numismatist, however, is to want to learn everything possible about the items that he or she owns or wishes to own. All of us have seen exhibits that tell us nothing about the pieces displayed and we tend to ignore them in favor of those with good accompanying material that masterfully explains the contents of the case.
We have all heard the famous remark that people climb mountains because they are there, as if that were reason enough. If that was the only reason for doing numismatic research, it would be a poor one indeed.
First Research Interests: Russia
The way that I began to be interested in research, though probably not typical, illustrates one way of entering the field. In 1960 I was in college and collecting Russian coins—as well as U.S.—on a shoestring budget. I was corresponding with Dr. I. G. Spasskii at the Numismatic Department of the State Hermitage in Leningrad, and he suggested that I have certain reference works microfilmed.
I contacted the Saltykov-Shchedrin Library in Leningrad and inquired as to their terms for microfilming. It turned out that they wanted American books in exchange on a page for page basis. They then, without my ordering it done, proceeded to microfilm the books and send me a list of American books, which cost about $100, a sum somewhat beyond my grasp. I managed to persuade them to accept a more reasonable selection, but in the meantime I wrote Lee Hewitt, then editor of the Numismatic Scrapbook Magazine, inquiring if he would be interested in articles on Russian numismatics. He was and the first one was published in December 1960.
New Fields of Work: US Numismatics
From there I graduated to doing research on U.S. topics and made my first trip to the National Archives in Washington in December 1963.
It is necessary to mention that some years ago the documentary material relating directly to the mints, and in the Washington archives, was parceled out. In particular, that relating to the Philadelphia Mint was sent to the branch of the Archives in that city. For this reason, I will sometimes refer to documents in Washington or Philadelphia depending upon when I was there.
The Gobrecht Dollar
Perhaps the best way of illustrating such research work would be to examine an instance of digging out facts long forgotten. Until the mid-1970s, every numismatic reference work stated that the Gobrecht dollars of 1836 to 1839 were patterns. As so often is the case in published works—and a charge to which virtually everyone is guilty at some time or other—the errors about these pieces had been copied from earlier texts written by individuals who were just guessing or repeating unfounded gossip from Mint officials.
I first questioned the prevailing view about the Gobrecht “patterns” when I saw the original Mint reports for the years of 1836, 1837, and 1839 and each showed an official coinage of silver dollars, although a small one. Moreover, in the report for 1836 the director clearly stated that a coinage of silver dollars had been executed for circulation. Since everyone assumed the pieces to be patterns, it was certainly the sole case of an official Mint report declaring patterns to be coins and also telling how many were made. One of the key points frequently made about these issues concerned the year 1836, during which it was stated that the Mint had struck 1,000 pieces on the standard adopted in 1837; in other words, all the dollars struck in 1836 weighed 412.5 grains each rather than the legal standard of 416 grains in force during 1836.
There were of course sources of information that tended to back up the prevailing view about the Gobrecht dollars. One such instance was a conversation with a very prominent and knowledgeable dealer, whose authority in matters of this sort was to be taken very seriously. He informed me that he had personally weighed several 1836 Gobrecht dollars and that all had weighed about 412.5 grains and not 416 grains.
The next step was to examine the original ledgers at the Archives showing coinage and use of bullion for the period. For this purpose, and for the years before 1838, the so-called Waste Book (which shows every entry relating to bullion affairs) proved to be the key in solving the puzzle. The journals showed the 1,000 silver dollars being delivered in two separate batches on the last day of 1836, but in the second case no other silver coins were included with the dollars. This enabled me to calculate the correct legal weight of the dollars delivered on that day and it turned out to be 416 and not 412.5 grains.
In addition to examining the bullion entries for coinage and deposits, all of the existing incoming and outgoing letters in the Archives were read to find even the most minute of clues concerning the execution of the coins, as I thought, or patterns, as most others believed.
Complicating all of this was the known fact that Mint Director James Ross Snowden had engaged in wholesale restriking of the Gobrecht dollars from original dies during the late 1850s. That Snowden had used these dollars to trade collectors out of prized specimens needed for the mint cabinet was interesting but of little help, since no one knew how to tell the originals from the restrikes except for some vague information concerning die rust or minor die cracks—hardly the best indicator, since dies could be, and often were, repolished between usage.
One may ask, in the meantime, if I went to the Archives every single time I wished to do research; after all, I live roughly 600 miles from Washington, DC, and it is not the easiest thing in the world to drop everything just for a quick trip to the nation’s capital. This sort of thing is not necessary since it is possible to order specialized microfilming from the Archives when one knows where to look.
The whole puzzle was neatly solved with the publication of Walter Breen’s work on the proof coinage of the United States. He had found the key to the differentiation of original Gobrechts from restrikes by noting that the Snowden strikings of the 1850s had the eagle flying flat—when the coin was properly rotated—instead of “onward and upward” as intended by Director R.M. Patterson in the 1830s. This in turn indicated that the dealer who had weighed all of those Gobrecht dollars had not encountered a single original striking of 1836.
A second example of pure research involves the well-known four-dollar gold pieces of 1879-1880, usually called Stellas. There had been a great deal of speculation about these pieces as early as 1880 and there was considerable conflict between the various accounts. In addition, dealers were promoting certain of the 1879 Flowing Hair pieces as originals because striations did or did not appear on the surface.
A four-dollar gold coin of 1879.
Upon reading all the letters for that period, however, the matter became much simpler. There were in fact no Stellas officially struck and delivered in 1879, the 425 Flowing Hair pieces all being made in 1880. Thus, all pieces are technically restrikes and there are no originals. No doubt a few extras were struck of the 1879 Flowing Hair design for mint officials and their friends.
The Archives give no information on the other designs and the number made, either dated 1879 or 1880, but it is clear that virtually all of the 1879 Flowing Hair patterns, despite protests from Philadelphia Mint Superintendent A. Loudon Snowden, were distributed through Congressmen to their constituents who were collectors. The oft-repeated tale about such pieces being used in the red-light district of Washington is highly unlikely and was no doubt a rumor started by someone or other who was unable to obtain specimens.
1792 Half Dismes
Sometimes researchers are a day late and a dollar short. In the mid-1960s, I was at the Archives when I ran into Don Taxay, whose work, I might add, has always been first-class as he is quite careful in evaluating his sources. At any rate we were talking outside the Central research room and he asked if I had been to the Library of Congress to examine the personal account book of Thomas Jefferson who, in 1792 and 1793, had been the Cabinet officer responsible for the new Mint. It had been my intention to do so the year before but there were too many other resources that were equally worthwhile and had potential. Taxay said that it was on his short list and he planned to go there the next day. He did, and found the record for the payment of the 1,500 half dismes of July 1792 into Jefferson’s account, thus putting an exact date and mintage figure to this enigmatic coinage.
The Mint Medals for TAMS
On the other hand there are sometimes left-handed compliments. In the mid-1970s I wrote a catalogue of the mint medals struck through 1892 at the Philadelphia Mint for the Token & Medal Society. As a result I occasionally receive inquiries from collectors about this or that piece. About 10 years ago, I received such a letter from an English coin dealer asking about a life-saving medal. It seems that he had written the Bureau of the Mint and they had responded with details they had been able to recover from their records; the dealer wished to know if I had additional data. When I read what the Bureau had to say, I thought it seemed rather familiar so I checked my book. It was an exact copy of what I had written, and the Bureau had simply palmed it off as their own work—probably on the assumption that I would never see their answer.
There seems to be a general belief that Mint records are sacred and one may find all that one needs in the Archives simply by looking in the right place. Nothing could be further from the truth. Of those Mint records dating before 1900 that presently exist, it is doubtful whether we see more than a third of what once was. Some Mints have lost their entire records while others, such as Philadelphia, have had considerable losses—especially in the years before 1850. Since this whole area is little known, some review is necessary in order to show what exists and what has been lost.
The Dahlonega Mint
First of all, the records of the Dahlonega Mint, if they survived the Civil War intact, were probably thrown out within a few years by someone who did not wish to bother with them. Reports filed by the superintendents of this branch Mint to various official bodies still exist, but the working papers do not, and this has caused endless confusion—especially with respect to the rare coinages of 1861. A few years ago, one researcher hit upon the novel idea of checking some of the Confederate records in the Archives and did find some hitherto unknown figures, but not quite the definitive information we have all been seeking.
With respect to Dahlonega, not all research attempts end in success. In the early 1970s I heard rumors that the Dahlonega archives had survived the Civil War and were currently held in some private collection in Georgia. I made inquiries without success and then wrote the Governor of Georgia relating the rumors and asking for official help. His secretary later replied that the Governor’s office had had no better luck than I had had. About a year later I was visiting relatives not too far from Dahlonega and decided that a personal visit might work out. There is a small museum there, and when I mentioned the possibility of the old records existing they put two and two together and quickly decided that I was the pest that had sicked the Governor’s office on them. When I was able to show that my interest was legitimate everyone soon became friendly, but they believed that the records really had been destroyed.
Because the Dahlonega records themselves are missing there are two key areas where researchers can find critical material. The first is the letter file maintained at the Philadelphia Mint. These letters, consisting of a two-way correspondence between, generally, the mint director and the local superintendent, have been microfilmed and can be purchased for a nominal sum.
The other key area for this mint is the reports filed with the Treasury Department each quarter. These contain information on bullion deposits and coinage, payments of gold coin, ordinary receipts and expenditures, and summary payroll accounts. It is worth noting that such records are available for all of the mints for years prior to 1900 and may be used at the Archives. The pre-1814 accounts for the Philadelphia Mint, however, are fragmentary, since the British army used many of them for bonfires when they occupied the City of Washington during the War of 1812.
The Charlotte Mint
The Charlotte Mint records do exist, on the whole, but are missing many of the ordinary letters that make up history. However, the bullion and coinage ledgers are in the Archives and may be consulted by anyone having interest in this area.
The New Orleans and Carson City records are mostly lost. Both were virtually destroyed in this century, probably in 1925, though some may not have been tossed onto the trash heap until the early thirties. One miserable volume of pre-Civil War New Orleans letters exists, but it deals with building repairs and is of little direct use to anyone. Why it was kept and not the more valuable bullion and coinage records is anyone’s guess.
The Philadelphia Mint
For the nineteenth century, the records of Philadelphia seem to have been preserved the best, but the status of San Francisco is not directly known to me although I do know that some of the 19th century records were consulted in the recent dispute over the Western assayer’s bars. Some Philadelphia records were thrown out in the course of the past century (and were taken home by certain officers who considered them their personal property) but the greatest damage occurred in 1925. We have lists of what was destroyed but this does not make up for the losses.
The Bureau of the Mint (now called simply “The Mint”) has a spotty record when it comes to retention of documents dated after 1873, when it was formed. Large numbers were pitched even in the late 19th century and further batches have been shredded from time to time, especially in 1925,when tens of thousands of pages were summarily disposed of. It is not clear at present what percentage of post-1900 material still exists, though some was sent to the archives in 1947; generally, documents dated after 1938 have not been transferred.
At this point it is only fair to note that some documents ought to be thrown away, as they would simply clog the archival space for generations to come and would never be consulted. For example, does anyone really care that employee X was off on January 23, 1900, because of a common cold? Such information has no bearing on the history of coins or medals struck at the Mints and should be discarded. In similar vein, should we keep the records showing each and every person who purchased mint or proof sets in the past half century? Also, many categories of records simply duplicate other series.
1978: Key Records Destroyed
On the other hand, I learned in 1984 that great quantities of very valuable twentieth-century records had been ordered shredded in 1978 due to some whim from a bureaucrat not understanding or caring what was historically proper to keep. The 1978 order, with many pages of fine print listing the files to be shredded, included the great bulk of Philadelphia, Denver, and San Francisco letter files, in some ways the most important records then being kept. It is with the letter files that we flesh out the reason for a change in the coinage or the details behind a medal.
The way that I discovered this destruction was odd, in that it had been kept a secret even within the Bureau of the Mint. I had always worked with Mint Historian Eleonora Hayden in getting permission to do research in the documents not yet released to the Archives. In 1984, I was doing research in Washington and had requested the necessary letters of admission to the GSA building in Philadelphia where the Mint records dating after 1900 were stored. Some post-1900 records had actually gone to the archives, but key data, such as the voluminous letter files, were still at the GSA (the General Services Administration center on Wissahickon Avenue).
There was some delay in getting the authorization through Miss Hayden. As she explained to me, each passing year seemed to show that her post was considered less important to the hierarchy. In the 1930s, for example, she had direct access to the director, but by the early 1980s there were three or four layers of officialdom to be passed through if she needed permission from the director for a request such as I had made. She retired, by the way, before the left-handed compliment mentioned above came about.
At any rate the permission was forthcoming and I went to Philadelphia with my trusty tape recorder to go through the letter files. When I got to the area of the GSA building allocated to the records, I should have known something was wrong; several of the employees—or, rather, alleged employees—were talking to each other very loudly while others were listening to portable radios as they walked around the room.
When I asked about the records I was to see, an employee brought out the 1978 destruct lists, perhaps 50 or 100 pages of fine print. A few records had not been destroyed, including the files dealing with coinage done for foreign countries, so the trip was not a complete loss. I had to ask the employees repeatedly, however, to turn down their radios and personal discussions so that I could be heard on my own tape recorder.
Some of the employees at the Philadelphia Mint managed to hide a few of the record volumes from Hackel; after her tenure ended they were brought out of hiding, but only marginally. In one case, when Ernest Keusch & I were working on the Assay Medal book for TAMS, I learned that lists of medals struck after 1924 still existed, in the hands of a senior Philadelphia Mint official. I made arrangements to see the volume but when I arrived at the Mint was told that I could make notes but no xerox copy of any page was permitted! Whether these particular volumes still exist I cannot say.
The destruct order also included many other valuable files, including the die records for the various Mints. Such wanton destruction will surely be felt in the next few decades as information on die varieties is sought in order to combat increasingly sophisticated counterfeiting. We may contrast this strange behavior with that of the Royal Mint in Great Britain, which has furnished rather detailed die information on occasion to qualified individuals.
The curious part about the destruction of the Philadelphia Mint letter files is that the destroyed records were simply continuations of files which were already at the Archives and had been heavily used by researchers. In 1975, I had examined some of the files now destroyed, and copied two or three hundred letters for the years prior to 1914. These copies are now the only reminder of untold thousands of letters now but a memory. This one order has virtually destroyed future research into twentieth century Mint history. As the risk of a very bad pun, I might say that that this proves the old adage that political hacks ought to be kept out of office involving public trust. It was certainly broken in this case by Stella Hackel. Miss Hayden told me that she had looked into the matter and that Mint Director Donna Pope had then reversed Hackel’s “scorched-earth” policy, but it was too late for the earlier records.
A Curious Effect
Perhaps the saddest aspect of this sorry business is the damage that it will do to reputations in years to come. There is always that odd researcher who sees corruption in every action by a government official, no matter how innocent. The classic case is the semi-literate newspaper reporter—for a Long Island paper—who wrote a book claiming that George Washington had stolen money from the government when his accounts were settled at the end of the Revolutionary War; the so-called researcher did not even understand the basic monetary system of the period.
This same reporter wrote a book on the “Making of the President 1789,” or some such title, in which he used the form of “President” that looks like “Prefident.” Unfortunately, he did not know the difference between the old-style S and F and thus the title of his book was actually misspelled. The History Channel was using him as an expert on George Washington, and when I pointed out that neither he nor his publisher could spell “President” it did at least cause a small stir.
The point of all of this is that it is important to understand the age which is being studied; too many writers, for example, criticize individuals or actions of the nineteenth century based on an incorrect understanding of the situation as it then existed.
In the 1880s, it was quite common to charge various Mint officers with improprieties, but the existence of the records for the period makes it possible to find out the truth in nearly all cases. The various charges made about the Stella and Goloid coinage are well known to students of this period, and Superintendent A. Loudon Snowden can be shown to be blameless—despite dealer criticism of the era and occasional repeating of such information by current writers.
Research at the Archives
The Archival records are not always dry to discuss. During my first trip to the Archives in 1963, I became thirsty while working at night in the Central Research Room. I remembered that there was a water fountain at the other end of the building and went through two swinging doors to get there. On trying to return I discovered that these doors only opened in one direction and I was now locked in. I then remembered that one could go through the basement from one side to the other, so I used the elevator to go down to that level and cross over. When I arrived back at the Central Research Room, I complained to the guard that the doors could be a little better arranged. He replied that they now knew who had set off the alarm system in the building. Every time a new guard came into the research room, I was pointed out as the cause of all the trouble that evening. The next night, there were notices on the doors in question warning that use was forbidden in the evening. I found another drinking fountain.
A Mint Ledger Listing Dies Destroyed
During one of my periodic trips to Philadelphia in the mid-1960s, I discovered that there was at the GSA an extremely valuable Mint ledger dating from 1844 which listed every die made at the Philadelphia Mint until 1924. I actually handled the volume and was allowed to look inside to verify what was there, but was told that it had to be sent to the Mint Bureau in Washington. So, upon my arrival in Washington, I requested a meeting with the director, Eva Adams, but was instead granted one with an assistant director. This particular meeting was not one of my better days. The assistant director first informed me that he was the sole person protecting the coinage against the forces that would destroy it, and very plainly stated that he thought I was a front for a counterfeiting gang. Why else would I be applying to see a record of dies? The assistant director also informed me that he would personally destroy the volume should I manage to get permission to see it. He made it clear that ordinary laws did not apply to important men like him; I was not, I suppose, surprised that he would think this, but his saying it was something else again.
At that time the Freedom of Information Act had just been signed into law, and upon my return home I made formal application to use the volume. After a year of waiting, I received a curious communication, signed by the director, informing me that I could not see the record because it was an ‘internal memo’! When Mrs. Brooks became director, I made a formal protest about the way I had been treated and the absurd answer I had received to a legitimate request for information. She ordered a thorough search made but did not find the volume, leading to the inevitable conclusion that it had indeed been destroyed. However, in the process of searching some of the nooks and crannies that abounded in the old Bureau offices in the Treasury Building, a number of significant ledgers and documents were found and made available to me. These proved invaluable, since I had not even known of their existence; one of the items, for example, was Chief Engraver James Barton Longacre’s personal notebook recording medals and pattern coins ordered struck in the 1860s. These records were later sent to the Archives for all to use.
I mention Mrs. Brooks by name because I would like to single her out as a friend of the collector and historian. She did not have to go out of her way to help me in my research, for I have no powerful friends in Washington, but did anyway because it was the proper thing to do. If it had not been for her, for example, the book I did for the Token and Medal Society on medals of the U.S. Mint would have been a far poorer effort.
The Letter Files of the Mint
The letter files of the Philadelphia Mint are worthy of a study unto themselves. In the earliest days, the clerks made what today are termed “fair copies” of all letters thought worthy of keeping for future reference. From 1792 to October 1795, however, the directors did not keep copies of their letters—or at least did not leave them at the Mint for future directors to use. It is quite possible that some day we will uncover the Mint letterbooks of David Rittenhouse or Henry William DeSaussure, the first two directors.
Beginning in October 1795, Director Elias Boudinot ordered that a careful record be kept of all letters considered important and quite a few that were only marginally so. We may be thankful that he did, for without this information, we would know but little about the workings of the Mint at this period. These “fair copies”, which are nothing more than letters carefully copied into a bound volume, may be consulted by any researcher.
The following two directors, Robert Patterson and Samuel Moore, were very conscientious about keeping letter files and these are also still in existence. Robert M. Patterson, who became director in 1835, changed the system, however—much to our detriment at this time. Fair copies were no longer made, but instead the director would write out the letter himself and the clerk would recopy it for sending through the mails. What now exists are the director’s own drafts, complete with smudges and crossed-out sections. Patterson, however, had one of the poorer hands of the period and it is sometimes very difficult to understand precisely what he is saying.
Patterson ordered that ledgers be kept showing the rough content of all important letters sent and received, but most of these small volumes were lost over the next several decades and only a few now grace the Archival shelves. It was not until 1853, when James Ross Snowden became director, that record-keeping for letters changed to a new system entirely—that of the letter-press copy. The letter was written out in ink and then a very thin tissue laid across and pressed against the still-wet ink. The ink soaked into the tissue paper, forming a permanent copy. Unfortunately, in some cases the ink tended to run, leaving a blurred copy or, worse yet, the ink contained iron or other acidic chemicals and the tissue paper disintegrated over the years.
Until the late 1860s, the press copy replies were filed with the incoming letters (if there were such), but after that time they were bound into volumes for better storage. Around 1900, the Philadelphia Mint finally began using typewriters and thus switched to carbon paper, the standard until the computer age.
Most of the record groups at the Archives have been inventoried and the researcher uses the printed inventory to determine the type of records wanted. The archives of the various Mints, except San Francisco, as well as that of the Mint Bureau, are in Record Group 104. The original inventory of 1952 has been superseded several times.
When I first went to the National Archives in 1963, research was done in small rooms but at night the documents were taken to the Central Research room. Later, all work was done there, and I presume that this is still the case except that there is a branch Archive in Maryland, where many of the records pertaining to the Bureau of the Mint have been taken. The general rule is to consult with the staff official responsible for a given section of records and present a list of documents or volumes wanted for the next day; due to budget contraints and understaffing, it is not always possible to have records pulled immediately.
Methods of Archival Work
When actually doing research, there are several ways of going about the task. When copying letters, for example, I normally use a tape recorder, since far more work can be done that way than by just trying to write everything down. Also, one’s hand can become very tired after a few hours, and writer’s cramp sets in. Once you get tired of writing everything down, you begin to skip more and more until you are at the point of just writing down an occasional idea; the latter is sometimes very hard to interpret when you get home.
On the other hand, with a regular tape recorder the researcher simply indexes each letter by the counter number and the research is good for an indefinite period. Some of the handwritten notes I made in 1963 have long since become scattered, but the tapes made as long ago as 1967 are still perfectly useable. Now, in preparing a work for publication, I go through my index, copy off the relevant entries, and then listen to the exact letter as it appeared to me years before. This is not perfect, of course, because punctuation and spelling are generally not recorded; those who must have precise documents for publication rather than just research need to use other methods. The use of a tape recorder allows a researcher to do an enormous amount of research in a very short time.
Some of the government buildings do have cafeterias, and it is possible to eat in them under certain conditions. At one time, I used to eat in the basement of the Justice Department—directly across the street from the Archives. One of my cousins had been a special FBI agent stationed in Washington at the end of World War II, and he suggested that I simply act as though I belonged there when going through the halls on the way to the cafeteria. As a matter of fact, I did just this and got away with it for quite a while. The food was excellent; it was probably subsidized, like most other things in Washington. However, in 1974 I tried the same thing and was stopped at the door and asked for identification. I told the guard that I was undercover and therefore did not carry identification but he did not believe me; so I went back to eating elsewhere.
Copies and Microfilm
When one does work directly at the Archives, it is normally possible to have Xerox copies made on the spot for a fee. This service was for a long time restricted, however, to single sheets of paper; but on my last trip in 1996, I was told that special copiers for bound volumes would soon be available.
In dealing with ledgers and other special tables that do not read well into a tape recorder, or are liable to be confused, it is best to have the material microfilmed by the Archives photoduplication service. It normally takes several weeks to get this done because there is usually a considerable backlog.
There is a special class of microfilm that has already been filmed and is ready for use on an upper floor of the main Archives building in Washington. For example, all of the correspondence of the Philadelphia Mint officers with Dahlonega has been microfilmed and can be used upstairs. There are three reels of film, about 4000 pages in all. On the other hand, these can be ordered directly from the Archives. There are also several other such reels available, including Bullion Ledger A, which covers Philadelphia bullion accounts from 1794 through 1802; letters written by the directors of the Mint from 1795 through 1825; Mint warrants for all payments through 1817; and a few other specialized ledgers and documents.
In addition to the Mint documents that have been microfilmed, the upstairs microfilm reading room also has about 200,000 other reels covering all types of material, including Treasury and State (diplomatic) records, many of which are of value in doing work on coins and medals. One must consult some rather bulky registers to determine which reels would be of value, however.
I cannot speak highly enough of the Archival staff with whom I have worked over the years. Mrs. Holdcamper, Mr. King, and Mr. Sherman are now long retired but their replacements—such as Mr. DiBiase at Philadlephia—are their equal in every way and I have nothing but praise for all of them. Frequently, when I was stumped for a place to look for a certain item, one of them would come up with just the right place to search. In one case, in the 1970s, Donald King could not find a particular book and simply invited me into the stacks; we searched until it was found, it having been accidentally misfiled by one of the temporary help employed from time to time.
Another key area of research is digging through old dealer’s auction catalogs and fixed price lists in search of information on the rarity and importance of certain coins. I do very little of this, primarily because it does not usually directly concern the production of the coinage or its background. On the other hand, several individuals, such as the late Carl Carlson, have made an art of this work by using a computer to speed up searching. The trick is to know what to feed into the computer.
A common fallacy that is perhaps unavoidable is the use of the mintage figures printed in the “Redbook.” These have been worked out over a number of years by several researchers, and reflect the number of coins thought to have been struck of a given date but not necessarily all in that year. An example of this would be the figure for the 1803 silver dollars, which actually includes all of those pieces struck early in 1804, since dies of 1803 are believed to have been used in the following year. However, as most of these revised figures were prepared some years ago, there are now to be found writers who assume that such figures represent annual coinage totals for a given denomination. Articles have actually been published supposedly indicating the amount of bullion flowing into the mint in a given year, but which in reality show nothing of the kind. Those who do research in this manner should be well warned to understand precisely the kind of figures being dealt with before using them in a serious study.
It is quite possible that private individuals hold records of great value in the study of American coinage and medals. Both Adam Eckfeldt and Franklin Peale took a considerable quantity of records with them when they left the Philadelphia Mint—in 1839 and 1854, respectively—and the finding of these records might prove of immense value. Only one small volume kept by Peale, on medal dies, has ever turned up for research work. The Eckfeldt papers are known to have been kept intact within the family for several decades after his death in 1852, and may well yet be owned by some descendant. They might, for example, throw light on the proof and medal coinages prior to 1839.
In late February 1996, I was contacted by an attorney representing one of the principals in the matter of the 1933 double eagle. The attorney wished to know what could be learned in the Archives about the 1933 gold coinage and, in particular, if anything could be located which would prove that the coins in question had been legally issued.
I felt that, if such information could be found, collectors in general might feel a little less heat from the federal authorities in terms of coins that most people would consider legitimate collectibles. If the 1933 double eagle was declared legal, then many other coins of dubious legality might become safer for collectors to own and display. For such reasons, I undertook the work but, as is known, the final court agreement was somewhat unexpected.
For many years, ever since the seizures began in 1944, there have been all sorts of rumors about how and why the coins left the Philadelphia Mint. One story, for example, claimed that Treasury Secretary William Woodin owned several of the pieces; he was in office during most of 1933 and may well have had access to such coins. Another story was that they were paid out to the Federal Reserve and that available specimens were somehow obtained from that source. I have no idea whether Woodin even owned a single specimen but I do know that the second rumor is not true.
I made arrangements to visit the Philadelphia branch archives as well as the main Archives in Washington. As I noted earlier, some years ago it was decided to decentralize certain record groups to make it easier for local researchers; the net result was, however, that interrelated papers were now in different locations, creating problems where none had existed before.
By early March the trip arrangements had been made, and I left on the 14th from the Indianapolis airport for Philadelphia. I spent the day at the branch records center and then went on to Washington, where I stayed for several more days.
The heavy destruction of records at the order of Stella Hackel in 1978 meant that perhaps five or ten percent of the original 1933 documents still exist; no one, to my knowledge, had ever been through these papers looking for material on the 1933 double eagle. The truth was that I did not have the slightest idea what still existed for the gold coinage of that year, nor in which files relevant data might be found. Under the circumstances, I simply asked to see every file that might have even the slightest crumb of information.
Philadelphia was something of a disappointment even though several of the gold ledgers from 1933 were located. It was clear from these that 1933 eagles had in fact been paid out to the banking system but not double eagles.
At this point, it is perhaps best to explain what actually occurred in 1933 with respect to banks and the Federal Reserve System. There seems to be a widespread belief that when Franklin Roosevelt became president on March 4, 1933, he immediately stopped the banks from paying out gold coins and that this act was later made permanent. This is not quite correct.
What happened is that there was a Bank Holiday declared almost immediately to stop the panic runs on the banking system. This lasted for a few days, and the banks were then allowed to reopen and to pay out gold when requested by the public. In addition, the Federal Reserve System was given the authority, about March 13th, to pay out gold to banks under their jurisdiction. On April 5, the paying out of gold by the banks was halted and most gold was called in; the banks were ordered to turn in their stocks of gold coin to the Federal Reserve, which in turn forwarded it to the Mints for melting into bars. Later that year, all gold, except for collector pieces, was ordered to be turned in.
Sales in the 1930s and 1940s
From the mid-1930s to 1944, the double eagles of 1933 were openly bought, sold, and displayed by collectors. In The Numismatist of the early 1940s, for example, the coins were even illustrated. One dealer advertised to buy such coins but indicated specifically that he did not want second-rate pieces, only uncirculated! What is even more interesting is that the Director of the Mint was then, and still is, an ex-officio member of the American Numismatic Association and is known to have read the monthly magazine. On several occasions, Director Nellie Tayloe Ross wrote letters to the editor correcting minor misstatements of one sort or another. There is also little doubt that the journal was read by other members of the Mint service.
In 1944, when Stack’s was preparing to sell one of the coins, Dr. Leland Howard of the Mint Bureau suddenly discovered his personal mission in life: to make certain that the 1933 double eagles were seized from collectors at whatever cost. The Secret Service was brought into the case, and over the next several years a number of pieces were duly confiscated or voluntarily surrendered. The recent government press release says that the Howard investigation was triggered by an inquiry from a newspaper reporter, but this seems odd when it is considered that coin auctions in the 1940s were not normally the subject of newspaper stories and there had been repeated mentions of the subject in The Numismatist. It was also 1944, when the war in the Pacific was raging in all its fury and was paramount in the minds of nearly everyone.
1913 Liberty Head Nickel
In the course of searching for 1933 data, I came across a number of letters from ordinary citizens inquiring about the status of the 1913 Liberty Head nickel. (The endless offers by B. Max Mehl to buy such coins had of course seized the public fancy, thus the inquiries.) The general thrust of the answers was that the Bureau of the Mint really was not interested in the subject. Someone had even gone to the trouble of preparing a booklet explaining that the Bureau really did not know how the pieces came about but thought that they might have been coined in 1913 by mistake; this claim was almost certainly untrue, as one would think that there would have been inquiries in 1919 when the pieces first surfaced. It would not have been difficult to determine that the pieces had been illegally made in late December, 1912, and smuggled from the premises. That the Bureau was not interested in bothering about the subject, however, is an interesting commentary on the mindset of government officials then and now.
It is also worth mentioning, in connection with the legality of coins in general, that minor proof coins dated prior to 1878 and pre-1860 gold and silver proofs, with the exception of the Gobrecht dollars, were not issued according to law and thus are technically illegal. In these cases, the proof pieces were delivered as medals and not recorded in the annual reports of the Mint Bureau. No one has suggested seizing these coins, for good reason, but their status is not all that different from a 1933 double eagle.
What I eventually found was a document of mid-March 1933 stating that the Mint had the right to pay out gold coinage until further notice. It was at this exact time, March 15, that the first double eagles of 1933 were delivered and the date on the document was a pleasant coincidence. The document states, to be exact, that a person could bring in gold for coinage and could be paid that exact amount in gold, so long as the amount of gold in the Mint did not decrease. This particular privilege ceased to exist on April 5 by order of the President but it was in effect for a certain period of time—sufficient for the 1933s to legally leave the Mint.
The government has claimed that no order was ever given to release the 1933s. This proved to be true, but the order to release coins by a given date, as was done for double eagles at this time, was an administrative decision, not the rule of law and the superintendent could easily have overridden the regulation without serious consequence. It is also worth remembering that the Philadelphia Superintendent, Freas Styer, was a Republican and unlikely to hold his job for very long anyway once the new Administration of Franklin Roosevelt got around to putting their own people in key posts.
There are a number of avenues by which the double eagles could have left the Mint in the latter part of March 1933. Given the discovered document, it would be, one would think, up to the government to prove that none left the Mint legally; this appears to be impossible in 2002 given the state of the records as they now exist.
In closing, I would mention that the most important point in doing research on any period of coinage is first to understand the time period in which the coinage was made. One should not use modern standards to judge actions of the past. To do so does a disservice to those responsible for producing the numismatic treasures of our earlier days.