Profile: Rick Witschonke

by Olga Less

With numismatic friends in Gallarate, Italy, June 1995. Clockwise from top left: Guiseppe Polisseni, Rick Witschonke, Charles Hersh, and Renzo Riva.

Many of us here at the ANS would agree that Rick Witschonke is not only a successful businessman and a world-class collector of Roman Republican coins, but also a wonderful colleague, good friend, and a generous benefactor of the Society. The ANS was fortunate to have had Rick join its curatorial staff in 2003, first as a curatorial assistant and, from March 2006, as a curatorial associate.

Richard B. Witschonke was born in 1945 in Washington, D.C., the second oldest of five Witschonke siblings (Karl, Rick, Kathy, Barbara, and Alan). Rick’s father, a Ph.D. chemist (Brown University), worked as a research scientist for the American Cyanamid Company. The family moved around a lot: first to Scarsdale, New York, then to New Jersey, and finally to Darien, Connecticut, where Rick went to high school. After graduating in 1963, Rick enrolled at Bowdoin College in Maine, with a major in English. However, extracurricular activities distracted Rick from his studies and, as a result, the college suggested he “take time off and mature.” Rick started a full-time job in computer programming with a small pharmaceutical market research company. At the same time, he enrolled at the University of Bridgeport, Connecticut, where he studied part-time for three years until his graduation with a BA in English magna cum laude. In the meantime, the company where Rick worked was acquired and subsequently relocated. Rick then took a job at Perkin-Elmer, where he worked on a project involving lenses for spy satellites.

When the time came to think about graduate school, the Vietnam War was in full swing, and inductions were determined by a lottery system. In 1968, Rick applied to business schools and was accepted at Harvard. He deferred his admission to Harvard for one year while waiting to see if he would be drafted. Rick’s draft lottery number was barely high enough to avoid army service. In 1972, Rick graduated from Harvard Business School with an MBA with high honors and took a position with American Management Systems, a technology consulting firm based in Washington, D. C., where he would end up working for most of his successful career in technology consulting. Before leaving the company, Rick was a vice president and manager of the North American Financial Institutions Practice for AMS, with five hundred people working under his leadership. Rick’s division was responsible for building financial systems for corporate clients such as Citicorp, American Express, and other large corporations. After leaving the firm, Rick continued to work in technology consulting in California before deciding to retire.

In 1999, Rick was elected a member of the American Numismatic Society’s governing Council and served one term as an ANS trustee. A Life Fellow of the ANS, Rick is also a Fellow of the Royal Numismatic Society and a member of the French, Italian, and Swiss Numismatic Societies. Rick’s affiliation with the ANS, however, began much earlier. After his first visit to the ANS in the late 1960s, Rick became a member. By then, the young man had his mind firmly set on collecting Roman Republican coins.

Rick’s passion for numismatics was indirectly prompted by his paternal grandmother’s gifts of the Whitman penny boards (and coins to fill the holes) that he and his siblings received from her every Christmas. Rick was indifferent to this board-filling activity until one of his fifth-grade classmates offered to buy some of Rick’s coins for five dollars. Coin collecting did not seem so dull anymore! Excited by the profitability of this simple transaction, Rick bought his older brother’s coins for three dollars and made a handsome profit selling them to the same classmate for ten. Rick then attempted to buy his sister’s coins, but was rebuked by Kathy for selling Grandma’s gifts. Then, a few days later, it dawned on Rick that it might be fun to continue collecting, so he offered to buy back the coins he had sold to his classmate. They had, predictably, already been sold, but Rick had been bitten by the bug. The first coins Rick collected were U.S.-type coins and dollar-size world coins. By the time he turned sixteen, Rick already had a few Roman Republican denarii in his collection, but his interest in these coins was intensified by the book by Rev. Edward A. Sydenham, The Coinage of the Roman Republic. The best source of information on Roman Republican coinage at the time, the book inspired Rick to learn more about the coins he decided to collect. Republican denarii, beautiful coins of uniform size, were affordable for a young collector, and there were so many rare and interesting types that one could never hope to complete the full series. What more could a true numismatist want?

Another important event that influenced Rick as a coin collector was his meeting with Charles Hersh, a prominent banker and numismatist who, on a Fulbright scholarship in London, helped G. C. Haines and L. Forrer edit Sydenham’s volume. Rick’s meeting with Hersh happened at the coin auction of the Thomas Olive Mabbott collection (sold by Hans Schulman) at New York City’s Waldorf-Astoria hotel in 1969. They struck up a conversation that resulted in a long and productive friendship. In 1998, Rick sponsored a Festschrift in honor of Charles Hersh’s seventy-fifth birthday. The volume was edited by Andrew Burnett and Ute Wartenberg and presented to Charles in June 1998, just six months before his untimely death. Rick numbers among his friends many prominent coin collectors, dealers, scholars, and curators: Bill Metcalf, Alan Walker, Basil Demetriadi, Michel Amandry, and Andrew Burnett, among many others. Rick has always made his collection available for study by serious scholars of numismatics and by fellow collectors. For example, a number of provincial coins from his collection were published in RPC I. Rick thoroughly enjoys meeting the many numismatic scholars who visit the ANS each year.

Currently, Rick resides in rural New Jersey with his lovely companion, Heidi Becker, whom he met in 1997 through a mutual friend and colleague of his, Steve. When Heidi’s husband died of cancer in the winter of 1997, leaving her and their three daughters (Erin, Chrissy, and Katie) behind, Rick and Steve decided to invite Heidi and her daughters on a sailing trip in the British Virgin Islands. They sailed around Tortola for a week, enough time for Rick to fall in love with Heidi. For several years, the couple had a long-distance relationship while Rick was still working in Palo Alto, California. In 2001, he retired and moved to New Jersey. Rick has two sons: Nathaniel, who was born in 1970 and now lives with his wife and two daughters in New Hampshire; and Andrew, born in 1986, who is a junior at the California Polytechnic University at Pomona, majoring in landscape architecture.

In addition to his curatorial duties at the ANS, Rick serves as a member of the Library Committee and is co-director (with Peter van Alfen) of the ANS Summer Seminar. In January, 2006 he served as Chairperson for the annual ANS Gala and the Library Chair book auction. Rick recently coauthored an article on the Fimbria cistophorus with Michel Amandry, which article was published in the American Journal of Numismatics 16-17. He plans to continue his research and publications on the coinage of the Roman Republic and to remain actively involved with the ANS where his experience, talent, and dedication are greatly appreciated.

Heidi Becker and Rick with son Andy Witschonke in Venice, Gritti Palace, July 1999.

Rick and Heidi. Maui, July 2000.