All posts by David Hill

Victor David Brenner’s Design for a U.S. Dollar

I was working on an article about George Kunz and the redesign of United States Coinage (ANS Magazine, 2017/1) when I came upon an interesting coin design in the ANS vault. It was an electrotype model of a U.S. dollar by Victor David Brenner, made about fourteen years before his actual contribution to the redesign of U.S. coinage, the iconic and ubiquitous Lincoln cent (1909). His was one of twenty-five dollar designs submitted for a competition in 1895, part of an organized effort at improving the nation’s much maligned coinage that was ostensibly carried out by several private art groups but was in reality undertaken mostly by two: the National Sculpture Society (NSS) and the ANS. The NSS showed real commitment to the cause, putting up all of the prize money: $300 for first place and either $100 or $200 for second (accounts vary). This was big money in 1895; first prize would be comparable to about $8,000 today.

Picture_of_Victor_David_Brenner wiki
Victor David Brenner

Given that coins are small sculpted pieces used by nearly everyone, the promotion of high quality coinage was a natural undertaking for the NSS. The group was founded in 1893 to promote quality sculpted art to the masses. To help fulfill its civic-minded goals, it opened its membership to non-sculptors—administrators, businessmen, and others that might help the cause. Kunz, Tiffany’s resident gem expert, joined the group in its first year. He also joined the ANS in 1893, and it appears that he was the primary agent at both groups promoting coinage redesign, apparently with the backing of an influential party in Washington.

The dollar designs that were submitted for the competition were displayed at an exhibition of ancient and world coins and medals at the American Fine Arts Building on 57th Street in New York City. The show was curated by the ANS and was intended to show historical examples of quality artistic coinage. Brenner did not win. First prize went to Albert Jaegers, specifically for the eagle on his reverse. Albert Randolph Ross came in second, for his obverse showing Liberty and a turkey. The prizes had no official standing and the two artists would play no role in the actual coinage redesign that began a decade later.

Brenner’s 1895 dollar design, obverse (ANS 1896.39.2)
Brenner’s 1895 dollar design, reverse (1896.39.3)

An electrotype of Jaegers’s design sits next to Brenner’s on a tray in the ANS vault. Unfortunately, though a letter from Ross and an entry in the Society’s proceedings say that he also donated his model to the ANS, a search for Ross’s turkey design was unsuccessful.

Letter from second-place winner Ross regarding the the transfer of his model to Kunz

Incidentally, it is great to learn of the close relationship between the ANS and the NSS during the latter’s first years because the two organizations have been happily reunited in modern times. The ANS and NSS have shared office space at 75 Varick Street since 2009.

For more on the founding of the National Sculpture Society and its early history, see Michele Bogart’s Public Sculpture and the Civic Ideal in New York City, 1890-1930 (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1989).

Happy Birthday John Reilly!

Frances Reilly card front sm
Homemade birthday card from John Reilly’s daughter

A while back I stumbled onto this great homemade card in the John Reilly, Jr. papers and have been waiting for February 3 to wish Mr. Reilly a happy 141st birthday. It was made by his daughter Frances (born in 1912), sometime in the late 1910s. Two decades later, in 1937, she would formally donate his Far Eastern collections to the ANS. During World War II, Frances was living in Hong Kong with her husband when the city fell to the Japanese. She was imprisoned there for nearly a year, finally coming home in late 1942. She died in 2001.

Frances Reilly card back sm
The back of the card

Remembered warmly as “Long John” by his Princeton classmates, the six-foot-four John Reilly once lent “his lanky southern paw to the varsity pitching staff” of the college. The result was one long inning, with 17 bases on balls and 23 hits—and a game that had to be called when they ran out of daylight (according to his class’s 50th anniversary reunion book, anyway). He was only associated with the ANS for twenty years or so (1910-1931), serving as treasurer and governor, but his contributions were enormous, and his presence can certainly be felt today, not only in the ANS’s prized collection of Far Eastern coins, but also in his personal papers and library of books that reside in the ANS Rare Book Room.

John Reilly, Jr.

In the ANS Library, we have begun to catalog his mostly nineteenth-century books, producing records with titles and authors in both Roman and Chinese characters, and noting various forms, including English and pinyin. This work is being done by ANS member and volunteer Christopher (Zhengcheng) Li, a recent graduate of Sotheby’s Institute of Art. Christopher is making many interesting discoveries along the way, including some that update the findings of Arthur Braddan Coole, published in The Encyclopedia of Chinese Coins, 1967 (an updated version of his Bibliography on Far Eastern Numismatics, 1940), the standard bibliographical reference for Far Eastern numismatics.

Photo Feb 02, 4 34 54 PM
Books in the Reilly library

It seems that Reilly’s library and papers never stop yielding treasures. I’ve written about his photographs of the World’s Columbian Exhibition of 1893, taken when he was seventeen years old. More on Reilly and his Far Eastern coin collection can be found here.

Lesser known collector and dealer H. A. Ramsden left his mark at the ANS

John Reilly’s membership certificate for the Yokohama Numismatic Society, signed by Ramsden

There are certain numismatic personalities I expect to encounter over and over again as I work with the historical collections at the ANS—Howland Wood, Sydney Noe, Thomas Elder, Henry Chapman. But there is a more obscure figure I sometimes find myself running into. This would be H. A. (Henry Alexander) Ramsden, a collector and dealer who exhibited an boundless enthusiasm for his area of expertise, Far Eastern numismatics, passionately working at it right up until his untimely death at the age of 43 in 1915.

Postcard of the Kobayagawa Company of Yokohama (ANS Archives)

Throughout the Society’s library and archives are pockets of materials associated with Ramsden. There are  his numerous letters in the Howland Wood, John Reilly, and Bauman Belden papers, for example. There are his publications—books, but also periodicals like The Numismatic and Philatelic Journal of Japan, which he founded and edited. Rummaging around in the library’s pamphlet files recently, I happened upon what turned out to be an uncataloged item. It was ANS treasurer John Reilly’s membership certificate for the Yokohama Numismatic Society, which included the stamped signature of Ramsden.

Holiday greeting card from the Kobayagawa Company (ANS Archives)

Many ANS members will recall the Reilly Room at the ANS building on Audubon Terrace where the Far Eastern numismatic collections were kept and displayed. Reilly obtained much of what would become the ANS’s premiere collection in that area from Ramsden. Though his influence still strongly reverberates, Ramsden remains a somewhat mysterious figure. There are no known photographs of him. Howland Wood supplied the ANA with what little he had on him for Ramsden’s obituary in the Numismatist, information Wood had gleaned from a biographical letter Ramsden had sent him in 1914. Not too much has been added to what we know about him since. His father was a British diplomat. The younger Ramsden followed in his father’s footsteps and came to be stationed in Japan as a representative of Cuba. He married a Japanese woman and went into business with her brother, stamp collector and

A spade coin from the ANS collection. Like many of those acquired from Ramsden, it is held in a board that has been specially cut to conform to the coin’s unique contours. 1937.179.17030.

dealer Jun Kobayahawa, in Yokohama. He built up an enormous numismatic collection, over 15,000 specimens, including Chinese, Japanese, and Korean coins, as well as an impressive library. His unexpected death threw the future of these collections into question, and after some back and forth with the executor of his will, they were purchased by Reilly, who retained ownership, though they were housed at the ANS. Reilly’s daughter Frances formally donated the materials in 1938.

Part of a page from a catalog of coin rubbings distributed by Ramsden for the Yokohama Coin Club

Ramsden may not be as familiar a name as some, but his legacy lives on in the ANS’s outstanding Far Eastern numismatic collections. In 2009, a student in the Society’s Eric P. Newman Graduate Seminar in Numismatics, Lyce Jankowski, produced an extremely useful research paper on the Society’s Chinese collection, documenting what she had uncovered on the subject. One interesting fact was that, had Ramsden lived longer, he might have left an even bigger impression on the ANS. Just a few months before Ramsden’s death, Wood had suggested that he might come to New York to be the curator of what Wood was already calling “the best collection of Far Eastern coins known.”

Lindbergh Kidnapping Ransom Money

Poking around in the ANS’s Farran Zerbe correspondence last week, I stumbled onto a couple of letters on a topic that should interest collectors of paper currency, relating to one of the most sensational crimes of the 20th century.

PosterOn March 1, 1932, the toddler son of pilot and national hero Charles Lindbergh was kidnapped from his New Jersey home. A ransom note demanding $50,000, which included instructions regarding the denominations of the bills, was left at the scene, and though larger sums were discussed in later notes, this was the amount that was ultimately given to a mysterious man identifying himself as “John” about a month later. Ransom_note_cropThough the cash failed to secure the return of the boy—his decomposed body was discovered about a month later—it would ultimately lead to the apprehension of “John,” Bronx carpenter Bruno Richard Hauptmann, who was executed for the crime in 1936.

Zerbe_letterThe money paid in ransom was regarded early on as key to cracking the case, and investigators were greatly aided by President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 6102 of 1933 outlawing the private ownership of gold certificates, which had been used to pay the bulk of the ransom money. Lists of the notes’ serial numbers were distributed, mostly to banks in the New York City area, and this is where Zerbe enters the picture. An ANS council member had suggested that the Society should have a copy of the published list, and secretary Sydney Noe knew just who to ask for one. Zerbe at the time worked for a New York City 20160429113039_00001bank, as curator of the Chase Manhattan Money Museum, and was happy to supply the most recently updated booklet from the U.S. Division of Investigation, led by J. Edgar Hoover. (The ANS library also has a copy of an earlier booklet distributed to banks on April 6, 1932, around the time of the ransom payment.)

In 1933, immediately following the president’s executive order outlawing gold certificates, a large number of them were discovered at the Federal Reserve Bank of First_pageNew York. This exciting lead turned out to be a dead end. Then, in the summer of 1934, numerous gold certificates from the ransom  began appearing in New York and Westchester County. Finally, a gas station attendant in Harlem, suspicious of a gold certificate he had received in payment, jotted down the license plate number of the car belonging to the man who had given it to him: Bruno Richard Hauptmann.

Serial_pageSo what became of the rest of the ransom money? There has been much speculation and discussion, but unlike some notes that were positively identified as being from the 1971 D.B. Cooper skyjacking using a similar F.B.I. serial number list, none of the Lindbergh notes have surfaced since the conclusion of the case.


Did Any Reprints of Zerbe’s Lesher Article Survive?

George Kolbe of Kolbe & Fanning Numismatic Booksellers had an interesting question regarding my most recent column in ANS Magazine  (“Bumps in the Road as ‘Coin Zerbe’ became the Dean of Coin Collectors,” 2016:1).

Farran Zerbe

It relates to some correspondence in the ANS Archives documenting a dustup between coin dealer B. Max Mehl and legendary numismatic evangelist Farran Zerbe. Zerbe had become quite perturbed upon learning that Mehl had, without permission, reproduced Zerbe’s article on Lesher Referendum Dollars in Mehl’s own Numismatic Monthly.

The article had first appeared in the 1917 volume of the American Journal of Numismatics. In those days, the ANS routinely supplied its authors with fifty offprints of articles published in the AJN, and Zerbe apparently had big plans for his—namely, selling them. But when the article appeared in Mehl’s publication—“killing whatever market or appreciation there may have been”—his enthusiasm evaporated, and he never bothered obtaining them. Years later, he asked Howland Wood if they were still available.


That is what prompted George to write. “I could not recall ever having seen or handled a copy of the AJN reprint of Zerbe’s Lesher article,” he says. “Were the Zerbe Lesher reprints ever produced and, if so, did Zerbe take possession?”

Good question! And, though it’s not often the case, this is one time when it was pretty easily and conclusively answered with a quick dive back into the correspondence. It turns out the reprints were indeed printed. In fact, Zerbe writes of having received two when the article was published. As for the others? Wood went poking around in the basement of the old building at Audubon Terrace and also wrote to the printer. But no luck. “They must have gotten lost or been destroyed,” he told Zerbe. “Such is the way of things.”


Were Zerbe’s two copies the only ones to survive? And what became of those? I know that George spent some time looking around, consulting his and other sales of the remnants of Zerbe’s library (e.g., Katen’s sale of Chase’s World Money Museum numismatic library in 1986 and 1987) but he found no clues. The ANS Library does not have any of the reprints in its catalog, so there are no “official” copies on our shelves. But I will be keeping an eye out!

Has anyone encountered reprints of Zerbe’s article? It originally appeared in the 1917 American Journal of Numismatics, volume 51, with the title, “Private Silver Coins Issued in the United States”? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.

The Talented Mr. Wood

Wood 07-00002
American Numismatic Society

Howland Wood: long-time ANS curator, Oriental coin authority, Huntington Award winner, and…illustrator? I must admit, I didn’t know about that last one—that is, until one day recently when looking into the controversy surrounding Victor David Brenner’s initials on the Lincoln Cent. I was reading a Numismatist article on the topic and was surprised to discover that the satirical drawing accompanying it, a depiction of a towering schoolmarm scolding the engraver for his audacity, was by Wood. Wood - VDB


The tone was in keeping with the one drawing of his I was aware of, a cartoon skewering the big names of the numismatic world that was found in his personal papers and written about some years ago in ANS Magazine. His other illustrations and devices for the Numismatist were not comical at all. Wood was identified as the “Staff Illustrator” for the magazine in 1909, and his contributions were part of an overall redesign of the magazine. By 1910, fewer and fewer of them appear, and they seem to be gone completely by 1911. As you can see by the slideshow below, Wood was a quite a talented illustrator.

Wood’s work in this area really should not have come as such a surprise. He was at that time working for a photoengraving firm in Boston—though as a salesman—a job he held for over a decade before becoming ANS curator. Several of the illustrations are engravings from photographs. His aptitude for art was not a quality hidden from his colleagues. In his eulogy for Wood, Edward Newell remarked on his “artistic sense [that] rendered him one of the finest and most successful arrangers of coin displays that I have ever been privileged to know.”

David Hill

Chinese Notes Update: Beware of Works Based on a Fraud

Recently on Pocket Change I wrote about Chinese Ming paper notes. Afterward, I was pleased to hear from an expert on the subject, Bruce Smith, who has been studying Chinese coins and paper money for forty years. Most of the information he conveyed comes from a talk he gave at the Chicago International Coin Festival in April 2013.

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

The earliest western description of the Ming notes that Bruce could find comes from The General History of China, a translation of a 1736 French work by Jean Baptiste DuHalde that was a compilation of reports by Jesuit missionaries. Early descriptions can also be found in articles by John Williams for the Numismatic Chronicle (1863 and 1864) and in two Journal Asiatique articles, “Sur l’Origine du Papier Monnaie” by Jules Henri Klaproth (1822) and “Memoire sur le Systeme Monetaire des Chinoises” by Edouard C. Biot (1837).

Chinese book 0535_001In the twentieth century, much of the writing on early Chinese notes, including the article by John Sandrock (parts 1&2) cited in my original post, was based on the research of Andrew McFarland Davis in the 1910s. Davis, an authority on U.S. Colonial notes, stepped outside of his area of expertise when he published descriptions and illustrations of early Chinese notes taken directly from Ch’uan Pu T’ung Chih, a work supposedly compiled in the early nineteenth century. The resulting study by Davis and translator Kojiro Tomito, Ancient Chinese Paper Money as Described in a Chinese Work on Numismatics (1918), was used by subsequent writers such as Henry Ramsden and Howard Bowker. Unfortunately, according to Bruce, the Chinese book on which it is based is a fraud. “All of the notes listed and illustrated in the work are bogus fantasies—they never existed,” he says, so any work based on Davis’s writings are suspect, including the Sandrock article.

Incidentally, one of the frustrating things about the online version of the Sandrock article is the absence of a date or the name of the journal where it was originally published. Bruce cleared that up too. A brief article by Sandrock on topic appeared in the Currency Collector (v.4 n.1, Spring 1963). The source of the online version appears to be Numismatics International’s NI Bulletin (part 1, Nov. 2003; part 2, Dec. 2003).

ANS 0000.999.34324
ANS 0000.999.34324

Finally, Bruce also points out that, while the Ming one kwan (or guan) notes were indeed first made in the late fourteenth century, they continued to be printed and circulated into the sixteenth, so surviving examples, including those in the ANS collection, could come from the later period.

I would like to thank Bruce for contributing so much on this fascinating topic.

David Hill

The World’s Oldest Surviving Paper Money

In 1923, Dr. Richard Ehrenfeld of Vienna wrote to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to announce that he had in his possession the oldest bank note in existence, a one kwan (or guan) issue of the Ming dynasty from about the year 1375, discovered in 1888 during the demolition of an old house in Beijing and acquired by his father, paper money collector Adolf Ehrenfeld. Richard had inherited the note and, suspecting that “European collectors or Museums nowadays have not the money to acquire so valuable an object,” he turned to America instead, looking to part with it “should a price approximate to the value of the note be offered me,” a figure he put at about fifty thousand dollars (roughly one million dollars today).

Howland Wood
Howland Wood

The Met passed Ehrenfeld’s letter on to the ANS, which left curator Howland Wood to deliver the bad news. His father’s note was not worth fifty thousand dollars. It was worth five dollars. Wood knew this because he had sold fourteen of them himself for that price. There were many others in New York alone, Wood told him, including several in the collections of the ANS.

The problem for Mr. Ehrenfeld, as Wood explained, was that his treasured item was not as rare as it once had been. In 1900, some European soldiers, who had been sent to China to restore peace during the Boxer Rebellion but who were instead ransacking the imperial Summer Palace, discovered a large quantity of these notes under an overturned statue of Buddha. (An entire bale of one kwan Ming dynasty notes would be discovered in 1936, hidden in an old wall outside of Beijing.) Ehrenfeld was right about one thing. Well, almost: with very few exceptions, these are the oldest examples of paper money known to have survived.

Marco Polo, Wikipedia
Marco Polo, Wikipedia

The Chinese not only invented paper, they invented paper money during the reign of emperor Chen Tsung (998-1022 AD). Examples predating the Ming notes are rarely encountered and are limited to fragments, modern facsimiles made from brass plates recovered in excavations, and a few notes reportedly held in museums. In 1988, Bank Note Reporter announced the discovery of two notes dating from 1265, one at the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg and the other illustrated in a book published by the Inner Mongolia Numismatic Research Institute. These notes date from the period just before the arrival of Marco Polo at the court of the Mongol emperor Kublai Khan. Polo was fascinated by the “coinage of this paper-money,” describing it as a kind of alchemy, mulberry bark transformed into paper having the same value as gold and silver.

Of course it doesn’t matter that no one then or now would pay fifty thousand dollars for Ehrenfeld’s note. It is a great thrill just to be able to hold one of these historical artifacts.

Chinese bank note
ANS, 0000.999.52979

The first thing you notice is the size (22.5 cm x 33.5 cm), which is close to a standard sheet of U.S. office paper. The mulberry paper is thick and textured with the characters and symbols printed in black and then overprinted with vermilion seals, which are only faintly visible in the photo above. At the center of this “Great Ming General Circulation Treasure Note” is a pictorial presentation of the denomination in the form of ten strings of 100 cash (= 1000 cash = 1 kwan). Those able to read the inscriptions can tell you that the issuers were not content with a simple “In God We Trust.” Instead they made sure to include a warning to those thinking about making unauthorized copies. It reads, in part, “the counterfeiter shall summarily be decapitated.” Although Howland Wood did not purchase Ehrenfeld’s note, the ANS at present has five examples of this historical Chinese paper money.

For more, see the highly informative “Ancient Chinese Cash Notes – The World’s First Paper Money,” part 1 and part 2, by John Sandrock at the Currency Collector website.

Update: For more on ancient Chinese notes, see this follow-up post.

David Hill

Whistler's Peacocks

James McNeil Whistler Arrangement Musée d'Orsay
James McNeil Whistler
Arrangement in Grey and Black, no. 1
Oil on canvas, 1871
Musée d’Orsay

Whistler’s Mother. There are few works like it, artist and subject fixed in the public’s mind through repetition in the popular culture: advertisements, cartoons, dorm room posters. Think Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, Van Gogh’s Starry Night, and Michelangelo’s David. Dali’s melting watches and Warhol’s soup cans. I think it is safe to say, though, that the general public probably knows very little about Whistler compared to these other artists. How many could even come up with his first name? (James, though his bohemian friends in the Latin Quarter called him Jimmy!). While his most famous painting may be stark and somber, Whistler’s life had all the color, passion, and tempestuousness we expect from our artists. You could call him American, but by the age of nine he had already left the country, first to Russia and later to Paris and London, where he made his reputation. He returned to the United States briefly at seventeen for a failed stint at West Point. With a greater interest in drinking and carousing than studying, he accumulated demerits for lateness, card playing, wearing his hair long, and laughing at inappropriate times. This and a flunked chemistry exam led to his expulsion in 1854, despite appeals to the academy’s superintendent, Robert E. Lee, who in the past had been willing to forgive his transgressions.

James McNeil Whistler Symphony in White, No. 1 Oil on canvas, 1861-62 National Gallery of Art
James McNeil Whistler
Symphony in White, No. 1
Oil on canvas, 1861-62
National Gallery of Art

Whistler began giving his works musical titles in the 1860s. The first was Symphony in White, no. 1, a portrait of a young woman in full figure with a white dress against a white background. He also became known for his “nocturnes,” hazy meditations on nighttime scenes that had to be painted from memory in the next day’s light. The official title given to the portait that came to be known as Whistler’s Mother was Arrangement in Grey and Black, no. 1. The painting was purchased by the French state in 1891 and can now be found at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.

I came across Victor David Brenner’s 1905 medal of Whistler while researching an article on the collector Robert Eidlitz, its original owner.

ANS, 1940.100.32
ANS, 1940.100.32

The portrait is one of Brenner’s best, nicely capturing, in the words of cataloger Glenn Smedley, “the vainglorious, belligerent egotist who bickered with critics and writers.” The legend on the reverse, “Messieurs les Ennemis!,” was fitting for an artist who called his autobiographical book The Gentle Art of Making Enemies (1904), which documented his interpersonal battles that played out in the press, including a libel suit against the critic John Ruskin.


And what about that peacock? A common enough Victorian motif, its relation to Whistler would have been instantly recognizable to anyone familiar with the goings-on in the art world at the time. It relates to a commission he received in 1876 to complete the decorative work on a dining room in shipping magnate Frederick Leyland’s London home. Whistler threw himself into the job, obliterating much of the work that had been accomplished already, replacing it with golden plumage patterns and two large gold and blue peacocks.

Smithsonian Institution
Smithsonian Institution

His patron balked at paying for the unrequested additional work, so Whistler doubled down, covering more of the work in blue paint and adding a twelve-foot allegorical mural portraying two more peacocks, one representing Leyland in full rage—his greed manifested by the coins adorning its body and at its feet—the other himself striking a dignified pose.

Smithsonian Institution
Smithsonian Institution

So how did it turn out? If you are in Washington, D.C., you can see for yourself. The Peacock Room was acquired by the Smithsonian and has been open to the public since 1923 in the Freer Gallery of Art, which is, appropriately enough, free!

For more on Whistler and the Peacock Room see Daniel E. Sutherland, Whistler: A Life for Art’s Sake (2014); Stanley Weintraub, Whistler: A Biography (1974); and Ed Rochette, “Artist’s Sarcasm Captured in ‘The Fighting Peacocks,’” Numismatic News (August 4, 1987).

David Hill