Category Archives: Numismatic History

Happy Birthday John Reilly!

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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.

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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.

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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.


In the last few weeks, I have been preparing a gift of my personal coin collection to the American Numismatic Society. Among the coins was a fascinating piece that is an exact twin to one of the most notorious incidences of numismatic fraud—either actual or accidental— that has occurred in the United States. This story continues to be circulated, and I receive questions about the Bar Kokhba coins found in Kentucky on a regular basis.

Here is the background: In 1952, Robert Cox, a hardware store operator from Clay City, Kentucky, found an exotic coin in a pen he was using for pigs just outside of town along Kentucky Highway 15. The pig pen was part of a field that he had plowed the summer before. It was the first time older residents of the city could remember that this land had ever been turned over. He seemed an honorable man and had nothing to do with ancient coins, and it appears that Mr. Cox legitimately found the coin just where he said he found it.

Clay City is about 40 miles east of Lexington, Kentucky. Equally fascinating is that two other Bar Kokhba coins were discovered in different Kentucky towns.

The rest of the story involves a number of well known scholars who refused to believe other expert numismatists, and has such a long history that it is often repeated as a “true story” today.

It is related quite specifically by celebrated archaeologist Dr. Cyrus Gordon (who taught at Dropsie College, Brandeis University, and New York University) in his 1971 book Before Columbus: Links Between the Old World and Ancient America:

“Other contacts with the Roman Mediterranean of the second century AD have meanwhile come to light in Kentucky, where inscribed Hebrew coins of Bar Kokhba’s rebellion against Rome were dug up in Louisville, Hopkinsville, and Clay City. The assorted coins were found at different times and in widely separated areas: at Louisville in 1932, at Clay City in 1952, and Hopkinsville in 1967. These coins have been examined and identified by Professor Israel T. Naamani of the University of Louisville. There is no difficulty in identifying these Bar Kokhba coins. The Clay City coin was sent to the late Professor Ralph Marcus of the University of Chicago who had no trouble in reading “Simon”, Bar Kokhba’s personal name, on one side, and “Year 2 of the Freedom of Israel” on the other side.”

Copy of misleading page from Cyrus Gordon’s book Before Columbus, suggesting that these are genuine Bar Kokhba coins that had been found in Kentucky when in fact only fantasy replicas were found. Also note that Prof. Gordon incorrectly identifies a shekel of the Jewish War (first and second row left) as a Bar Kokhba coin! (photo from Not Kosher by David Hendin).
Copy of misleading page from Cyrus Gordon’s book Before Columbus, suggesting that these are genuine Bar Kokhba coins that had been found in Kentucky when in fact only fantasy replicas were found. Also note that Prof. Gordon incorrectly identifies a shekel of the Jewish War (first and second row left) as a Bar Kokhba coin! (photo from Not Kosher by David Hendin).

Professor Gordon amazingly seems to have drawn his information from a number of articles in Kentucky newspapers, which reported on these rather astonishing discoveries.

Opening of article published in the Louisville, KY, Courier-Journal, July 12, 1953. It is quite simple for even a beginner to identify this as a “fantasy replica” of a Bar Kokhba coin (from NOT KOSHER by David Hendin).
Opening of article published in the Louisville, KY, Courier-Journal, July 12, 1953. It is quite simple for even a beginner to identify this as a “fantasy replica” of a Bar Kokhba coin (from NOT KOSHER by David Hendin).

In 1978 a University of Texas anthropologist named Jeremiah Epstein published a paper. In the course of his research he sent a photocopy of the Clay City coin to Prof. Ya’akov Meshorer, then curator of numismatics at The Israel Museum, Jerusalem.

One would think that the opinion about this coin by Ya’akov Meshorer, surely the world’s leading expert on ancient Jewish coins at the time) would end the discussion. And for Professor Epstein, it did. However, according to Epstein, his correspondence with Professor Naamani indicated that “Naamani continues to accept Marcus’s judgement.” In other words, he believed that Professor Marcus was correct and Professor Meshorer was incorrect.

In comments on Epstein’s article, in the journal where it was published, Professor Warren L. Cook of the Castleton State College in Vermont wrote: “Meshorer’s labeling a Kentucky Bar Kokhba coin a forgery on the basis of a photo-copied newspaper article illustration is unconvincing, yet Epstein is ready to condemn similar coins on such authority.”

Almost 15 years ago Haim Gitler, current chief curator of archaeology and curator of numismatics at The Israel Museum, and I both received communications from Dr. Fred Coy Jr., an economist at Ohio State University.

Dr. Coy sent us photographs of the actual Clay City coin discovered in 1952 by Robert Cox. He told us that a man named Ya’akov Meshorer had said it was fake back in 1978. But he wanted to check this information to make certain that Meshorer knew what he was talking about.

Coin exactly identical to the Clay City coin found by Robert Cox (“authenticated” by professors at the University of Louisville and the University of Chicago). It is part of the collection I will be donating to the American Numismatic Society later this year (photo: David Hendin).
Coin exactly identical to the Clay City coin found by Robert Cox (“authenticated” by professors at the University of Louisville and the University of Chicago). It is part of the collection I will be donating to the American Numismatic Society later this year (photo: David Hendin).

Gitler and I both immediately agreed with Meshorer and stated that this coin was a fake, not even a forgery, but a kind of a fantasy copy.

Professor Coy, who is not a numismatist, kept asking me WHY this coin was not a genuine ancient coin. I’m afraid that I did not have much patience, and I kept saying, “it is FAKE because it is NOT GENUINE. It is NOT even close and therefore does not justify further discussion.” But he was insistent and went to other sources and concluded, finally, and correctly that the coin is not genuine because:

  • There can be a cross or a rosette over the Temple on the obverse, but not a 6-pointed Star of David. The latter is strictly for the tourist trade.
  • The shin and mem from the beginning of Simon’s name are entirely missing from the obverse side, even though the adjacent dots are present, indicating that the missing letters could not have been just worn off. This looks like someone copied from a worn coin that was missing these letters, but then added the dots to make the replica look more complete.
  • Likewise, a stroke is missing from the bet, and the het is made as if it were a B.
  • A tetradrachm of this type should be silver, but this coin is bronze.
  • The lulav is badly made. Also, the etrog has been reduced to a mere blob to the right of the lulav.
  • There is no sign of an obliterated Roman coin under the image, even though this should be evident.
  • He forgot to mention that by no stretch of anyone’s imagination could this be an ancient coin!
An authentic sela or tetradrachm of Bar Kokhba struck in the second year of the revolt, 133/134 AD.
An authentic sela or tetradrachm of Bar Kokhba struck in the second year of the revolt, 133/134 AD.

These observations are second nature to anybody who has ever seriously studied Bar Kokhba coins. But here I have discussed a parade of esteemed University Professors who have been bickering back and forth about this coin since it was discovered in 1952. And we have also learned that the other two so-called Bar Kokhba coins from Kentucky are of the exact type as this one. A photograph accompanying this article depicts an exact duplicate of the coin found in Louisville in 1967. The same Professor Israel T. Naamani of the University of Louisville examined this coin. Astoundingly, he pronounced it similar to the Clay City coin, “But this one is much more genuine. The Jews were not strong after the rebellion; so what did they do? They took Roman coins and re-minted them. Underneath if you scratch them there are Roman inscriptions.” (Scratching a coin is certainly NOT the way to observe any overstruck coin….)

He added that farmer Coy’s Clay City coin was a “Roman re-mint, but Bray’s was newly minted 1,832 years ago.”

Oh, dear. Maybe college professors ought to be forced to get licenses before commenting on subjects about which they are completely in the dark.

My research at the British Museum has uncovered a lead cast of this very type of Bar Kokhba fake, which was presented to The British Museum in 1922 by Spink and Sons as a replica. Therefore, the original must be somewhat older than that.

My best bet is that this was a souvenir given away by a Bible marketing company in the early 1900s and hundreds or even thousands were passed through the American South. I have personally seen more than 50 of them.

The stories around these coins represent wishful thinking by American Bible Belt scholars. Wouldn’t it just be so interesting if the people in the United States were directly descended from Jews who came to our shores not long after the time of Jesus….sigh.

But it isn’t so and I am glad to report this story over and over to remind collectors that the authenticity of a coin that has not been found in a licensed archaeological excavation is only as good as the expert who is evaluating it!

(This blog is adapted from my book NOT KOSHER, Forgeries of Ancient Jewish and Biblical Coins, New York, 2005.)