The Numismatic Bibliomania Society



The E-Sylum: Volume 18, Number 1, January 4, 2015, Article 15


ANS Magazine is published four times per year by the American Numismatic Society. The 2014 Issue 4 has the text of John W. Adams' Sylvia Mani Hurter Lecture, The Recidivist Collector. John is a past President of the Numismatic Bibliomania Society and author of several well-researched books. His lecture was delivered April 2014 at the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston, when he received the ANS's prestigious Archer M. Huntington award. With permission, below is an excerpt describing John's development as a collector. It's a fascinating journey with the path directed by excellent teachers as well as a fast-learning pupil. -Editor

What got me into trouble in the first place was not me. It was my mother. She bought me one of those Lincoln penny albums with holes to be filled for each date and each mint mark. Later, she would say that she did it to keep me from spending money on my friends but, given that I didn’t have any money, I think it was done with malice aforethought. Mother had a great eye for hidden values –she haunted the country antique stores – and she probably wanted to encourage the same curiosity about things in me.

Collection 1 Aged 9 or10 and armed with my Lincoln cent album, I began to pester everyone who came near the house to see their pocket change followed then by regular trips to the bank. Our country bank was really friendly and allowed me to pour over rolls of pennies. When I had measles, chicken pox or general boredom, mother would lug a satchel back and forth to the bank and I would continue my quest for the 1914-D.

After a while, as my Lincoln cents filled in, I bought an Indian cent album – these were the pennies made from 1858 to 1909 before the Lincoln cent was introduced -and, although, there were not that many Indian head cents then in circulation, David Bullowa, a dealer located in Philadelphia just a 40 minute train ride away, sold them for $2 per hundred.

After several such purchases by me, Mr. Bullowa said “Son, you are doing it all wrong. You don’t want to collect quantity, you want to collect quality.”. “What is quality” say I? “These” and he showed me two 1858 Flying Eagle cents in proof, large and small motto. The problem was the price; $92.50 for the pair. The coins were hauntingly beautiful but I didn’t have the money. My new mentor said that’s OK, I will set them aside for when you do.

A year later, I walked back into his shop and, without saying a word, he went to his safe and pulled out the two pieces in question. I paid him but, on the train ride home, felt that I may have been suckered – after all, $92.50 was $92.48 more than face value. Whatever, I had crossed the divide – I was now committed to paying premiums – often large premiums – for coins. Also, I was headed for a complete run of Flying Eagle and Indian head cents in proof, the highest possible condition. I never got there but I did assemble a lovely group of regular issues and proofs plus all twelve pattern cents that the Mint issued in 1858 as different designs for the new cent were being considered. This collection stayed dormant through my college years – years of minimal cash flow – but then, after a brief stint in the Army, my collection became the down payment on a graduate degree in business.

Collection 2 In the late 1960’s, business brought me to New York City on a regular basis. On one trip, on a whim, I looked up coin dealers in Manhattan, with the closest to my hotel being Lester Merkin. Entering his shop, I met the man –an ex-saxophonist turned professional coin dealer - and explained to him where I was on my pilgrimage: I needed a new mountain to climb and he suggested type collecting as something that would really broaden my knowledge of the hobby. After purchasing an 1870-CC half dollar in mint condition, I was off and running but, as matters turned out, I didn’t run very far. In one of his myriad publications, Dave Bowers extolled the allure of large cents and the particular virtues of its specialty club, Early American Coppers. Large cents – large because they are about the size of a quarter – were issued from 1793 to 1857, when the cent was reduced to the token size that we have today. In any event, I joined EAC, the large cent mavens, due to the interest Dave had aroused.

Collection 3 Large cents and the Early American Coppers Club offered me a new dimension in collecting - the social dimension. Previously, I had operated as a lone wolf but now it was altogether different. Meeting, corresponding and chatting with peers opened up for me new vistas on the hobby. With hundreds of peers and with over 300 varieties of early date large cents, I had to start somewhere and that somewhere was to be the year 1794, which was particularly rich in distinctive varieties – some sixty in all.

Coming to realize that the people were as important as the coins, I gravitated to people of the past – the collectors and dealers who had passed along to the modern generation their knowledge and their excitement. Researching and writing about these personalities suggested to me what was then an original insight: provenance (who owned the coin before) was important and, indeed, rather than collect the 60 varieties of 1794 large cents by variety and/or by condition, which is the way it had always been done, why not collect by provenance – i.e. develop a list of the most important collectors of the ‘94’s over the years along with a list of those pieces used to illustrate the early reference works and make these names and images the targets of my collections.

Whereas there was a crowd of people who were interested in 1794 large cents, no one was collecting the collectors – people like Edward Maris, Mortimer MacKenzie, Loren Parmalee and George Clapp. As a further refinement, I added the plate coins from those books dedicated to the varieties of 1794, notably Frossard/Hays (1893) and S.H. Chapman (1926). No one was collecting these plate coins either. Because I made up the rules for my own game, there was no competition for the targets I had set. As a result, I succeeded beyond the dreams of avarice, notching every collector on my list and amassing all but a handful of the Hays and Chapman plate coins that were not locked away in institutions.

John's Large Cent collection was sold in 1982 in a handsome Fixed Price List by Dave Bowers, an important reference in itself. John's collecting days were far from over - he later set his sights on collecting and researching Betts medals, the Indian Peace Medals of George III, medals concerning John Law and Admiral Vernon, and the Comitia Americana medals. The books he has written are now the standard works on their subjects. And thankfully for the rest of us numismatists, his research continues. -Editor

To read the earlier E-Sylum article, see:

There are many great articles and columns in this issue, and other favorites of mine include COLONIALISM'S CURRENCY: A Short Numismatic History of the Hawaiian Kingdom by Matthew Wittman, RENAISSANCE MAN: The Work of Medal Innovator Louis Oscar Roty in Drawings, Medals, and Letters at the ANS by David Hill, and Coins of the White Rajahs of Sarawak by David Thomason Alexander. E-Sylum readers who are not already ANS members are encouraged to join - don't miss out on this great publication. -Editor

For more information about the American Numismatic Society, see:

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Wayne Homren, Editor

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