BOOK REVIEW: CENTENNIAL HISTORY OF THE NEW YORK NUMISMATIC CLUB
The E-Sylum (3/14/2010)
Over the last couple weeks I've read major portions of An Island of Civility - The Centennial History of the New York Numismatic Club 1908/09 - 2008/09 by John Kleeberg and David T. Alexander. The 437-page book is limited to 150 copies (not 125, as previously reported here).
The book is arranged in four main chapters. The first is a chronological history beginning with the club's founding in 1908. The next chapter is a topical overview, focusing on key individual aspects of the club throughout its' long history. The third chapter is a catalogue of medals issued by the club and related organizations and individuals. The final chapter is comprised of biographical sketches of all the club's members from 1908 through 2009.
As I mentioned in the earlier announcement of the book's availability, the club's location in New York virtually assured its participation in numismatics on a national stage. Many key players in the club were also heavily involved with the American Numismatic Society, and included many of the top collectors and dealers of the era.
Among those listed on the membership rolls are Edgar Adams, Harold Bareford, Fred Boyd, David Bullowa, John Clapp, Homer Downing, Tom Elder, Aaron Feldman, Albert Frey, Henry Grunthal, Julius Guttag, William Hesslein, Abe Kosoff, Lyman Low, Ted Newell, Sydney Noe, David Proskey, J. Sanford Saltus, D. W. Valentine, Howland Wood, and William H. Woodin. With a stellar membership like that, how could this book NOT be important?
The chronological chapter of the book begins, naturally, with the story of the club's founding. Turmoil at the American Numismatic Society and its move to a faraway uptown location left a void in the far more populated downtown. Together with the desire of the American Numismatic Association to have a rival branch in the ANS' hometown led to discussions of a new local organization separate from the venerable ANS. After a couple of organizing meetings the club held its first formal meeting at Keen's Chop House on December 11, 1908.
QUICK QUIZ: Who can name the numismatists in this
photo of the November 12, 1909 meeting?
Most of the early members were also very active in the ANA and the national numismatic scene. One such episode of national numismatic importance was the 1909 campaign for the presidency of the American Numismatic Association. NYNC President Frank Higgins (backed by Thomas Elder) ran against John Henderson (backed by Farran Zerbe). If you thought some of the recent elections were controversial, they were nothing compared to the knock-down drag-out name-calling, insult-throwing, back-stabbing, proxy-grabbing election of 1909.
Many numismatic bibliophiles are familiar with the election because of various items of campaign ephemera that remain today. Two of the rarest items are keys to deciphering the mysteries of the candidates' campaign platforms. I collect American numismatic ephemera, and I've never encountered either of these items "in the flesh".
One is a 13-page booklet mailed to several ANA members titled From the Campaign Committee of the New York Numismatic Club Re The American Numismatic Association Convention.
The other is described as follows on p15:
Publisher Zerbe's extraordinary 6 5/16 x 56 inch scroll inserted and mailed with the August issue of The Numismatist. The scroll-insert was nearly as long as Zerbe was tall, and it bore the flaming masthead The ANA Campaign and its Question, The Association Defiled and Defied.
Co-author David Alexander wrote a great article about the ephemera of the 1909 election in our print journal, The Asylum, in 1993. At that time no copy of the NYNC campaign booklet could be found. "Since then a copy of this elusive brochure surfaced in the NBS collection and with it a new reading of events". I was confused by the reference for the "NBS collection", but clarified this with David Alexander, who writes:
The 1910 election chapter was one of several I contributed, based on two articles for "The Asylum" that were written when Martin Gengerke was editor. The first article noted that the NYNC brochure issued for the election, referred to by Zerbe and others since, could not be found ANYWHERE.
The story went to press and up piped the late Frank Van Zandt, NBS officer and collector, who volunteered cheerfully that he had a copy of this legendary brochure! He sent it to me and it became a second article for NBS! Properly we should have cited Frank Van Zandt's collection, not NBS.
In the end, Higgins lost to Henderson in a landslide.
There is far more to the book than this 14-page dive into the platforms and tactics of the 1909 campaign, but this section alone is enough to make the book indispensible for the student of American numismatic history.
The authors write: "... even after a century, the NYNC's campaign booklet promoting Higgins makes us wonder whether the ANA took a wrong turn in 1909. How might the history of the national organization have been changed by the club's little-appreciated numismatic platform?"
The next section discusses the creation of the club's charter in 1909. Pictured is D. Macon Webster, an African-American lawyer who joined the club that year and drafted the charter. A later section discusses the club's long history of inclusion, highlighting prominent early African-American, Jewish and female members.
Chapter two begins with a discussion of the club's meeting places over the years. For its first five years the club met at Keen's Chop House. I had the pleasure of dining there myself in 1995. Despite economic ups and downs and changes in dining fashion, Keen's is still there. The club held its 100th anniversary meeting there in 2008.
Other sections in the topical chapter of the book discuss membership, attendance, constitutional issues, and other topics. The club owns a formal ballot box, pictured on page 91.
The club owns a ballot box with ivory balls to vote in favor of a prospective new member and black cubes to vote against (cubes, rather than balls, are used, so that members will blackball intentionally and not out of negligence).
There is also a discussion of young numismatists. From p103:
Another young numismatist attended a meeting on August 12, 1938. "The President called on Master Joe Lasser, from the Westchester Numismatic Club. Master Lasser stated that he collected everything, but was particularly interest in commemorative coins." ... This description of his collecting interests was still true over a half a century later (except one should substitute "Columbian" or "Dutch" for "Commemorative").
Lasser donated a large collection of coins of the American colonies to Colonial Williamsburg in 2005, and he is an E-Sylum reader.
The club embarked on several publishing projects, but like most committee endeavors, not all came to fruition. The club published a Yearbook for 1918 - 1919 - 1920 - 1921 but never published another. A project to catalog New York tokens was published serially in the Coin Collector's Journal. Member Daniel Valentine published a book on Fractional Currency under the auspices of the club, and in 1961 a 56-page booklet on the club's early history was published.
Howland Wood's Satirical Club Seal Designs (p40)
Chapter three covers the medals of the NYNC and related clubs and spans pages 147-288. Every medal is pictured, most in color. For medal collectors, this is the heart of the book. The series of Presidents' medals is avidly collected, and this catalog will be indispensible for collectors of the series.
Reverse of the 1910 Frank C. Higgins medal
The book doesn't end there. Chapter Four spans pages 289-402 and includes capsule biographies of every club member from 2908-2009. The entire book is a great read, and there is no shortage of interesting tidbits of numismatic trivia here. Which famed numismatist...
- ... was crippled by a shotgun blast to the leg at the age of twelve?
- ... studied the coinage of the George Junior Republic?
- ... was tutored in collecting coins by David Proskey?
- ... died in a house fire with his wife and two servants?
- ... threw Bob Dylan out of a Bleecker Street cafe "because he was singing, playing his guitar and annoying a lot of people?"
- ... had a felony conviction for counterfeiting?
- ... would decide questions of coin authenticity by sense of smell?
- ... was a coin dealer whose mysterious disappearance vexed many whom he owed money?
- ... was said to catalogue "with a tray of Roman coins on one side and a bottle of Scotch on the other"?
- ... owned the Texas School Book Depository building and collected other Kennedy memorabilia by rooting through the trash of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis?
- ... wrote a history of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing?
- ... got permission from the Nazi Gestapo to run coin auctions in the 1930s?
- ... had his suicide hushed up as an accidental death?
- ... wrote numismatic articles under the pseudonym "Portuguese Joe"?
If you already own the book, no fair peeking. Hint: these are in alphabetical order by last name. I'll publish your answers, but won't necessarily reveal the full list - you'll have to buy the book for that.
The remainder of the book consists of appendices covering the authors' sources and references, club meeting places, membership and attendance statistics, special meetings, honorary and corresponding members, publications, medal winners, officers, speakers and their topics, and keys to group photographs.
This book is a must for the library of the serious American numismatist. If the price of $125 plus $10 shipping seems high, remember that this 400+ page hardbound book is at least three books in one, each of significant merit. And with a print run of only 150 it will surely go out of print someday soon, at which time I doubt a copy would be obtainable for less than twice that price.
NBS doesn't give "Book of the Year" awards - that's the purview of the Numismatic Literary Guild (NLG). But I bet An Island of Civility will be in the running. Congratulations to authors Kleeberg and Alexander, and the entire New York Numismatic Club for a job well done. Thanks also to John Kleeberg and Constantin Marinescu for forwarding images for use in this review.
To read the earlier E-Sylum article, see: NEW YORK NUMISMATIC CLUB CENTENNIAL HISTORY PUBLISHED (www.coinbooks.org/esylum_v13n04a06.html)
For ordering information, see: ORDERING THE NEW YORK NUMISMATIC CLUB CENTENNIAL HISTORY (www.coinbooks.org/esylum_v13n05a07.html)