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NNP Blog

Feb 22 2024

The Essex Institute in Numismatics

The Essex Institute, located in Salem Massachusetts from 1848 to 1992, was, per Wikipedia, “a literary, historical and scientific society. It maintained a museum, library, historic houses; arranged educational programs; and issued numerous scholarly publications. In 1992 the institute merged with the Peabody Museum of Salem to form the Peabody Essex Museum.”

Recently scanned at the American Numismatic Society is the correspondence file between ANS Curator Howland Wood and the Essex Institute. The correspondence speaks to the eternal dilemma of institutional collections: access vs. security. On October 12, 1925, Henry W. Belknap, Essex Institute Secretary, wrote to Howland Wood “As a matter of fact our collection might as well be buried as far as any practical value is concerned. No one knows a bit about it here; it is too valuable to display it in any place we have; we cannot afford to provide a special custodian and it is secreted in our fire-proof stack and never shown at all. Very few know of it and hardly anyone even asks to see it. If they did it would mean that someone would have to neglect other work and stand guard as long as the visitor stayed and I am always embarrassed when once in a while someone does ask to see it. If we ever are able to rebuild we should provide a proper room for it, but that seems a far cry.”

In the mid-1970s, Essex determined to deaccession its coin collection. Harvey Stack, in Harvey Stack Remembers, Part 66, wrote of the Essex sale “The year [1975] started with over 1,200 coins from the Essex Institute in Salem, Massachusetts, which had been chartered in 1821 to preserve and store valuable documents and colonial items from Essex County in that state. Because of limited space at the Institute, all the coins that had been contributed could not be adequately displayed. The Essex Institute decided to keep representative coinage of the early days of the country and sell the balance to raise funds for the expansion of its archives.” The sale included a New England shilling, an AU Chain cent, a 1792 half disme, a 1796 quarter, and runs of later 19th century proof coinage (not including gold), with 1,282 lots total. The NE shilling took top honors at $12,500. This piece more recently appeared in the Heritage August 2022 sale of the Chris Salmon collection, lot 3240, where it realized $69,000.

The Essex followed up in 1981 with a consignment to Geroge F. Kolbe’s sale no. 9 (there represented as “a prominent historical institution”). This June sale represented an inflection point in the numismatic literature market. Jack Collins reported in the Summer 1981 Asylum “While the first session may have seemed subdued, by comparison the final session on Saturday afternoon was full of fireworks. All of the competitors that I feared were there in full force: Harry Bass, Armand Champa, John Adams, Del Bland, and a number of other faces that were both known and unfamiliar. Everyone knew that this was going to be a bloodbath….. From any standpoint, the sale was a phenomenal success, having grossed $271,765, which is the highest total ever recorded for a numismatic book auction.” Along with the formation of the Numismatic Bibliomania Society in 1979 and the publication of Adams’ United States Numismatic Literature in 1982, the recognition of numismatic literature achieved significant advances in the early 1980s.

The Essex continues to bear numismatic fruit, with the recent discovery of the Matthew Stickney (1805-1894) correspondence in the Phillips Library at the Peabody Essex Museum. Stickney famously traded, in 1843, an Immune Columbia gold piece to the Mint Cabinet in exchange for an 1804 dollar. Stickney’s collection was ultimately sold in a now famous “name” sale by Henry Chapman in 1907. David Stone, Roger Burdette, and others have worked with this important archive of Stickney material.

Link to Howland Wood / Essex Institute correspondence:
Link to “Harvey G. Stack Remembers” (part 66):
Link to Stack’s sale of the Essex Collection:
Link to George F. Kolbe’s sale of the Essex Collection:
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