One Week in Rosemont: Part II (through Part VI)

By Tuesday morning, the most challenging part of the ANA was over, at least until it was time to pack up (the part my father might have referred to as trying to "put the shit back in the donkey," were he a coin dealer). I had already overcome the following obstacles:

  1. Getting my inventory, books and papers organized enough to actually leave the house more or less on time, along with my better half.
  2. Passing through security, which on this particular trip included a brief lecture on ancient coins and an exchange of business cards with the TSA official.
  3. Boarding a jet with enough room in the overhead for my large inventory bag, and not betraying its weight with any unseemly grunts, buckled limbs, or outbursts of profanity.
  4. Safe arrival in Rosemont, including a short walk from Indiana to the Iowa state line to find the convenient hotel shuttle bus pickup.
  5. Viewing roughly 1500 of the 2000+ lots I needed to view, taking notes on them, and communicating with representation customers, some of whom change their minds a time or two. Or three.
  6. Setting up my booth, including roughly 500 pieces on display, in some sort of sensible and attractive layout despite the disorganized frenzy that was required to pack them and escape the house on time (see point 1) after working on cataloguing a September auction sale until roughly 18 hours before my departure.
  7. One baseball game.

So by Tuesday, I was what passes for "relaxed" at a major coin show. "Relaxed" is not exactly the same as the English word relaxed, from the Latin root relaxare, to loosen. Instead "relaxed" is from the same Old English root as something that means "not quite as neurotic as usual, but still pretty insane compared to most people."

And, thus, it began. Early birds fell from their nests with a squawk, ribbons were cut, and in trundled the Rosemontian masses which, in all candor, were not much more than I'd expect from any regularly held large show.

For whatever reason, my table almost always has a crowd around it. I'm flattered that people like to hang out there, and I enjoy introducing customers and friends to each other while they jostle for position. Perhaps they come for the expansive and diverse inventory, perhaps it's a reflection of the fact that I've been around long enough to know a lot of people, maybe it's just because I willingly pass along free information and appraisals to pretty much anyone who asks. I've joked about installing a deli-style Take A Number™ system to take care of all comers in an orderly fashion. Even at a fairly dead show, the crowd is there. At this show, the crowd was typically one deep, occasionally two; at the most active ANAs, there's something more like a line. I can't comment on how crowded the bourse was. I can tell you how crowded my table was (I just did) and how crowded the mens room was (no thank you), but those represented the only places I saw on the bourse over the course of the week. The crowd was not like it is on the East Coast. It was bigger than the Rosemont Central State shows, it was far bigger than most West Coast ANAs, but it just didn't compare to Boston, or Philly, or the ANA at Baltimore.

The crowd is one metric we can use to gauge the success of an ANA show. Another is more raw, more mercantile: how were sales? They did not reach the heights of Boston (2010) or Baltimore (2008). They weren't quite as good as Philly (2012). They were dozens of times larger than LA (2009/never again). I attribute this to two things. First, for early American coins and historic numismatic Americana, the collectors are mostly on the East Coast. This doesn't mean all ANA shows should be on the East Coast, but it does mean that my specialties tend to do best there. Second, a large portion of my great shows back east had to do with things I bought at the show -- fresh, in-from-the-street material -- that I turned around and sold almost instantly. Again, a significant concentration of my kind of stuff lives on the East Coast, so it's natural more would show up there. But part of it has to do with overfishing the pond: Rosemont has been home to lots of enormous coin shows, both ANA and other. Philly has not. Boston has not. Baltimore in 2008 owed its success to a booming coin market and Baltimore's continuing status as America's favorite coin town. I bought very, very little at the table this year, either from the general public (or even collectors) who brought items by, or from professionals who left their table to offer me something. I wrote fewer checks at this ANA than I do at a typical Baltimore Whitman Expo, and that is alarming.

The other reason sales were a bit slower than normal: the enormous auction, featuring parts XXII and XXIII of the John J. Ford, Jr. Collection. While every ANA Convention has an enormous auction full of thousands upon thousands of lots, I can't remember another ANA auction (ever, not just during my 24 years of attendance) that contained so much important Americana. As I said to more than one person at the show, if I had a choice of spending money at my table or at John J. Ford, Jr.'s table, I'd be at John Ford's table too.

Best response to that comment: "John Ford is set up here? Where's his table?"

Good luck with that.

So yes, the auction. The first Ford session was Wednesday morning, 9 AM sharp, starting an hour after the bourse opened to dealers and an hour before the bourse opened to normal humans. It included 963 lots, nearly all of which would be sold while I should have been manning my table, selling coins, visiting with customers, and doing what dealers do. I couldn't miss the first 200 lots in Wednesday morning's session, including Ford's Canadian tokens and the first portion of his Lafayette collection. I had catalogued the Canadiana and had grown quite fond of the material, nearly all of which had been off the market for generations, long hidden in the Virgil Brand collection and estate.

Before cataloguing the collection, I had just a passing familiarity with Canadian pre-Confederation tokens: I knew Vexators were cool but always crummy, that Side Views were rare and popular, that Lesslie tuppences were big and impressive, and not much more. I had owned a Charlton token catalogue since I was a kid and a Breton since I was a teenager, read both, and had not much reason to visit them on a regular basis. Luckily, I have several friends who are leading Canadian numismatists and a library that I've slowly assembled of important Canadian sales from the mid 19th century through the present day. Neither my friends nor my library let me down, and the catalogue turned out pretty well. The sale followed suit. Though the opens were humorously low -- it was great fun jumping lots from $300 to $5000 only to be immediately outbid -- the final bids were in most cases at or in excess of what I expected. The Canadian dealers and collectors turned out, and some new blood showed up who appreciated this long-collected and deeply-revered specialty.

And yes, some newps from that section will be available soon.

The Lafayette medals followed. Catalogued by Olivier (1933) and Fuld (1957), they've just plain never been very popular, with a few exceptions. Those that are also listed as Washingtoniana are avidly snapped up, but most others languish despite their rarity and historical interest. My personal favorite is the rare and evocative 1825 Companion of Washington medal, which was pointed out to me at the show as quite obviously the work of Moritz Furst. Good call, Mr. Neuzil!

 

 

 

 

 

 

On the left, the unsigned 1825 Companion of Washington medal. On the right, Furst's signed Dewitt Clinton / New York City Hall medalet.

 

 

 

Franklin portrait medals followed. If they're not listed in Betts or among the Civil War token corpus, Franklin portrait pieces likewise tend to go wanting. The best Franklin piece I acquired at the show was not from the Ford consignment, but a specimen of the very rare 1784 Betts-619, one of perhaps four originals known in bronze.

By the time the Ford Franklin medals sold, I was back at my table being a coin dealer and consulting with my fellow exhibit judges in the two competitive categories I helped assess.

Speaking of which, in Part I I promised "the occasional spirit-crushing dose of truth." The first of those for the week came in my role as a judge, when I had the misfortune of wrecking an exhibitor's day after noting their exhibit text was cut-and-pasted wholesale from a website. It's the Internet age, folks, and the Googlebox tells no lies. If you're going to cut and paste, you might as well put the website you copied from on your bibliography. Later in the week, after the awards were put out, I arrived at my table one morning to find a silent protest standing vigil: his award ribbon taped to my lamp.

Over the course of Wednesday, the most impressive collection of American merchant counterstamps ever presented sold at auction, all while I did my thing at the booth. Tuesday night had been a late one, spent figuring hundreds of these things and keying bids in online. For some, though, online bids would be useless: the biggest clump of Planter's Bank cut 2 reales ever sold, a concentration sold in succession greater than the total sold in all auctions during my lifetime. A similar string of Houck's Panaceas sold: would the old levels for these fairly common counterstamps hold, or would they suddenly get cheaper with a flood of high grade pieces all coming out at once? The results of neither were expected: the remarkable and always in demand Planter's Bank pieces sold at fractions of their market value, while the Houck's Panacea marks on (admittedly absolutely superb quality) Bust halves sold for multiples of the most aggressive prices I would have considered asking if identical pieces were in my case.

Cut from Mexican War of Independence 8 reales, the Planter's Bank two reales were made as emergency money in New Orleans around the time of the War of 1812. They remain very rare today, despite the fact that John Ford owned a mini-hoard of them.

Among the newps to be offered will be some really amazing counterstamps. I will admit, some of the pieces I bought will go into my own research collection, one I've been working on since I was a kid.

Wednesday night was yet another auction: medals (and more medals), colonials, etc. Indian Peace medals in silver, after a few lull years, have resumed their previous stature. Bronzes ones were soft. The large size Jefferson Indian Peace medal brought $210,000 hammer on a cut bid, making me feel like a smartypants, since I'd told a customer a few hours earlier that it would take a $220K bid to buy it. If you could bet on prices realized in Vegas, I guess I'd be a winner; otherwise, it's just more useless trivia to add to the stacks of Phillies batting averages and obscure medal facts lodged in my brain.

I woke up on Thursday feeling good: I had been working hard, I had achieved a lot, and I'd gotten up early yet again for breakfast with a medal-collecting friend. As I woke up, drunk on my own achievements, in sauntered a very sweaty Megan, fresh off an 11 mile run and requiring nary a word to bring my "hard work" back into perspective.

I don't think I did it purposefully, but when Megan asked me weeks earlier if I had any coin nerd friends around Chicago who might know a good place to run in Rosemont, somehow I thought of a friend -- let's call him Ken Logsburger to keep his identity anonymous -- who happens to be a very experienced runner. And really tall. When Megan met him, I got the look. The look that says, silently, "thanks for the favor, but now I know you're trying to kill me." I really wasn't. She and Ken met for their run at 5:30, when I'm sure some dealers were just rolling in, stuporous. They ran far enough from the hotel to see deer.

Think of it, people. Deer. In Rosemont. Clearly, they'd run very, very far away.

Thursday blew by, a busy and exhausting day. I bought a few pieces in the Ford paper money auction, but most of the day was spent at the table. Thursday night, after a laugh-til-you-cry dinner with friends (one of whom was celebrating his coughedy-coughth birthday), it was back to work: there were over 1000 Ford lots in the Friday daytime session, and I needed to prepare bids on almost every single one of them.

The running fiancee slept. The clock hummed its displeasure. Bid, after bid, after bid was researched, figured, and entered into the computer. A handful were just too tricky to do anything but leave them to utter chance, necessitating some phone bidding.

Early came early on Friday. The first 100+ lots of the auction were too important and too involved to depend on the computer and phone it in. I was the first guy in the auction room, hunkered down in the last row, and waited.

I came away with some of the nicest Wolfe, Clark, and Spies storecards in existence, in a quality I'd never seen before. Vital inclusions in any early Washingtoniana collection, they've always been seductive to me. The chance to own a little pile of beautiful ones was too much to pass up. I bought the gilt number 1 Peale's Museum token for a favored customer, but missed the way-too-cheap second silver specimen due to an interruption. (NB: I learned an awesome new knock-knock joke at the show, far too lewd to share here, but an interruption figures importantly therein).

The three Ricketts Circus tokens that followed represented a lifetime's worth of offerings. The last original piece was sold 23 years ago. I knew of a few restrikes selling during my lifetime, most privately. Over the last few years, I've endeavored to buy or sell every type in the 100 Greatest American Medals and Tokens, or at a minimum catalogue them; a few listings are either known exclusively in museums or, in the case of the Congressional Medal of Honor, otherwise unable to be checked off, but when I get the chance to handle one of the remaining few, I jump at it. A Ricketts Circus token remained on my list of untamed medals and tokens. I would have to own one.

The second one was the nicest, in my opinion: an original striking, with perfect color and light wear. I figured a strong bid, swallowed hard, and went for it. Opening at $3250, it hammered at $20,000. To me. I was elated, and ran like a little boy to my bourse table to share the news.

I'd own it for roughly 28 hours. It was wonderful.

Struck at the First United States Mint about 1795, the Ricketts Circus token is a legendary rarity, the first token ever struck at the Philadelphia Mint and perhaps the first non-coin issue struck there after the abortive Henry Lee Comitia Americana medal, of which no intact originals are known.

 

 

George Washington himself was a frequent visitor to Ricketts' Circus, the first circus in America. It burned down in 1799. Originals are distinguished from restrikes by their planchet stock and die rotation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Friday, as expected, was busy, particularly with my phone ringing every so often to do more auction bidding, forcing my to -- literally and figuratively -- turn my back on paying customers in order to buy more goodies to sell to other paying customers. Thankfully Megan is both savvy enough and charming enough to engage them until I was done yelling into my phone like some crazed trader on a stock exchange floor.

The other big excitement of Friday related to another one of those soul-crushing disappointments that folks like me are asked to deliver on a regular basis. When you get to be expert enough in a series that people trust your opinion, you're going to meet people who will trust your opinion entirely, as long as it is the same as theirs, particularly when it comes to authentication. There are a handful of issues that, not to be dismissive, are just never real. One of these is the 1776 Massachusetts Pine Tree copper. Even the one "real" one in the Massachusetts Historical Society was likely struck in the 19th century to fool one of the rich, gullible collectors of the pre-Crosby era. Its texture, legends and devices, planchet, striking quality, and other consideration bear no similarity with anything produced in or near 1776.

Because of its distinctiveness, this issue has long been a favorite of those who produce gift shop fakes, the ones sold at museum stores and historical sites for a pittance. Before 1973, when the Hobby Protection Act was passed, millions of these things were sold with no COPY stamp. More often than not when one is encountered in the clutching grasp of a non-collector, it comes with stories of personal descent from John Hancock, the grandfather who renovated old houses and found it in the floorboards of one of them, or something similar.

So one of these pieces -- or at least pictures and stories of one -- made its way to my table on Friday. As luck would have it, it did so when Dave Bowers was hanging out and visiting. Dave, the most lettered and widely recognized expert in the long history of American numismatics, and I looked at the image and were able to dismiss it as one of the supremely common fakes in just under a second. It looks like this one: 

And this one: 

And this one: 

And this one: 

And nothing like this one, which is, itself, a fake: 

Alas, Dave Bowers and I were unconvincing. So it goes.

Friday night brought some relief: an escape from Rosemont into Chicago, thanks to my friend Dan Friedus and his friend Jill. We had a great dinner, with lots of laughs over yummy vittles at the Little Goat Cafe, and even got a souvenir coffee mug to take home. In the words of famous Chicagoan Ferris Bueller, I highly recommend you pick one up.

Saturday ended like this blog will: with exhaustion and a dread for ending something that had taken so long to produce. Putting away all those medals and raw coins, all those new purchases, all the paper work and books and assorted whatnot, it almost makes me wish I was just a slab dealer.

OK, no it doesn't. I wouldn't change a thing.

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John Kraljevich Americana