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Walter Breen: Enigmatic Numismatist

Walter Breen
Walter Breen in 1975.
By Dr. Sol Taylor
"Making Cents"
Saturday, July 19, 2008

M
uch has been written about and by the late Walter Breen. His biography includes his convictions for child molestation, his marriage to lesbian fiction writer Marion Zimmer Bradley, his widely read and accepted numismatic books on the United States Half Cent, and his Encyclopedia of United States Coins, published in 1988.
    This last book was a monumental task of research which included 794 pages, and even at an initial retail price of $135, it was a best seller.
    Breen was an exceptional mind, having finished his four-year college degree in mathematics in less than one year at Johns Hopkins University. He earned his master's degree from the University of California in 1966.
    As a part of the hippie generation of the time, he grew a large beard, wore sandals and coveralls, and had an Afro-style hairdo. He wore his Phi Beta Kappa key on his fly zipper.
    He often traveled the streets of Berkeley in the 1960s with a baby carriage filled with books. He was immediately recognized and greeted at coin conventions where his appearance and book buggy were standouts in the crowd.
    I first met Walter at Bob Burroughs' coin shop in Albany (an adjacent community to Berkeley) in 1964. Everyone in numismatics knew of Walter; his articles and research were well known in the numismatic community by the 1960s. We met again in July 1964 at the North Bay Coin Club where I was the guest speaker.
    We also met at almost every Long Beach coin convention in the 1960s and 1970s. I mentioned to him at Bob Burroughs' shop in 1964 my theory about the 1910 "VDB" cent which I believe existed but had not yet been verified. In early 1990 he did examine the piece I sold to Selby Unger of 18th Avenue Rare Coin in Brooklyn and wrote a detailed attribution letter to accompany the coin.
    He attributed many coins that were in auctions held by New Netherlands Coin Company in New York. These catalogs with pedigrees and variety attributions are valued references to serious collectors to this day.

* * *
    Walter was born in 1928 in San Antonio, Texas. During his service in the Army during World War II he survived a plane crash. He claimed that the incident gave him his photographic memory for which he is best remembered.
    He joined MENSA in 1958 or 1959 and was possibly the first American to do so. An avowed homosexual, he married author Marion Zimmer Bradley, an avowed lesbian. It was her second marriage and lasted from 1964 to 1979, and they had two children.
    His penchant for young boys led to his conviction in 1964 for child molestation. He was also convicted in the early 1950s for lewd behavior. In 1990 he pleaded guilty to child molestation and was sentenced to 13 years in prison. He had cancer at the time and died after serving one year.
    His other numismatic books included a revised edition of "Penny Whimsy," William Sheldon's book on early American coppers, and "California Fractional Gold," coauthored with Ron Gillio. Both are standard references in the field.
    Almost everyone who knew Walter knew he was extraordinary in many ways, as well as a disturbed soul. He lived the life of a vagabond, a pedophile, a hippie, and disdained most of the modern world's offerings. Truly he was "one of a kind."


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