Stack, Bowers: Paths that Keep Crossing
By Leon Worden
"When I was eight or nine years old, I was basically an indentured slave," Stack said. "So were my cousins, Norman and Benjamin. If you had time off from school, if you had any time off for the summer, you came down and sorted pennies, nickels, dimes, rubber-stamped envelopes with coins. Youíd put little coins inside. So of course I remember the 1944 period."
The 1944 period at Stackís in New York City had repercussions that are still felt today.
In late March of that year, Stackís scheduled the sale of the Col. James W. Flanagan collection. Listed as Lot No. 1681 was "The Excessively Rare 1933 Double Eagle."
The coin columnist for the New York Herald Tribune wanted to know just how "excessively rare" it was. He called the U.S. Mint. The acting Mint directorís answer: It shouldnít exist. No $20 gold piece dated 1933 was lawfully issued, he said.
On March 24, 1944, as the Flanagan sale was being hammered down, Special Agent Harry W. Strang of the United States Secret Service walked into the office of company founders Joseph and Morton Stack and informed them he was seizing the coin.
The rest, as they say, is history. In time, nine of the coins would be confiscated from their various owners and melted down. Strang discovered that one specimen had escaped to Egypt, into the hands of King Farouk. The playboy king was deposed in 1952; in 1954 in Cairo, Sothebyís auctioned his fabled Palace Collections. At the request of the U.S. State Department, the 1933 double eagle was withdrawn from the sale and it disappeared for more than 40 years.
History tends to repeat. In New York City on July 30, 2002, under authority of the U.S. Treasury Department, Stackís and Sothebyís teamed up to auction a single coin the presumed Farouk specimen 1933 double eagle. The hammer fell at $6.6 million; the two auction companies split the additional 15 percent buyerís fee of $990,000.
"I met Harry Strang," said Harvey Stack, Mortonís son. "I remember what he looked like. He was the Eliot Ness type, if you can remember the pictures with the broad-brimmed menís hats. He never took it off.
"My uncle at father didnít like giving up the Ď33 at that time," he said. "I met people of [Strangís] type probably up until the early Ď50s. If these people were in town they would stop in to say hello. We would talk, and we would help the Secret Service not looking for another Ď33; we would help them on the identification of counterfeits when they didnít know a real one from a bad one. I personally testified in quite a few cases of counterfeits in the courts, because I knew that it was diluting our business."
Last year, 10 more 1933 double eagles surfaced; now all of the Harry Strangs seem to have law degrees and Italian suits.
Harvey Stack became a full member of Stackís in 1947. Today his son, Larry, steers the ship, and Harveyís granddaughter, Rebecca, makes it a four-generation family company.
If the gumshoes of the 1940s felt comfortable enough to sit around the shop and shoot the breeze, so did the customers even after the shop moved uptown in 1953 to become neighbors with Tiffany and Steinway and Carnegie Hall.
"Stackís was open every Saturday," Harvey Stack remembered. "Saturday was a part-time day or an off day for people in our area. They would spend time at Stackís between 11 and 1 in the afternoon. The counters were laid out very much like they are to this day long counters with a place to sit down. There was a little chair or a couch to sit on. People would sit and discuss their coin collections. It became a clubhouse."
Young Q. David Bowers walked into the clubhouse for the first time in 1955.
"By that time I had been a collector for four years," Bowers said. "I remember I bought a proof 1913 half dollar for $25."
Harvey Stack sold it to him.
It took Bowers only 51 more years to become a member of the firm.
He took a different road to get there.
"My father never was a collector, unlike popular rumor," said Bowers.
Growing up in Forty Fort, Pennsylvania, Bowers did all of the things teenage boys did in the 1950s "camping, Boy Scouts, you name it, collecting things, raising guinea pigs.
"When I came across coins, I thought, gosh, these are really interesting. I thought I would find a 1909-S VDB cent that very afternoon. I didnít, but I enjoyed the hunt."
He began plugging blue Whitman coin albums, first with Lincoln cents, then with the entire Buffalo nickel series, which still circulated.
"In 1953, I decided I was going to be a vest-pocket dealer," he said. "I ran classified advertisements in papers around the United States. I figured if I advertised in Denver, a little classified ad looking for 1914-D cents, I would be getting a bunch of them by return mail. Well, that never really happened."
He bought his first coin by mail order from Maurice Gould at Copley Coin Co. in Boston. "It was a proof 1859 Indian cent for $11. Today itís worth probably $3,000 to $4,000." He bought and sold coins at the monthly meetings of the Wilkes-Barre Coin Club, and by 1954, he was running his own mail-order coin business and corresponding with dealers across the country.
"In the eighth grade I took typing," he said. "Itís the most valuable class Iíve ever taken."
Decades after plugging Whitman folders, Bowers is Whitmanís numismatic director and its most prolific author.
Still a teenager in 1955, Bowers was advertising in the Numismatic Scrapbook magazine and in the American Numismatic Associationís monthly journal, The Numismatist, when some influential people noticed his potential.
"My father joined [the ANA] so that I could receive The Numismatist," Bowers said. "I wasnít old enough to be an ANA member because they did not want young numismatists. They were said to be unreliable and had no legal basis, so they werenít allowed to join the ANA."
(The ANA subsequently eliminated its age limit and developed programs to encourage teenage involvement in numismatics.)
"Lee Hewitt, who published the Numismatic Scrapbook magazine, wrote a letter to [ANA Secretary] Lewis Reagan, saying that I was a great, reliable character despite my young age, and he thought I would work out well. So Lewis Reagan let me have a bourse table at the Omaha convention."
Bowers majored in finance at Pennsylvania State University from 1956-60, teaming up with James F. Ruddy while still in college to form Empire Coin Co., initially as a mail-order business. From there it was a steady climb to the top of the ladder.
"Iíve always liked studying things and Iíve been an avid reader," Bowers said. "I couldnít always buy rare coins, but I could buy interesting books. When I was a little kid I would buy historical books and look up coins. I read the Crosby book ["The Early Coins of America"] cover to cover, and almost memorized "The Guide Book [of United States Coins"]. One thing led to another and here I am."
Today itís the writing and cataloguing that brings him the most satisfaction.
"It gives me great pleasure to write something and have someone write me a letter" expressing appreciation, he said. "Iíve had many, many people who have done that. Or Dwight Manley, who started becoming a coin dealer when he attended my class at the ANA Summer Seminar, ĎAll About Coins.í That is a much greater accomplishment to me, more memorable, than the fact that I might have sold a whole bunch of 1804 dollars which is fun, too, but I really like the people and the experiences."
While Bowers and Stack might have taken different paths, their trip has seen almost every major collection of the 20th Century pass through one or the otherís fingers.
"We are very proud, between ourselves and [Bowersí] company, to have sold an example of every rare coin of the United States," said Stack, who lists among his accomplishments his successful battle against gold import restrictions in the 1960s, his promotion of the Hobby Protection Act to stem counterfeiting, his service on the last U.S. Assay Commission, his contributions to the Smithsonian and U.S. Mint coin collections, and the initiation of the current 50-state quarters program.
"I consider it a great honor that they decided to issue the commemorative quarters on my recommendation," Stack said, referring to his 1995 congressional testimony where he argued for a circulating commemorative series honoring the various states. (Coincidentally, Bowers had floated the idea of a half-dollar series to honor the states in 1990.)
"I bridged an unusual gap," said Stack, 78. "I knew all of the important collectors who were dealing with us from 1947 back. I knew the people who were getting noteworthy from Ď47 forward. One of the earliest collectors of great importance that I had the pleasure of knowing he was even at my wedding later on was Louis Eliasberg Sr." (After his death, Eliasbergís monumental collections were auctioned by Bowersí companies.)
"We love collectors," Stack said of the values he and Bowers share. "We love the history of coins. We love the fact that we are part of these happenings, collecting, that give such joy and pleasure to people.
"To this day, even though Iím in the office most of the time, I donít mind going to the front counter and saying hello to a young kid who is just getting started, or Iíll sit down and talk to one of the old-time specialists about Colonial coins or something that we have in one of our sales.
"I like the hobby. Iím in love with it. I guess the greatest love I have other than my family is the hobby and the people."
©2006, MILLER MAGAZINES INC./LEON WORDEN. RIGHTS RESERVED.
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