David Lewis - the King of Stories
Traveling in Pre33 circles, or just the numismatic field in general you might stumble upon this man: David Lewis, also known as "Huda". Retired from the U.S.A.F., 22 years, Airborne Cryptologic Linguist Craftsman (Hebrew) & 7,000 flight hours later. A seasoned veteran having worked for many years at Heritage Auctions, Huda is presently the President & Chief Numismatist at a Veteran trading company in Nebraska.
Following is a collection of a few of his entertaining and lively short stories to which we will be adding more as his time allows. They are all told in the first person.
From Humble Beginnings, 1971
My brother Lynn got me into coin collecting when he gifted me a Redbook when I was 7 years old, in 1971. One night back in 1972, my eldest brother Alan Lewis was working the evening shift at 7-Eleven. At the age of 19, he was working two jobs and had a wife and a 3-year-old baby to support. Someone came in with a roll of dimes to pay for gas, and Al bought them, and among that roll was a 1916-D Mercury Dime in solid VF+ grade, which he sold the next day at the local coin shop for the gargantuan sum of $350. I'll never forget that Al gave me a handful of AG/G Barber Dimes out of that roll. To this day, I still adore Barber coinage, most especially dimes.
When we dropped my brother Lynn off on 29 January 1973 at the Greyhound Bus Terminal to head to U.S. Army Basic Training, the ticket agent broke open a shotgun roll of nickels to give me change for a half dollar to buy candy. He handed me 10 gem BU 1938-D Jefferson Nickels, listed at $7.50 apiece in the 1973 Redbook. When I was 8, I would save up all the change that ended up in the "junk" drawer at home, and do as many odd jobs as possible to take to the local Flea Market once a month on Sunday. I would walk one mile each way to the bus stop, take the bus downtown (25 cents), attend the flea market, buy the hotdog/popcorn/Coke combo for 45 cents, buy wheat cents for my Lincoln Cent album or Barber Dimes, and then I'd head for Holman's Maytag to do more coin stuff. Holman's was a Maytag repair center, and they also sold second-hand washers and dryers, but at the front counter, they sold coins. I'd buy a copy of Coin World, and then I'd work for a couple of hours helping Mrs. Holman put foreign coins in 2 x 2's and looking them up in the price guides.
By the time I had turned 9, I knew there were two things I wanted to do in life: Fly jets and be a coin dealer. When I was 14, I discovered BBB: Boobs, Bikes and Beers. I bought my first Honda when I was 15, with my own money. Coin collecting took an aside for quite some time. I didn't have the eyesight to fly jets when I was 18, so I became a Hebrew Linguist and an aircrew member onboard the RC-135.
In 1994, I was stationed at RAF Mildenhall, Suffolk, U.K., and one weekend the wife and I attended a car boot sale. A car boot sale is where a bunch of normal people drive their cars onto a football pitch (a.k.a. soccer field), open up the boot (trunk), pull out a folding table and chairs, and place all of their unwanted treasures (junk) on the table for sale. As I was strolling down the lane, I spotted two bowls of coins on one lady's table that were marked "various foreign coins, 5 pence each"---I dug and dug and found two lustrous About Uncirculated Seated Liberty Dimes, gave her tenpence, and smiled the rest of the day. The next day, I went to the Stars and Stripes Bookstore on base and bought a coin magazine, and learned that my two dimes were worth about $100 each.
I started thinking "Back in the day, people in Britain used to take the big steamships to America for a visit. Every time I come back from someplace, I have a little bit of foreign change in my pocket. I'll bet they did, too." I went to the base library and started checking local telephone directories for coin shops. A lot of coin dealers are inherently lazy, and I found that the English dealers were no different. Most places I visited had foreign coin buckets marked "1 Pound", "2 Pounds", "5 Pounds", and "10 Pounds". I built a complete AU/BU set of Indian Cents by going through those buckets. It was commonplace to buy shiny, red Indian cents from the 1 Pound bucket. Soon I had enough inventory to set up at the monthly Coin and Collector's Fair at the Bob Hope Recreation Center on base. At the same time, Ty Beanie Babies were big business, and I was going to all of the local Hallmark locations and bribing the owners with cartons of cigarettes ($4/carton) and gallon jugs of Haller's Bourbon Whiskey ($4/jug) so they would give me first shot at the Beanie bears. I was selling Princess Diana Bears for $450 each, while the Britannia Bears earned $650 each. In 1996, I heard that the U.S. Mint was going to issue state quarters starting in 1999, so I began to build a complete mint state set of quarters from 1932 onwards. Not completely satisfied with my beautiful raw set of quarters in a coin album, I then set out to build a complete slabbed set of gem quarters. Then I bought a book about doubled die quarters by Wexler and Flynn, and I cherry-picked every single one off the internet in mint state, with the exception of the damned elusive 1937 DDO. This set of quarters won me the NGC Best Presented Set Award in 2004 for my silver quarters, and Best Presented Set of 2005 for my copper-nickel quarters, which got my foot in the door at Heritage Auction Galleries when I retired from the Air Force in 2005.
I am so glad that I went a different route than most of my friends, who are now government contractors, working in buildings without windows alongside the same folks we've all worked with for the past 40 years. I love playing with coins and getting paid for it.
The "8 Sided" Yella Coin
During the course of answering tens of thousands of "Ask an Expert" emails over a five-year period, I found that the vast majority (98%) of questions that came in were truly mundane, but when I calculated the profits generated from these emails, it turned out that I was making the company $55 for each one that I answered, on average. That's a fairly attractive number when most emails take only seconds to answer, as I had built a huge database of canned responses that I could drop down into an email.
One day I was contacted by a woman and her brother, both in their mid-fifties, who lived out in the country in West Virginia. The email went something like this: "We've been cleaning out Great Granddaddy's shed and we have found several Mason jars full of these Yella coins." Hmmm, Yella, I thought. Maybe Great Granddaddy had scooped up a whole bunch of Greek 2 Drachma coins to use at the local launderette because they are exactly the same size and weight as a U.S. quarter, and maybe he polished them all up with some Brasso and a rag. I phoned her up and asked her to send me a photo of the most interesting coin she had found, and after some explanation by me about what a JPEG was, she said that the neighbor boy was smart and could help us out.
A day later I received an email with a photo of a big ole' Yella coin with 8 sides, dated 1852, bearing a big ole' eagle on one side and a target for zeroing in your Ruger 10/22 before going possum hunting on the other. I popped in a piece of nicotine gum before giving her a call. It was a long call, and I ended up chewing more than one piece before hanging up. "What you have there is a very lovely 1852 Augustus Humbert Fifty Dollar gold coin, from the goldrush days. A Kagin-11 if I'm not mistaken. Depending on how the graders judge it, it's worth somewhere between 15 and 30 Thousand Dollars." "That SON OF A BITCH!" she shouted. Apparently, Greatgranddaddy was a notorious skinflint. He never had two pennies to rub together, and if he did, he surely never spent them on his grandchildren. Yet, here it was, his man-cave, his secret shed, that was always locked, with 3 full Mason jars of Yella coins.
It took me a loooong time to persuade her and her brother to package the coins up and drive all the way to Hooterville or Mount Airey or wherever it was the nearest FEDEX station stood, but after a couple of more phone calls, she trusted me enough to ship them and was secure in the fact that they were insured on my dime. I bought the majority of the coins outright, since putting them up for auction would have netted her and her brother less than melt had she auctioned them. There were Mexican gold pesos, French and Swiss 20 Francs, German 20 Deutschmarks, Sovereigns, U.S. $2 1/2, $5, $10 and $20 Libs. I think we only ended up encapsulating about a dozen pieces, including one each from Dahlonega, Charlotte, and Carson City, along with the aforementioned Augustus Humbert piece. The lady was pissed off at me when the $50 graded "Unc Details, Damaged" and that it did not reach the "30 Thousand Dollar mark that I'd promised her".
When you tell a coin collector their coin is worth somewhere between 15 and 30 thousand dollars, all they hear is $30,000. At the end of the day, this West Virginia family netted around $385,000; It literally changed their lives. They bought a house in town and a couple of cars. They would always remain pissed off at Greatgranddaddy.
TSA "Bag Check"!
My pal Jason and I boarded a plane in Dallas and landed in New Orleans. We were met by two armed guards at the gate, who drove us to a great old bank downtown. Each of us was dressed quite casually--decent trousers, collared shirt, leather shoes, and each of us carried a backpack. We met the client inside a grand old bank vault with a huge round door that weighed thousands of pounds. Inside, I took inventory of a group of beautiful and historic shipwreck gold ingots: Kellogg and Humbert, Justin and Hunter, Henry Hentsch, Blake and Company, a Brilliant Uncirculated Augustus Humbert $50 Octogonal, all from the bottom of the ocean on board the S.S. Central America and the S.S. Brother Jonathan. There were also a couple of Atocha Spanish gold bars.
Not stopping for lunch, the armed guards whizzed us right back to the airport and waited for us to pass successfully through security before giving us a thumb's up for their departure. I was ready--I had my card in hand that said "I am a rare coin dealer, and for safety reasons, I request a private screening." Jason and I sat our backpacks on the conveyor belt and of course, the TSA lady shouted "Bag Check!". 3 very polite, tall, black TSA agents took us to a back room to inspect our bags. All of the gold ingots were housed in thick plexiglass boxes, but you could see all of the details very distinctly. The guys opened our backpacks as we stood back and observed.
The lead TSA chap said "Daaaaaang! What's that made of?" and I said "What do you think it's made of?" and he said "Looks like solid gold", smiling widely. I said "They are made of solid gold, and they came up from 7 thousand feet on the ocean floor." And the guy goes "Daaaaaang! What's all that worth?" and I replied "About 4 million dollars" and he smiles and goes "Daaaaaang, you guys must be RICH!" and I said "No, but our boss (Steve Ivy) is." The chaps were all super nice and they reloaded our bags and looked both ways in the secure area before letting us out to make sure we weren't being stalked.
Timing is Everything
I was a Senior Numismatist and Consignment Director at Heritage Auction Galleries. I used to answer all of the "ask an expert" emails as well, and one fellow wrote in from San Antonio and said that he wanted to part with his 35-year accumulation of gold coins. I phoned him up and I asked him how much value did he think he have, and he said "1.8, maybe 1.9 million". I asked him when he wanted to get started, and he told me that he ran a commercial Ford dealership, nothing under an F-350, and that the only day of the week he could work with me was Saturday.
I and two of my associates flew from Dallas to SAT, rented two huge SUV's, and had two armed guards meet us at the car rental and we headed over to the Ford dealership. I walked in the door at 09:30, and I knew immediately that there was WAY more than $1.9 Million in gold there. There were rolls and rolls of $2 1/2 Libs, $5 Libs, $10 Libs, $20 Libs, $2 1/2 Indians, $5 Indians, $10 Indians, and $20 Saints. There were rolls and rolls of UK Sovereigns, Mexican 1, 2 and 2 1/2 Pesos, 10 pesos, 20 and even 50 pesos coins. There were 3 tall stainless steel wheeled shelving units covered with gold American Eagle proof sets, and also a dozen or so platinum sets. There were about 10 Chinese gold kilos in hand-painted wooden boxes---those things are quite rare, and heavy too (32.5 troy ounces).
Well, it was us 3 numismatists, 2 armed guards, our client, his accountant, and 2 of his main assistants. I had one of my guys sort all of the Indian gold while I took it upon myself to sort, grade and categorize the Libs. My buddy found 2 fine to very fine 1911-D quarter eagles in his group, and a really cool counterfeit 1929 $20 Saint. I located several Carson City coins amongst the half eagles and eagles, which obviously we paid more for.
Gold was sitting at $683 per troy ounce that Saturday, and we paid between 97% and 103% of melt for the vast majority of the collection, apart from the CC-gold, the two 1911-D Indians, and several really better date twenty libs. We sat there from 09:30 in the morning until almost 3 a.m., counting, grading, and tallying. We had the client's accountant tallying too, and when we checked our numbers against his numbers, we were within about $300 of one another, so we gave him the benefit of the doubt on the three bills.
Four Million Two Hundred and Fifty Thousand Dollars.
Six Thousand Two Hundred and some odd troy ounces of gold.
Monday morning, gold opened at $800 per troy ounce.
The 1933 $20 Saint Gaudens Double Eagle
It was the 17th of August, 2006, and I was working the day shift at the Heritage table at the 2006 Denver American Numismatic Association Show. It was warm in Denver. And what an amazing display of rare numismatic material there was. The Department of Printing and Engraving had a full sheet of $100,000 gold notes. There were two 1913 Liberty nickels, including the "rediscovery" Walton specimen. The finest known 1927-D $20 Saint Gaudens revised Denver for the first time in 79 years.
On display was the then illegal to own 1974-D Aluminum Lincoln Cent. Heritage was auctioning some amazing coins that got my heart racing as well, including the 1861 $20 Paquet reverse graded MS61. Far and away the biggest news of the 2006 Denver ANA show, however, was a very well guarded display of Ten 1933 $20 Saints confiscated from the family of Israel Switt, the pawnbroker who had sold nine (well, ten actually) of the yet unmonetized coins to major numismatists in the 1940's, all of which ended up under confiscation by the U.S. Secret Service. The 10th one slipped out of this country almost unnoticed, headed for the collection of Egypt's King Farouk. The Farouk coin didn't arouse interest with the Secret Service until it wound up in the 1954 Sotheby’s Catalog of The Palace Collections of Egypt.
Lot 185 was a group lot of $20 Saint Gaudens coins: 1924, 1924 S, 1924 D, 1925, 1925 S, 1925 D, 1926, 1926 D, 1927, 1927 S, 1928, 1929, 1930 S, 1931, 1931 D, 1932, 1933. Mostly extremely fine. When the U.S. Secret Service showed up in Cairo, both the 1913 Liberty Nickel and the 1933 Saint Gaudens were mysteriously withdrawn from the sale. So, of the nine 1933 Saints that were confiscated, two were placed in the National Numismatic Collection at the Smithsonian, ten coins came to light with the Israel Switt estate, and the only remaining 1933 coin would be the long missing Farouk coin, for a total of twelve pieces extant. Stephen Fenton isn’t a household word, but in the numismatic community, he should be.
Steve Fenton is the guy who brought the King Farouk specimen of the 1933 Saint Gaudens coin out of mothballs – The most valuable coin in the world. Stephen Fenton is the founder of Knightsbridge Coins, and is the current owner and director of Saint James’s Auctions, headquartered in London, U.K. When I was stationed in the U.K., I frequently traveled to London from my home in Lakenheath, Suffolk, to attend coin shows and auctions, and I visited Knightsbridge Coins a few times, so I couldn’t really say I “know” Stephen Fenton, but we did recognize one another. Stephen Fenton, and the coin that he carried into this country in 1996, are the subjects of several books, including Illegal Tender – Gold, Greed and the Mystery of the Lost 1933 Double Eagle, and Double Eagle – The Epic Story of the World’s Most Valuable Coin. Steve is the guy who imported the Farouk Saint into this country in his pocket, only to be set up in an FBI sting by potential buyer Jay Parrino.
So, it’s a Thursday afternoon, in Denver, and who should walk up to the Heritage Table to drop off a sizable consignment of foreign coins? None other than Steve Fenton, that’s who. I asked him to sit down while I filled out the Schedule 1 – Itemized List of Consigned Coins. I smiled and asked “So, Steve, have you been over to visit the 1933 Saint Gaudens’ display?” and he shook his head and grinned. “No, Mate. When you’ve seen the one, you’ve seen them all.”
The CEO of World Bank: A. W. Clausen
Most of the leads on coin collections come via Heritage's annual collector survey. I always put really interesting coins on there for my current "holdings", all fictitious of course. A 1915-S $50 Panama-Pacific Octagonal in MS66, a 1916 Standing Quarter in MS67 Full Head, an 1879 $4 Flowing Hair Stella in PR67 Deep Cameo; Let's face it, they say their survey is "totally random" but they're not going to give it to the guy who has an UNC set of Lincoln Memorial Cents and all 3 souvenir sets of the 1979, 1980, and 1981 Susan B. Anthony dollars. The annual prize is always a 1907 $20 High Relief in MS64. For those of you who think that 1907 High Relief Twenties are rare coins, you are mistaken. They're not rare; they are simply expensive. I recall one HA.com FUN Auction several years ago that had 25 of them in the Signature Sale. HA.com also has a cool feature on their website called "Ask an Expert".
When I was first hired in Dallas in 2005, one of the things Doug Baliko asked me was "can you type really well?" and "how good are you at answering emails?". No one had been servicing the Coin Expert emails for some time, and there were about 60,000 of them in the electronic mailbox waiting for an answer. After an exhaustive knowledge exam administered by Jim Stoutjesdyk, and a grading test administered by David Lindvall, I became "the expert" for coins at Heritage Auction Galleries.
Now, for every 50 questions, about 49 of them are fairly mundane, so I built a database of standard answers to frequently asked questions like "What is my super rare 1943 silver penny worth?" and "I have a whole bunch of wheat cents. What are the better dates to look out for?". The 50th question, however, was productive and led me to purchase about $5 million in rare coins, and convince a few dozen more folks to consign their coins to auction in just that first year alone of answering emails.
That's when I started to come to the attention of the Auction Consignment Department, which eventually led me to become a full-time consignment director and senior numismatist. I digress, sorry. So anyway, one day a question comes in that really intrigued me. The person asked "How much would an 1848 $2 1/2 with the CAL. reverse in Mint State 68 Star NGC be worth if it currently came to auction?" At first I smiled and thought "that coin probably doesn't exist at that high of a grade level." So I logged into ngccoin's webpage and sure enough, the finest known 1848 $2 1/2 CAL is indeed an MS68 (*). There weren't any at the 68 level at PCGS, but I suspect the one on their POP report now is that same coin that I'm talking about.
There was no name on the question, just an email address. That's when I knocked on one of the scariest doors in the big, blue glass tower: Jim Halperin's office. Now, Jim Halperin is super smart.
He knows coins.
Jim knows currency.
Jim knows sports memorabilia.
Jim knows all there is to know about comic books.
Jim knows Tiffany.
One day, Jim's people will return from Jim's planet and pick him up: The guy is a super genius. He was on his stationary bike and waved me in. I asked him what he thought one might bring, and he turned on a dime and said "I want to know what YOU think" and so I told him "Four Hundred Thousand Dollars". Jim cocked his head at a 45-degree angle, up and to the right. "Yep. Yep. That's a great number. Let me know if you get it."
I sent a response to the questioner. A few days later, another email comes in, which prompts me to believe that some guy is sitting at home building a dream collection, on paper, just like folks do when they are playing fantasy football. The question was, "How much would an 1891 $20 in Proof 68 Star Ultra Cameo be worth if it came to auction right now?" I seriously doubted such a coin existed, but there it was, in the NGC Pop report. The SINGLE finest Proof $20 Lib at either service for ANY date is a lone 1891 $20 in PR68* UCAM. Again, I knocked on Jim's door, and he was as amicable as can be. I knew what he was going to ask me, too. "What do you think, Dave?" I told him that right now, such a coin would probably fetch $300,000 at our 2006 January FUN sale. He cocked his head, smiled and said "That's an excellent number. Keep me apprised."
I emailed the client, who still wouldn't tell me his name. The following week, a similar question came in with dreamy coins: "What is a complete 1911 Gold Proof Set worth in Proof 67?" GOTCHA! He included his name and his telephone number, so I refilled my coffee, popped in a piece of nicotine gum, and gave him a call. "Hello, Eric, this is David Lewis at Heritage Auction Galleries, how are you today....blah blah blah" I asked Eric what he did for a living, and he revealed that he was a dentist, so I started thinking "well, a dentist to the stars or a dentist to major league sports could have some big bucks......hmmmm".
A bit later, I asked him "how did you get started collecting coins?" He responded "My dad got me started. My dad is A.W. Clausen. He used to be the CEO of the World Bank. Then he ran the Bank of America." I typed in A.W. Clausen on google, and about a quarter of a million hits came up, and in a few seconds I found the man's biography. "A.W. Clausen has two sons, Eric and Mark." So NOW I'm sitting at the position of ATTENTION in my chair. I made a list of Dr. Clausen's holdings---this was a Tuesday---and yes, he was interested in selling. I spent all day Wednesday making a sample catalog containing A.W. Clausen's bio, a write-up of the coolest, aforementioned 1848 $2 1/2 and the Proof 1891 $20, and on Thursday, Dave Mayfield took my mock Clausen catalog on a jet to Atlanta and picked up the consignment.
I was humbled when the Heritage catalogers used my write-ups, virtually verbatim, in the 2006 FUN Platinum catalog.
Reference: Heritage Auctions