If you've been into coin collecting any time at all, chances are you've heard of Mr. Eliasberg. Whether you've heard the story, been a part of it, or this is completely new to you, perhaps some of the elements below will further reinforce your passion for coin collecting or stir up some old memories.
Background on Louis Eliasberg, Sr.
Louis E. Eliasberg, Sr. (1896–1976) was a financier and numismatist. He is best known in the numismatic community for putting together the only complete collection of United States coins ever assembled. Although the set was not truly "complete" by modern standards (for instance, it did not differentiate between proofs and circulation strikes, as most modern collectors and set registries do), it is still the most comprehensive U.S. numismatic collection of all time.
Born in Selma, Ala., Feb. 12, 1896, the son of a dry goods and clothing dealer, Louis Edward Eliasberg Sr. moved to Baltimore in 1907. He started his career as a runner for Citizens National Bank in 1917.
But by 1919, he and other investors had founded the Finance Company of America at Baltimore. He was among the investors who in 1953 purchased the baseball team that became the Baltimore Orioles.
On November 7, 1950, Mr. Eliasberg completed a coin collection containing a specimen of every United States coin of every date, metal, denomination, and mint mark ever struck which were known as of that date. The Eliasberg collection did not distinguish between proofs and circulating strikes and die variations were not emphasized.
He accomplished this, even though some (like Virgil Brand and “Col.” E.H.R. Green) accumulated more coins than Eliasberg did and were doubtless wealthier than him. Eliasberg’s grand achievement of acquiring at least one of every known example of every date-denomination issued from the time the federal mint system started until Eliasberg’s triumphant finale, therefore, immortalized him.
Eliasberg lived before the internet, with television in its infancy, and in a time when information not disseminated not nearly as swiftly as in today’s media world. He enlightened the nation about the serious side of coin collecting.
He even possessed at one time a 1933 $20 gold coin (one of twenty-five owned by collectors, including King Farouk of Egypt). Upon learning that the government believed the coins had not been legally issued by the mint and was recalling them, Mr. Eliasberg voluntarily returned his coin to the government in 1952 without compensation.
Eliasberg's largest and most important purchase occurred in 1942 when he purchased the Clapp Estate Collection through Stack's for $100,000. The Clapp Collection had been built first by J.M. Clapp from the 1880s through his death in 1906, and then his son John H. Clapp from 1906 on. The Clapp Collection was not only nearly complete, it contained coins of extraordinary quality, including spectacular-quality coins that J.M. Clapp had acquired directly from each of the Mints in the year of issue from 1892 to 1906. Louis Eliasberg added the Clapp Collection to his, then expanded it and added the great ultra-rarities.
Putting together the collection cost Eliasberg less than $400,000. He also kept his achievement quiet for a year. The Sun published a story in 1951 and Life magazine followed in 1953 with a photo essay called "The King of Coins."
When organizers of the 1976 Bicentennial found the U.S. Mint's collection incomplete, Eliasberg's was retrieved from the vault at Maryland National Bank and exhibited instead.
After his death, the collection was split between his two sons, Baltimore businessmen Louis E. Eliasberg Jr. and Richard Eliasberg. Neither inherited their father's obsessive love for coins.
Louis sold his part of the collection, consisting of gold coins, in 1982 by Bowers and Ruddy. Richard chose to sell his section, the silver, nickel and copper pieces, in two New York auctions by Bowers and Merena in 1996 and 1997. The three Eliasberg sales are among the greatest in numismatic history.
By the time auctioneers finished selling the collection late last night, it was to have fetched an estimated $45 million.
Q. David Bowers, Eliasberg's biographer, says the businessman was a fiscal conservative who never forgave President Franklin D. Roosevelt for removing the United States from the gold standard in 1933: "He was a hard-metal man, and he distrusted paper money."
Eliasberg did not rest on his laurels. He did not stow his collection in a safe and secretive location and fade from the scene. He commissioned artisans to construct special large display cases for his coins so he could exhibit his collection publicly from time to time. He also collaborated with a numismatic team who created an impressive pamphlet titled “An Exhibition of the World’s Greatest Collection of United States Coins” for distribution at public viewings of his collection.
A few months before he died, Eliasberg presented a talk on November 7, 1975, in Baltimore, during which he shared, “Why, When and How I Assembled the Most Complete Collection of United States Coins.” He told the audience, “If you are a numismatist or coin collector, I hope you will derive the degree of pleasure and happiness I have in assembling my collection.” During his 25 or so years of carrying the torch as the world’s most recognized coin collector, he exemplified how numismatists can proclaim the rewards inherent in their hobby to the masses.
The Times once noted, “No individual or organization, public or private—not the U.S. Mint itself or even the marvelous Numismatic Division of the Smithsonian Institution—has a collection of such completeness. All the great rarities, as well as the most common coins, are included.”
57 Carson City Mint gold issues offered in the auction conducted by Bowers and Ruddy between October 27 and 29, 1982. Eliasberg owned complete 19-piece sets of the three gold denominations produced in Carson City: half eagles, eagles, and double eagles.
The heir to Eliasberg’s comprehensive U.S. gold coin collection, his son, Louis E. Eliasberg Jr., instructed Bowers and Ruddy to keep it a secret who had built the consignment they were offering. They called the sale “The United States Gold Coin Collection”, with no person’s name signifying the pedigree. The numismatic world knew the collection’s architect anyway.
There were some notable coins in his collection, but most were not necessarily ultra significant with just a few exceptions. One of those exceptions was an XF45 1870-CC 20.
We have already seen that one of the most significant pieces, the 1870-CC double eagle, is rated much higher today than the grade assigned by the cataloger in 1982. The difference between Very Fine and Extremely Fine-45 (maybe AU-50?) for such a rarity cannot be overstated. Even if some of the much less scarce coins are graded noticeably higher today than their assigned 1982 ratings, significant increases in value estimates could result.
The PCGS XF-45 ex: Eliasberg 1870-CC double eagle presently resides in the preeminent Dell Loy Hansen Collection, where it will probably remain indefinitely. Because of the evolving nature of coin grading it is conceivable that this specimen might someday receive a bump up to a lower berth in the About Uncirculated grouping. Rumors were afloat in the past that this had happened at some point, but they were never verified.
Every time you look at your coins, think of Mr. Eliasberg and channel your inner numismatist.
Every time you get closer to your goal of completing that type set, mint set, or other series, think of Mr. Eliasberg's achievement and keep pressing on!
If you were to complete a Carson City Gold $20 set, it would be 1/1000th as accomplished as this guy. What an amazing feat!
The excerpts for this summary were largely taken from the links below: