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Harry Bass, The Collector

 

Formation of the Bass Collection


Harry Wesley Bass, Jr., became interested in rare coins as an adult, with his first purchases taking place in the 1960s. Of inquisitive mind and with a generous measure of enthusiasm, Mr. Bass soon determined to learn as much as possible about numismatics. Drawing upon experience gained in the family oil business, in participation in politics on behalf of the Republican Party in Texas, in his work with Vail Associates and the development of Beaver Greek, Colorado ski resorts, and upon other knowledge, he commenced with great vigor. Mr. Bass was never one to do something half-way! At the outset, he was attracted by 19th-century gold coins. Anyone who has explored this fascinating pursuit will agree that it is quite special to learn (after years of being in the social and business world) that there exist United States coins, made of gold, that at one time were familiar in banking and commercial circles, but which today are so rare that few have seen them. Upon further investigation, Mr. Bass learned that this series of coins, while in many instances scarce or rare, also included many pieces that were very inexpensive. In the 1960s it was possible to buy some of the more plentiful dates of $20 gold coins for less than $100 each.

As a first order of organized activity-after the thrill of discovering the American gold series-he set about building a definitive reference library on American numismatics. Within a few years he had accomplished the feat of building one of the finest holdings of numismatic books and catalogues ever gathered by a private collector-and in later times he added to his holdings. At his death, he had acquired a numismatic library of over 10,000 items, including books, catalogs both old an new, and other rare (sometimes unique)items to supplement his numismatic study. Thus, from virtually the outset, Mr. Bass knew what he was looking for when purchasing rare coins and paper money. And in turn, Mr. Bass was a very sophisticated buyer.

The Collection Grows
With a connoisseur's eye and with a generous purchase budget, Mr. Bass acquired many important coins, medals, tokens, and paper money, working closely with Dallas dealer Mike Brownlee as well as with other leading professionals all over America. Over a period of time, many important properties were offered to him, including incredibly important bank notes and currency items from the Robert Schermerhorn and William Philpott collections, great gold rarities from private cabinets, and more. In addition, he was an active participant in person and through agents at virtually every important auction conducted during the past several decades, from the l960s up to the time of his unfortunate passing on April 4,1998. At the time of his death, he had acquired an incredible breadth, number and diversity of numismatic items. Included in his total collection were over 8,000 gold coins, U.S. currency and patterns, as well as territorial and private gold coins, several hundred California gold issues, a number of Russian medals, hundreds of tokens, early American medals, Morgan Carson City silver dollars, contemporary proof sets, and a number of unique numismatic pieces. All this was in addition to the amazing numismaticlibrary which he had put together over the last four decades, which amounted to over 10,000 numismatic books and catalogs.

When Bowers & Merena Galleries auctioned the Eliasberg Collection of U.S. Gold Coins in 1982, Mr. Bass came to the lot viewing at the sale in New York City, brought his magnifying glass and loupe, and spent several days making notes of die varieties, particularly for gold issues of the early era in American coinage, 1795-1834. Along the way, during this and other sales, and during visits to private collections, museums, coin dealerships, and conventions, he acquired much knowledge concerning this specialty. After a while, the experts would consult him to enrich and enhance their knowledge! At the time of his passing in the spring of 1998, the Bass Collection and the holdings of the Harry W. Bass, Jr. Research Foundation included the most extensive collection of United States gold coins ever formed. While it did not have each and every date and mintmark, it was (and still is) highlighted by the unique 1870-S $3 and many other great rarities, many of which are among the finest of their kind (or are the very finest). Sometimes even a landmark rarity-the 1815 $5 is an example-would be acquired in duplicate, and his array of multiple specimens of certain Proof gold rarities was, in a word, impressive.

Pattern coins, currency, tokens and medals, and other items were acquired as they caught his attention. Time and again, Mr. Bass made it a point to be "in the right place at the right time." Along the way his cabinet attained immense proportions, immense in quality, immense in importance, immense in interest.

The American Numismatic Society
In addition to gathering books, coins, and other items for his collection, he did much in the way of outreach for the numismatic hobby. For years he served as a councilor for the American Numismatic Society, New York City, and from 1978 through 1984 (six years) he was the Society's president, leading its direction. And, during his administration, many notable accomplishments were made, effectively laying the groundwork to lead the Society, founded in 1858, into the new millennium. The American Numismatic Society for many years has served as a bastion for numismatic research and study, and today it has the largest numismatic library in the world. Mr. Bass had a special interest in their library, often consulting with the ANS librarian about what books they needed and should purchase with designated funds he had continued to provide. And he often bought rare volumes for them and donated them to the ANS library, including a number of unique items from the Champa Library auctions. Following his death over 300 volumes from his p ersonal library were donated to the ANS Library from his estate, before any of his numismatic library went to auction.

In 1958, Harold Adelson wrote the 100-year history of the organization. The next history written must of necessity devote much space to Harry W. Bass, Jr., and his accomplishments, It is a measure of the man ability that in an organization which comprises many different members, often with widely diverse ideas as to current and future directions of the Society, Mr. Bass was always spoken of kindly. In fact, in my many contacts with the Society over a long period of years, not a thing that Mr. Bass ever did was a point of dissension. Indeed, his example of leadership will be difficult for anyone to match.

Philanthropy and Outreach
In Texas, Mr. Bass was the administrator of two non-profit foundations. The Harry Bass Foundation, created by his father, has for a long time, supported various Dallas area activities including religious and charitable institutions, hospitals, and museums. A separate foundation, the Harry W. Bass, Jr. Research Foundation, was set up in 1990 to advance research and scholarship in certain areas of United States coinage including literature, patterns, and gold coins, with particular interest in outreach on the Internet and electronic media in the are of numismatics.

It is planned that the Foundation will make available to the world-wide circle of numismatists the information gathered over a long period of time collecting by Mr. Bass. This will include availability on the Internet of detailed descriptions and illustrations in full color of his permanent collection, selected as the very best 500 selections from his collection of almost 10,000 numismatic items.

To further its philanthropic objectives, the Harry W. Bass, Jr. Research Foundation commissioned Bowers & Merena Galleries to showcase at public sale many important items from its vast and impressive holdings during 1999 and 2000. The series of four auction catalogues are a fine memorial to Harry's efforts and also references of lasting numismatic importance and value. In addition to the auction presentations, Bowers and Merena Galleries is working closely with the Harry W. Bass, Jr. Research Foundation to collate Harry's notes and create a sylloge, or catalogue raisonné of the items retained by the Foundation as well as notes on many other pieces. Along the way, the sylloge will contain information about Mr. Bass' life, connoisseurship, the history and background of the series he collected, and much other information that should prove to be of interest, value, and importance. While various series will be showcased in the sylloge, its focal point will be American gold coinage of the 1795-1834 era. The volume will present historical, numismatic, pictorial, and technical information not hitherto available from a single source. Further announcements concerning the sylloge will be made at a later date. In the Pantheon of Numismatics a special place has been reserved for Mr. Bass and his memory, and generations from now he will still be remembered as one of the foremost figures in the numismatic field. The sylloge will share in a permanent way Harry's knowledge and enthusiasm with the numismatic world.  


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