Jewels of the Bass Collection

(Published in the June, 2001 issue of ANA's The Numismatist)
by Cathy L. Clark, assistant editor of THE NUMISMATIST

Harry Bass, Jr. was a consummate collector and numismatist. When he first became intersted in coins in 1965, he took a full year to study the subject and determine which areas of collecting he wanted to pursue. "He chose United States gold coinage, in all its little-known variations, as a field offering both tanalizing challenge and potential reward," says ANA Museum Curator Robert W. Hoge. "Throughout history, gold has held terrific allure, perhaps no more so than for this collector/connoisseur, who ammased the foremost collection of U.S. gold coins ever assembled. His cabinet included not only examples of vertually all issues by denomination, date and mintmark, but alos major and minor varieties in almost every known die-pairing combination of the series (including previously unrecorded die varieties and die states he discovered in the course of his research)."

Upon his death in 1998, the collection was willed to the Harry Bass Jr. Research Foundation, a nonprofit charitable trust, which retained a care collection representative of its founder's numismatic interests and activities. (The remainder was sold in a series of four public sales conducted by Auctions by Bowers and Merena of Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, that generated funding for the Foundation's various charitable programs.) That impressive core collection, now on long-term loan to the ANA, will make its formal, public debut this summer when the Association unveils its innovative, new Museum galleries at its headquarters in Colorado Springs, Colorado. What follows is a small but spectacular sampling of the collection's highlights, with expert commentary by Hoge and Bowers and Merena senior numismatist Mark Borckardt, and coin photographs by Douglas Plasencia, also of Bowers and Merena.

1796 "No Stars" Quarter-Eagle
In the early days of the American republic, production of appropriate and acceptable coinage posed several challenges. By law, under die Mint Act of April 16, 1792, American legal-tender coins were required to include a number of features: the wording UNITED STATES OF AMERICA and LIBERTY, images of Liberty and an eagle, and the date," explains Hoge. "Establishing workable standards proved to be very difficult. Silver coinage was overvalued in relation to Spanish money, for which it was legally exchangeable, while gold declined in value in relation to silver. Thus it became profitable for merchant speculators to melt and export early American coins."

From 1795, gold denominations contained 916.7 parts pure gold alloyed with 833 parts silver/copper, making 22 kt-gold coins. In 1834 weights and fineness were reduced, and in 1837 the alloy was changed to 90-percent gold.

The 1796 quarter eagles without stars were the first coins of this denomination produced by the Mint. Although the Mint earlier struck copper and silver pieces, gold coinage took on primary importance beginning in 1795, says Borckardt, who assisted Hoge in documenting the ANA’s Bass exhibit. Coins struck in this precious metal were examined with a critical eye. The first quarter eagles strictly followed prescribed standards. Today, many consider this initial design among the most pleasing because of its simple, cameo-like appearance, Borckardt adds.

"This example from the Harry W. Bass Jr. Collection, while by no means the finest known, certainly qualifies as a top example among survivors. Approximately 100 remain in existence today from an original mintage estimated at 963 coins. This mintage consisted of 66 coins delivered from the coiner on September 21, 1796, and 897 examples delivered December 8,1796," says Borckardt.

"Coinage metal was prepared by the Mint assayer and delivered to the coining department for production. The completed coins then were delivered by the chief coiner to the Mint treasurer, with the dates recorded as 'delivery dates.' While these recorded dates are considered 'mintage dates' today, the coins actually were struck during an unspecified period of one or more days prior to die delivery date," he explains.

1829 Half Eagle
"This coin is a numismatic delight," asserts Borckardt. The original of this Liberty design was by Chief Engraver Robert Scot. His immediate successor, William Kneass, modified the presentation with a smaller date and stars. The revised design also reflects a more even rim and denticles. This was the first year of the "close collar," which helped maintain a uniform edge and, for the first time, added reeding at the moment of striking. Borckardt points out:

Among half eagles, the transition to the Dew close collar occurred in 1829, with two die varieties known, one from each type of retaining collar. Both varieties are extremely rare, with less than 12 examples known of each. Various students have provided slightly different estimates of the actual number surviving.

In the second part of The Harry W. Bass Jr. Collection sale, Bowers and Merena suggested that seven large-planchet (old collar) examples are known and eight small-planchet (new collar) coins exist. Bass was able to acquire two examples of each variety. (He acquired the piece shown here from the Norweb Collection. It carries a prestigious pedigree back to Colonel Mendes I. Cohen, a collector active in the early 1870s.)

Proof 1854 Type I Liberty Dollar
The Liberty Head design by James Barton Longacre was the first of three major gold-dollar types. According to Borckardt, proof Liberty types are extremely rare, with most known examples dated 1849. It is doubtful that more than 15 proofs exist from all six years of issuance.

"This lovely proof example was acquired from Stack's Auction '85, held in July of that year," says Borckardt. "This coin generally is believed to be unique in proof format, although Walter Breen recorded a second example that he stated had been seen by Wayte Raymond sometime prior to 1951. When Stack's offered this coin, the cataloger noted that the appearance represented the first time a proof 1854 Liberty Head gold dollar had been offered for sale at public auction and suggested it may represent a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. This coin has been in the Bass Collection since that time.

"In his Encyclopedia of United States and Colonial Proof Coins, Breen noted that the coin was from the set furnished the authorities of the City of Bremen, July 1854, in exchange for a group of coins of Bremen given by them to the Mint collection. What appears to be this piece was recovered in Switzerland and seen at the 1975 ANA Convention."

1866 Double Eagle "with Motto"
"THANKS TO THE great California Gold Rush and its aftermath, the world's gold supply doubled during a short span of years in the mid 19th century, and the need arose for a new, high-denomination coin. Hoge explains, "Minting equipment became increasingly fast and efficient, and by the 1850s, the $20 gold piece-the double eagle-was the foremost American coin."

The $20 gold pieces were issued in two basic designs, each divisible into several types. James B. Longacre's design of a Liberty Head with coronet and garnished Heraldic Eagle was minted from 1849 to 1907. The motto IN GOD WE TRUST was added to the reverse in 1866, when this piece was produced.

Just 30 proof examples of this issue were struck, and only about 10 examples are known today. This particular piece is one of the very finest known. Two other survivors re-side in museums -- one at the American Numismatic Society in New York City, and another at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

Unique 1870-S $3
This amazing coin is part of the only complete collection of this denomination in existence. Bass acquired the piece from the Louis Eliasberg Sr. Collection. Rhasberg, in turn, had obtained the coin from the William H. Woodin Collection. Borckardt notes that coincidentally Woodin served as secretary of the treasury in 1933 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the order to cease production of gold coinage for circulation.

"Whereas the $5 half eagle served as the primary American gold coin, the $3 issue (1854-89) was an unpopular anomaly," says Hoge, It was minted in accordance with legislation in 1853 to provide a convenient "multiple" for the 3 -cent piece, which was introduced in 1851 to make it easier to purchase postage stamps (which cost 3 cents at the time). In addition, it was the first legal-tender U.S. coin that did not contain its intrinsic value in precious metal.

The obverse of this particular specimen is standard for the era. Uneven spacing of the letters in LIBERTY on the "Indian princess" headdress can be seen on other dates as well. The design of Liberty's ear and flowing curls, as well as the beading and plumes on the headdress, show how a skilled engraver can create the illusion of depth on a surface only millimeters thick.

The reverse shows even, well-formed denticles, digits and letters, a vast improvement over earlier coins. The numerals "893" scratched in by hand at the top of the reverse remain unexplained.

Borckardt explains that two examples were struck from a pair of dies received at the San Francisco Mint from Philadelphia without a mintmark, onto which the "S" mintmark was engraved. J.B. Harmstead was coiner at the San Francisco Mint in 1870, and he kept one example, presumably this coin. A second reportedly was placed in the cornerstone of the San Francisco Mint in 1870. However, later examination failed to reveal the second example, and no information about the piece has surfaced.

1907 Extra-High-Relief Double Eagle
Many consider Augustus Saint-Gaudens' double eagle to be the single, most beautiful circulating United States coin. President Theodore Roosevelt's initiative to improve gold coinage began early in 1905; two years later, the talented sculptor Saint-Gaudens provided acceptable designs for the eagle and double eagle.

As Bass Foundation Vice President Ed Deane rhapsodizes, "When Liberty strides directly toward you, with Freedom's torch and an olive branch in hand, her hair and gown billowing in the breeze, the three-dimensional sense of her presence is complete. Liberty is on the move! This was Roosevelt's concept, as well as America's vision of itself, in this era of new prosperity prior to World War I. "

"The image of the flying eagle (as used on the 1-cent piece of 1857) was Saint-Gaudens' favorite coin motif," says Deane. "In the artist's conception, nothing constrains the eagle's full flight. [Its] huge wings display both power and majesty as [it] races across an open sky (represented by the sun's rays reaching the edge of the coin). The high relief lifts the bird from the background, empowering it to fly."
The exceptionally high relief of the piece, meant to serve as a prototype to illustrate the sculptor's concept, was not suitable for circulating coins, due in part to the extraordinary effort required to strike them. A/lint Director Frank A. Leach noted that their production required at least 12 blows on a medal press. Most known examples have a lettered edge with stars. A unique example has a plain edge, and another has stars between each letter. Only about 15 examples are known today, says Borckardt.
Bass acquired this magnificent example from the Eliasberg Collection. Eliasberg purchased the piece in 1942 from the John Clapp Collection. Although a few finer examples exist, Borckardt believes it is a coin of truly exquisite beauty.

You're Invited!
MANY MORE NUMISMATIC treasures from the Bass Collection will await the experienced collector as well as the interested novice when the remodeled ANA Money Museum reopens this summer. David Calhoun, trustee of the Harry W. Bass Jr. Foundation, comments, "The trustees of the Harry W. Bass Jr. Foundation are delighted to be able to exhibit the crowning jewels of the magnificent numismatic collection from 30-plus years of selective study and collecting by Mr. Bass. We have gone to great lengths to ensure that the Harry Bass Core Collection represents and reflects the areas of American numismatics of which Mr. Bass was most proud and enthusiastic in his studies."

Calhoun explains that with more than 500 specimens, the Collection might be considered about average in size. However, when the quality, rarity and degree of preservation of each of the items are factored in, it is quite apparent that there is nothing average about it.

"The $3 set (containing not only a coin from every year and mint, but one from each year produced in astonishing gem proof condition) alone would be the ideal culmination of a lifetime of study and effort for any serious collector," he says. "Also, it is incredibly awe-inspiring to be able to hold in your hand something one-of-a-kind like the 1870-S.

Calhoun is astounded by Bass' dedication to and accomplishments in numismatics. "The. uniqueness of the Core Collection is that there are no weak points; every component, including the type set, patterns and Educational Series currency, is first-rate and could stand on its own as a testament to one man's love for numismatics."

The author would like to recognize Robert Hoge, Mark Borckardt, Douglas Plasencia and David Calhoun for their valuable assistance.


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