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Rare Money Blog

The Historic William Spohn Baker Collection

Welcome to Washingtoniana From the Collections of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania Featuring the Collection of William Spohn Baker

Proceeds from the Sale will be used for the Care of the Collections and for Acquisitions

Author: John Pack / Thursday, November 07, 2019 / Categories: Events

The Collection of William Spohn Baker


Perhaps the best starting point for a sale like this is a quote from William Spohn Baker, written in November 1884, as it summarizes the inspirations behind this landmark collection in the collector’s own words:

Washington Medals form no inconsiderable portion of that great monument which love and gratitude have so steadily builded [sic], in memory of the services and virtues of the foremost man in American history.

This form of expression has, however, lost much of its historic significance and fitness in the absence of a systematic arrangement, by which all its features could be intelligently viewed and comprehended. Partial lists of the medals have been made, but without any attempt at classification, which while useful within their limits, have at the same time rather bewildered than aided the student or collector.

Baker’s name is legendary in American numismatics. For more than a century, it has been associated with the series of Washington medals, as it is he who first systematically and exhaustively organized this body of material in the 19th century in his 1885 work, Medallic Portraits of Washington. “Baker” is virtually synonymous with Washingtoniana. There are very few names from that period still in use in similar context today, though Sylvester Crosby with his Early Coins of America, Edward Maris’ Coins of New Jersey, and William T.R. Marvin’s Medals of the Masonic Fraternity come to mind as notable exceptions. It is perhaps the only such case, however, where the original reference collection has remained intact.

The opportunity to handle a collection like this is, in a word, extraordinary. As a firm, we have handled several collections of the 19th century, the cabinets of the Garrett family and Walter Childs coming immediately to mind. However, in the Baker Collection we have something very different from the norm. Where most collections of the period are somewhat general in scope, or focused on circulating coinage issues, his was a deeply specialized cabinet focused solely on medals collected by a passionate and pioneering student of the series.

Baker’s motivation seems to have been, first and foremost, personal fascination with the historical subject. However, he was also deeply interested in expanding general understanding of the subject and saw the medals as an avenue one could take to accomplish this. The earliest  medals were inspired by people who were Washington’s contemporaries, and perhaps even knew him directly. Slightly later issues were devised by those who wished to memorialize him or his deeds for the next generation. Later, as Baker observed, the use of Washington’s portrait was seen as adding gravitas to any subject at hand. In his introduction, Baker wrote:

It needs but a glance at the titles of the different groups, to reveal how the name of Washington is associated in the minds of a people, with all their diversified interests, pursuits and enterprises….If benevolence is to be awakened, patriotism aroused, emulation excited, temperance inculcated, industry stimulated, or events to be celebrated, the mind of the designer seems to turn at once to the Pater Patriae, and the medal struck for the purpose or occasion, must of course, bear his head as the prominent object.

Though it may not have been central to his intent, it is worth noting that Baker’s categorizations and groupings illustrated the inspirations for the various issues and separated the more important historic issues specific to Washington and his memory from those created for purely commercial purposes.

Baker assembled his collection with primarily his own scholarship as a background. A small selection of the early medals had been well-described by James Ross Snowden, published as Medallic Memorials of Washington in the Mint of the United States, in 1861. For this Snowden worked simply from the medals that formed the Washington Cabinet in 1859, the seed that would become the National Numismatic Collection at the Smithsonian Institution. William Sumner Appleton published a listing of his extensive collection in 1873, including 296 types he owned and a few additional ones he was aware of. Entries in the American Journal of Numismatics likewise helped with data on known issues. However, Baker collected without benefit of systematic, comprehensive and detailed references as we understand them today. Beyond the mentioned references, and auction catalogs that offered specimens for sale, information was scarce. There was nothing to place this extensive and ever-increasing body of medallic work honoring Washington into proper context. In this, Baker saw an opportunity to create a thematic roadmap for future collectors. His goals were to make more accessible the history of the subject, and to expand understanding of the objects he enjoyed studying and collecting. He missed very little, and his accomplishment was remarkable. It is illustrative to consider that when Baker was assembling his collections of medals and engraved portraits, collectors did not have the benefit of easily accessible and vast photographic archives that present-day collectors rely upon. Collectors had to rely upon the written word, their own imaginations, and experiences with like items. Even Baker’s own references were without illustration. Collecting in that time was, by necessity, a thoroughly academic and thoughtful pursuit.

Baker’s scholarship on the topic was perhaps unparalleled in his day. In The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 22, No. 1 (1898), published by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, John W. Jordan contributed an article, “In Memoriam. William Spohn Baker.” Therein, Jordan wrote about the recently deceased Baker, as his contemporary:

He practised [sic] his profession for some years, and then turned his attention to literary pursuits and historical research, particularly in all matters relating to Washingtoniana, of which he was recognized the foremost authority in the United States.

His collection of medals, coins, and tokens numbers upwards of eleven hundred pieces. In bequeathing all his treasures to the Historical Society, he knew that they would always be appreciated and receive the care and attention he had bestowed upon them, and that they would be made accessible to the historical student.”

While we as numismatists know him well for his work with the Washington medals, Baker was an ardent student and collector of all scholarly works relating to Washington. His library included around 500 print volumes on his subject, while his collection of engravings and prints of Washington is said to have numbered as many examples as his cabinet of medals. He published numerous works of his own. His reference work on portraits, Engraved Portraits of Washington, was published in 1880, five years in advance of the reference numismatists have used to classify their Washington medals for over a century.

Baker was a lifelong resident of Philadelphia, where he was born in 1824 to parents who had deep roots in the history of the area. One of his maternal great-great grandfathers arrived in Germantown in 1688 and one of his paternal great-grandfathers moved to Philadelphia in 1740, the latter serving in the American Revolution, as did others in his family. Baker was elected a member of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania in 1873 and was devoted to the Society for the remainder of his life. He became a member of its governing Council in 1885, and a vice president of the organization in 1892.

According to Jordan’s memorial, he was also affiliated with numerous other respected organizations, often holding offices therein. Among these may be counted the Pennsylvania Society of the Sons of the Revolution, the American Philosophical Society, the American Historical Association, the American Numismatic and Archaeological Society of New York, the New Jersey Historical Society, the Society of the War of 1812, and the Colonial Society of Pennsylvania. He was a director of the School of Design for Women for a few years, and served in the same capacity in the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, where he later became a vice president. He also held directorships in the Athenaeum of Philadelphia and in the Commercial National Bank.

The Baker Medals

We do not know precisely when William Baker began assembling his collections, however there are two clear possibilities. In Hampton L. Carson’s A History of The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1940, it is stated that a September 15, 1877, letter from Henry Whelen, Jr., Baker’s son-in-law, executor and fellow collector, included the following commentary on the collections,

The collections are the result of his [Mr. Baker’s] continuous and persistent effort for the past twenty years and are, in a collector’s sense, priceless.

While this points only to Baker’s Washington collections in general, it opens up the possibility that his first purchases of medals could have been prior to the Civil War. Indeed, we are aware of at least one named catalog of 1860 in which “Baker” is a buyer of Washington medals, although there are other possibilities as to that Baker’s identity including one W.C. Baker, who corresponded with Charles Bushnell in 1855, and John R. Baker, who subscribed to Crosby’s Early Coins of America in 1875, both per Q. David Bowers’ American Numismatics Before the Civil War.

Baker is said to have retired in 1860, at which time he devoted his attentions to his collections and research projects. This would correspond to the commentary in the cited Whelen letter. However, as Baker died on September 8, 1897, and Whelen is referenced in the book as the “executor,” we suspect that the year 1877 assigned to the letter is an error and that it was actually dated 1897, just days after William Baker’s passing. If we are correct, it would suggest that Baker started assembling the collections around 1877.

In either case, contextually it is important to keep in mind that when Baker assembled his collection, in the middle to late 19th century, the earliest Washington portrait medals were no more than a century old, the age, say, of an early Liberty Walking half dollar today. Further, few people sought to collect even the earliest medals until the expansion of American numismatics in the 1850s, just three decades before Baker’s collection was well on its way, and his book was published in 1885. As such, for the vast majority of the specimens, he was likely the first, second or third numismatist to own them. Unfortunately, these medals have long since been dissociated from their original provenance notes, which would form a fabulous historical archive in and of themselves. Nonetheless, we are aware of his direct participation in the June 1882 sale of the Charles Ira Bushnell cabinet and have included those provenance notes where appropriate. We have yet to find any other sale he directly participated in, but this may require little more than a named copy of a major sale of the period we have yet to see. A named sale copy of the Henry Holland (1878), Sylvester Crosby (1883), Heman Ely (1884), Isaac F. Wood (1884 and 1894), R. Coulton Davis (1890) or one of a few other sales could shed useful light on the matter.

The original November 15, 1897 bequest to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania included 1,146 pieces. Today, there are 1,102 specimens present.

It will be noted by the keen observer that many of the classic early Washington coins and medals are conspicuously absent from the Baker Collection. This is the result of a mid-20th century theft from the cabinet. Three important specimens in the collection today are offered here because they were discovered in the marketplace and returned to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania in 1987. Those three coins are the two 1792 silver half dollars by Perkins and Getz, and the 1791 Liverpool Halfpenny.

It is unknown how many pieces might have been removed from the collection in the theft and, as there are no detailed or photographic records of the collection from when it was last believed completely intact, we will not likely ever know what wonderful pieces Mr. Baker might have acquired to represent these issues.

Later Additions

While we know some pieces were lost, we know also that a few things have entered the collection over time from other sources, the most obvious of which post-date Baker’s death and subsequent bequest. A couple of items came to us with notes that indicate they were from a different source, and we have made every attempt to remove Baker’s own name from pieces that could not have been his. This said, the vast majority of the collection presented here was assembled by William Spohn Baker, and stored in Baker’s own cabinet within the Historical Society of Pennsylvania for most of the last century.

Further Context on the Baker Collection

For decades we have sold the most important collections of Washington medals to come on the market. These include those of the Garrett family, David W. Dreyfuss, Gilbert Steinberg, Jack Collins, Lucien LaRiviere, John J. Ford, Jr., the Norweb family, and, most recently, the Charles Wharton Collection in 2014.

All of these collections were important and all included great rarities, some more so than the present offering. Certainly, institutional collections that include vast numbers of specimens of incredible significance still exist. Among these may be counted the William Sumner Appleton Collection in the care of the Massachusetts Historical Society, as well as the holdings of the ANS, Smithsonian, Yale University and Mount Vernon. However, in at least one respect the Baker Collection might be considered the Holy Grail as it is the very source and inspiration behind the systematic categorization that may have inspired or even, to a degree, made possible some of the collections listed above.

Our Order of Sale

In this sale we have elected to order the Washington medals in accordance with the listings found in Neil Musante’s excellent reference, Medallic Washington, published by Spink in 2016. This marks a departure from a very long tradition of using the numbering system created and published by William Spohn Baker in 1885. Baker’s work was among the great numismatic references of its time, an effort to not just list but to categorize all of the known portrait medals of Washington. His work built on efforts of others to a small degree, but what set it apart was the goal of providing not only a listing but a thoughtful arrangement that would aid the 19th-century collector in comprehending the series. Baker had this to say about his own arrangement:

The arrangement of the medals in groups, the designs, legends or inscriptions of the reverses in nearly all cases being the guide for assignment, was found to be the most natural both for convenience of reference and criticism, and while this method seems at first in consequence of the number of divisions, to amplify, it really simplifies the subject.

The book rightfully became the standard reference and, as noted above, it has been for more than a century. It was reprinted by Krause Publications in 1965, with editorial updates by George Fuld. It was revised again in 1985 to include as much as possible produced after 1885, and once again updated in 1999 by Fuld and Russell Rulau, a project that the present writer was honored to assist with.

Where Baker organized the medals largely by theme, Musante has endeavored to order them by chronology, an approach that makes the series more accessible to today’s collector. In doing so, he adds a new element of temporal context to the medals with respect to how Washington was viewed in his life and celebrated in medallic form for nearly a century after his passing. This includes, by default, consideration of the portraiture, the original sources used, artisans who put them to steel, and events that revived the use of his name and portrait over time.

Medallic Washington includes new original research by the author who studied numerous major collections including Baker’s own, and probably hundreds of auction sales in an effort to better understand the material at hand. The reference is well illustrated and includes sizes, compositions, other reference numbers and estimates of rarity with specific notes as to numbers known or reported struck, where available.

Collectors have commented that this book has revitalized personal interest in this series; one client even mentioned that this book “lives on the nightstand.” It is highly recommended and can be purchased through Charles Davis Numismatic Literature.

Additional Notes

“Baker” attributions used in the catalog are those found in the Rulau-Fuld revision of Medallic Portraits of Washington. Considering the context of this offering, some readers will undoubtedly feel that the original Baker assignments would have been a better choice, but we have elected to use the edited and expanded version of the original book because these will align with what buyers and sellers have been accustomed to using for the last three decades. This also takes into account the ever-increasing value of online search platforms, which have largely been populated with the expanded Baker numbers assigned by Rulau and Fuld. There are exceptions where the original Baker assignments are used in the catalog, however, and those are identified here:

—Spiel Marken or Washington Gaming Tokens for which Baker’s original listings are much clearer.

— Most Patriotic Civil War tokens, which were not included in the Rulau-Fuld revision.

—Charles K. Warner store cards, the Rulau-Fuld listings for which are very complex, incomplete and frequently erroneous.

Rarities given for Civil War tokens are generally from Bryon Kanzinger’s work on this series, and though it is now increasingly obsolete, it remains the best source for exhaustive assignments by die pairing and composition. Rarities on So-Called Dollars are from the second edition (2008) of So-Called Dollars, by Harold E. Hibler and Charles V. Kappen.

Photography

The numismatic photographs in this catalog are courtesy of PCGS. Other images of Washington within the catalog were taken from The Character and Portraits of Washington, by Henry T. Tuckerman, published in 1859. Images of William Spohn Baker and of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania are courtesy of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. The cover images are by Karen Bridges, Director of Photography.

Cataloging

This sale was written in its entirety by John M. Pack, who would like to thank the following for valuable assistance. Colleagues: Vicken Yegparian, John Kraljevich, Matt Orsini, Jennifer Meers and Mary Ross.

Friends and associates: Neil Musante, Anne Bentley of the Massachusetts Historical Society, Dr. Elena Stolyarik of the American Numismatic Society, Allen G. Ross and James A. Hayes.

The Historical Society of Pennsylvania

The Historical Society of Pennsylvania (HSP), founded in 1824, is one of the nation’s largest archives of historical documents. We are proud to serve as Philadelphia’s Library of American History, with over 21 million manuscripts, books, and graphic images encompassing centuries of United States history. HSP serves more than 4,000 on-site researchers annually and millions more around the globe who use its online resources. HSP is also a leading center for the documentation and study of ethnic communities and immigrant experiences in the 20th century, and one of the largest family history libraries in the country. Through educator workshops, research opportunities, public programs, and lectures throughout the year, we strive to make history relevant and exhilarating to all. For more information, visit hsp.org.​
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