1974 brought a great numismatic challenge that helped to distract me from the sadness of my uncle's passing. Early in January we received an urgent phone call from Dr. Vladimir Stefanelli, curator of the National Coin Collection at the Smithsonian Institution and he sounded troubled. The conversation started with a plea: "Can you help me out. I have a very serious problem and hope you can think of an answer."
I quickly asked if he and his wife were alright and he answered that they were fine. I then inquired as to whether the coins at the collection were safe, not stolen. To this he answered: "No not stolen, worse!" I immediately thought that there might have been a fire or that the building had fallen down, but he assured me that was not the problem. However, he was adamant that the Smithsonian might lose a major part of the collection if we could not come up with a resolution to the problem.
To my incredulous questions, the good doctor, took a breath and related what happened:
He told of how they had been planning a great exhibit to tell the monetary history of our Republic as part of the nation's Bicentennial celebration in 1976. They had been working on the exhibit since the previous year, as I well knew as I had been helping to acquire some pieces on loan from private collections to enhance the display. He and his wife had spent endless hours on the exhibit. Their plans included showing how coins were made and used from colonial times to the present, exhibiting all the denominations and designs, as well as patterns that were considered and drawings that precluded the final designs. It was to be a very comprehensive display that comprised much of the collection, as well as pieces from outside sources.
However, he told me, the United States Mint in Philadelphia also wanted to stage a grand display for the Bicentennial, and to that end, they had requested that the coins that had been sent from the Mint to the Smithsonian for the National Numismatic Collection be returned. The Mint wanted the coin collection to be in that facility for their Bicentennial celebration. To the Stefanellis and their planned display for the Smithsonian this would be a powerful blow.
At that moment I did not have an answer for them. "Let me give this some thought, and I will talk with Norman in the office," I said. "Maybe we can think of a way to keep the coins at the Smithsonian."
When I arrived at the office the next morning, I sat down with Norman at the "partners' desk" that my father and uncle used to use. Now Norman and I shared that office with the seats set up to face each other. I presented the problem that Val (Dr. Stefanelli) had told me about and asked Norman what ideas he might have. As we discussed this back and forth, an idea came to my mind.
I remembered that when Norman and I went to Baltimore the year before to do some work for Louis E. Eliasberg, he mentioned that he wanted to display and gain some recognition for his complete collection, and then he would consider selling it. The thought came to me: what if Louis Eliasberg was willing to exhibit his collection at the Philadelphia Mint during the Bicentennial. This would offer him the opportunity to gain the national recognition his collection so deserved, as it was the only complete collection ever assembled of United States coins in all metals, gold, silver and copper. Millions would visit the Mint, as Philadelphia was at the epicenter of the Bicentennial celebrations, with many landmarks of our Founding Fathers and the earliest days of our nation's history.
"Wow, what an idea!" Norman exclaimed. He agreed that if we could get Mr. Eliasberg on board and convince those at the Philadelphia Mint that this would be a super, unique display, this would solve the problem for the Smithsonian and create not one, but two fabulous numismatic exhibits for the country's 200th birthday. He suggested I call Mr. Eliasberg and see if he had any interest in the idea.
So, I got my thoughts together and called Lou on the phone. He was out of the office for about an hour, so I left a message with Miss Doris Everding, his personal secretary , who had worked with Eliasberg for over 30 years. I waited for the call, and about an hour later the phone rang and Lou was on the phone.
"How are, my boy (his customary greeting)? I understand you have something special to talk to me about. So go ahead." I reminded him of our conversation about exhibiting and gaining national attention for his collection. I asked whether he would he consider putting it on display at the Mint in Philadelphia during the Bicentennial celebrations. I suggested it would be a great place for his collection to be seen by millions of people visiting Philadelphia for the occasion. I felt that many more people would see it there than would have on a nationwide train exhibit we had discussed the year before. In addition, there would be no expense for moving the collection or insuring or guarding it.
There was a complete silence on the phone for about a minute, which felt like an hour. Then, I heard Eliasberg's loud and clear voice: "What a super idea. I wish I had thought of it." He continued: "I love the idea. Can you get the Treasury Department and the Mint to agree?"
I responded that I thought I could, but wanted to be sure of his enthusiasm first. I told him that I would first propose it to Dr. Stefanelli and the senior officials at the Smithsonian. Together with them, we could submit the idea to the Treasury and Mint, and convince them that the Eliasberg Collection, already prepared for display, would be a much more effective exhibit than just laying out the coins from the National Coin Collection without the guidance of many numismatists. Mr. Eliasberg agreed that we could move forward with the negotiations.
We started that day. First I called Dr. Stefanelli and told him of our idea. He was very excited about the possibilities of the plan. I then said to him: "Now the ball is in your court! You were approached by the Treasury and Mint to return parts of the National Numismatic Collection. Now you can offer them a better idea."
We discussed the selling points for the Mint:
• It was the only complete collection of United States coins ever assembled.
• It had already been displayed in the 1940s and 1950s in banks in Baltimore and always attracted crowds.
• It was already mounted in huge frames whereby interested viewers could see both sides of the coins.
• The coins were all labeled.
• All that would be required was large flat display tables to stand the racks on.
In addition, moving the collection from Baltimore to Philadelphia and providing guard service during the display would be about the only costs for the Mint. Either Mr. Eliasberg (who is not well at the time), or his son Louis, Jr. would pack the collection for shipping, unpack and set it up in the Mint, and then repack it when the display was concluded. All in all, the benefits to the Mint were impressive.
Dr. Stefanelli took the idea to the Chairman of the Museum of American History, where the Numismatic Collection was displayed and stored. He in turn contacted Mint officials who took the idea to the office of the Treasurer. I had to go to Washington to formally explain the idea. I also made a trip to Baltimore with staff to see what was going to be on display and to negotiate some security terms with Mr. Eliasberg. Within two weeks the idea was accepted and the Smithsonian was able to retain the coins it had in Washington and create the Bicentennial exhibit they had planned. For me it was a "once in a lifetime event," and I was pleased with the success of the idea and how well the negotiations had gone, for dealing with government officials was not really my cup of tea!
When I reach the year 1976 in my story, there will be more to tell about what happened later with this deal.