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Building a World Class Numismatic Gold Coin Collection: The Josiah K. Lilly Collection Part 1

By Harvey G. Stack, Founder

Author: Harvey G. Stack / Thursday, May 05, 2016 / Categories: Harvey G. Stack Remembers

In my early years of working full time at Stack's in New York, I had the privilege of meeting and serving many of the great collectors who lived near the city, as well as many who came to visit or work in New York. The Big Apple was and still is a major attraction for collectors who lived, worked or visited the metropolitan area and Stack’s was a great place to meet with friends and collectors as they assembled their numismatic collections.

Many of the auctions held by Stack's and the other auction houses in New York, attracted collectors from the City's five boroughs, and from surrounding areas such as Long Island, Westchester, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut. In addition, people would travel long distances to New York for important sales. The greater New York area was a hub of many of the collectors whose names today are legendary. The city was a center of art and culture and was home to the American Numismatic Society and its major numismatic museum, and a dozen or more coin clubs were centered in or about New York.

The Stack's shop, as I related in earlier writings, became a "club house" for numismatists and attracted those who visited the city. For a young person just learning the ropes, it created an incredible opportunity. My experience being acquainted with and learning from these great numismatists was extensive and I was the beneficiary of information from some of the greatest specialists in the United States.

In the spring of 1951, a well-dressed, debonair gentleman came into our shop. He wanted to know if we had any doubloons, from Central and South America to show him. Stack's always maintained a vast and diverse inventory and we took out a few Spanish Colonial gold coins to show him. He introduced himself as Josiah K. Lilly, the chairman of his family's pharmaceutical business, Eli Lilly and Company, headquartered in Indianapolis. He explained he had a passion to learn more about the coins that gained their fame during Spanish Colonial days. The coin that was most talked about was the '”doubloon,” or 8 Escudos.

My father, Morton Stack, and my uncle, Joseph B. Stack, were working at the counter that day and began showing J.K. Lilly gold doubloons that we had in stock. These included the somewhat crude early issues, known as cobs due to their somewhat irregular shape. He also examined the various portraits of Spanish kings that appeared on the later issues. Morton and Joseph advised Mr. Lilly that these coins were made and struck in various South American countries, identified by the mintmark on them, and also the assayer’s initials, which gave assurance that the fineness of the gold and weight were verified and therefore official. It was discussed how these were used in trade and also to pay the troops who occupied and ran the countries occupied by the Spanish.

However, at least 20% of all the gold mined was sent back to Spain as compensation to the King who helped finance the expeditions. That portion of the gold was called "The Royal Fifth," and these shipments were a great temptation to pirates of the day. Many treasure ships were captured, looted and sunk during this period of Spanish domination of the Western Hemisphere.

These were the coins that Josiah K. Lilly desired. They proved to him that gold coins were actually minted and then plundered by the pirates — here was the evidence.

From Stack's stock at the time, we gathered for him 12 different pieces, some from different mints of Central and South America, a cob or two, and for the balance, pieces with the portraits of the various kings of Spain. J.K. Lilly was amazed with what we were able to show him, and he decided to purchase all 12 to start his collection. My father and uncle introduced me to him. I was the only junior Stack in Stack's at the time, as my cousin Benjamin had left to try his luck in Las Vegas, and Norman, his brother, was in military service. Later on, since J.K. Lilly liked personal deliveries to Indianapolis, I became the appointed messenger to him, whenever either senior Stack could not make the trip.

In my next article I will discuss more about Mr. Lilly’s first visit to Stack’s in New York City. The future would bear out what an important visit it was.