Last week Dick Johnson asked for more information about the numismatic firm NASCA. I knew the answer to the source of the name "NASCA" and some of our readers knew as well. It's the "Numismatic and Antiquarian Service Corporation of America ". Thanks to Joe Boling, Paul Bosco and Neil Shafer who had the right answer. Thanks.
Neil Shafer writes:
Douglas Ball's father was George Ball, a government official under JFK, Johnson etc. until the 1980s. At first I found Douglas difficult to approach but as time went by we became good friends. I was happy for that because his vast knowledge of Confederate and obsolete notes had always impressed me. I also knew Herb Melnick but did not get to spend a lot of time with him, so I do not know what his numismatic specialty was, if any. They did produce very useful catalogs under the NASCA name; those initials stand for Numismatic and Antiquarian Service Corporation of America. Doug's own collection of Confederate currency was offered through a NASCA catalog.
Paul Bosco submitted the following detailed recollections about the firm and its principals. Thanks!
Dick Johnson, discussing VDB collector Irwin Stoff, asks: "What do you remember of NASCA? etc. I worked for the company as a consultant for 12 years, 1975-87. I forget very little in this world, except for useless stuff like names & faces. I always thought NASCA was far, far more interesting than a "mid-tier" auction house would normally be. So here goes.
NASCA, founded ca. 1975, stood for Numismatic and Antiquarian Service Corporation of America. I suppose that phrase, seldom spoken aloud, appears on the first page of some or most NASCA auction catalogs.
Herb Melnick was the director of First Coinvestors' auction division, Pine Tree Auctions. As such, he was Walter Breen‘s boss. Walter told me he didn't care for Melnick at all. On the other hand, Herb told me he couldn't let the secretaries open Walter's mail, some of which pertained to Walter's…..other interest. Herb had a classic Type A personality. He had a heart attack, then a second, and a final attack 11 months after the first. He was 39.
Doug Ball was a collector of Confederate paper money and bonds. He had a Ph.D from the London School of Economics, which is best known as the school Mick Jagger dropped out of. However, he also earned a MBA from Columbia and worked in banking. Melnick knew a lot about business but Ball could buy and sell paper money and bonds. For coins, NASCA was dependent on consignors. The "Antiquarian" thrust of the business never materialized.
Doug's father George was NASCA's chairman, and also Lehmann Brothers' chairman. Also Under-Secretary of State. The father and son were very close, with George no doubt taking advantage of Douglas's mind. Doug was probably just your average genius, except for one thing:
He possessed instant recall of at least half of all facts in the History of the Universe.
Most remarkable was Doug's knowledge of the sex partners of every royal personage, from the Middle Ages to the Early Cold War, but, without the most recent updates, I doubt this knowledge materially advanced his father's interests in LBJ's State Department.
Herb and Doug were brought together by that well-known yenta, John Ford. The company was located in Rockville Centre, Long Island, home to Ford, Ford's collections and Ford's famous bomb shelter.
Much of NASCA's offerings were duplicates that came from that bomb shelter. Another key consignor was Werner Amelingmeier, with whom Ford had placed Wayte Raymond's foreign inventory, selling it for Raymond's widow Olga. (Price $40K. Realization: about 30 times as much, after a wait of about 25 years.)
Melnick was able to get decent U.S. coin consignments. In paper money, they had weak competition, except for US Federal. They conducted the Memphis paper money show official auction, alternating years with Lynn Knight.
After Herb's heart attack (1982), his behavior changed. He sold a counterfeit detector on commission for Ford's son-in-law. There was some "controversy" over whether or not the sale price was honestly reported. The Balls, in a coup whose efficacy the CIA would envy, fired Melnick over the weekend, changing the locks. Herb founded a new company, backed by Walter Perschke (somewhat famous for having bought a Brasher Doubloon) and located in the same building. As already related, Melnick soon died, and his company persisted only briefly.
Doug later told me that after Heart Attack #1, Herb was advised that without a heart transplant –or was it a multiple by-pass?-- they only gave him a year to live. They also told him his odds of surviving were ONE IN THREE. He had a wife, Betty, and two sons, then about 11 & 13. He took his chances, but the doctors were "spot on". I think Herb was very bitter, knowing everyone he saw would be there when he was gone. He was a mentor to me and I liked him a lot, as did many.
In addition to running a company, Herb pulled off some first class "product placement" for NASCA. He was the auctioneer of choice for most other company's auctions, even calling some of the first Garrett sale after George Bennett nearly passed out from exhaustion. Herb had a wit that could lop a head off, and he could dish it in a nanosecond. He worked the room, keeping everyone involved, usually while laughing, and calling 200 lots an hour. In one auction, I won six lots in a row. I only raised my hand three times. He knocked them down to me faster than I could bid, and he was right to do so. He knew the bidders as customers, moreso than almost anyone else who ever stood behind the lectern.
Not long after, Doug, soldiering on without a partner, sold the business to Jules Karp. Jules "neglected" to make any payments, so after a year Doug repossessed NASCA, taking with him Jules' prize employee, Steve Goldsmith. Soon, Doug had another buyer, John Herzog, owner of R. M. Smythe, a small Wall Street company that researched old stock certificates to see if they were negotiable, and which developed a collectors market for the obsolete items . Doug cataloged for them for almost 20 years, turning down a partnership (to John's surprise). After a time, the NASCA name passed into disuse, but the company survived as Smythe.
Doug died of cancer in 2003, at only 64. He was a fairly amazing person and one of my favorites. His impact on the paper money field was huge.
John Herzog sold R.M. Smythe to Spink in 2008, so NASCA survives as a strain of Spink/Smythe. They are still a major player in the fields of Paper Money, other Fiscal Paper, and Autographs. They are known to auction coins. Steve Goldsmith has recently rejoined the company, which I suspect will keep it running.(Spink has flubbed two previous entries into the USA.) Herzog devotes great energy and time to the Museum of American Finance, which he founded.
NASCA was one of the most interesting US numismatic auction houses. Anchored in the Paper Money field, it changed –maybe revolutionized—the world of the "ragpicker". In 1980 they conducted the first $1 Million paper money auction (The Brookdale Collection). They had landmark sales of World Paper (George Thomas and Stanley Gibbons auctions). After the Garrett medals were auctioned, cataloger Carl Carlson wrote the Kessler-Spangenberger catalog, and Exonumia was never the same. For that matter, the high standard of catalog descriptions and research, now commonplace in the industry, is very much the afterbirth of the jousting in print between Q. David B. and Carl Carlson. (Doug Ball and Bosco were also known to expound a bit, when the material moved us.)
But what is NASCA's most indelible contribution? It is a business gem that Melnick came up with: THE BUYER'S FEE. Originally 5%, it was something of a curiosity. Many bidders just ignored it and effectively increased their bids by 5%. Very shortly, other firms instituted a 10% buyers' premium, which was too big to ignore, missing Melnick's point.
To read the earlier E-Sylum article, see:
IRWIN STOFF'S BRENNER COLLECTION
Wayne Homren, Editor
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