Charles Morgan and Hubert Walker of CoinWeek published an article on November 3, 2015 about the mixed and disturbing legacy of one
of the best known researchers in American numismatics, Walter Breen. Here's an excerpt, but be sure to read the complete version
Twenty-two years ago, noted numismatist Walter H. Breen died at Chino’s California Institute for Men, part of the California Department
of Corrections and Rehabilitation. A convicted serial child molester, it’s hard to imagine that Breen’s stay at the facility was ever meant
to rehabilitate the man. Instead, that duty seems to have fallen to a very few of his friends and associates in the world of numismatics, a
community that benefited tremendously from Breen’s work for over 30 years.
As numismatists, it’s difficult to be “objective” when writing about Breen. We benefit too much from what he did for the hobby, and most
of us were not directly affected by the things Breen was accused of doing – and admitted doing – in his private life.
Plus, it evokes in many of us an impulse not to talk about him. Better to leave well enough alone lest it taints the hobby, one might
argue. To this day, numismatists–ourselves included–continue to cite Breen’s work in auction catalogs, books, and articles; his sins
sequestered from his expertise.
But does this reticence nurture, or possibly inflict, the very harm that some in the hobby worry about?
To an extent, we understand the impulse to keep quiet. Consider this: as a hobby and an industry, we’re actually quite fortunate that
the Breen scandal erupted when it did. Had Breen’s crimes come to light in the Internet Age, the hobby as a whole could have been
implicated. And not because of some kind of guilt by association (though in some eyes that’s bad enough, and it’s an understandable fear).
No, the problem lays in the deference the hobby showed to him, treating Breen like a guru or a numismatic “institution” that was “too big
to fail”. The industry could have experienced something like what happened to Pennsylvania State University, when public opinion accused
the University and its fans of prioritizing football over the safety and lives of underprivileged children. That scandal didn’t just bring
down a child molester, it ended the career–if not the life–of a Hall of Fame football coach and tarnished the reputation of one of the
nation’s most prominent public universities.
That didn’t happen to coin collecting. Yet the fact remains that by continuing to so closely associate Breen with numismatics, we open
ourselves up to the same criticism and contempt.
Silence about his crimes merely reinforces those ties.
We doubt that Jerry Sandusky and his achievements on the gridiron will be reevaluated on the basis of his football IQ, but for Breen,
there remains the possibility that his reputation as a preeminent numismatist may be rehabilitated. We don’t say this to be alarmist; we
say this because we know people who want to make it so.
But in some ways, it’s curious that Breen still lingers in our hobby. It’s been more than two decades since his last meaningful work was
published. Much of what he knew and wrote has been superseded by more recent scholarship, and a number of his claims and theories have been
Walter Breen himself has no say in the matter. He has no heirs in the coin business. His children, who have accused him of crimes
against them, have not lobbied on his behalf. The fact that some of us still do shows that it is we who continue to be drawn to him.
So let’s do what so many of us are loathe to do.
Let’s have that conversation about Walter Breen, the one that’s long overdue. The one we’re so afraid to have because of what we’re
afraid it might say about us. The one that by not having it has said more about us than we’d like to admit.
Be sure to read the complete article online - the above is only the preface. It's very well written and deserving of award
consideration next year.
For better or worse I knew Walter Breen in my younger days, corresponded with him on numismatic topics, and met him at various coin
conventions and had him autograph his books for me. I even accepted a ride in his car (as an adult). Like most I was initially clueless
about his non-numismatic reputation, although his other interests gradually became clear. Rumors of his proclivities found their way to
me, and as a bibliophile I even once acquired copies of some of his non-numismatic works, including Greek Love
. I never read them
or got them signed.
In the days before the Internet made criminal records, trial transcripts and sexual predator lists widely available, separating facts
from mere rumors was harder. But where there's smoke there's often fire, and the CoinWeek
writers rightfully question
"why Breen continued to thrive as a professional numismatist while at the same time carrying such baggage."
Early in my career I worked at a firm where a married manager was having an affair with a woman on the team he managed. When I had the
opportunity I came out and asked his boss about it. The affair was an open secret and the boss acknowledged it. "So why is he still
here, I asked?" I was basically told that his work for the company was deemed more important than the transgression. And so it was
in numismatics, apparently.
Still, as the writers note,
... there’s no evidence that any one person, group of people or company shielded Breen from the consequences of his actions. Instead
we have anecdotes regarding what many considered Breen’s peculiar behavior, told in earnest but nearly all uncorroborated by
I had seen no evidence either, only heard the whispers. And those whispers weren't enough to lead me to shun Breen or call for his
banishment. Like several in the hobby I could attest to the utility of his numismatic work based on facts and first-hand experience, and
thought that deserved acknowledgement on its own merit.
I'm honestly not sure what I would have done had I known then all that I know now, including the sci-fi episodes, emails from
Breen's daughter Moira, and comments such as David Quint's on the CoinWeek
article. As noted earlier in The E-Sylum
there were indeed high-profile numismatists such as John Pittman who openly disliked Breen.
In the numismatic world one of my clubs once learned that a regular member had been escorted off the ANA bourse floor for stealing coins.
To his credit, he came to our next meeting in person to tell his story. He admitted the act and asked for our forgiveness. We discussed
it, but of course could not allow an admitted thief to remain in our presence. We voted him out and never saw him again.
Also in my younger days I was called to serve on jury duty. As it turned out, it was a case of a man charged with the same offenses as
Breen. But I didn't have to contend with whispers. My fellow jurors and I heard testimony directly from those involved, and we
discussed all aspects of it. I gained faith in the jury trial system, because the disparate backgrounds of the people involved ensured
that we looked at the evidence from all angles. Sentencing a man to prison isn't a decision to be taken lightly. But after hearing
the evidence my vote was Guilty. It was unanimous, on the first round. But we would also have thrown the mother in jail if we could, for
leaving the poor kid in the guy's care.
Hiring, firing, shunning, and banishing are not decisions to be taken lightly or made on the basis of rumors. We shouldn't be
vigilantes, but we must remain vigilant. God Bless the woman dealer, who upon hearing a young numismatist's mother planning to
introduce her son to Breen at a coin show, got in her face and said "Don't you ever leave him
alone with THAT MAN!"
To read the complete article, see:
Confronting Breen (www.coinweek.com/education/confronting-breen/)
To read the earlier E-Sylum article, see:
TALE OF THE TAPE: PITTMAN, BREEN AND THE TAXAY BOOK BLURB
Wayne Homren, Editor
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