The Numismatic Bibliomania Society



The E-Sylum: Volume 18, Number 46, November 15, 2015, Article 10


The CoinWeek article by Charles Morgan and Hubert Walker on the legacy of numismatic giant Walter Breen prompted some readers to respond. Here are their thoughts and observations, starting with Jeff Rock. -Editor

Confonting Breen

The Breen article was difficult to read, but something that was worth writing. I am certainly conflicted, as I knew Walter from a very young age, and considered him a good friend and a mentor. Indeed, he was one of the first people to take a kid interested in colonials seriously, and he willingly shared his time and knowledge.

Numismatics, especially the general American flavor, wouldn't be anything remotely like what it is today without two modern giants who did more to popularize it and make it the King of Hobbies instead of the Hobby of Kings -- those two were Walter Breen and Q. David Bowers (one could go back 30 years before these two and add B. Max Mehl, of course).

A lot of people made a lot of money off of Walter Breen which can certainly explain why he was welcomed in the hobby and why the whispers never affected his position within numismatics. Perhaps the hobby was blind, perhaps it simply did not want to believe, perhaps it was just something too embarrassing to discuss, so it was the elephant in the room that no one wanted to discuss.

There's also the problem of gender imbalance in the hobby, which is nothing new -- but note that it was always the mother of a YN or a woman member of the club who jumped up to warn other mothers. With so few women active in numismatics, then and now, that may have meant far fewer people serving as warning beacons.

Walter was a complex man, and it wasn't simply a matter of separating his coin life from his personal life (though really most of us do have that separation). With Walter it was separating his coin life from his lives in science fiction, higher mathematics, baroque music, astrology, humor, gay studies, women's rights and another dozen or so areas that he was an expert in AND published in (though often under different pen names)...and each of those lives had separations between the public Walter in them and the private Walter that far fewer people actually knew.

One can never justify (or even understand) taking advantage of a child, and that will continue to be linked to Walter's name and memory for however long he is remembered. But I'm not certain that a weakness or sickness in his own life negates what he did for numismatics as a whole. History is full of people who had major character flaws and problems but went on to do great things (and possibly they did those great things BECAUSE of their flaws).

Many of Walter's theories and logical jumps from A to E without ever stopping at B, C or D have already been disproven, and many of the things he accepted as fact have proven to be not as stable as once thought, but other things that he wrote have held up remarkably well; one doesn't discard those good works because the author did bad things.

Numismatics, I suspect, will continue to grapple with the legacy that Walter left long after those of us who actually knew him are gone; maybe at that remove in time someone will be able to give a more balanced assessment of the man and his work.

Bill Eckberg submitted these thoughts. -Editor

I fail to see what useful purpose is served by Morgan, Walker and CoinWeek in publishing a cheap shot at a man who has been dead for over 20 years. Dressed up with footnotes and all, but a cheap shot nonetheless. If they’re trying to taint his reputation, I don’t think it is possible to besmirch it any farther than his conviction and imprisonment did.

Are they trying to encourage numismatists of today not to let their colleagues prey on the children of today? If so, it’s a great idea, but that doesn’t come through in the post.

Are they trying to make guilty by association those who didn’t turn him in back in the day? I wasn’t there, but it is my understanding from several of the old-timers that they DID keep him away from children. Or, rather, keep the children away from him. On the other hand, if he was first found guilty of pederasty in 1954, it is the government that failed later children. That kind of failure is why we now have a registry of sex offenders. Had it existed back in the day, he would certainly have been on it.

Are they trying to say that his “sins” (to quote John Wright) permanently taint his numismatic research? Yes, they do say that, but it’s absurd. The two are completely separable. Breen’s numismatic reputation is certainly imperfect but has no need for rehabilitation. We’re gradually figuring out where he was right from where he was wrong. That’s how research works. But it has nothing to do with what he did outside of numismatics.

Here are Paul Bosco's thoughts on Breen. -Editor

Breen is probably the best numismatist, respecting American numismatics, who ever lived. That he, as a generalist, has been occasionally superseded by subsequent specialists changes nothing. We are all lucky that this genius --really, a genius-- became involved with coins (etc.)

I am certain he was guilty of sexual misconduct involving overtures (at a minimum) with boys. I didn't know about this until he went to jail. Walter, for a time, lived a block away from me, on Manhattan's Lower East Side. I would see him and sit with him on the Long Island Railroad, as I was going to NASCA and he to FirstCoinvestors. I had him over to dinner. I was 30ish and he did not make any "overtures", so I will flatter myself that I was too old for him, despite my raging good looks.

I once saw Walter sitting on the sidewalk, 2nd Ave, just below St.Mark's Place. A record shop with LPs outdoors, $1 each. He had picked out an album by David Cassidy, the teen heart-throb from the Partridge Family. "I have a niece who just loves him." Walter's usual musical taste skewed toward Baroque & such. Nice album cover.

I talked with others about Walter. Everyone loved to talk about Walter; no exaggeration, you could have held competitions for the Best Walter Breen Story.

Doug Ball challenged him in NASCA paper money descriptions (ca.1980), their little feud being over the significance of US Generals' portraits being on Federal paper. (Breen alluded to US militarism. Douglas was an Army captain.) Douglas also told me that Walter once worked on a paper money collection while eating donuts, and pieces could still (in 1978) be pedigreed to that collection by their traces of confectionary sugar. These guys LIKED Walter, and were charmed by his oddness.

John Ford hired Walter. I think Breen also did some work for Stack's --I'm not sure. They, and doubtless many others, knew he was gay: he is an early, acclaimed historian/researcher/writer of the traditions of male homosexuality. I really don't think people knew about the underage boy thing. That would not be charming oddness.

All this said, Walter was a repeat offender. However, I never heard any numismatist say he or she knew of a conviction prior to his incarceration. I know some leading dealers who, as teens, received attention and guidance from Walter --they called him "Walter"-- and while one stated he was propositioned, I have never heard that Walter ever actually succeeded with any young numismatist. (It seems he had better "luck" at California Sci-Fi conventions, where his wife was a goddess and where parents may have been too "hip" to be wary.)

Did the forward-thinking members of the coin community simply not think of someone's homosexuality as their business, or even as a perversion? Or did we collectively turn a blind eye toward the actions of a predator? I'm going with the former. In any event, it's hard to just scrap the feelings for someone you always liked and who served you well. Also, it would have been hard to see the flaw in someone's character, when what you were looking for, and getting, was genius.

And by-the-by, Science Fiction afficianados have a similar quandary. Do they stop reading the late Marion Zimmer Bradley, a popular, prolific, seminal Sci-Fi author, and Breen's widow? She has been thoroughly implicated as an accomplice in some of the abuse. Here is an article, from the Science Fiction and Fantasy community, that mimics, almost point by point, the discussion now being urged on us: SFF community reeling after Marion Zimmer Bradley's daughter accuses her of abuse (

And here is the one commenter (from 76 comments to this Guardian article) who summarizes the over-arching point of the CoinWeek article:

It's not really [a Science Fiction] thing. It's about groups closing their ranks to outsiders and believing that more damage would come from the revelation than dealing with it in the proper way, as well as the incredulity. It has also happened recently in the priesthood and in celebrity.

Lastly, here are Dick Johnson's thoughts. Thanks!

The article on Walter Breen in CoinWeek excerpted in last week's E-Sylum was well researched and exceptionally well written. Its two authors are to be congratulated for their effort. They covered the unsavory side of Breen. But his full life -- and his great contributions to numismatics -- needs to be documented as well.

In addition to his massive amount of published works Walter Breen created the one most powerful numismatic book in the America, his Encyclopedia of Unites States and Colonial Coins. In the Numismatic Bibliomania Society's list of the 100 greatest books in the field Breen's Encyclopedia ranked number one. And justifiably so.

By every measure this book revealed more about every American coins up to the time of publication. The facts about each coin were recorded as no other single author could have accomplished. The appendices were just as useful. There are errors, of course; the most egregious are early mintage figures in which Breen guessed when he could not find the actual number.

He was a brilliant numismatist, but in his personal life he was a child molester, which the article describes in detail. What they omitted was his early life and what brought him to do what he did. That requires a full coverage perhaps in a book of its own.

I knew Walter in the early 1950s, perhaps better than anyone else at that time. I was in the military service for four years stationed in Washington, DC. I met Walter at a coin convention in 1952. I was drawn to him -- as others were -- by his numismatic knowledge. We had many long conversations.

Later Walter came to Washington for a three month research at the National Archives, which he had done before. I met him at the train station and drove him around until he found a room to stay. It was an old building next to the Peruvian Embassy . It was a basement room accessible only by an elevator, an old, open cage type which Walter hated.

I accompanied Walter on one of his trips to the National Archives. On the third floor we met Mrs. Holtkemper, in charge. She had indexed all the early U.S. Mint's documents stored there and wrote the Finding Guide. She knew Walter well from his earlier visits.

Walter had done research for his own writing but also he did paid research for Richard Yeo (ne Yeoman) -- he ghost wrote Dick Yeoman's article "The 1848 Quarter Eagle With CAL." He also did research for Stuart Mosher, editor of The Numismatist at the time. He had written such insightful letters to each of these gentlemen that they recognized his research talents.

During this time I took a 10-day leave for the two of us to travel on a buying trip in the South. Ben Douglas, the Washington DC coin dealer had commissioned us to buy as much Confederate money as we could find. We stopped at coin shops, antique stores and wherever we though would have Confederate money. We reached Miami and spent a day with dealer Foxy Steinberg.

I relate this only to prove my knowledge of Walter. Obviously, we had discussions about intelligence. While one can't accurately measure high IQ, Walter estimated his IQ was 212, the boiling point of water. He was a member of MENSA, the organization of people with great intelligence.

He also related his early life. He was abandoned by his parents as an infant. He was placed in the care of a foster mother who became hateful as Walter reached his teen years. Later he related his story in the book, The Adopted Break Silence. As soon as he reached the minimum age he joined the Air Force to escape his tyrannical stepmother.

Basic training at Lackland Air Force Base proved disastrous for Walter. He could not endure the regimen and rigid orders of the military. He broke down with a mental collapse, close to amnesia. He was treated in military hospitals, discharged from the Air Force, then treated in veterans' hospitals.

It was in veterans' hospitals he read a lot, even taking correspondence courses. All to regain his memory. He was bright before, but he believed he obtained his advanced intellect at this time. He even developed an ability to retain what he read, what others called a "photographic memory."

Some of his effects before his amnesia were given to him. He discovered he had been interested in coin collecting and classical music. That was his impetus to study numismatics. Had he chosen music he could have been an outstanding musician.

But why did he turn out the way he did? As a foundling without any parents, he did not receive the guidance and standards parents would have instilled as a child. He was on his own after discharge from veterans' hospitals. In New York City he continued reading. He would check out the maximum number of books allowed at the New York Public Library, read them in a day and return for a similar number of new books.

It was here he read ancient history, he learned of Greek and Roman customs where a privileged class of men had relationships with young boys. This man-boy activity, while permitted in ancient times, is illegal at present. This exposure to a restricted activity appealed to Walter, where what he read proved to be dangerous to carry out in present times.

I drifted away from Walter after I left Washington and entered college, although we co-compiled a numismatic directory in 1956. We only met at coin conventions thereafter.

Should we honor Walter Breen? I asked this question to two prominent numismatists years ago, John Pittman and Eric Newman. The decision was split, one said yes the other no. That's much like everyone feels, Some in favor, others strongly against.

But we should have a book detailing the accomplishments of this brilliant individual now that we know his faults.

Morgan and Walker were pretty precise in their word choices. They asked, "Let’s have that conversation about Walter Breen, the one that’s long overdue." I can agree with some that it's taking a cheap shot at the dead, yet I welcome the dialogue. It's been years since I thought of Breen. They also seem to accept that Breen's research shouldn't be tossed aside on anything but pure numismatic merit, and I (and our respondents above) seem to agree.

I think the conversation has been helpful, but I should note that some responses and parts of responses have ended up on the cutting room floor. Some details were interesting, but not relevant to the main conversation, and others just aren't appropriate for a public forum which includes underage readers. Others brought up the names of others in numismatics who have been accused or convicted of related crimes. Maybe I'll be accused myself of turning a blind eye, but I chose to keep the focus on Breen, a man I knew. This whole topic is a stretch from our core focus on numismatics, but it's an important one that everyone needs to be aware of. Thanks, everyone. -Editor

To read the earlier E-Sylum article, see:

To read the complete CoinWeek rticle, see:
Confronting Breen (

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Wayne Homren, Editor

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