The Numismatic Bibliomania Society



The E-Sylum: Volume 22, Number 4, January 27, 2019, Article 21


Bruce W. Smith submitted this article about R. B. White and his collection of Chinese copper coins. Thanks! A much longer version was recently published in the Journal of East Asian Numismatics (JEAN). -Editor

During the 1970's and 1980's the most active collector of Chinese copper coins in the United States was R. B. White. He and his wife traveled all over America and the world looking for coins to add to his collection. Over the years he bought the Chinese copper coin collections of Edgar Mandel (who published a study of Kirin copper coins); Irving Goodman (noted for his collection of Chinese gold and silver coins); Jim Center (a San Diego collector); and Clifford Hewitt (an American mint technician who set up the Manila Mint in 1920 and the Shanghai Mint in the 1930's). In 1972 White and his wife spent five and a half weeks looking for coins in Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan. During November 1974 he spent two weeks in Europe where he bought a collection of cash coins weighing 138 pounds -- about 7700 coins, of which 3,000 were Korean. Following this, White became a major collector of Korean cash coins.

In 1990 White narrowed his collecting focus to machine struck Chinese copper coins. His collection of Chinese and Annamese cash coins was consigned to Taisei and sold in their February 1991 sale. The same sale contained several large lots of Korean cash, arranged by mint, totaling about 2,500 pieces. Though not marked as such, this was probably the sad end of White's Korean collection. His reference books, except for those on struck copper coins, were consigned to numismatic book dealer, George Kolbe, and sold in 1990. The fate of his collection of Chinese struck copper coins, reputed to be the best in the world, was unknown for nearly 20 years. Early in 2018 Stacks-Bowers announced they would be selling the Q. David Bowers / R. B. White Collection of Chinese Copper Coins.

Roby Byron White was born on 13 April 1919 and died 30 January 2006. He was a mechanical engineer by profession. From the early 1970's he lived in Sheldonville, Massachusetts, till 1994 when he moved to Strafford, New Hampshire. In addition to coins, he also collected old cars and model cars. His first contribution to numismatic literature was a 1972 article published in the India Asiatic Numismatic Society newsletter, reporting a newly discovered Sinkiang 3 Mace dragon coin dated AH 1307 (1890), similar to Kann 1040 (L & M 810). In 1975 he published a listing of six die varieties of the large size Fengtien 10 cash copper coin with center hole (Y81; CCC 319; Duan 2169-2175) in the journal T'ung Pao. In 1982 he contributed to East Asia Journal a list of revisions for Edgar Mandel's catalog of Korean cash coins, and a list of the rarest of Korean cash. White also authored an important article in The Numismatist March 1974 about a proof example of the American 20 cent coin of 1875 made at the San Francisco Mint. Only three examples of this coin were known to exist at that time.

White's first book and surely the most useful for cash coin collectors came out in 1976 under the title: "A Comprehensive Finding List of Chinese Cash -- From T'ang to the Republic 618 - 1912." The most important and the rarest work produced by R. Byron White was certainly: "The Vatican Collection of Chinese Coins (Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana Medagliere)" which was published in 1976 as an 811 page, three volume boxed set. The first volume consists of the text and index (in Italian or Latin); the second volume contains plates of Chinese coins; while the third volume has plates of amulets and coins from nearby countries.

White obtained during his 1974 trip to Italy, a set of 8x11 inch photographs, originally made in the 1950's, depicting the text and the coins. These he offered to reproduce and bind and sell for $100 a set -- but only by subscription and only if he received at least 10 subscriptions. This would be the only published record of the Vatican's collection -- which consisted mostly of cast coinage but also contained some silver coins and struck copper coins. Where this collection came from and who laid it out and wrote the descriptions is unknown. And sadly only twelve copies of this catalog were printed -- two for the Library of Congress to secure the copyright, nine for subscribers, and one copy for White himself. White consigned his copy to the Kolbe sale, but it did not reach the minimum bid in 1990, and was put aside for sale at later time. One set of this work did sell in auction in 2017 for US$ 1600.

As early as 1971, R. B. White had already begun work on his own catalog of Chinese struck copper coins. He had approached Robert Saiber, a Plainfield, NJ coin dealer who specialized in Asian coins, for financial assistance on the book, but Bob was unable to help him. White then turned to Ward D. Smith, who had recently published books on world paper money, on Philippine coins and tokens, and Smith's own masterwork "Chinese Banknotes".

White wanted Smith to help in organizing, proof reading, and supplying Chinese characters to be used in the text. In those days, text was typed on a manual typewriter and Chinese characters were written in my hand where needed. Work on the book progressed slowly through 1976 and 1977, then Smith seems to have lost interest in the project. Ward Smith died in 1984. It was then that the writer obtained Smith's archive of papers, including an early draft of White's book. At that time it was written, partly by typewriter and partly by hand, on paper of various sizes and color. However letters received from White in the early and mid 1990's indicate he had nearly finished converting the text of the book to digital form on a computer. A 1995 letter to the writer says that White had filled 40 binders with photographs intended to go into the book.

Interestingly in June 1976, White had hired Canadian James Haxby, well known collector and writer on Canadian coins and tokens and North American paper money, to photograph his collection of Chinese copper coins. A set of prints was purchased by Krause Publications for use in its "Standard Catalog of World Coins," but after they arrived at the Krause office, a secretary cut the strips of prints apart and dumped them into a large box -- more than 1,700 photos. I don't know whether Krause ever used any of those photos due to the time and trouble required to re-assemble them correctly.

Many years later in 2009 the writer contacted the photographer and was able to purchase the original negatives of White's coins along with the rights to them. I estimate there are closer to 2,000 negatives. White's plan was to photograph obverse dies and reverse dies, then assemble them in the known combinations, producing perhaps 4,000 coins. It is unknown at this time whether Q. David Bowers obtained the White manuscript or the 40 albums of photos of the collection.

In August 1997, Michael Chou of Champion Auctions Hong Kong asked me to accompany him as an advisor for the purpose of visiting R. B. White at his New Hampshire home, to negotiate the purchase of White's Chinese copper coin collection. We looked over the collection for 15 hours and noticed a few things right away. First, some of the coins had been in a flood recently and were turning green, being now damaged, the grade written on the cardboard holder had little meaning. Second, many coins were clearly overgraded, which we felt was probably due to the seller's poor eyesight rather than an attempt to over value the coins.

Byron had prepared two copies of a printed inventory of the collection, giving one to Michael and one to the writer. During the examination, I wrote many notes in the margin of my copy of the inventory. When we had finished looking at the coins, Michael made a very strong six figure offer for the collection. At that time, Chinese copper coins were not bringing the wild prices Chinese silver coins could bring. The negotiation was short, a price was agreed on, then Michael and I returned to our motel to arrange payment. But first, White made us hand back the inventories he gave us. Byron wanted to be paid in gold, so Michael was on the phone arranging to have the gold delivered to this remote place in New Hampshire.

When all the arrangements were in place and we were preparing to leave, during some casual chatting, Mike mentioned that the timing was great because he would have time to display the coins in Hong Kong. At that point, White exploded. There was no way, he yelled, that he would allow his coins to be sold to communists or to anyone in mainland China. And since Hong Kong had just reverted to Chinese control that year, he must have felt just as much hostility toward Hong Kong as towards communist China.

Interesting. Loose lips sink ships - the sale did not proceed. -Editor

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Wayne Homren, Editor

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