Douglas Ward submitted this article about "The Great Trade" orchestrated with the Chase Manhattan Bank Museum by Lester Merkin and Don Taxay. Thanks!
Enigmatic Numismystique: Don Taxay's The Great Trade
Pete Smith's biography of Donald Paul Taxay reminded me of an enigmatic
connection and added some interesting knowledge. In his article he relates that Don Taxay
was somewhat nomadic in his life and numismatic endeavors. But among his numerous
acquaintances was a fellow musician and numismatist, Lester Merkin of New York City.
They were likely introduced by John J. Ford or Walter Breen, with whom Taxay had worked
at the New Netherlands Coin Company in the early 1960s. Ford and Taxay would author a
number of articles on counterfeit coins for The Numismatist and Coin World. And in 1963
he would form an authentication company with Breen. Don Taxay and Lester Merkin likely
became good friends with similar
backgrounds and interests. Both had begun
their careers as dealers at about the same
time in the late 1950s.
However, Lester Merkin had started
out as a collector of some renown for having
re-discovered the 1922 high relief matte proof
Peace dollar. Later called the
he had obtained it as a pattern from a west
coast dealer in 1954. Merkin took his new
Discovery Coin to a meeting of the New York
Numismatic Club (NYNC) in November of
1955. It was his first reported exhibit in front
of the many numismatic heavy-weights
usually in attendance. His confidence was due
to the realization he had acquired a coin
variety many professional [numismatists]
were not acquainted with, as Q. David Bowers
would later remark.
Even so, it received only
minor billing; being described as a
U. S. 1922
sandblast proof dollar. He had also brought
U. S. 1922 unc. dollar, for comparison and as ‘proof' of it's uniqueness in strike,
finish and relief. It seems odd that NYNC Secretary E. K. Hessberg did not apply the obvious
Peace dollar to either description. The usually concise secretary may have been
unsettled by the neophyte's brazen attempt to upstage their dignified proceedings, or
perhaps rightly questioned its authenticity.
The Lester Merkin "Discovery Coin"
Such questioning would have also lead to Walter Breen, who had become an expert
on the subject. When Donald L. Rhodes acquired the third known specimen in early 1958,
he sent it to Breen for authentication against the Zerbe and Discovery Coins. All three
would be described in Breen's 1961 article
The 1922 Type of 1921 Peace Dollar.
The Rhodes Specimen
Merkin would likely learn of a second specimen's existence from Vernon L. Brown
who was also present at the pivotal 1955 meeting. He was a NYNC regular and long time
member of the prestigious club. Brown was also curator of the Chase Manhattan Bank
Moneys of the World Museum, a position he assumed after Farran Zerbe's retirement in
1939. He would retire in 1964 and Don Taxay would become the museum's new curator,
likely on the recommendations of John J. Ford and Walter Breen. The Museum's specimen
was attributed to Zerbe's original 1922 acquisition from the Philadelphia Mint. Ironically,
also present at the meeting was Mrs. R. Henry Norweb, who was apparently unaware she
also owned a specimen within the vast Norweb holdings!
The Zerbe Specimen
In 1965 the Zerbe Specimen lay peacefully in the Chase Manhattan Bank, quietly
awaiting its eventual fate as a relic in either the Smithsonian or American Numismatic
Society collections. Twelve years later the Chase Museum would close and its massive
collection dispersed to the more renowned and eternal archives. Then clandestinely on
June 30th Lester Merkin and Don Taxay orchestrated what could be called
Trade. Merkin's prize was the Zerbe 1922 High Relief Matte Proof Peace Dollar, only the
third known at that time. And he would then possess all three. Former curator Vernon
Brown would likely not have been receptive to such an exchange during his 25 years of
oversight. Such loose trading was not a generally accepted practice for a museum curator –
not to mention the coin was his mentor's original acquisition. Records show a trade was
also made with John J. Ford about the same time, although it's unknown what he acquired.
A year later, Taxay did not relate the trade in his 1966 book
The U. S. Mint and Coinage.
Although it contains a chapter on the Peace Dollar and he had the knowledge, no
accounting of known 1922 proof specimens was included.
The coins received in this trade were recorded in the Chase Money Collection
inventory, released in the early 1970's. The most valuable of these was a 1792 white metal
25 cent trial strike, Judd-13, by Joseph Wright, costing $4,725 and appraised at $12,500. A
recent sale of one discovered in the New York Historical Society brought $1,260,000. There
were 15 pattern pieces listed with a combined declared cost of $12,480 and an appraised
value of $29,855. This fabulous amount attests to Merkin's 1922 Proof Peace Dollar fever,
since $3,100 had been the highest price reportedly paid for a specimen up to that time.4 He
was especially proud of his Discovery Coin and held it until his death in 1992. On Taxay's
departure as curator in 1966, Merkin would recommend another good friend, numismatist
and fellow orchestra musician, Gene Hessler, for the position. Whether termed The Great
Trade, The Great Raid or The Great Escape, it's another enigmatic chapter in Peace Dollar
and numismatic lore.
1792 25 cent pattern Judd-13. Provenance: American Numismatic Society, 1977; Taxay for
the Chase Manhattan Bank Money Museum, June 30, 1965; Merkin from Century-Paramount,
April 30-May 1, 1965, lot 53. United States Mint, Philadelphia. Joseph Wright designed; very
likely a pattern intended as a quarter dollar. Two specimens are known in bronze (SI-NMAH
1991.0357.0121) and four in white metal. A specimen in white metal from the New York
Historical Society recently sold at auction for $1,260,000 (Heritage, April 22-25, 2021, lot
4960). Image courtesy of the American Numismatic Society, 1980.66.2.
New York Numismatic Club meeting minutes, 10 November 1955, The Numismatist, Vol.
69, No. 1, p. 61.
Obituaries, Lester Merkin-LM 341, by Q. David Bowers, The Numismatist, Vol. 106, No.
10, p. 1463.
The U.S. Mint and Coinage by Don Taxay, Arco Publishing Company Inc.,1966, p. 354 –
Californa State Numismatic Association Rare Coins Unrestricted Auction Sale catalog,
Donald L. Rhodes, April 9 – 12, 1959, page 22.
The 1922 Type of 1921 Peace Dollar by Walter Breen, The Numismatic Scrapbook
Magazine, Vol. XXVII, No. 7, July, 1961, p. 1721-1729.
Chase Manhattan US Patterns, Commemoratives, Errors and Coins, by Chase Manhattan
Bank, approximately 1970, Newman Numismatic Portal Collection, Internet Archive;
To read the earlier E-Sylum article, see:
DONALD PAUL TAXAY (1933-????)
Wayne Homren, Editor
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