Saturday, April 21, 2012

Forgery and Fraud in Numismatics

“How the West was Faked” is the title of a series of websites (now here) created by John Kleeberg and Theodore V. Buttrey Jr. Broadly, they condemn the forgeries and frauds committed by John J. Ford (1924-2005) and Paul G. Franklin (1919-2000) in the 1950s and 1960s, and extended into our time. Kleeberg and Buttrey are careful; and the narrative is compelling. What follows here is my own summary based on my own experiences touching on that story.

John J. Ford
from BiddlesBank.com
John J. Ford was respected within the numismatic community by just about everyone -- except Eric P. Newman.  Ford started at New York City coin shops as a youngster. After World War II and through the 1960s, Ford worked at New Netherlands and is cited as a founding member of the Numismatic Bibliomania Society at the ANA convention at Cincinnati in 1980.  Eric P. Newman served as president of the American Numismatic Society. He is the author and co-author of several important books and many significant papers, including of Early Paper Money of America, the standard reference on fiat currency of the American Revolution. Newman earned a BS at MIT in 1932 and a JD at Washington University in 1935. John J. Ford was self-educated. Newman is a scholar. Ford was a salesman. Newman long suspected Ford of dishonesty and is widely accepted as the engine behind occasional unsuccessful efforts to unmask and defrock Ford.

The Ford-Newman controversy carried over into the 21st century. Their seconds were Michael J. Hodder for Ford and Ted Buttrey for Newman.  (Hodder is an expert in U.S. Colonial numismatics. His degrees include masters from both the City College of New York and New York University and a Candidate in Philosophy from Berkeley.  Buttrey's doctorate is from Princeton; he was chair of the Classics department at the University of Michigan.)  Hodder and Buttrey engaged in a “Great Debate” over Fake Western Assay Bars at the 1999 ANA convention in Chicago. Nothing was settled there; and Ford launched a $6 million lawsuit against Buttrey for libel.  (I filed an amicus brief with the court which was not accepted.) Meanwhile, difficult and troubled finances at the American Numismatic Society forced the release of several curators, Kleeberg among them. He was then free to join Buttrey in pursuit of Ford. Their work caused the Smithsonian to close its exhibit of American numismatics because some of their artifacts were questioned and ultimately condemned as fakes.

For twenty years, Paul Franklin made fake western assay bars which John J. Ford sold to collectors.  The pair researched old newspapers, found the names of assayers, and created punches and logotypes to match the art of the advertisements. Franklin made the bars; Ford invented the stories behind them. Then, Henry Clifford decided that he wanted to own them all and began buying them from other collectors as well as from Ford. When Clifford’s estate went on the market, all these bars (and some private coins) came together in one place at one time. The Henry H. Clifford Collection: Coins of the West was the sylloge for a public auction by Bowers and Ruddy Galleries, Inc., March 18-20, 1982. (Known as the Dean of American Numismatics, Q. David Bowers is the author of very many books and has served as president of the ANA.)  When the Clifford Catalog was published the glaring inconsistencies were impossible to ignore – except by those who never see the elephant in the room.  And American numismatics is house full of elephants.
Eagle Mining Co.
Lot 215 Henry Clifford Sale

To celebrate the Centennial of Independence in 1876, numismatist Montroville W. Dickeson created replicas of colonial coins. His fantasies remain hot items today. In 1836, President Andrew Jackson sent a Navy diplomatic mission around the world to secure ports of convenience for American ships. Among the many gifts for kings and sultans were proof sets of American coins. To complete the sets, the Mint struck a few silver dollars with unused dies from 1804, creating the eight 1804 Dollars of 1834-35. Beginning in 1859, numismatists with friends at the Mint had their own 1804 Dollars made. All of these fantasies are highly prized today. Over the holidays 1912-1913, a clerk at the Mint, Samuel W. Brown, struck off five 1913 Liberty Nickels. A few years later, he advertised that he would buy any 1913 Liberty Nickels. Since no one knew that any  existed, this drew interest. Then, he offered his for sale. These fakes attract record-setting prices at any auction. Today, despite legendary (or perhaps mythical) security instant rarities still leave the US Mint, including Sacagawea dollars “muled” with Washington quarters. (See Coin World July 18, 2011 here.) This is an historical problem. In the 1890s, the U.S. Secret Service attempted to confiscate many pattern strikes that had disappeared from the Mint, but numismatists have friends and money and the Secret Service backed off. On the other side of the ledger, Franklin D Roosevelt's first Secretary of the Treasury was numismatist Howland D. Wood. Roosevelt's Presidential Order requiring banks and citizens to deposit their gold with the Treasury explicitly did not apply to coin collectors (see here).

“The Red Book” (A Guide Book of United States Coins by R. S. Yeoman), has been issued annually since 1947. It is arguably the single basic book on US numismatics owned by any and every serious hobbyist or collector. Material later condemned was catalogued in The Red Book for many years. In 1965 under “Private and Territorial Gold” the Red Book inventoried a “Blake and Agnell” bar and coin.  The bar was perhaps the easiest of all to question as the assayer’s name was really Agrell.  But the 1913 catalog by Edgar H. Adams, Private Gold Coinage of California, (New York: American Numismatic Society) carried the typographical error, the r for n, (an easy blunder in the days of lead and ink) and the forgers repeated it.  As late as 1981, the Red Book carried bars by F. D. Kohler, some of which also have been condemned (though most proved genuine).

I believe that cause of this apparent waffling - an unwillingness to condemn the entire body of putative offerings - is the close working relationship between Kenneth Bressett and Eric P. Newman.  Newman was president of the ANS; and Bressett served as an ANA president.  The two co-authored, The Fantastic 1804 Dollar (Whitman, 1962). Long wary of Ford, Newman would have helped Bressett clean the spurious material from Yeoman’s venerable handbook when Whitman turned to Bressett to continue the annual book. I have never met Eric P. Newman, but I have met Ken Bressett and I trust him implicitly to hold to the highest ethical standards.  

Be all that as it may, the fakes in the Clifford Collection survived for 20 years after publication of the catalogue. 

In April 1999 I joined Coin World as a senior staff writer and their international editor just at the Great Debate was developing. The co-worker I was closest to was Stuart Segan, their “Trends” (pricing) editor. Stuart’s degree is in physics from Berkeley. He encouraged me to approach the problem like a scientist. We examined the Clifford Catalog, and argued out between ourselves the internal inconsistencies in the artifacts. To be fair, I only spoke to John J. Ford on the telephone while working for Coin World. He told me that if I could not tell 19th century die work from 18th, I did not deserve my chair as an editor.  I took his advice to heart and improved my knowledge.  But clearly, Ford was a bully which is corroborated by common knowledge that he called collectors "boobs."

Then the Brother Jonathan and the .S.S. Central America were salvaged. Those ships carried gold coins and bars from the California gold rush. The Central America was called “the ship of gold;” and its loss is cited as a contributing factor in the Panic of 1857.  Generally, none of the recovered remains from those wrecks match the work of Paul Franklin sold by John J. Ford. (See Treasures from the S.S. Central America: Glories of the California Gold Rush, June 20-21, 2000, by Sotheby’s.)

When John J. Ford sold his lifetime numismatic collection through Stack’s numismatic auction firm of New York City the catalogs ran 21 volumes. He did know a bargain; and he pursued items which others passed over, such as Indian Peace Medals. He owned a world class library. The final sale and volume of the sylloge covers Western Assay Bars.  Many pieces that were anticipated did not appear.  (See Kleeberg in The E-sylum October 14, 2007 here. The E-sylum is the weekly email news from the Numismatic Bibliomania Society, whose journal is The Asylum.) Among the historical remains not offered was a bar allegedly made for Wells Fargo by Wass Molitor in 1854 and overstruck in 1864 with a U.S. Revenue stamp. The bar is illustrated in Private Gold Coins and Patterns of the United States by Donald H. Kagin, Ph.D. (Kagin’s doctorate is in numismatics. His website is here. The Holabird-Kagin website of Americana is here

ALSO ON NECESSARY FACTS:
William Sheldon: Psychologist, Numismatist, Thief
Murray Rothbard: Fraud or Faker?
Numismatics: History as Market
Industrial Medals as the Currency of Fame

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