Sunday, September 1, 2013

William Sheldon: Psychologist, Numismatist, Thief

Dr. William Herbert Sheldon, Jr., (1898 – 1977) created the 70-point grading scale that is the standard in modern American numismatics.  He also pioneered the study of Early American Copper, the Large Cents and Half Cents struck until 1857. He also stole coins from the American Numismatic Society; and he defrauded other collectors.

black and white photograph of heavyset man about 40 years of age
Dr. William Sheldon
Sheldon came from a privileged family. The philosopher William James was his godfather. He earned his bachelor’s at Brown University and went on to complete a master’s at the University of Colorado. Returning to the east, he was granted a Ph.D. by the University of Chicago in 1925, which he followed in 1933 with an M.D. degree. Studying in Europe, he met with Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud. He developed a theory of personality “somatotypes” that were similar to the theories of Ernst Kretschmer under whom he also studied.  During World War II, Sheldon served as a lieutenant colonel in the Army Medical Corps. He taught psychology at the University of Wisconsin and the University of Chicago before joining the faculty of the University of Oregon Medical School as a professor of medicine. He returned to CambridgeMassachusetts, and founded his own research organization.

According to Sheldon, people could be classified as ectomorphs, mesomorphs, or endomorphs: skinny, medium, fat.  Ectomorphs are stingy and mean while endomorphs are jolly.  Mesomorphs are a little of both. 

Sheldon developed his measurements deeper than those crude labels. Writing for the E-Sylum mail list of the Numismatic Bibliomania Society, Denis Loring said: “I was somatotyped by Dr. Sheldon himself. I used to visit him and Dorothy Paschal (“Dr. Dorothy” as he called her) at their home in Cambridge, Mass. On one occasion the conversation turned to somatotyping, and the fact that I went to Harvard but had not participated in Sheldon's photographic somatotyping project. He promptly got up, told me to stand straight and face 90 degrees away from him. He inspected me carefully and pronounced me a 4-6-1, (4 endomorphic, 6 mesomorphic, 1 ectomorphic), a solid rarity 6 in the somatotype world.”

The “Harvard Study” that Denis Loring referred to was one of a series in which Sheldon photographed Ivy League and Seven Sister School students, typically in their underwear, against a grid. It was alleged that many were nude, but this may be an urban legend; or it may be that the nudes in his files were from different studies; or that photographs in his collection which were labeled “nudes” were not. It remains true that among those whose somatotypes were recorded were Hillary Rodham, Diane Sawyer, Warren Beatty, Nora Ephron, and Meryl Streep.

The 70-Point Grading Scale
Sheldon had a passion for Large Cents and related coins in the “early American coppers” series. He wrote Early American Cents 1793-1814: an Exercise in Descriptive Classification with Tables of Rarity and Value (Harper & Brothers, 1949). Working with Dorothy I. Paschal and Walter Breen, Sheldon then updated his research as Penny Whimsy: A Revision of Early American Cents 1793-1814 (Harper & Row, 1958). Penny Whimsy became the standard reference for these coins with several reprints issued over the years by Sanford Durst (1965 and 1990) and Lawrence Quarterman (1976). To establish the values of the coins, Sheldon created a 70-point scale, based on a convenient fiction that if a Large Cent were graded Fair (1) and were sold for one dollar, then the same date, type, and variety, in Uncirculated (60) should sell for $60. A perfect example would be priced at $70.

Inflation long ago erased the baseline for such calculations. Also, the arithmetic was never intended for any other series. Still, over the years, numismatists accepted the numerical ranges for grading all American coins. Today, it is used in every American catalog or reference. The scale even shows up in American catalogs for ancient Roman coins. However, hardly any European dealers or collectors recognize the scale, and prefer nicely descriptive adjectives that translate well.

Sheldon’s drive to acquire the coins he loved to study crossed all lines of common decency among numismatists. All collectors (coins, stamps, furniture, automobiles, rock ‘n’ roll records, …) know the foibles of passion, in others, if not themselves.  William Sheldon did not optimistically over-grade his coins. He did not carefully clean and nicely retone them, and then fail to mention the fact. Beginning no later than 1949, Sheldon visited the American Numismatic Society collection often and swapped his lower grade examples for their better ones. He also exchanged his lower grade coins with better examples bought from other individuals, placing his in their holders without annotation, and then selling those to other collectors.

Like the infamous “Western Assay Bars” of John FordSheldon’s thievery was revealed when later collectors bought the inventories of famous numismatists at highly visible auctions by important firms. Then, the coins, their photographic history, and their auction pedigrees could be examined as a body. Also, like those pioneer gold fakes, the highest echelons of the numismatic community long suspected the problem; but talking in private for decades achieved nothing and only a suit at law in federal court forced the correlation and recognition of all the facts. Ten years later, the ANS was still pursuing its lost property.

Dr. William Sheldon is not alive to defend himself. No one else rises to his cause. The evidence is damning. Much of it is physical, and of a quality that would be the envy of any prosecutor. The coins in question were pedigreed, catalogued, photographed, displayed, admired, and bought and sold among the highest echelons of American numismatics. While Dr. Sheldon did write the standard reference, he was not alone at his level of expertise. His crimes were exposed by other authorities.

Sheldon also was not alone in profiting from his crimes, which is why the American Numismatic Society had to go to court.

Delmar Bland is widely regarded as the “Expert’s Expert” for Large Cents. The ANS hired him to investigate the problem of William Sheldon in 1991. That also raised some questions from another aficianado of Early American Copper, John Adams who claimed that the ANS may not be the helpless victim of a predator. The ANS waited 20 years (1973 to 1991) between the time that it first investigated the problem until it sought to recover its property. “… torpid if not supine…” Adams said. Adams suggested that some of Sheldon’s ill-gotten gains may have come from undocumented sales by unidentified ANS curators. We may never know. We do know that an overwhelming inventory of coins not matching their supposed provenances were in the collection of Dr. William Sheldon.

Notes (This was edited from a two-part article in the Winter 2013 and Spring 2013 issues of the Mich-Matist magazine of the Michigan State Numismatic Society.)
  • Jess Patrick of the Patrick Mint brought to my attention the apparent error in the obituary published by Nature and reprinted in The Psychiatrist. Sheldon probably did not study under Jung and Freud.
  • Denis Loring’s reminiscence appeared in the E-Sylum mail list of the Numismatic Bibliomania Society (Volume 11, Number 50, December 14, 2008, Article 16).
About the suits in federal court: 
  • “ANS search for 129 missing cents becomes legal battle: Society attorney names late William Sheldon as suspect,” by Bill Gibbs, Coin World Aug. 23, 1993. 
  • ANS Magazine, vol. 3. no. 2, Summer 2004, by curator Robert W. Hoge. 
  • “More on Collector Ted Naftzger and the Switched Large Cents,” by John Kleeberg, The E-sylum, Vol. 11, No. 24, June 15, 2008, Article 17.) 
  • Maine Antiquarian Digest (February 1998) by David Hewett.
  • Adams wrote to the Maine Antiquarian Digest (March 1998) as he has also published later in the E-Sylum, (Volume 11, Number 24, June 15, 2008, Article 17).  
  • Maine Antiquarian Digest. April 1998 by Lawrence, Susan, and Harvey Stack.
Forgery and Fraud in Numismatics
Murray Rothbard: Fraud or Faker?
The Fallibility of Fingerprinting
Junk Criminology in the Courtoom
Is Physics a Science?


  1. I’ve read quite a bit about Dr. Sheldon today since discovering his gravesite in a nondescript historic cemetery in Pawtuxet Village, RI, the town in which he was born and in which I now live. I had never heard of him. The assistant mentioned in this article is buried next to him. He sounds like an odd character.

  2. Thanks for sharing such great information. It really helpful to me.


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