How much did Louis Eliasberg spend on his collection?

One of January’s Tuesday Trivia questions was, “What famous banker in Baltimore collected the most complete US coin collection?”

The answer is Louis Eliasberg, Sr. but another question has stemmed from this one.

How much did he spend on his collection?

An article from Superior Galleries says $400,000.

Consider the story of Baltimore banker Louis Eliasberg, a legend among rare coin collectors. Louis Eliasberg, Sr. began collecting coins about 1925. He pursued the hobby casually during the growth years of his finance business. In the 1930’s he began in earnest to develop a world-class collection. Mr. Eliasberg invested a total of $400,000 in his collection from 1925-1950. His heirs were the beneficiaries of his exceptional foresight and patience. The collection, sold in portions from 1982 to 1997, yielded $44.5 million dollars!

Ed Lee of Certified Coins says $4,000,000.

Although it took decades of hard work and about $4 million, Louis Eliasberg did what no man ever did before and what no man will ever be able to do in the future. He tracked down and acquired one example of each and every rare U.S. coin, including all the denominations, dates and coins from all U.S. Mints.

David Jacobs, a writer for a PBS television show called History Detectives, e-mailed me asking if I knew the actual amount. I didn’t, but I knew someone who might. Alan Herbert (known as the answer man) is legendary in his knowledge of all things numismatics, and is gracious enough to answer my occasional question in record time. I e-mailed him and his reply was, “I can’t find confirmation, but I believe the $4 million is the correct figure. I suspect the last zero got lost, dropping it to $400,000.”

That sounded right to me, especially after reading that Eliasberg purchased a single gold coin for $4,000. However, I wanted to find a more definitive answer rather than an educated guess.

I contacted Superior Galleries to see if they had a source that confirmed the $400,000 amount, or if they could confirm that it was a mistake. I got a quick response from Paul Song, but he didn’t have the elusive answer either.

However, he referred me to David Trip, author of Illegal Tender, who finally provided the definitive answer.

Eliasberg spent $400,000, not $4,000,000. Here’s Tripp’s reply.

Louis Eliasberg’s cost was the lower figure of $400,000 (which, remember, was an enormous sum of money in those days).

Some of more expensive purchases included: The 1822 Half Eagle 1 of 3 [two of which are in the Smithsonian] cost him 14,000 in 1945 (which was sold in 1982 for $687,500); the unique 1870-S Three Dollar cost him $11,550 in 1946 (also sold in 1982 for $687,500).

But, the single biggest expenditure was in 1942, for the core of his collection: the Clapp Collection in its day was considered virtually complete, and so much of what Eliasberg did after its purchase was upgrade and fill-in. The price was $100,000.

So you can see, $4,000,000 is much too high.

As a frame of reference Virgil Brand, the greatest American coin collector of all time spent about $3,000,000 between 1889 and 1926. His collection comprised 368,000 coins [including 2 Brasher Doubloons; the finest known 1804 Dollar; about 40 1879 Flowing Hair Stellas etc etc …and this doesn’t include the galaxy of Foreign and Ancient Coins]. His collection today would dwarf in value any other collection you could name (at today’s prices probably [well]over a billion dollars).

Unfortunately, I found out that the show had already been shot, but I’ve e-mailed the writer to let him know of the correct answer and hope they’re able to make the correction. I’ve also e-mailed the folks at Certified Coins so they can make the correction to their article.

Category - Informative
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