Coins of a 'king' fetch $45 million Auction: Coin dealers and lovers from all over the world assemble in New York for a chance to buy from the collection of a Baltimore banker.

April 09, 1997|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SPECIAL TO THE SUN DTC

NEW YORK -- Twenty-one years after Northwest Baltimore resident Louis Eliasberg died, this quiet, conservative banker still attracts a crowd and a high price.

More than 300 coin collectors and dealers from all over the globe gathered at Manhattan's St. Moritz Hotel last night to bid on the last section of the greatest collection of gold, silver and nickel U.S. coins.

A 34-year-old coin dealer from Newport Beach, Calif., Greg Roberts, bid a record $1.815 million for Eliasberg's favorite piece -- an 1804 silver dollar of the type that President Andrew Jackson gave to the King of Siam.

After making the winning bid -- with the room still full of raucous applause -- Roberts walked out of the hotel because he said he was late for a dinner appointment. He bought the coin for a customer he would not identify.

The amount was the most ever known to be paid for a single coin, surpassing the $1.485 million that a Kansas City man spent on Eliasberg's 1913 Liberty Head nickel last year.

"I was determined to buy the coin," Roberts said. "I was surprised that I had to pay that much for it."

The wild, tense scene seemed to confirm the status of the Baltimore man to whom the U.S. Postal Service once delivered a letter without an address. "King of Coins USA" was all the envelope said.

Eliasberg's reputation made this auction a can't-miss event; hard-bitten dealers waited in three-hour lines for one of 26 seats in the viewing room.

New Jersey collector Michael Fay sat in the back of the room with his 14-year-old son, who had skipped school, "so he won't miss history." Albert Bishop, of Spartanburg, S.C., said only his "wife or a natural disaster" could have kept him away.

"This is the ultimate," said Keith M. Zaner, a columnist for Coin World, a trade publication.

"It is the toughest, most competitive auction I have ever been to," said Julian M. Leidman, a 33-year dealer of coins in Silver Spring. "People like me have been waiting their whole careers to be able to buy from this collection."

But the show was less an auction and more a celebration of November 1950. It was then that Lewis Eliasberg purchased an 1873 dime minted in Nevada, completing a feat no one had accomplished before.

He assembled a collection of every coin ever minted by the United States, all the way back to 1792.

"What makes Eliasberg's collection the best is that it took passion and obsession more than money," said Honolulu dealer Francis Loo, 55. "Bill Gates couldn't have done it. Warren Buffett couldn't have done it."

Putting together the collection cost Eliasberg less than $400,000. He also kept his achievement quiet for a year. The Sun published a story in 1951 and Life magazine followed in 1953 with a photo essay called "The King of Coins."

When organizers of the 1976 Bicentennial found the U.S. Mint's collection incomplete, Eliasberg's was retrieved from the vault at Maryland National Bank and exhibited instead.

After his death, the collection was split between his two sons, Baltimore businessmen Louis E. Eliasberg Jr. and Richard Eliasberg. Neither inherited their father's obsessive love for coins.

Louis sold his part of the collection, consisting of gold coins, in 1982. Richard chose to sell his section, the silver, nickel and copper pieces, in two New York auctions.

By the time auctioneers finished selling the collection late last night, it was to have fetched an estimated $45 million.

The auction broke the record of $25 million set in 1981 when another Baltimore collection -- owned by Johns Hopkins University and donated by B&O Railroad owner John Work Garrett -- was sold, according to experts.

Born in Selma, Ala., Feb. 12, 1896, the son of a dry goods and clothing dealer, Louis Edward Eliasberg Sr. moved to Baltimore in 1907. He started his career as a runner for Citizens National Bank in 1917.

But by 1919, he and other investors had founded the Finance Company of America at Baltimore. He was among the investors who in 1953 purchased the baseball team that became the Baltimore Orioles.

Q. David Bowers, Eliasberg's biographer, says the businessman was a fiscal conservative who never forgave President Franklin D. Roosevelt for removing the United States from the gold standard in 1933: "He was a hard-metal man, and he distrusted paper money."

"Generations of collectors have lived and died without having a chance to own these coins," said Bowers, whose New Hampshire-based company auctioned the Baltimorean's coins.

"I feel like we're having a rendezvous with history."

Pub Date: 4/09/97

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