Learning From the New York Subway Hoard
BY PAUL GREEN
When Littleton Coin Company in Littleton, New Hampshire completed the purchase of what company president David M. Sundman called the "New York Subway Hoard," it was a great day for Littleton and its customers, who would have a chance to purchase a stunning number of key dates. Plus, it was a banner day for numismatic scholars, as great hoards contain not only great coins, but also great clues to the coins in circulation years ago, and also to the collecting habits of previous generations of American collectors. Starting in 1991, Littleton began buying coins from the New York Subway Hoard with an initial $25,000 purchase of Barber dimes, and completed the last bulk purchase in the spring of 1996. By the spring of 1997, the vast majority of the hoard’s individual coins had been sold to Littleton’s customers. The few remaining were later offered in Littleton’s rare coin listings, with the last selling in 1999.
Certainly, the New York Subway Hoard was in the best tradition of important hoards. Its contents were staggering, including 45 complete sets of Barber dimes (minus the 1894-S) and 24 complete sets of Barber half dollars. The hoard also included what Littleton coin buyer Jim Reardon observed was "apparently the largest group of 1916-D and 1942/41 Mercury dimes to hit the market in one transaction," with totals of 241 of the key 1916-D Mercury dime and 166 examples of the 1942/41.
The New York Subway Hoard, in the tradition of great hoards, had not just great coins, but also the sort of clues about past collecting habits and coins in circulation that can only be found in the few truly important hoards of the past. The Economite Hoard of the 1800s was literally a window into the coins in circulation back prior to 1836, which was the latest date in the hoard. From that hoard, we learned that the 1794 half dollar, which is normally considered a very tough date, actually was in circulation at least in some numbers, as the hoard is responsible for perhaps as many as one-third of the 1794 half dollars known today. That is just typical of what can be learned from a great hoard, and in the case of the Economite hoard with over 100,000 half dollars from before 1836, the hoard not only was informative, but also a major historical source on coins in circulation during a period about which we knew very little.
The New York Subway Hoard was from a different period, having been formed by collector and part-time dealer George Shaw of Brooklyn and his brother-in-law Morris Moscow, who worked for the New York Transit Authority during the 1940s to 1960s. Although certainly much more recent than the Economite Hoard, the New York Subway Hoard represented an extraordinary opportunity to experience the sort of coin finds from circulation that could have been made in the 1940s, and in the process, it enables us to check on some of the observations and theories presented regarding the coins being saved and the ones circulating during the first half of the past century.
Historically, many have looked at the coins of the first quarter of the past century and assumed that a good number of them were saved, reflecting the collecting patterns seen later in the 1950s, when coins like the 1950-D Jefferson nickel were saved in enormous numbers at the time they were released. In fact, no less an authority than Q. David Bowers has cast doubt on the idea that just because they were low mintage and had new designs, coins like the key 1916 Standing Liberty quarter and 1916-D Mercury dime were saved in unusually large numbers back when they were first released in 1916.
One of the factors which must be remembered is that many collectors in the first quarter of the past century were still collecting only by date. The Augustus Heaton work on branch mint issues in the 1890s had helped to alert some to the idea of collecting by date and mint mark. Certainly, the 1909-S VDB Lincoln cent had helped to encourage many cent collectors to try to assemble sets with coins of every date from every facility, but there has long been a strong belief that many did not really start collecting in the way we do today until the albums and guides of the 1930s alerted them to the possibilities.
Bowers has added another factor with his research, suggesting that he found only a couple of dealers back in 1916 who had working inventories of the 1916 quarter probably because the dealers of the time simply did not stock current issues. What an opportunity those dealers missed, but the New York Subway Hoard tends to support the idea that neither collectors nor dealers saved significant numbers of new and potentially valuable low-mintage dates like the 1916-D Mercury dime or 1916 Standing Liberty quarter.
1942/41 Mercury Dime
with close-up of "2 over 1"
Certainly, the dimes of the New York Subway Hoard tend to support the idea that the saving of new coins back around 1916 was not what we would expect. The large number of 1942/41 Mercury dimes can be explained by the fact that the popular overdate was just discovered about the time the hoard was started. The 1916-D, however, is another matter, as it had been known for a long time. Moreover, with the hoard starting some 25 years after the 1916-D was released, the presence of 241 certainly tends to support the idea that key dates were not being saved during the 1920s and 1930s. Realistically, within a decade of the start of the hoard, the 1916-D had vanished from circulation, being saved by one collector or dealer after another. Certainly it has to be said as well that the New York Transit Authority had to be one of the great places in the country to use for checking for better dates, but a total of 241 of the key dime of the past century is still stunning, even for older collectors who considered the finding of just one as one of the highlights of their collecting efforts.
Another factor sometimes mentioned is that collectors in the early part of the past century were very limited by their financial resources, and as a result, sets like quarters and half dollars were not even attempted by many. The New York Subway Hoard also tends to support that theory as well, for the quarters in the hoard were simply spectacular.
If any quarter should have been saved, it was the 52,000-mintage 1916 Standing Liberty, which was not only low mintage, but also the first year of a new design, which oftentimes means that nice examples are saved even by non-collectors as a novelty. The 1916, however, was found 19 times. In fact, two of the 19 examples were reported to grade Extremely Fine. Certainly, the New York Transit Authority was a great place to look, but few if any would have expected to turn up 19 examples of one of the most desirable coins of the century.
Just as the 1916 Standing Liberty numbers were a surprise, so were the 20 examples of the 1913-S Barber quarter, which once again suggests that very few were collecting quarters back in the 1920s and 1930s. After all, the 1913-S Barber quarter is hardly an average date. With its mintage of just 40,000, the 1913-S ranks as the lowest mintage silver coin of the entire past century. The mintage alone suggests that the 1913-S should have easily disappeared from circulation quickly, but at least 25 years after it was released 3,000 miles from New York, which was not insignificant at the time, there were still 20 examples in circulation, and if there were that many in New York, we have to question how many were still in regular use all over the country.
As extraordinary were the 8 examples of the 1901-S Barber quarter found in the hoard. The 1901-S is one of those magical coins that is far tougher than its 72,664 mintage suggests. Of course, that mintage suggests the 1901-S is extremely tough, but try to find one in any grade today and you are talking thousands of dollars, even for an example just in G-4. Finding even one in the New York Subway Hoard four decades after being released would have been surprising. We do not know what happened to make the 1901-S as tough as it is, although the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 might have claimed some, but realistically, we do not know. We simply know the 1901-S is a very special date, and finding 8 in the 1940s in New York seems like something closer to a miracle than simple good luck and hard work.
The theory that upper denominations were not being collected, meaning they might have circulated until they were in very low grades or even to the point of being retired from circulation and destroyed, would certainly apply in the case of quarters and half dollars, but the New York Subway Hoard totals were even surprising for a lower denomination like nickels.
By the time the New York Subway Hoard was begun, the nickel being produced was the Jefferson nickel. It would not seem likely to find better Liberty Head nickels in circulation at the time, yet the hoard had 160 examples of the 238,000-mintage 1912-S. Except for the specially made 1913 Liberty Head nickel, the 1912-S is by far the lowest mintage nickel of the past century, with only the 1926-S Buffalo nickel joining it with a mintage of less than 1 million. The 1926-S, however, had a mintage of 970,000 and that really does not compare to the 1912-S. Certainly, with a low face value and a truly low mintage, the 1912-S would not have been a major investment for collectors and dealers at the time, but those 160 examples suggest that few if any were willing to save a 1912-S if they found one in circulation.
In the case of Buffalo nickels, they were almost certainly too common at the time to be worth saving, but the New York Subway Hoard did include 29 examples of the 1918/17-D. That too is surprising, as the 1918/17-D was only discovered shortly before the hoard, but it has always been extremely difficult to find in any grade, with G-4 examples today being over $1,000. With few collectors at the time, based on all the other great coins in the hoard, it appears that the 1918/17-D was also being overlooked, as the total of 29 is probably one of the highest totals ever to hit the market at one time, just as was the case with the 1916-D and 1942/41 Mercury dimes.
As usually happens, the great coins of the New York Subway Hoard quickly found new homes with delighted buyers, but the legacy of such an important hoard and what it tells us about the coins in circulation back at the time of World War II remains. The New York Subway Hoard clearly shows what many have suggested, in that great coins were not being saved in any numbers in the early part of the past century. If anything, the presence of so many in the hoard makes it appear that finding key and semi-key dates at one time was easy. To assume that would be a mistake, but there is no mistaking the fact that checking your change in the 1940s was a well-worthwhile activity, and the proof of that is in the stunning totals of great dates and information found in the New York Subway Hoard.