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FARRAN ZERBE: ‘DEAN OF AMERICAN NUMISMATISTS’
By Ed Reiter
To coin collectors under the age of 50, the name “Farran Zerbe” doesn’t have much meaning without the word “Award.”
The Farran Zerbe Award has attained wide recognition as the highest honor given each year by the American Numismatic Association. Farran Zerbe himself, though, has largely been forgotten except by hobby scholars and old-timers.
This is understandable, of course; time tends to blur the names and deeds of most mortal men. It’s also unfortunate, though, for Farran Zerbe the man – like the ANA award that bears his name – was a numismatic treasure of the highest order.
Zerbe was born in 1871 in the Pennsylvania town of Tyrone, and that’s where his interest in coins was born, as well.
The incident that changed his life – and sparked his lifelong interest in numismatics – happened when he was 11 and working as a newsboy in Tyrone. One day, a customer paid him with a coin he had never seen before: a strange silver coin about the size of a dime, but bearing odd inscriptions and the legend “50 Cent.”
Thinking this to be a peculiar half dollar, he sought to deposit the coin in his bank account – but the teller handed it back, explaining that the bank wouldn’t accept French coins, and that’s what this was: a French 50-centimes piece.
Far from being dejected, young Farran was intrigued. The episode aroused his fertile imagination and stirred his mind to wondering: What do other people use for money throughout the world?
The youngster began to read everything he could find on the subject. He also began to acquire coins and medals – always basing his purchases not on intrinsic value, but rather on historical interest or importance.
By the time he reached adulthood, Zerbe has assembled a collection of considerable substance. He also had become a topnotch numismatic scholar with a knowledge of the subject that was broad as well as deep.
In 1900, at the age of 29, he joined the ANA – then a fledgling, intimate group that was not yet a decade old. Just four years later, the membership elected him first vice president, and in 1907 he became the organization’s seventh
president, an office he would hold for two one-year terms.
Zerbe’s involvement with coins spilled over at an early stage from hobby to profession. Because of his extensive knowledge of the field, he came to be in demand as a consultant.
When plans were being drafted for the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, a world’s fair held in 1904 in St. Louis, influential hobby friends recommended Zerbe for the post of chief numismatist – a job that would entail supervising the sale of official coins and medals. He got the appointment and, among other things, oversaw the sale of the Jefferson and McKinley gold dollars – the first
commemorative gold coins struck by the U.S. Mint.
The very next year, Zerbe obtained a similar post at yet another fair: the Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition in Portland, Ore. And, once again, his work involved the sale of gold coinage – this time a single coin honoring the
explorers in whose honor the show was being staged.
Although he was selling coins, Zerbe was no mere huckster. At each of the expositions, he organized displays of items from his collection and sought to sell the fairgoers not just on the coins but also on the hobby.
In 1908, the ANA’s founder, Dr. George Heath, passed away – and, since Heath had owned and published The Numismatist, the organization’s official monthly journal, there was some concern regarding the publication’s future
course. The matter was resolved when Zerbe purchased the journal from Heath’s heirs.
For the next two-and-a-half years, he served as both editor and publisher. Then, in December 1910, he sold the publication to the ANA.
Zerbe was to play an advisory role at one more exposition: the Panama-Pacific fair, which took place in San Francisco in 1915. And the numismatic output there exceeded that of any similar show before or since – reflecting, in all likelihood, the skilful work of Zerbe behind the scenes. To mark the exposition, the U.S. Mint produced five different coins – two of them $50 gold pieces.
The peripatetic collector became a familiar figure not only at expositions, but also at auctions. He attended almost every important coin sale of his day, and became close friends with the nation's leading dealers – people like Thomas Elder, B. Max Mehl and Wayte Raymond. He also formed lasting friendships with pre-eminent collectors such as F.C.C. Boyd, Maurice Wormser and Col. Edward H. Green.
Following World War I, Zerbe was instrumental in persuading federal officials to issue a new silver dollar marking the cessation of hostilities. The coin turned out to be the beautiful and much-admired Peace dollar, issued by the Mint from 1921 through 1935.
As years went by, Zerbe’s collection grew ever more impressive – not only in terms of size, but also from the standpoint of value. He might not have concerned himself with this when he was buying, but in the course of purchasing so many coins that were interesting and important, he ended up with many that were worth a lot of money, as well.
By 1926, the collection was among the finest of its day, and Zerbe decided that it ought to have a permanent showcase – perhaps in a museum, where people could see and savor it all year ’round. That year, he entered into negotiations with the Chase National Bank in New York – and three years later, the bank acquired the collection.
Vernon L. Brown, who served as curator of the collection for a number of years, recalled those transactions in a 1978 interview.
“I don’t know whether the bank initiated the negotiations or Mr. Zerbe did – whether the egg came first or not,” Brown said. “From what I gather, though, it was Mr. Zerbe’s idea to put the collection on permanent display, and a lot of other people had the same idea, too.
“Mr. Zerbe had set up a couple of exhibits for the bank when it opened new branches in uptown New York, and they had received good publicity – so, with that in mind, the bank was probably interested in the idea and probably approached Mr. Zerbe.”
The bank acquired not only the collection, but also the collector: Zerbe became the first curator of what then was called the Chase National Bank Collection of Moneys of the World. Vernon Brown joined him in 1931 as assistant curator, then took over as curator in 1939, when Zerbe retired.
“I was not particularly knowledgeable about numismatics when I joined the bank,” Brown later recalled. “I knew a little something about coins, but I never had collected any. I’ve often wondered, in fact, just why Mr. Zerbe chose me.
The reason, I guess, is that he was looking for someone who was not too deeply versed in numismatics. He was looking for someone who could learn about the subject quickly, but who didn’t have a lot of preconceptions.
“Mr. Zerbe,” he added, “was a very fine man, and I was very fortunate to be able to work with him. He was extremely knowledgeable and very considerate, and I learned a great deal by working at his side through those years.”
According to Brown, Zerbe’s overriding concern in assembling his collection was variety, not condition.
“What he wanted,” Brown said, “was a representative sampling of coins from throughout the world. He was trying to put together all the different types and forms of money that were being used then or had been used before, and he
Didn’t necessarily want the finest specimen known – or the rarest, either. He did acquire some rarities, of course, but that was not his goal.”
Among the rarities that did find their way into Zerbe’s collection were an 1804 U.S. silver dollar, a 1792 pattern quarter dollar, a New England shilling of 1652 and Willow, Oak and Pine Tree shillings, also from the 17th century.
There were, in addition, items of unusual interest to historians: checks signed by nearly every U.S. president, for example, and a 5-shilling note of 1709 – the first note printed in New York by the state’s first printer, William Bradford.
Odd and curious items also abounded: a 19th-century “money tree” from the East Indies, a dog teeth necklace from the Solomon Islands, elephant tail bristles of the 18th century from West Africa and large, circular stone money from the Yap Islands in the Pacific – the so-called “Yap stone” currency. At one time or another, all had been used as money.
Zerbe’s collection was massive when the bank acquired it – and it grew even larger thereafter.
“We kept up with all the new issues as they came out,” Brown related.
In time, the Chase National Bank became the Chase Manhattan – and the money collection, too, was renamed, coming to be known as the Chase Manhattan Money Museum. The collection underwent a series of moves, as well, finally
ending up in the Rockefeller Center tourist complex. But, wherever it went and whatever it was called, it remained a big draw for the bank, attracting thousands of visitors every day and gaining Chase enormous good-will.
Eventually, though, bank officials came to have second thoughts about this unusual asset. In 1973, the museum’s doors were shut and Chase officials announced that the moneycollection would “go on the road,” so to speak, as a
traveling exhibit to be shown throughout the country. The bank, it was explained, had decided to “change its emphasis to a consumer-oriented approach.”
In 1978, with the hobby still waiting for the show to get on the road, a new announcement was made: The collection was being transferred, under a loan arrangement, to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.
On Dec. 31, 1979, the bank announced that the loan was being converted to a gift. The Zerbe-Chase Manhattan Collection, encompassing some 25,000 items, was being given outright to the Smithsonian.
Farran Zerbe continued to serve the hobby in his later years. In 1928, he became chairman of the ANA Board of Governors, and he held that office – since discontinued – for several years. Later, he was chosen as ANA historian,
and he served in that role until his death.
Between 1904 and 1941, Zerbe attended 27 ANA conventions, and he always played a vital, central role in the proceedings.
Death came to Zerbe on Christmas Day 1949 at the age of 78, saddening the holidays for his many numismatic friends.
Jack W. Ogilvie, a long-time ANA historian himself, eulogized Zerbe as the “Dean of American Numismatists.”
“Numismatics,” he said, “has lost one of its beloved pioneers. One who did more to popularize numismatics in this country than anyone we might name.”
Few would dispute that assessment.
Farran Zerbe served the numismatic hobby in general – and the ANA in particular – throughout his productive life. That, after all, is the reason the Zerbe Award bears his name. And that is the reason it’s so special.