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TOP GUNS: THE BEBEES WERE RIGHT ON TARGET

 By Ed Reiter
 

 The shot heard ’round the world of coins was fired, so to speak, with a “Bebee gun.”

 It happened on Aug. 11, 1967, at the annual convention of the American Numismatic Association, which took place that year in Miami Beach.

 The centerpiece of the convention auction was the McDermott Specimen of the 1913 Liberty Head nickel – one of only five pieces known. The drama mounted with each succeeding bid until, at last, auctioneer Jim Kelly hammered down the nickel for the then-fantastic sum of $46,000.

 Pandemonium ensued as the gallery broke into applause, photographers sprang into action and well-wishers mobbed the quiet, self-conscious man who had purchased the storied nickel: longtime Omaha coin dealer Aubrey E. Bebee.

 By current coin-market standards, $46,000 isn’t an exceptional sum of money. But back in the 1960s, that was the highest price anyone ever had paid for a single coin. And the crack of Jim Kelly’s gavel did indeed resound throughout the hobby: Many market analysts believe that this transaction – more than any other – created the awareness of coins’ investment potential that ushered in the boom of the 1970s and thereby laid the groundwork for the high-end coin market of today.

 The prices of other 1913 “V” nickels rose steadily after that, breaking the $100,000 barrier just a few years later and soaring to an astronomical $5 million in 2005. The Eliasberg Specimen was the first coin ever to sell for more than a million dollars, bringing more than $1.4 million in 1996. But Aubrey Bebee and his wife, Adeline, never sold theirs. And in 1985, they added another great rarity to their personal collection of coins and paper money, acquiring a Class III 1804 silver dollar – the Idler Specimen – for $308,000.

 The couple ended up donating both coins to the ANA Museum in Colorado Springs – along with the fabulous Bebee Collection of U.S. Paper Money, which included more than 800 individual notes and numerous uncut sheets, many of them rare and pristine. These remain on display there today, and rank among the museum’s premier attractions.

 Although he came to be identified most closely with the 1913 nickel, Aubrey Bebee’s first love in numismatics wasn’t coins at all, but U.S. paper money. His reference collection included an almost complete type set of large-size U.S. currency in all denominations from $1 to $100. He was within just five rare notes of completing the set.

 Aubrey Bebee was a true “old-timer” in the coin business, having entered the field as a full-time dealer in the late 1930s. Unlike many present-day dealers, however, he didn’t start out at a tender age: He was in his early 30s, and had tried his hand at several other professions, before he found his niche in numismatics.

 Bebee was born in 1906 in Huntington, Ark., and began collecting coins on a casual basis while attending high school there.

 “There were no other local collectors,” he told me in an interview in 1987, when he was 81, “so my interest wasn’t as great as it should have been to continue on, and that was the end of my collecting for then.”

 Following graduation from high school, he moved to Chicago, where he worked for a short time as a real estate salesman. He returned briefly to Arkansas, but then got “the big-city urge” and made his way back to Chicago. He was working there for the telephone company, as an accounting clerk, when he made connections with a telephone operator named Adeline. They were married on Nov. 8, 1930, and were partners ever after – not only in life, but in business.

 In 1933, in the depths of the Great Depression, the Bebees invested their savings in a leasehold on a 32-unit Chicago apartment-motel. They operated that for six years and, as Bebee put it, “It helped see us through the hard times.”

 During the 1930s, Bebee began selling stamps as a sideline and, by the end of the decade, his business was becoming substantial. Friends advised him to branch out into coins, and so did his own intuititon. He did so, and coins soon became the backbone of his business.

 “Two important purchases really helped establish me as a coin dealer,” Bebee recalled.

 “The first was what I call the Swift Collection. A very good friend of mine who was an officer with Swift & Co., the meat-packing firm, told me of a big collection of gold coins that possibly might be sold – a collection belonging to
Louis Swift’s sister. It seems she and her husband, an Italian count, had stopped in San Francisco on their ’round-the-world honeymoon in 1915 and purchased six sets of the Panama-Pacific coins. My bid for the collection was accepted.

 “Several months later, I learned about a hoard of 1938 Arkansas commemorative half dollars that a friend of mine, a dealer named Jim Spohn, had acquired. He had 500 sets, and I told him I’d like to buy them all. He gave me a very good price, and I did very well reselling them.

 “These two transactions were all it took to make me go into the coin business on a full-time basis.”

 In 1941, the Bebees opened a coin shop in Chicago. Adopting an approach that would characterize their business ever after, they offered good selections not only of rare coins but also of paper money and numismatic books and supplies. At that time, Bebee noted, theirs was one of the few dealerships in the country handling such items on a large-scale basis. It was around that time that Bebee began assembling his paper money type set.

 Adeline Bebee’s mother and four sisters lived in Omaha, and during a visit there the Bebees learned that a bank building soon would be offered for sale. They made arrangements to purchase it, and in 1952 they relocated their business from Chicago.

 Bebee’s Inc. was based in Omaha from then on. The Bebees conducted their operations primarily through mail orders, specializing in U.S. paper money, U.S. commemorative coins and Vatican coin sets. And, throughout the years, their
business was built upon two cornerstones: good quality and good service.

 In addition to being a major dealer, Bebee also was a leader in efforts to upgrade ethics in the marketplace. He was one of the organizers of the Professional Numismatists Guild in 1955, and became charter member Number 1. In 1968, the ANA awarded him its Medal of Merit in recognition of many years of service to the hobby. He and his wife also could point with pride to the fact that both of them had served on the U.S. Assay Commission.

 The Bebees’ proudest moments came near the end of their lives. The ANA chose them as joint recipients of the Farran Zerbe Memorial Award, its highest honor, in 1988 and its Lifetime Achievement Award in 1992. Aubrey Bebee died in 1992, shortly before the latter award was bestowed, and Adeline in 1998.

 Aubrey Bebee made many important purchases through the years. But there was no doubt in his mind that the 1913 nickel was the most satisfying – and most significant – of all his acquisitions.

 “I've had several people high up in the coin business tell me that my purchase of the nickel for $46,000 was the spark that set off rising prices,” he told me in that 1987 interview. “That was just the spark that coin collecting needed. It made collectors and dealers aware of the potential value of rare coins.”

 Bebee always said the 1913 nickel belonged in a museum, so it came as no great surprise when he and his wife donated it to the ANA. Initially, however, he had planned to sell the paper money reference collection – before deciding that it, too, should go someplace where it could be seen and appreciated by the general public. The 1804 dollar was yet another bonus for the ANA Museum.

 Aubrey and Adeline Bebee did keep something that was even more meaningful for them: the large collection of happy memories they built up over their years in numismatics.

 “The most rewarding facet,” Bebee said, “has been the fact we’ve made so many friendships along the way. That’s something money cannot buy.”

 Not even $46,000.

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