DECADES OF COLLECTING HAVE EARNED ALAN WEINBERG A SPOT AMONG THE HOBBY’S TOP COIN AND MEDAL COLLECTORS
Story by David Stone ● Photographs by Axel Koester
Over nearly six decades, Alan Weinberg has formed one of the most fascinating collections of American coins and medals, a collection known across the hobby for its rare and quality pieces.
“Alan is arguably one of the most impressive rare coin collectors of all time,” says Heritage Auctions’ Executive Vice President Todd Imhof. “He is a passionate connoisseur but at the same time he tempers his desire to acquire items with intelligence and research.”
This approach has made Weinberg a top collector and authority on early coppers, Colonials, 1792 patterns and medals of many series. “Alan has long understood the importance of acquiring items that strike a balance between historical significance, popularity, quality and true rarity,” Imhof adds. “He has always focused his interest in ‘true rarity,’ such as early Americana issues, rather than ‘conditional rarities,’ such as modern issues that are only rare in the very highest grades.”
As Weinberg prepares to sell Part I of his collection through Heritage Auctions at January’s Florida United Numismatists Convention in Orlando (with Part II going to auction at the 2020 show), Weinberg took time to discuss his numismatic journey and the colorful personalities he has encountered along the way.
EYE FOR QUALITY
Like most great collectors, Weinberg came to the hobby at an early age. His collecting habits back then were innovative and somewhat unorthodox. “I started collecting Lincoln cents in junior high,” he recalls, “influenced by a good friend who was a collector and used to ask to check my change in the lunch cafeteria every day. I dipped my pennies in vinegar and taped them to shirt cardboard.”
Weinberg soon adopted more conventional means of preserving his coins. He also developed a remarkable eye for quality at an early date, establishing an ironclad principle of personally inspecting every item he purchased for his collection. “I quickly learned in 1960 never to buy or bid on an item that I couldn’t examine in-hand,” he says. “At that time, I bought at auction from a major dealer a ‘Proof’ 1829 half dime for $50 that was actually a polished circulated coin. I never returned it and considered it a good lesson, which I’ve followed all these years. Either attend the auction or arrange to examine the piece beforehand.”
Weinberg’s interests quickly progressed to more advanced numismatic series and he graduated to collecting 1793 large cents by variety within a year after he started collecting. By the time he finished high school, he was an advanced student of Colonial coinage, making large purchases from some of the most prominent collectors and dealers of the time.
“I met [prominent collector/dealers] Dick Picker and Bill Anton Jr. in high school and started spending up to $3,000 for individual rare Colonials,” he says. “I recall Billy taking me to dinner in the early ’60s and laying out seven genuine 1737 Colonial Higleys on the table in the candlelight, my pick at $3,750. I bought a nice 1737 Axe Higley. I also recall talking to Dave Bowers on the frat house payphone and buying two mint red 1804 half cents from him for $125 each following his return from a European buying trip.”
Weinberg experienced one outstanding disappointment in his early years in the hobby. In June 1962, the summer he graduated from high school, he received a call from Picker, who offered him the Virgil Brand specimen of the 1787 Brasher Doubloon for $14,000. Weinberg did not have the money to purchase the coin at that time, so he regretfully passed on the opportunity. Shortly thereafter, Picker sold the coin to Jack Friedberg, president of Capitol Coin Company. “That was the greatest disappointment of my 58 years in numismatics and it has haunted me all these years.”
Similar Brasher Doubloons today can fetch more than $3 million.
Weinberg established a strong work ethic as a young man, working behind the counter at the snack bar of the neighborhood pool when he was 14. He later pursued a variety of summer jobs, including working for the construction company of coin collector William Anton Sr. He still has his “Anton scar” on his wrist from that experience. He enrolled in law school after college, but he was drafted into the Army at the height of the Vietnam War. Fortunately, he was stationed in Germany, serving for two years of active duty at the Frankfurt 97th General Hospital. He was able to keep in touch with numismatics from there, having his father represent him at a New Netherlands auction where he acquired handsome specimens of the 1793 and 1802 half cents.
Dealers continued to send him valuable coins to examine while he was overseas. Chicago dealer Ed Milas actually mailed him a Choice AU 1793 Chain cent on approval at $20,000 while he was serving in Germany.
When his military service was completed, Weinberg drove cross-country to California and joined the Los Angeles Police Department in December 1970. His plan was to approach criminal law from both directions – school and the street. As it turned out, he had a real affinity for police work and made that his career. Weinberg says he never returned to law school because he felt he was more effective in the field. Police work afforded him the opportunity to earn extra time off, which he used to attend coin shows across the country. He retired from the LAPD in 1991 at 46 years old, after 20 years on the street.
FOCUSING ON THE CHALLENGE
One of Weinberg’s early mentors was numismatic book specialist Aaron Feldman, and Weinberg took his dictum “buy the book before the coin” to heart. He completed a full set of plated large-format Chapman catalogs in superb condition, paying no more than $175 for the most expensive items. Feldman later assisted Weinberg in selling his library to a young Harry Bass, who was a relative newcomer to the hobby at the time. A later mentor was John Jay Ford Jr., one of the most knowledgeable dealers of the time, but Weinberg’s buying philosophy was much different from Ford’s.
“In all my years of serious collecting, and I was never casual about it,” Weinberg says, “I am proud to say I never once bought a numismatic item for investment and that, in fact, investment was the last objective of any acquisition. I bought an item for its challenge to acquire, its absolute rarity, its aesthetics, top condition and historical importance. To sum it up, pride of ownership.”
Ford was a canny businessman and always tried to buy low and trade in his favor. When they competed, as they sometimes did because their collecting interests were similar, Weinberg’s willingness to pay a fair price for his acquisitions often made the difference. He won several rare medals that Ford bowed out on, or was not even offered.
Weinberg’s collecting philosophy also leaves him with mixed feelings about third-party grading. He understands the virtues of the system and acknowledges that it has prevented many abuses, like his experience with the 1829 “Proof” half dime. However, he prefers to collect “raw” coins that can be viewed and appreciated without the interference of the holder. Because investment is not his objective, he has little interest in crossing over grading services and upgrading coins in his collection. Most of his best pieces will be certified for the first time for the upcoming Heritage auctions.
SUPPORT WHERE IT COUNTS
Weinberg married his wife Linda in 1976 in New Jersey. The first stop they made on their honeymoon trip down the East Coast was the 1976 ANA Convention in New York. Linda collects designer shoes, purses, clothing and high-end costume jewelry. They have been happily married for 41 years and enthusiastically support each other’s collecting activities. “She has never once questioned my purchases,” Weinberg says.
In 1983, Weinberg scored one of his greatest numismatic triumphs when he purchased his 1792 Silver Center cent. The coin is considered the fifth finest of 13 known examples, and one of the two finer specimens is included in the National Numismatic Collection at the Smithsonian Institution, forever out of the reach of eager collectors. The coin was in the estate of Loye Lauder, a reported heir to the Lauder cosmetics fortune and one of the few female collectors to pursue early coppers and Colonial coins. Lauder kept her collecting activities very much under the radar before her death in 1964.
Few collectors knew of Loye Lauder, Weinberg says, and eyebrows were raised when her estate consigned her collection to an antique dealer that at the time rarely, if ever, handled rare coins. “Her auction was held three days after Stack’s remarkable John Roper Colonial auction,” Weinberg says. “Unbelievably, the format was a ‘Dutch auction’ – where the coin up for sale is offered at a high start price and, if no takers, keeps dropping until someone raises their arm.”
The Judd-1 Silver Center cent opened at $70,000 and dropped incrementally to $40,000, at which point Weinberg’s agent, Bill Anton, raised his hand and it was quickly hammered to him, with other dealers sitting there astonished. “There was a 10 percent buyer’s fee, so I paid $44,000 for a coin I’d authorized Bill to pay up to $77,000 for,” Weinberg says. “A week later, a prominent dealer at the Lauder sale called to offer me a $10,000 profit. I declined.”
Weinberg continues collecting passionately, but his collecting emphasis is steadily evolving. Currently, he feels he has limited opportunities in his pursuit of Colonials and early coppers. Quoting his friend, noted coin collector Walter Husak, Weinberg remarks, “I’ve hit a brick wall.” He feels anything he still needs in numismatics is so rare and expensive that it is beyond his scope now, with his old-time memories of what was once available and at what price. Hence his decision to sell his main collection. A long-time friendship and trusted business relationship with Imhof and Heritage Co-chairman Jim Halperin convinced Weinberg to choose Heritage as his auction firm.
But make no mistake. Weinberg’s passion for collecting remains strong, and he is pursuing new areas of interest with great enthusiasm. “I have found a new field that satisfies all my collecting needs – early, rare, top-quality American political brooches, ambrotypes, ferrotypes and pewter rims, the crème-de-la-crème of politicals. I firmly believe this field is where rare coin collecting was back in the 1960s.”
DAVID STONE is a numismatic cataloger at Heritage Auctions who has written for The Numismatist and Coin World.
This story appears in the Winter 2018-2019 edition of The Intelligent Collector magazine. Click here to subscribe to the print edition