SENIOR NUMISMATIST, HERITAGE AUCTIONS
Interview by David Stone
Mark Borckardt has had a long and distinguished career in numismatics, dating back more than 40 years. He recently received the prestigious honor of Numismatist of the Year for 2020 from the American Numismatic Association. We asked Borckardt to give us his take on some of the highlights of his career and what he thinks about the future of the hobby.
How did you first become interested in numismatics?
My dad was a Presbyterian minister who did supply ministry, serving churches during times of vacancy, or when pastors took vacation. I attended many churches during my youth. At one of those churches, in southeastern Michigan, a church member gave me a 1964 Guide Book (Redbook). I soon began collecting Lincoln cents. I eventually joined the local coin club in Findlay, Ohio, and attended school coin club meetings.
Who did you learn the most from in those early years?
Early mentors included Roger Zorn, a part-time dealer and member of the Blanchard Valley Coin Club in Findlay, Ohio, the late Norman Talbert, who operated Great Lakes Coin Company, and Early American Coppers Club member John Wright, who continues to mentor me today. To each of them, I extend a big thank you.
What was your early career like?
It was part-time from roughly 1970 to 1980, traveling with my dad and with Roger Zorn. We attended weekend coin shows as dealers, primarily in Ohio, Indiana and Michigan. Those early years provided my initial numismatic education.
What was the best day of your numismatic life?
The best day was in August 1988, and it was disguised as the worst day of my numismatic life. That was the day that the Findlay, Ohio, coin shop my dad and I operated burned down. That event opened the door for my employment at Bowers and Merena Galleries, and eventually for my current Heritage employment.
You are the only numismatist to play a major part in cataloging both the Louis E. Eliasberg and Eric P. Newman Collections. Can you compare and contrast those experiences?
At an early age, Newman was mentored by Burdette G. Johnson, who told him that he couldn’t buy a coin until he could recite the history of that coin. Newman, the collector, and Johnson, the dealer, worked closely together and held a lifelong friendship and bond. Newman started collecting in about 1922 when he was 11 years old.
Eliasberg operated a finance company and began collecting in about 1925 when he was nearly 30 years old. Eliasberg went on to form the only complete collection of U.S. coins known at the time he was living.
Who are some of the other great collectors or collections you have worked with over the years?
Eugene H. Gardner sold his first collection with Stack’s in 1965. After rekindling his numismatic interest in the 1990s, he went on to form a world-class collection of copper and silver coinage, with many of the finest known examples. Heritage handled his collection over a series of four sales in 2014 and 2015.
The Harry W. Bass Jr. Collection ranks among the greatest gold coin collections ever formed. Bass also collected currency and patterns. I was extensively involved, working with those coins being sold, as well as the coins retained by the Bass foundation and displayed at the American Numismatic Association Money Museum.
Many other collectors come to mind, including John Adams, Al Boka, Steven Duckor, Dale Friend, Walter Husak, James McClure, Donald Partrick, Edward Price, James Bennett Pryor, Wesley Rasmussen, Jules Reiver and Alan Weinberg.
What was it like to help identify the “lost” Walton 1913 Liberty nickel that Heritage sold for more than $3 million in 2013?
Am I dreaming? In May 2003, Bowers and Merena Galleries President Paul Montgomery told me that a $1 million reward was being offered to find the missing 1913 Liberty nickel. I told him it would never work, thinking we would not find the nickel. He replied that of course it would work, thinking we would promote the ANA convention and auction. The promotion worked and we found the nickel. Initially the plan was to display the four 1913 nickels at the convention in Baltimore.
I remember thousands of phone calls and emails claiming to have the missing nickel. One email stood out above all the others. It included photos that convinced us we needed to see the actual coin. The family members were nieces and nephews of George Walton, so we agreed to meet in Baltimore at the start of the convention. The moment I looked at the coin, I was certain it was the real, missing 1913 Liberty nickel. Paul Montgomery and John Dannreuther also looked at the coin and agreed. Paul then scheduled an authentication meeting with Dannreuther and myself, adding David Hall, Jeff Garrett and Fred Weinberg. The six of us sat at a table with all five 1913 Liberty nickels, passing them back and forth for nearly an hour. We knew that such an event would never happen again, and we were going to enjoy it for as long as possible.
You have described most of the great rarities in American coinage in your long career. Which coin did you take the most satisfaction in cataloging?
I have been fortunate to catalog 80 of the 100 Greatest U.S. Coins per the book by my friends Jeff Garrett and Ron Guth. It is difficult to narrow down that list to a single coin, but I suppose cataloging the Walton 1913 nickel was extraordinarily satisfying.
Somewhere around the year 1972, I recall traveling with my father to a coin convention in Chicago. On display were a 1913 nickel, an 1894-S dime and an 1804 silver dollar. I was awestruck. Having the opportunity to catalog each of those coins was certainly satisfying.
Honorable mention goes to the Gold Rush Collection that Heritage handled in January 2005. I had just joined the staff and came to the office one day to find not one, but two, Brasher doubloons on my cataloging to-do-list. Actually, there was also a third example, the “Lima-Style” Brasher doubloon. The three coins realized just over $6 million. I look back today and think that that was my introduction to life with Heritage. Wow.
Are there any “ones that got away” that you particularly regret?
They aren’t really “ones that got away” but I would certainly relish the opportunity to catalog the other 20 greatest U.S. coins. Of course, several of those are unique and reside in the Smithsonian Institution.
What special projects are you working on right now?
I have always wanted a single reference that would allow identification of all early coinage varieties from 1792 to 1836. I am working on just such a compilation. I am also researching a “catalog” of employees who worked at the first U.S. Mint from 1792 to 1832, combining my numismatic and genealogy interests.
First presented in 1995, the American Numismatic Association presents its Numismatist of the Year Award “to recognize individuals within the numismatic community who have demonstrated long-term leadership in the field and to the Association. Winners, the ANA says, “have clearly demonstrated outstanding leadership in the field of numismatics spanning a career of at least 20 years.” Previous winners include some of the hobby’s most notable names, including Eric P. Newman, Q. David Bowers, Chester “Chet” Krause, Kenneth Bressett, Mark Salzberg, Ron Guth and Clifford Mishler. The ANA plans to honor Borckardt at the ANA Worlds’ Fair of Money, scheduled for Aug. 4-10 in Pittsburgh.
How do you see the hobby evolving in the future?
Several decades ago, we would jokingly tell callers to hold the coin closer to the phone so that we could see it better. Now, that is possible. A quarter-century ago, Heritage co-chairman Jim Halperin, who saw the future of on-line technology, devoted exceptional resources to developing the company’s internet presence. I expect that the collectibles hobbies, coins and other collectibles, will continue to evolve with technology, although it is hard to imagine what technological advances will take place. Individual ownership of collectibles remains highly important.
Any advice for collectors just starting out?
Don’t be in a hurry to spend your money buying coins. Instead, begin by learning, reading and watching. Find a mentor who might help you along. Then when you are starting your own collection, be extremely critical of what you buy. Look for choice quality coins, regardless of the grade. Always keep the end game in mind. When the day comes to sell your collection, you will want a collection of coins that everyone else will want. Coins with problems will always have problems, while choice quality coins will remain in demand.
Most readers of The Intelligent Collector magazine collect coins or other items as a hobby. For you, it is a career. What are your hobbies?
I’ve had a 50-year love affair with the sport of bowling since venturing to a local bowling center for a middle-school gym class. I consider myself a mediocre participant, averaging about 210 in my local leagues, with 10 sanctioned 300 games.
A little over a decade ago, I became interest in genealogy. Initially the goal was to leave a little family information for my children and grandchild. Along the way, I have discovered seven direct ancestors that served in the Revolutionary War, and while some documentation is still pending, my ancestry can apparently be traced back to the Middle Ages.
DAVID STONE is a numismatic cataloger at Heritage Auctions who has written for The Numismatist and Coin World.
This article appears in the Fall 2019 edition of The Intelligent Collector magazine. Click here to subscribe to the print edition.