Eric Pfeiffer Newman

The Scotsman, November 20, 2017 | Go to article overview

Eric Pfeiffer Newman


I t was just a strange old coin, a copper-nickel Indian Head minted in 1859, when the US government was trying out different metals for one-cent pieces. A grandfather gave it to Eric Pfeiffer Newman in 1918, when he was seven, a little bonus for his nickel-a-week allowance.

For almost a century, Newman called the fascinating old penny his first numismatic inspiration, a doorway to the past that took a boy from St Louis into a life of curiosity, travel and adventure and made him one of America's most distinguished authorities on the art and history of coinage and paper money.

He went on to scour the United States and visit more than 150 countries to explore the relationships between money and the societies and cultures it served. He died on Wednesday at his home just outside St Louis, in Clayton, Missouri, where he had lived all his life. He was 106.

To anyone who imagines numismatists are hopeless romantics searching for coins in shipwrecks, musty attics and old curiosity shops, Newman was the antithesis: the author of books and scholarly articles and a consummate intellectual with an encyclopaedic memory, a passion for history, the instincts of a relentless detective and the sharp eye of a trader in antiquarian treasures.

He tracked down promissory notes issued by a wealthy Philadelphian who had secured his place in history as a major financier of the Revolutionary War and the national government in its fragile early days. He found 19th-century American gold and silver coins that matched French and Italian weights, and deduced that they were prototypes for a trans-Atlantic currency, a kind of Eurodollar that never succeeded.

He also discovered Ohio and Connecticut bank notes engraved with what were almost certainly John James Audubon's earliest published illustrations of a bird.

He documented Benjamin Franklin's central role in developing American currency by printing intricate leaf patterns to foil counterfeiters in the 1730s. He studied African-American influences on the nation's money, notably that of Blanche Kelso Bruce, a former slave whose signature as Register of the Treasury appeared on all United States currency from 1881 to 1898.

He wrote books on fakes: The Fantastic 1804 Dollar (1962, with Kenneth E Bressett), about a coin actually struck in 1834 to make diplomatic gifts, and The Secret of the Good Samaritan Shilling (1959), about a bogus 1652 Massachusetts coin exposed by Newman as a 1750s imitation.

In his dry wit, he called it "a muled restrike of a reproduction of an erroneous drawing, copied from a conjured illustration of a genuine coin."

Newman also found real riches beyond his dreams — a 1776 silver dollar minted by the Continental Congress and a 1792 penny with a silver center (each fetched $1.4 million); a 1796 blue-and-gold quarter with mirror-like surfaces ($1.5m); and a set of five 1913 Liberty Head nickels (more than $3m each). He sold his entire collection in a series of auctions since 2013 for $72m.

From the proceeds, he committed millions to the Newman Money Museum, which he founded in 2006 at Washington University in St Louis, and to a numismatic educational society he founded in 1959. …

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