It was 77 years ago this month that one of the most famous coin collections of the mid 20th century was sold. While it never achieved the fame or recognition of the Eilasberg, Garrett, or Norweb collections, it contained some of the greatest American rarities ever offered and was the highest grossing auction up to that time.
We are referring to the W.F. Dunham Collection, sold in June, 1941 by B. Max Mehl of Ft. Worth, Texas. It was offered in a massive 288-page, gold colored catalog that, for one of the first times, integrated the photograph of the coin with the description, rather than grouping all the photographs on plates in the back of the catalog. While by today’s standards, the black and white photos are hardly inspiring, for 1941, they were quite good.
Mr. Dunham was one of America’s pre-eminent numismatists. Born in Vermont in 1857, he later became one of the leading druggists in Chicago. He was active in the ANA, serving as Chairman of the Board of Governors in 1910. After retiring in 1916, he traveled extensively around the world, and wrote extensively on Encased Postage Stamps, Hard Times Tokens and Canadian Coins and Tokens before passing away in October 1936 at the age of 79.
Among the many highlights were the Dexter specimen of the famed 1804 Silver Dollar, the 1822 Half Eagle (from the famous 1890 Parmelee Sale), a gold Proof Set of 1875, a complete set of Quarter Eagles, three varieties of the Stella $4 Gold piece, a complete set of $3 Gold pieces, a magnificent 1802 Half Dime, an 1884 Trade Dollar, an 1841 Quarter Eagle, a full run of Half Eagles from 1818 to 1834, and a Gem Proof Kellogg $50. (Remember at this point, all five 1913 Liberty Nickels were still in Col. Green’s estate, being avidly sought by Eric Newman.)
Now, most surprising to the modern reader will be fact that the entire sale realized a mere $83,364! Even if you adjust for inflation using the government’s CPI Inflation Calculator, you come up with only $1,426,760. Not even enough to cover half of the 1804 Silver Dollar today. It’s hard to say what the collection might bring today, but I believe it’s safe to say it would easily exceed $20,000,000 as four or five of the top coins in the sale would come to half that figure.