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Dec 22 2017

The Portal Opens #4: The Coin Dealer St. Nick

It’s been said that there’s “no Santa Claus in numismatics.” This is true, of course. Except when it’s not.

The quote appears to have originated with Lee F. Hewitt [], the founder and publisher of Numismatic Scrapbook magazine []. While Hewitt used the phrase to caution against numismatic frauds, Lew Werner and James Kelly introduced Santa Claus into numismatics in a much more festive spirit.

 The classic depiction of Santa Claus familiar to modern Americans has existed since the mid 19th century, as seen on some bank notes as early as the mid-1850s and Thomas Nast’s famous cartoons that appeared in 1863 and years following. While St. Nick turned up in advertising soon thereafter, his visage seems to have been missing from numismatic advertising until the 20th century.

 Coca-Cola introduced Santa into their ads in 1931, rebranding Santa as the bringer of good cheer in the commercial space. It didn’t take long for Lewis S. Werner to introduce a numismatic product that depicted a similarly jolly fellow. In the October 1935 issue of The Numismatist [], he first advertised his “Numismatic Christmas Greetings Card,” which he described as “the First Genuine Souvenir Santa Claus Cent Ever Struck.” (It is unclear if it had been preceded by counterfeit souvenir Santa Claus cents.) Werner overstruck Lincoln cents with a die depicting Santa Claus, embedded the cent in a red and green Christmas card, and sold the whole production for 10 cents. The following month, his advertisement [] depicted the souvenir, with a three-quarter portrait of Santa, with a bag thrown over his shoulder, peering out from his overstruck cent through a window in the card that had been carefully aligned above a printed sleigh. His advertisement now offered just the cents, with no attached card, at 5 cents each, or 10 cents for the specially struck pieces with 1935 Denver undertypes.

Werner’s Santa cents returned in 1936 and 1937, then disappeared from the pages of The Numismatist.

James Kelly [] brought Santa back — in full color! — just months after he introduced his new house organ, Kelly’s Coins and Chatter [], in 1948.

Kelly seems to have entered the world of numismatics right about when Lew Werner was selling his Santa Claus cents. He made his first exhibit at a Dayton (Ohio) Coin Club meeting in 1937. By 1938, he was hosting the club at his home and advertising in The Numismatist. His business blossomed by partnering with B.G. Johnson [] to find retail homes for coins taken on consignment, often from the Green and Brand holdings. He opened a store in downtown Dayton in 1940. His first public auction, held the same year, was a modest affair [] that couldn’t have predicted the great success in his future, including six different American Numismatic Association convention auctions and the headline-grabbing sale of the McDermott 1913 nickel in 1967.

The inaugural issue of Kelly’s Coins and Chatter came just three months after the beginning of his correspondence with Eric P. Newman which, unsurprisingly, was inspired by a request to inspect some English halfpence that were to be offered in an upcoming Kelly auction. 

Kelly’s house organ made its debut in June 1948 []. “Meet My Baby,” Kelly’s first headline announced, promising a bi-monthly publication that would “bring you news and information on Numismatics, along with coins sensibly priced and honestly graded.” It grew along with his business relationship with Newman, and just over a year after its introduction, Newman and Kelly closed their first trade: a swap of four common date double eagles for a 1786 Immunis Columbia copper with New Jersey reverse, Maris 3-C. Initially acquired for the equivalent of $140, it brought 1000 times as much — $141,000 — when sold in Newman V in November 2014. []

In retrospect, maybe there is a Santa Claus in numismatics, and maybe Jim Kelly was it. Newman’s letters to him show regret that Kelly was practically dropping down people’s chimneys and giving colonial coins away. In a July 1949 letter to Kelly, Newman noted “it is certainly a shame that there are not enough people collecting Colonials to appreciate this lovely material which you are sacrificing. Of course, in due time, they will be craving for these, but in the present they would rather pay the same money for some idiotic mint mark.”

It is only appropriate that the most Kris Kringle-centric publication in the history of numismatics came the year that the relationship between Kelly and Newman first kindled. Printed in red on green paper, with a bold illustration of Santa at center, the December 1948 issue of Kelly’s Coins and Chatter proclaimed wishes of “Merry Christmas to one and all: Here’s hoping Santa fills your stocking with health, happiness, and the many other things needed to make life more pleasant.”

To add to Kelly's best holiday wishes, here's hoping your prized purchase for 2018 is worth 1000 times more in 65 years, and that Santa doesn't fill your stocking with some idiotic mint mark.

John Kraljevich, 2017