Born in Selma, Alabama, on February 12, 1896, Louis E. Eliasberg moved with his family to Atlanta about 1900, then to Baltimore in 1907. When Louis was in his teens his father died, leaving him in charge of family affairs. The court declared that he could act as an adult in the settlement of the estate, which was modest. In time, he completed high school at Baltimore City College, and then became a runner for the Citizens National Bank of Baltimore. As time permitted, he enjoyed running—and at one time won a challenge by a track star from The Johns Hopkins University.
Louis’ widowed mother married Simon Greif and Louis worked with and learned from the Greif family. His talent was soon recognized, and Louis joined with others in investing $35,000 in the Capital Service Corporation, later renamed the Finance Company of America.
Louis Eliasberg took special courses for a year at the Wharton School of Finance, nominally becoming a member of the Class of 1921. Throughout the ensuing decades he managed the Finance Company of America, with excellent results for the shareholders. Specialties included accounts receivable and automobile financing.
On June 1, 1927, he married Hortense Miller Kahn, following a courtship of several years. The union produced two sons, Louis, Jr., born in April 1929, and Richard, born in December 1931. Both sons later participated in the finance and other family businesses.
Anticipating problems with the economy in the late 1920s, Louis Eliasberg left the automobile credit field and took other measures. During the Depression of the 1930s, the Finance Company of America remained profitable and continued to pay dividends to its stockholders. In August 1933 he was a founding director and investor in the Baltimore National Bank, which later became the Maryland National Bank. He remained on the board as a director, then as an advisory director, until 1974.
By this time, Louis had developed an interest in rare coins, having made selected purchases regularly since about 1925. On March 6, 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt placed an embargo on gold, and Eliasberg’s interest intensified. He took advantage of the legally allowed possibility of acquiring gold coins of special numismatic interest. At the same time he became increasingly concerned for the stability of United States money and the depreciation in value of the paper dollar. He felt that gold coins were an especially good store of value.
At the time the Standard Catalogue of United States Coins, issued by Wayte Raymond in 1934 and continued in later editions, served as a source of information for the mintage figures and market values of American coins, these being Eliasberg’s specialty. In 1936, Charles E. Green, a well-known Chicago dealer, issued the Mint Record and Type-Table: United States Coins, a handy booklet with spaces to enter the grades and prices of coins acquired for a collection. Eliasberg used the dates and mintmarks listed by Green as a guide to what he still needed. The Guide Book of United States Coins, so familiar today, would not be published until years later in 1946.
One-by-one coins were entered into the Mint Record. By the early 1940s, the Eliasberg Collection included a wide representation of pieces in all series. In 1942 the collection of the late John H. Clapp became available. Through Stack’s, of New York, Eliasberg acquired the collection en bloc for $100,000, the largest American numismatic transaction up to that time—a figure not approached even by the William Forrester Dunham Collection auctioned by B. Max Mehl the year before, a rarity-laden event that was the capstone of Mehl’s career.
The Clapp collection had been formed by John M. Clapp, who made his fortune in the 1860s in the oil fields of Pennsylvania, and went on to pursue other interests, including banking in Washington, D.C. After his death in 1906 the collection passed to his son, John H., who added to it, including many gold coins of Mexico, Central America, and South America, from the collection of Waldo C. Newcomer, after the latter’s holdings were put on the market in 1931.
In the 1940s, Louis E. Eliasberg determined to do the seemingly impossible: to complete his collection of United States coins, to include every date, denomination, and mintmark from the first, the 1793 copper half cent, to the last coin minted, including the 1933 double eagle. Through private transactions and auction purchases, such treasures as the 1822 $5, the unique 1870-S $3, the rare 1913 Liberty Head nickel, the famous 1804 silver dollar, and the 1933 $20 were acquired, among others. Finally, in November 1950 the impossible had been accomplished: the United States coin collection was finished!
Among his dealer friends and contacts were Abe Kosoff, Joseph and Morton Stack, Abner Kreisberg, Art Kagin, and John Zug, to mention just several from the 1940s. A complete list would be tantamount to a directory, Who Was Who in American Numismatics.
The April 27, 1953, issue of Life magazine, with its cover depicting the official coronation portrait of Queen Elizabeth II, included a color-illustrated article on the Eliasberg Collection, titled “Gems From the Greatest Collection of U.S. Coins.” The text noted that its owner “began collecting coins as a hobby in 1925, and as his business fortunes prospered, he spent more and more money tracking down the choicest specimens.” After a time, he “finally became undisputed king of the 25,000 numismatists in the U.S.”
The Life article resulted in about 7,000 letters being sent to Eliasberg. Each one was read and answered personally. One was simply addressed on the outside, “King of Coins, U.S.A.” It soon arrived! The “king” title stuck, and in 1996 a biography by Q. David Bowers, Louis E. Eliasberg, Sr.: King of Coins, reflected the tradition. Life magazine reported that it had received more reader comments on this article than any other it ever published, except a 1937 feature about President Roosevelt’s attempt to pack the Supreme Court.
The 1953 Life magazine article may be remembered by numismatists, but Baltimoreans may be most grateful for another Eliasberg activity of that year: he was among a group of local businessmen who acquired the St. Louis Browns baseball team and brought it to Baltimore, renaming it the Baltimore Orioles.
In ensuing years, the Eliasberg Collection was widely exhibited, mostly in banks in Baltimore, Chicago, New Haven, New York, Philadelphia, and Richmond, but also at the Smithsonian Institution in 1960 (where it drew an estimated 1.5 million viewers) and in the centennial year of 1976 at the Philadelphia Mint. In each instance the coins were mounted in specially designed holders, behind glass, in wooden frames securely affixed to stanchions. Visitors could move the frames and see each side of the coins, both the obverse and the reverse. Most other coin displays were in flat cases so the visitor could view only one side. Appropriate security arrangements included attendants and guards. Louis’ long-time secretary, Doris Everding, was often on hand to help answer questions.
On November 7, 1975, at the Evergreen House, the mansion of the Garrett family, now owned by The Johns Hopkins University, Eliasberg gave a presentation, “Why, When and How I Assembled the Most Complete Collection of United States Coins.” He told of the pleasures of collecting along with the fine return the pursuit had earned as a financial investment. “Engraved on the face of the coins of the world is a panorama of man’s history from the dim reaches of ancient times right down to the present,” he noted. Indeed, his cabinet included such coins—depicting persons, places, and things from centuries past. His comments included these:
“If you are a numismatist or coin collector, I hope you will derive the degree of pleasure and happiness I have in assembling my collection.
“In making your purchases you should buy them through reputable dealers. If you invest any significant portion of your assets in rare coins, be sure that you are thoroughly familiar with all aspects of such an operation.”
Gold came in for its share of attention in the 1975 presentation:
“The reason that this precious yellow metal is God to so many people in various parts of the world today—and will continue to be—is that there are too many governments that are trying to cure their social ills with printing press money. Unless some farsighted, unselfish and courageous political forces gain the power to stop the printing of this unredeemable currency, many collectors of gold and silver will possess the equivalent of hundreds of thousands—or even millions—of dollars within the next two decades. Most politicians haven’t any knowledge of the problems of money and are generally more interested in their personal careers and personal greed than in the creation of monetary stability.
Although he never cast himself as such, Eliasberg could hold his own with the best historians in American finance and economics. He could with equal facility tell of the finances of the Civil War era, the Roosevelt administration, or what was happening right now in Washington, pointing out the lessons that could be learned from history, but which were often ignored.”
In another way, Louis’ wife, Hortense, achieved recognition. In an era before women’s liberation she graduated from Goucher College in Maryland, then went on to earn an M.A. in public health from The Johns Hopkins University. Her master’s thesis, “Standards of Care for Convalescent Children,” served as the blueprint for the foundation of the Happy Hills Convalescent Home for Children in Baltimore, known today as the Mount Washington Pediatric Hospital. Hortense Eliasberg died in December 1949.
In later years, Louis E. Eliasberg retired from business and spent much time on hobbies and activities, including fishing, baseball, golf, and playing bridge. In Fort Lauderdale, Florida, he had a vacation home, where he enjoyed his fruit trees and raised orchids. In 1974, he married Lucille Jones, whom he had known for many years and who was the widow of a fine friend.
Louis E. Eliasberg died at home in Baltimore on February 20, 1976, and was widely mourned by his friends and the entire numismatic world.
In 1982 his collection of United States gold coins was auctioned, arranged by Louis E. Eliasberg, Jr. Q. David Bowers’ book, United States Gold Coinage: An Illustrated History, was written in connection with this presentation and went on to become a numismatic best seller. In 1996 and 1997 his American copper, nickel, and silver coins crossed the block, supervised by Richard A. Eliasberg. Today, the prized coins are widely held, following a long numismatic tradition that great collections are usually dispersed, to make their contents available to a new generation of enthusiasts. Indeed, many of the finest pieces in the Eliasberg and Clapp collections had been acquired through the auction route.
In July 1999 in COINage magazine, the results of a survey were published, naming “Numismatists of the Century,” including Eliasberg. The list comprised (in alphabetical order): Q. David Bowers, Virgil Brand, Walter Breen, Henry Chapman, Elvira Clain-Stefanelli, Vladimir Clain-Stefanelli, Thomas L. Elder, Louis E. Eliasberg, Sr., John J. Ford, Jr., David Hall, Abe Kosoff, Chester L. Krause, B. Max Mehl, Eric P. Newman, John J. Pittman, Margo Russell, Richard S. Yeoman, and Farran Zerbe.