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Harry W. Bass, Jr.

Although I had been in and out of the Stack’s stores as a youngster, I began working full-time with my father, Morton, and my Uncle Joseph B. Stack in 1947 when the firm they had founded in 1933 was located at 12 West 46th Street. Stack’s had already outgrown its downtown starting point at 690 Sixth Avenue and its first midtown premises at 32 West 46th. Before very long, changing patterns of businesses located on 46th Street would make another move necessary, but for now this location near the bustling Diamond District seemed ideal.

Harry W. Bass, Jr. was a great numismatist and scholar. He loved United States gold coins. Studying the many varieties of early coins was his special interest and in time he built the largest collection of early gold coin die state varieties ever assembled.

He enjoyed visiting the Stack family whenever he was in New York. He spent hours studying our inventory and photo library. We have the only photographic collection of the Colonel E.H.R. Green Collection of gold coins, an amazing cabinet assembled from the second decade of the 20th century through the 1930s. It revealed much information not hitherto widely known, if indeed known at all.

Harry was a good friend and client. He also gave Stack’s the opportunity to be one of his agents at the United States Gold Coin Collection (Louis Eliasberg Collection) sale, held in New York in 1982. Harry was sure that if he bid himself, others not as knowledgeable as him would use his bidding as a “crutch” to bid against him. He didn’t want to educate his competition.

Harry asked me to represent him at the sale and gave me a list of special lot numbers he wanted me to bid on. When I asked him for his limits, he said “Just watch me.” We made up a special signal. He wore his jacket and a handkerchief in his breast pocket. Whenever we came to a lot he wanted, he would signal by touching the handkerchief in his pocket. When he removed his hand, I was to stop bidding. I could only bid when he was touching his handkerchief.

I was not sitting near him. He sat in the front row and I positioned myself five rows behind him with a good view of the handkerchief in his pocket. The plan worked perfectly for the first part of the sale and I acquired for him a good many coins.

The tense moment arrived when the unique 1870-S three-dollar gold coin was offered. I knew from my list to bid on it. When the bidding opened at about $120,000 and started to advance toward $200,000, Harry did nothing. I waited. As the bidding approached $300,000, he moved his hand to the handkerchief and held on to it. I began bidding and continued in $25,000 increments until it reached $425,000, and suddenly his hand dropped, and the bidding advanced to $500,000. Once again, Harry’s hand returned to the handkerchief and dropped after I bid $575,000 for him. A bid came at $600,000 and the room gasped. Harry didn’t move. The auctioneer was calling for “anymore” and just as the gavel was about to drop, Harry’s hand returned to the handkerchief and I immediately bid $625,000 and won. The applause that followed showed the excitement we all felt in the room. Stack’s was given credit for the purchase, and it was only later that year that Harry revealed that he was the buyer.

Whenever Harry came to New York, he would stay at the Hotel Salisbury, which is immediately adjacent to our 57th Street store, so he visited us often. In fact, when he was working at the American Numismatic Society on a pet project he had, developing a computer inventory of the Society’s coins, he would spend months in New York. The Society closed each day at 4:00 pm. Harry would take a cab over to our offices, sit and talk numismatics with the Stacks, until closing each evening at 5:30 pm. These casual conversations only enhanced our friendship and gave us greater understanding of Harry’s love for his collection and collectors.

When we heard he wasn’t well in 1998, we inquired often about his health and spoke to him whenever we could on the phone, friend to friend. We sincerely remember him as a dear friend and miss him greatly, but the numismatic knowledge he assembled and shared with all will always be his legacy to the hobby.

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