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Harvey Stack Remembers:: Growing Up in a Numismatic Family Part 49

R.L. Miles, Jr. (Skinny as I called him)  became a collector when he was employed by his family at the J.H. Miles Oyster Co. in Norfolk, Virginia. The Miles family harvested oysters from Chesapeake Bay for over 150 years. The company had "shuckers" on site, occupying as many as 1,000 sinks, where these workers opened and prepared the oysters for shipping. They were packed in ice to be shipped as far as the available transportation allowed.

 

In the very early days, when Skinny was still a teenager, he was in the cashier’s office and worked with that department in preparing pay envelopes for each employee. While handling the change he became interested in seeing how many different dates and mints he could accumulate.

 

He loved the Barber design half dollar and acquired many in duplicate. He became aware that the years 1914 and 1915 were scarcer than many others, and he started accumulating those dates. Eventually he bought only Proof or Mint State examples, amassing several hundred of each; to him the fun was in getting more than anyone else, not necessarily making a profit.

 

Skinny then became interested in many other coinage series and acquired various pages, boards and albums to seek out coins from circulation. From this beginning he developed into a dedicated numismatist. He read about the famous Eliasberg Collection, which was often on display in banks in the Baltimore area, and he went to view the exhibits when he could. He was impressed that Eliasberg had "all the holes filled" and he set for himself a goal of trying to match that collection. He started buying choice examples as well as rare and extremely rare coins. Skinny would come to New York often. He would buy from the Stack’s inventory and attend sales and bid for coins there. He also enjoyed playing bridge. He and his partner each had high master points and they played in competitions nationwide. Sometimes these bridge matches conflicted with our auction schedule, and Stack’s was entrusted with his bids. We developed a real friendship and he depended on Stack’s to examine coins for his vast and growing collection.

 

A strange thing happened in Norfolk that attracted Skinny’s personal interest. As a naval city, Norfolk was always crowded with naval personnel, shipbuilders and suppliers. During World War II it became somewhat rundown, especially near the vast waterfronts. The city, with help from the banks, decided to try to revive the harbor area and engaged in a large project to rebuild this part of town.

 

In the early 1960s two major banks in Norfolk were the Virginia National Bank (of which R.L. Miles, Jr. was a director) and the Bank of Virginia (which Henry C. Gibson, another coin collector and president of Norfolk Shipbuilding was associated with). Both banks decided to locate their new headquarters in the revived section of Norfolk, to attract more upbeat businesses to that area. It was customary in the 1960s for banks to have in their main offices a museum to attract visitors and contribute to the education of its citizens. Both Miles and Gibson promised to display their coin collections (on loan) as highlights of the bank openings.

 

In mid 1967 Skinny came to me with the news that since he had virtually completed his collection (only the most extreme rarities were not included) he would consider selling the coins while he was still alive. Once he had fulfilled the obligation of the bank display, he was ready to watch others experience the pleasure of ownership that he had always known.

 

In fall 1967, the Middle Atlantic States Numismatic Convention was convened in Norfolk, at Fort Myers, a government site used also as a hotel and exhibition place. I went there with my wife to meet local collectors and dealers, and of course to see Skinny. He attended the first day, looked around and was disappointed in the displays. No rarities were shown; no serious collections were on exhibit. Skinny asked if he could pick me up the next morning and take me to his bank where we could pick out some exciting coins from his display there to create a noteworthy exhibit at the show.

 

So the next morning, he picked me up and we went to the bank and there, in large vaults was his collection. Each series was in large black plastic holders, custom made so he could enjoy each series without damaging the coins or getting finger prints on them. He considered especially important the holders that featured the early issues in each series. Even in 1967 there was a lot of value in these sets. Off we went to the convention, where we put the holders and coins out and from that moment on we had a super display. Collectors and other dealers were impressed by these coins and it gave Stack’s the opportunity to let people know that the items would soon be offered by us at public auction.

 

Skinny said he would pick up the coins and me on Saturday morning and take the coins back to the bank and me to my hotel so I could make my flight home. When Saturday morning rolled around, Skinny had not arrived by noon so I called his wife. She told me that he had been in an all-night bridge match (which he won) and had overslept. We both realized that we did not have time to get the coins back to the bank and for me to make my flight. Instead, he suggested that I take the coins with me and keep them at Stack’s, and then either ship or bring them back for the bank opening in late December. I had to think quickly. What if something happened on the way home? Was I fully insured? I had to make a decision. I got some extra satchels from the hotel and asked a friend to travel with my wife, myself and Skinny’s coins. We got home safely and Norman, who I had contacted before leaving Virginia, met us at LaGuardia Airport and took my wife and me along with the coins into the city to the shop. It was a great relief when we locked the coins in the large vault and went home happy but exhausted.

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