In the previous parts of this story about Ellis Robison and his wonderful collection of United States coins, I tried to emphasize the connection of this collector’s pride in assembling a major coin collection, and his desire to transfer the value of that collection to the growth of athletics and education at the institutions he supported. In this part I will take a break from discussing his coins, and tell a little bit more about the man himself.
Knowing this man as I did was an experience in itself. He lived in Troy, New York, a small city that had not yet gone "modern" — the structures of the downtown area reflected New England influence during the 19th century. His office was in a three-story building on Main Street, constructed of the old brick one encounters in many early New England towns.
When you walked into the building, you encountered a huge work area for employees to conduct their business in. Within 12 feet of the entrance door, a beautiful waist high railing of mahogany separated visitors from the staff work area. In the center of the railing stood a huge wooden telephone switchboard with a operator in constant attendance. Remarkably, it was an old type switchboard that the operator had to plug in to answer calls or make announcements from. It really took me back in time.
Once announced I was escorted by one of the secretaries into the office that Ellis Robison (Roby) occupied. It was a huge room with a large desk that he worked at. The balance of the room was wood-paneled, and in the center stood a enormous conference table, which could readily seat two dozen people. All was reminiscent of the late 19th century.
We sat at his desk (from which he cleared some papers), talked about my car trip up, how the roads were, and the weather that might greet me on my return trip. He then asked, "What did you bring me this time?" Of course he knew about the auction lots I had bought for him a week or two earlier, as well as a large box of recent acquisitions purchased in our shop. He reviewed each coin slowly, asked about the grade of each, checked the auction lots off his want list and then asked to review the balance. He worked with me for several hours, rejected a few that did not look sharp enough for his liking or had tarnish that did not please him. Once the delivery was completed and his coin selections finalized, he would ask, " How about lunch? You must be hungry after your drive up and working here with me for a few hours." This was a similar pattern to many of my visits. He loved his coins and enjoyed when someone like me visited and spent time talking numismatics. As he always told me: “Coins are the best medicine I can take. I forget the business of the day and relax and enjoy so much the building of my collection.”
We then left the office, walked a block or so to an old Masonic Building (also located near the center of town), which was his favorite place for lunch. The building was no doubt built a half a century before Roby’s antique building out of large granite block with stained glass windows and a huge entrance door. Inside the furnishings were almost as the day it was built, giving it a very warm feeling. The lunch area was surrounded by huge wooden tables and chairs. As we proceeded to what was HIS favorite table, he was greeted by waves of the hand, handshakes and calls such as "Roby, who is the captive today?" Roby explained to me that mostly bankers, doctors, college and university presidents and some of their staff usually met and lunched in this old Masonic Lodge building. All had been friends for many years and most knew something or everything about each other and spoke to each other with friendship and understanding.
One called out, "Tell us who is with you today." Roby responded with a warm smile on his face, "This my guru who has guided me with my coin collection. I want it to be as good as I can afford, for someday your schools will receive these coins as a gift after I am finished with them. If I do my job well, with of course Mr. Stack’s guidance, you guys will come into a great donation from my wife Doris and myself, after Mr. Stack’s firm, Stack’s of New York, auctions it off for you. I will then have a wonderful catalog or two as a remembrance of my efforts.”
At the time I said to myself, “I could not get better publicity as a qualified numismatic company, to such an elite group of people even if I spent many thousands of dollars to exploit our name to such an assemblage.” I know that several collections owned by institutions were referred to us and sold by us in ensuing years.
I wanted to add t his part of the story, as my visits to Roby and the people I met impressed me so. I wanted to tell what type of gentleman built the Robison Collection, what it meant to him, and what both the man and the collection meant to me. Next week I will get back to telling about the collection.