Walter Breen's Numismatic Legacy
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The more I read, the more often I run into examples where Walter's research is questioned as faulty, unsupported, or where he is accused of fantasy. I met the man once, as an adult (stress that) , many years ago at an ANA summer seminar. A man of strong opinions to be sure. He has left us with a huge body of research, much of it valuable. I've always considered his books to be "must reads"; however , I wonder, on balance is it better to read his books or not? For that matter do you think his overall numismatic legacy is positive or has he done as much or more harm than good?  

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I agree with Mark's assessment of Walter Breen. His private life was reprehensible, but as a numismatic writer he was and remains a very important figure. During the 1960s and for most of the '70s there were very few numismatic writers who provided collectors with much information beyond "The Red Book."

 

The main experts at that time were Breen and Don Taxay. I learned a lot from Breen's articles, booklets and books. He was a much better writer than Taxay was. His prose was fluid and easy to read. His "Supplement" to Valentine's work on the early half dime varieties brought me many hours of pleasure when I was collecting those coins.

 

Breen could have an active imagination about some of the facts, and he was sometimes wrong about the rarity of certain varieties, but that was not always his fault. When a new variety is discovered about all you can do is describe it and make a guess as to how rare it might be. Over time you might be proven right or wrong as more collectors and dealers inspect their items and make attributions. It is impossible for a researcher, like Breen, to get that right every time.

 

Conversely Breen's pronouncements about some items and his testimonial letters were sometimes motivated more by the fees he received than the truth. I doubt that Breen was always paid for what his services were really worth given the lack of ethics that some sellers displayed in the 1950's, '60s and '70s. Therefore he probably needed the money.

 

Breen should not be roundly condemned as some people like to do. He was an important figure in his time and deserves recognition for the good things he did by modern collectors. Many people like to dump on his greatest work, his encyclopedia. Some of facts in it are wrong, but to date no one was come forward to write anything like it. It still deserves a place on every serious collector's bookshelf.

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Counterpoint: if Breen didn't know something, he would make it up. Numismatic research since his time has been a lot of "I know Breen said this, but this is what it really is...." 

At the time, I think that he may have done some good for the hobby. Today, however, much of his work has been replaced by actual research and facts. 

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34 minutes ago, BillJones said:

Many people like to dump on his greatest work, his encyclopedia. Some of facts in it are wrong, but to date no one was come forward to write anything like it. It still deserves a place on every serious collector's bookshelf.

I would really like to see an updated version of the encyclopedia. However, there is a lot of specialized information that just won't fit into an encyclopedia. 

The new Mega Red Book sorta feels like an step in this direction. 

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2 hours ago, physics-fan3.14 said:

Counterpoint: if Breen didn't know something, he would make it up. Numismatic research since his time has been a lot of "I know Breen said this, but this is what it really is...." 

At the time, I think that he may have done some good for the hobby. Today, however, much of his work has been replaced by actual research and facts. 

I have seen numerous reports that Breen made up material and that is true but to my knowledge only in very rare cases. Perhaps physics-fan3.14 will provide some examples. 

As to much of his work being replaced by “actual research” I think some examples are in order here as well. 

I knew Breen and worked with him on occasional projects from the early 60s. (And no, I did not approve of his other life.) He tried to be careful in his research but it was on a massive scale and errors were bound to occur when his notes got mixed up. This is equally true today.

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I looked at a copy of the "Giant Red Book" and came away disappointed. It does devote a lot of space to copper, but when I got to the gold section the detail seemed to disappear. If you are looking for lots of coverage for the minor coinage, it's quite good. Once you beyond that, not so much.

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9 hours ago, BillJones said:

Many people like to dump on his greatest work, his encyclopedia. Some of facts in it are wrong, but to date no one was come forward to write anything like it.

Something a lot of people don't consider is that although the encyclopedia was published in the 1980's, much of it was written in the 1950's.  Something gets written and then published after others have done another thirty years research, it's going to be seen as full of "errors".

 

48 minutes ago, BillJones said:

 

I looked at a copy of the "Giant Red Book" and came away disappointed. It does devote a lot of space to copper, but when I got to the gold section the detail seemed to disappear. If you are looking for lots of coverage for the minor coinage, it's quite good. Once you beyond that, not so much.

 

From my understanding the first year was heavy on copper, but each subsequent issue is supposed to be heavy in a different area.

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7 hours ago, Conder101 said:

Something a lot of people don't consider is that although the encyclopedia was published in the 1980's, much of it was written in the 1950's.  Something gets written and then published after others have done another thirty years research, it's going to be seen as full of "errors".

 

From my understanding the first year was heavy on copper, but each subsequent issue is supposed to be heavy in a different area.

Not quite right. Some of the research was done in the 1950s but the actual writing was in the years immediately preceding publication. 

Edited by disme

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1 hour ago, RWB said:

The result is that for me, everything Breen wrote has to be "fact checked," much like the present cabal in Washington. Much of Breen's work is exemplary, but "you must know enough to know what to be skeptical of before you can know what he knew." Ya' know what I mean....?

 

If true, his work sounds like it would do definite harm to the uninformed.

Edited by Afterword
old age

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I agree, Roger.  Breen was a person who really didn't care what others thought about him.  It became apparent from his appearances at major events in the Hobby.  The way he dressed, acted, and generally came across to others did not make him any friends.

I can see the skepticism from learned individuals in this profession as being quite warranted.  Back over ten or more years ago, I defended his right to dress or be the way he was. (Hobby wise, not his personal life).  Matter of fact, I knew nothing back then of his lifestyle outside the Hobby.

Now, a little more informed and less quick to shoot my mouth off, I see the reasons for criticism.

There is some good stuff in his book.  The picture of the 1922 no D was always one of my favorites. 

I still like the book as a reference.......it is good reading......but should be taken as a grain of salt and reviewed according to what other learned individuals have commented on and backed up with facts.

Pete

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Breen's encyclopedia remains useful, but it can no longer be considered "authoritative." Today's collectors should be focusing on more modern, properly cited research. After all, if a reader can find the source material they might also discover new and better insights!

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22 hours ago, RWB said:

In the minor bits of research I've done, the approach is to summarize existing material as a background, then start from the beginning in locating original sources plus previously unknown sources. This is not so much of a problem as it might seem since Breen, Taxay and others rarely present any useful sources, and quotations are commonly incomplete or sometimes contain transcription mistakes. Once the sources have told their story, I can go back and see what prior authors have written.

From my research perspective four categories of "issues" occur in Wally Breen's publications: 1) in-fill and extrapolation errors; 2) incomplete data when referenced sources contain much more material; 3) falsehoods and baseless assumptions; and 4) ignorance of Mint, Treasury and economic operations and technology.

The result is that for me, everything Breen wrote has to be "fact checked," much like the present cabal in Washington. Much of Breen's work is exemplary, but "you must know enough to know what to be skeptical of before you can know what he knew." Ya' know what I mean....?

 

Considering his absolutely reprehensible actions--repeatedly and over the course of decades-- I find it not surprising his research contained, for lack of a better phrase, shortcuts.  

One can be told to 'separate the art/book from the artist/writer'...a phrase not surprisingly now used about Breen's wife.  Yes, her writing had much positive impact on people when read in a vacuum.  However, going back with the knowledge of her own proclivities and actions (as admitted under oath even), one can find it reflected in her fiction.  I re-read a few things and it turned my stomach knowing how it related to her actions...not so much fiction as wish-fulfilment-voyeurism (vomit).

As for Breen, it wasn't a 'lifestyle' but an exhibition of a persistent and complete absence of anything but pandering to his own twisted desires at the expense of the most vulnerable.  I suspect that a person with such a lack of a moral compass would not be bothered if he had to 'fill in the blanks'.  Being an expert/guru would bolster a self-important self image...facts/lack of facts being irrelevant if they stood in his way.  Adding incorrect information might even have been a thrill...if he was even conscious of doing so.

Funny this topic is front and center now.  There is a lot of numismatic literature I was thinking of purchasing, and some of Breen's work is included.  On the one hand there is some valuable information, on the other hand the deficits in careful research combined with the disgusting human being he was has not made me enthusiastic to purchase the books.  I might...I'd certainly never buy them new without understanding where any royalties might go (I have no idea about his, his wife's go to a 'trust' that supports an individual complicit in their behavior...).

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On ‎6‎/‎3‎/‎2017 at 3:25 PM, physics-fan3.14 said:

Counterpoint: if Breen didn't know something, he would make it up. Numismatic research since his time has been a lot of "I know Breen said this, but this is what it really is...." 

At the time, I think that he may have done some good for the hobby. Today, however, much of his work has been replaced by actual research and facts. 

Counter, counterpoint. 

I have bought your book, read it, and recommend it.  I see one big difference between you both.  IMO, Breen's work is full of original research while yours is just a rehash job.    

Edited by Insider

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After reading an essay written by Breen's daughter recounting the extreme abuse she and other children were subjected to by Breen and his wife, there is little doubt in my mind that he was a sociopath.  Sociopaths are notorious for lying compulsively about pretty much everything even in the absence of a reason and for trivial things. It does not surprise me that he would be flippant or outright make things up for his books like some of his "specimen" coins that have never garnered mainstream acceptance.  I would be hesitant to rely on anything he has written unless it could be independently corroborated by works from more reputable researchers.  If I had encyclopedic knowledge of all of the minutiae of U.S. coins needed to fact check his works, then I wouldn't really need his books at all.

Edited by coinman_23885

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Walter claimed that Moira, his daughter, was delusional, so it's hard to know who was telling the truth. I knew Walter and met his son, Patrick, on one occasion, but I never encountered Moira. In any case, it was a sad and dysfunctional family, and Walter's legacy will always be overshadowed by his personal life and criminal convictions.

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A dealer told me he would see Breen at Long Beach many years ago. He said if you bought him a bottle, he would give you a certifying letter about your coin......

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2 hours ago, DWLange said:

Walter claimed that Moira, his daughter, was delusional, so it's hard to know who was telling the truth. I knew Walter and met his son, Patrick, on one occasion, but I never encountered Moira. In any case, it was a sad and dysfunctional family, and Walter's legacy will always be overshadowed by his personal life and criminal convictions.

A typical mechanism of a sociopath.  It's not like there was a single accuser with an ulterior motive, delusional or otherwise--but oh many times the sociopath likes to claim the accuser is mentally deficient....  

There was no motive at the time she came forward and his was a pattern of behavior, not some one off thing.  Not that a one off sexual assault on a child is anything to brush off, but here we have a documented pattern of recurrent behavior.  The sociopath is quite skilled at minimizing, deflecting, victim blaming and of course flat out lying in a wonderfully (yuck) believable and charming fashion.  

If you have the stomach for it you can see some of the sworn testimony given by his wife, among other people.  A more foul and disgusting couple is hard to imagine given their assaults on children.  I'm sick whenever I think of how many of his wife's (and her lover's) books I purchased and read when I was younger.

 

11 hours ago, coinman_23885 said:

After reading an essay written by Breen's daughter recounting the extreme abuse she and other children were subjected to by Breen and his wife, there is little doubt in my mind that he was a sociopath.  Sociopaths are notorious for lying compulsively about pretty much everything even in the absence of a reason and for trivial things. It does not surprise me that he would be flippant or outright make things up for his books like some of his "specimen" coins that have never garnered mainstream acceptance.  I would be hesitant to rely on anything he has written unless it could be independently corroborated by works from more reputable researchers.  If I had encyclopedic knowledge of all of the minutiae of U.S. coins needed to fact check his works, then I wouldn't really need his books at all.

 Exactly.  His personal character informs his professional.

My dilemma remains--do I buy the books (knowing a transfer of a used book conveys no royalties to whatever organization owns the rights...and with his history I would have to know), and utilize them with a boulder of salt, or just pass altogether?  I don't collect many US coins other than my type set, but I would like to study US coins more.  Hard to decide if these are the resources to use.

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This brief comment," A typical mechanism of a sociopath.  It's not like there was a single accuser with an ulterior motive, delusional or otherwise--but oh many times the sociopath likes to claim the accuser is mentally deficient...." brings to mind the fellow who helicopters over my house every few days to play golf or have coffee.... :(      Sort of "one cuckoo flying over my nest."

Edited by RWB

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As a child, my Mother always told me, "If you have nothing good to say about anyone, then don't say anything."

She was wise in her ways.

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29 minutes ago, WoodenJefferson said:

As a child, my Mother always told me, "If you have nothing good to say about anyone, then don't say anything."

She was wise in her ways.

Breen did a huge amount of good, largely original research, although his interactions with John Ford indicate an emotionally fragile person with low self–esteem  among other problems.  His personal problems don't seem to have affected the expanse of his body of work. A difficulty with his work - confusing from our present time period - is that he did not use the scholarly research techniques taught at Johns Hopkins in published material. I have not seen any of his manuscripts -- maybe the citations are present and some editor excised them.

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30 minutes ago, WoodenJefferson said:

As a child, my Mother always told me, "If you have nothing good to say about anyone, then don't say anything

My mother said the same thing, but I believe that advice was meant for family, friends, and acquaintances. Don't think it applies to politicians, criminals, unsuccessful Cowboy coaches, and many others.  

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"It's hard to know who was telling the truth."

I don't think so.  Multiple children came forward, there were multiple convictions - all beyond a reasonable doubt - over at least four decades including in some of the most pro-defendant venues in the country, he was a NAMBLA member and keynote speaker, and even the children with the wildest imaginations couldn't make up what he did to Moira.   A leopard doesn't change his spots.  Sociopaths are also very good at convincing others that they are telling truth because they have no conscience and do not show any of the normal physiological signs of lying.  It is like the people in prison that plead their innocence to the point that you almost believe them - until you see the crime scene video footage and DNA evidence linking them to the crime.

Edited by coinman_23885

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4 hours ago, WoodenJefferson said:

As a child, my Mother always told me, "If you have nothing good to say about anyone, then don't say anything."

She was wise in her ways.

Don't think this applies to criminal conduct.  

It's part of what kept letting Breen back into places where he had access to victims...people didn't share information (pre-internet).  Specifically he was banned from some SciFi fandom events but was allowed back as there was concern he was being unfairly maligned (who wants to believe such a paragon is capable of such acts).  Turns out an organizer of subsequent events was not aware of the previous events/arrest and he was back.

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As he is dead, I do not see anything constructive about bringing up his personal transgressions. It certainly contributes nothing of relative interest concerning his ability to research and write about coins.

Edited by Afterword

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I found his main work to be interesting, and expensive but often purloined from libraries, so you are lucky to find a copy at your local library.

On the other hand no one is irreplaceable, if he hadn't been writing what he was you can be sure many would have filled the vacuum.  As it was many competent writers probably saw his work and wondered what's the use of competing with him?  And you know law enforcement could be a lot better to address serious abuse while it is still green and developing, but that's the defect of how many were taught growing up to not rock the boat, report transgressors that in some magical way karma would work itself out without your reporting bad behavior.  Not the way the world works. 

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2 hours ago, Afterword said:

As he is dead, I do not see anything constructive about bringing up his personal transgressions. It certainly contributes nothing of relative interest concerning his ability to research and write about coins.

It is very much relevant to his numismatic legacy.  A propensity for lying affects his credibility.  If he would lie about something important, he would have no reservation about fudging on something related to coins, especially given some of his more controversial attributions which so far have not been substantiated outside of Wally Breen's mind.

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54 minutes ago, coinman_23885 said:

It is very much relevant to his numismatic legacy.  A propensity for lying affects his credibility.  If he would lie about something important, he would have no reservation about fudging on something related to coins, especially given some of his more controversial attributions which so far have not been substantiated outside of Wally Breen's mind.

You mention “controversial attributions which so far have not been substantiated outside of Wally Breen’s mind.” Please name some of these controversial attributions. A half dozen would be nice.

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22 hours ago, Nutmeg Coin said:

I found his main work to be interesting, and expensive but often purloined from libraries, so you are lucky to find a copy at your local library.

On the other hand no one is irreplaceable, if he hadn't been writing what he was you can be sure many would have filled the vacuum.  As it was many competent writers probably saw his work and wondered what's the use of competing with him?  And you know law enforcement could be a lot better to address serious abuse while it is still green and developing, but that's the defect of how many were taught growing up to not rock the boat, report transgressors that in some magical way karma would work itself out without your reporting bad behavior.  Not the way the world works. 

That was not the way the spread of numismatic information was happened in the old days (1960s). A lot of the big dealers kept information to themselves, and as it is today some of them knew less than you might imagine. A few of them, like John Ford, were bad news. Read the book about Eric P. Newman to get the scoop on that. Others had no time for small collectors and kids like me in 1960s.

There were very few books on die varieties and what few there were are often out of print and hard to find. Dr. Sheldon's early date large cent book was the only one that was easy to get in the 1960s. The coin magazines were not great for information. Breen and Taxay were the leading authors. Collectors don't know how great they have it today.

Edited by BillJones

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