USA Coin Album: The Numismatic Legacy of Robert Friedberg - Part 1

Posted on 2/14/2017

The man who brought coin collecting to your local department store.

Robert Friedberg
Click image to enlarge.

The name Robert Friedberg is indelibly linked to the standard catalogs he wrote in his lifetime and that are still being updated today. To paper currency dealers and collectors he’s the original author of the popular book Paper Money of the United States, which debuted in 1953. Coin enthusiasts know him for his reference Gold Coins of the World, a presence on the numismatic scene since 1958. Both publications established standard numbering systems which are recognized worldwide. New editions are published regularly, with sons Arthur and Ira Friedberg as co-editors. When Robert Friedberg suffered an untimely death at the age of 50 in 1963, he was widely mourned by his peers, and the Professional Numismatists Guild subsequently named its literary award in his honor.

Less well known, however, is Robert Friedberg’s role in popularizing numismatics with the general public, particularly the collecting of coins. Collectors who’ve been in the hobby for 30 years or more will likely remember when many retail stores had a stamp and coin department set amid the offerings of clothes and crockery. Some of the most memorable locations included Gimbels in New York City, Philadelphia and Milwaukee, Marshall Field in Chicago and J. L. Hudson in Detroit. These stores carried a good stock of United States and world coins, as well as the various books and supplies needed for their enjoyment.

In my own experience, the place to go was The Emporium in downtown San Francisco. (My father took me there on Saturdays, and our walk to the store from the parking garage included a pleasant stroll past the old San Francisco Mint building before it was restored as a museum). Only the most generic and common coins were on display, the better material being stored in boxes located against the back wall. When I requested a particular coin issue, the salesperson would bring out a manila envelope measuring about 2.5”x3”. Inside of this was another envelope exactly 2”x2” inches, and inside it was the coin. The small envelope went to me when I purchased the coin, while the larger one was retained by the clerk for inventory control.

Jacques Minkus
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These stamp and coin departments were concessions owned by famed stamp titan Jacques Minkus, who opened his very first stamp counter at Gimbels on Herald Square in 1931. By 1945, this operation had been expanded to include coins, and two years later Minkus hired Robert Friedberg to manage coin purchases and sales. The formula was so successful for Minkus that he and Friedberg created similar franchises in department stores around the country. At its height, this chain included 38 locations nationwide.

Each stamp and coin department was never owned by the store in which it was located. Instead, it was a concession that was managed by stamp and coin professionals hired by Minkus and Friedberg, respectively. Each store took a percentage of the sales, and the rest went back to the two principals. Store managers were allowed to buy material over the counter, but this had to be sent back to New York and then redistributed as needed throughout the chain. The names Minkus and Friedberg were never mentioned, and their role in this operation was known only to insiders. Robert Friedberg had founded Capitol Coin Company as a teenager in 1931, and it was the supplier of all coins sent to the various department stores. Even this name was not used, however, and managers were paid by various intermediary companies, the names of which meant little to the hobby.

Click image to enlarge.

Imagine the delight of a non-numismatist shopping at a downtown or suburban department store and suddenly coming upon little dishes filled with Columbian half dollars, Indian Head cents or Mexican “cap-and-rays” pesos. It’s easy to picture that person making a small purchase, perhaps a plastic bag containing ten different Liberty Head nickels, and then bringing them home to share with his or her family. How many enthusiastic coin collectors were created through such unanticipated exposure is difficult to determine, but the number must have been in the many thousands. By bringing the activity of numismatics to where people already shopped, and staffing these stores with friendly and often quite knowledgeable salespeople, Robert Friedberg contributed immeasurably to the hobby’s growth.

Changes in the philatelic and numismatic hobbies that began in the 1970s and accelerated in the ‘80s ultimately brought the era of department store stamp and coin counters to an end. Most had been closed by 1990, as bullion purchases were by then dominating much of the sales activity. The margins on bullion coins were too low to create a net profit after the stores took their cut, and just a few of the Minkus/Friedberg concessions remained after that time. These, too, had folded by the turn of the century.

Robert Friedberg, however, left another legacy to the coin hobby in the many books published by his print division, The Coin and Currency Institute, Inc. As mentioned above, some of these titles are still being updated, while others were one-shots. But there was also another dimension to the C&CI: From 1959 to 1971 it published what were perhaps the most popular coin albums produced at the time, albums that remain highly sought today on the secondary market. I’ll have more to say about these remarkable products next month.

David W. Lange's column, “USA Coin Album,” appears monthly in The Numismatist, the official publication of the American Numismatic Association.

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