In 1918, when he was 7, Eric Newman’s grandfather gave him a strange old penny.
In the nearly 10 decades since, the passion for coin collecting ignited by that gift turned Newman into one of the hobby’s most respected figures and a leading authority on the art and history of American money.
Beginning last year, Newman — who, at 102, is still researching and writing on his hobby — began selling some of the prized items from his collection to benefit a foundation he established to promote scholarship on coins.
This month, two coins from that collection — a rare 1776 silver dollar minted by the Continental Congress and a 1792 experimental penny with a silver center — were sold at auction in New York for $1.41 million apiece. All told, four sales of coins from the Newman collection by Heritage Auctions of Dallas have yielded $44 million.
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Newman has dedicated the proceeds to promoting the study of coins and popularizing the hobby. The Newman Money Museum he established at Washington University in St. Louis, where he obtained a law degree in 1935, has also benefited.
“He belongs to that tradition which barely exists today,” said Ute Wartenberg, the executive director of the American Numismatic Society in New York, comparing Newman’s trove to the old-time cabinets of storied collectors such as J.P. Morgan.
The penny that started it all for Newman was a copper-nickel Indian Head cent minted in 1859, when the government was experimenting with different metals before settling on bronze. In due course, he would find other pennies, with different dates, in his change.
“This fascinated me,” Newman wrote last year. He began taking a streetcar to a coin store in downtown St. Louis.
“The round-trip student fare was 3 cents. My allowance was 5 cents per week. I had to save enough to go downtown to buy a coin or so,” he recalled.
The owner of that coin store was a man named Burdette Johnson. “On one visit to his store he refused to sell me the coin I selected because I knew nothing about it,” recalled Newman.
“But if I would take home a book he would lend me and recite the coin’s history on my next visit, he would sell it to me.” This became a habit, with the coin dealer mentoring the young Newman as his knowledge grew.
When one of the hobby’s most colorful figures, Edward H.R. Green, died in 1936, Newman persuaded Green’s executors to sell him some of the best items, including examples of America’s first silver coins from the 1790s in near-perfect condition.
As an example, a 1796 quarter with crisp details and a natural blue-and-gold toning on its mirrorlike surface was described as “the most beautiful American silver coin that exists today.” It was sold in November for $1.528 million, including a 17.5 percent buyer’s premium, to an online bidder.
In most cases, the coins were accompanied by the paper envelopes Newman had carefully stored them in for decades, with typewritten notes about their rarity and the prices he originally paid for them — often just $50 or $100.
“The scope and rarity of his collections are in a league of their own,” said Beth Deisher, the former editor of Coin World magazine.
Eventually, Newman went into partnership with his old mentor, Johnson, to acquire rare early-American paper money and coins from Green’s estate. Newman got the pick of the bunch.
Among the coins was a set of five 1913 Liberty Head nickels, for which they paid a total of $2,000. In April 2013, one of those nickels, after being resold, lost and found again, sold for more than $3 million — its claim of authenticity resting in large part on research done by Newman.
“The key thing about Mr. Newman is the breadth of his knowledge,” Wartenberg said. “He is not only a collector but a writer.” He has more than 100 books and articles to his credit, and he has been awarded the highest honor among academic numismatists, which is rare for a collector.
Among Newman’s other great acquisitions was a collection of Colonial paper money, whose owner sold it to him in the 1950s “to encourage me to write an all-encompassing book on early-American paper money, which I eventually did.”
“The Early Paper Money of America” was first published in 1967 and is considered one of the definitive works on the subject. Newman is working on its sixth edition.
Explaining his attraction to coins, Newman said they offered a “wonderful window into history and other fields for me. Numismatics involves economics, politics, geography, metallurgy and art.”
“Many collectors can tell you some of the narrative behind their coins,” Wartenberg said. “But Eric discovered the narrative.”
Despite his humble start, Newman was able to woo the daughter of one of St. Louis’ leading families. He said that he was captivated by a necklace that his future wife, Evelyn, was wearing and took it as a sign that she might tolerate his hobby.
“I would never sell the coins on the necklace Evelyn was wearing when we met in 1938,” he said. The couple celebrated their 74th wedding anniversary late last year.