The next interview published on Coin Update News is with Mark Borckardt, who is a senior cataloger of U.S. coins at Heritage Auction Galleries. During his career he has handled some of the rarest coins in existence, including 80 of the 100 greatest U.S. coins. He is a co-author of the book Million Dollar Nickels and serves as a contributor to A Guide Book of United States Coins and other references.
What is your favorite coin that you currently own?
Most people are surprised to learn that I have no coin collection. Since I work with great coins on a regular basis, I believe that my own collection, if I had one, would fall far short of my expectations.
However, I have an extensive numismatic library, so I will say my favorite book(s) is copy number one of the two volume Silver Dollars and Trade Dollars of the United States, A Complete Encyclopedia, by Q. David Bowers. Dave autographed the first set out of the first box received from the printer in 1993, and presented that set to me in thanks for my contributions to the work.
How did you get started in numismatics?
My earliest recollection is 1963, when I was given a copy of the 1964 Guide Book by a member of the church where my dad was the minister. I don’t recall the name of the church but it was in the vicinity of Monroe, Michigan, the home of ANA founder Dr. George Heath.
What drew you to the research aspect of numismatics?
I have always had a love of history, and numismatics provides a medium to study many aspects of history, including finance, politics, and especially, people. I thoroughly enjoy the historical personalities involved in our hobby, from Mint employees such as David Rittenhouse to collectors like Louis Eliasberg, and dealers such as B. Max Mehl.
In June 1989 I accepted a position with Bowers and Merena Galleries, and for more than a decade I worked on a daily basis with Q. David Bowers. His partner, Ray Merena, once described it as an “immersion course” in numismatics, and I agree. I wouldn’t be where I am today without that experience. Thank you, Dave.
You are a very accomplished author; would you say that you were an author first, or a numismatist?
It is important to distinguish between collectors, numismatists, and numismatic authors. A collector is someone who sets about accumulating items in a given series with little or no interest in the background of those coins. For example, there are many people who collect the state quarter series, or Lincoln cents, or some other series, having no knowledge of the background of coins in each series. Eventually, they will seek the knowledge that makes a numismatist, or they will lose interest and find a different hobby. I began as a collector and as a dealer.
Numismatists take the next step and seek knowledge to better appreciate the coins that they own or handle, primarily through formation and use of a numismatic library.
Despite your kind words, I consider myself a numismatist but not a numismatic author. I consider people such as Dave Bowers, Ken Bressett, Roger Burdette, R.W. Julian, David Lange, Eric Newman, and others to be numismatic authors. My work is mostly background research that has appeared in various books by others.
As a senior cataloger for Heritage Auction Galleries, what is your most important duty?
My title clearly identifies my most important duty: cataloging coins for auctions. I also provide support for other numismatists on the Heritage staff, and work with our clients from time to time, reviewing upcoming auction lots for their consideration.
Over the course of your numismatic career you have handled some of the rarest coins in existence, more specifically 80 of the 100 greatest U.S. coins. Which was your favorite?
My favorite coins, among those I have personally handled, do not appear in 100 Greatest U.S. Coins, because they are not official American coins, therefore excluded from that reference. I am talking about the two 1787 Brasher gold doubloons that I cataloged for the Heritage 2005 FUN auction. I first became aware of the Brasher doubloons as a young collector, but never dreamed that I would handle even one, let alone both varieties. Those two coins represent one-third of the known population of six Brasher doubloons.
“Million Dollar Nickels: Mysteries of the 1913 Liberty Head Nickels Revealed” is a book you co-authored, which uncovered the whereabouts of the last 1913 Liberty Head nickel. What was this experience like?
The 1913 Liberty nickel project was undoubtedly the high point of my career, and I can’t imagine what could top it, short of discovering some unknown coin, like an 1873-S Seated dollar or a 1964-D Peace dollar, and I don’t expect either of those to happen. Of course, I never expected we would find the fifth nickel, either.
The 1913 nickel experience occurred simultaneously with three other events: moving the Bowers and Merena offices from New Hampshire to Louisiana, moving my family from New Hampshire to Louisiana, and preparing the 2003 ANA Auction sale catalog. Any one of those events could easily have occupied my full attention.
In late May 2003, Bowers and Merena President Paul Montgomery told me about the million dollar reward that was about to be offered for the missing 1913 nickel. The whole idea was more of an advertising campaign to promote the upcoming Baltimore convention. None of us that were directly involved ever dreamed it would work. In other words, we had no expectation of actually finding the missing nickel.
Most important today are the friendships that have developed as a result of that project. Members of the Walton family remain good friends and through them I feel that I know the late George Walton, even though I never met him.
You’ve cataloged some of the rarest collections in existence, out of all of them, which was your favorite to work on?
Even though the U.S. gold coins had long since been sold, the balance of the Eliasberg Collection that I worked with from late 1995 to early 1997 is probably at the top of the list. However, the Harry Bass Collection is a close second. More recently, the Walter Husak large cent collection that I cataloged for Heritage a few years ago is particularly memorable because of my personal love of copper coins. Several other collections can also be mentioned, including Walter Childs, James Sloss, Wes Rasmussen, and Ed Price.
Can you tell us what you consider to be the greatest aspect of your job?
The obvious answer is working with countless amazing coins, but equally important is the opportunity to communicate on a daily basis with some of the most amazing individuals in the hobby, including many of my associates here at Heritage Auctions.
Do you have any advice for young numismatists who aspire to be authors?
Study and learn all aspects of numismatics, from minting technology to finance and history. A complete understanding of how coins were made is imperative, from the earliest days to the present. Knowledge of national and world finances and financial history is also important. For example, knowledge of the California Gold Rush goes a long way toward understanding the opening of the San Francisco Mint, as well as authorization of the double eagle. Knowledge of world history and politics is also extremely important. Further study might include art and art history.
Being a numismatic author is extremely rewarding, but it doesn’t pay the bills. Everyone that I know who writes numismatic references has a “real job.” In many cases, that job also involves numismatics, such as being a dealer, cataloger, curator, or reporter. In other cases, the job is entirely unrelated to numismatics. A second career choice is extremely important.
Images for this article courtesy of Heritage Auction Galleries.