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Friday, October 23, 2015

WOODIN | 9B. Collector of Books and Coins (Updated Oct. 25, 2015)

George Cruikshank, "Effects of a Lurch after Dinner." Will Woodin said: "I thought I almost had all that
he [Cruikshank] made at my house." See letter of June 11, 1931.

Will Woodin was not just a prominent collector of books and coins in his own country and in his own time. He was a world-class collector for all time.

His coin-collecting prowess is better known than his book-and-engraving-collecting skills. Let us start with the latter.

Woodin's Collection of Books and Engravings

Woodin collected drawings by Cruikshank and others. When Charlie Miner, Jr. was 5 years old, he stayed with his mother (Mary Woodin Miner) and his grandfather in a bedroom on the top floor of the apartment (and the building), where Woodin kept his collections.

Miner told me in July2015:

I looked at his hand-painted Cruikshank drawings, and the Life of Napoleon that he kept there. He found me reading the books once and told me I should stop reading these books.

Grandpa objected: “Those are not to be read. They are rare books.”

Young Charlie was puzzled: “What good are they, then?”

After filling the air with explanations about rarity,Grandpa gave up and decided the joke was on him. “Maybe you’re right, Charlie.” 

His collections gave Will Woodin great pleasure and after dinner, Charlie says, his grandfather would take them out and admire them.

An exchange of letters shows how Will Woodin operated as a collector.

Arthur Swann sent him packages of paintings alleged to be by George Cruikshank. Will Woodin writes back saying he "did not open up the packages." He then launches into a humorous onslaught of skeptical arguments for why he believes they are fakes:
Source: Courtesy of Bill Phipps, posted by permission.
  • If Cruikshank had painted the number of paintings attributed to him he "would have had to paint one every ten minutes during his entire life."
  • "I thought he did more drawings than paintings, but I am now rather doubtful."
  • "I cannot go out in the street but what someone approaches me and whispers in my ear that he has a valuable Cruikshank painting for sale."
  • "I thought I had almost all he ever made at my house, but from indications it would take the Metropolitan Museum to hold what are now on the market."
  • "I know you are going to produce evidence [...] but this is nothing. Proofs of this sort can be furnished by the wagonload."
  • Finally, "I would like to suggest to some of the artists who are turning these paintings out that they adhere a little bit to the characteristics of Cruikshank style."
Source: Courtesy of Bill Phipps, posted
by permission.
Swann, for his part, realizes that he has nothing to gain by arguing with Woodin. Selling him a Cruikshank is going to be tough slogging and better to back off and work on another collector.

Swann writes back two weeks after Woodin's first letter and tries to laugh off his rejected solicitation:
  • "[W]e have all agreed that you are a wonderful letter-writer."
  • "[You] have presented such an air-tight case that there is really nothing more to be said.
Woodin was no pushover. But we should not stop there. He was not just good at being an actor in the coin-collecting marketplace. He shows a deep understanding the weaknesses of the marketplace.

In the parlance of George Akerlof and Robert Shiller, Arthur Swann was phishing for a phool. Swann knew that Woodin was building his collection of Cruikshank art, and could be persuaded that the package of art he sent over was not only genuine but would complete his collection in important ways.

Woodin knew that he would be tempted as a collector to believe that the packages of art were genuine. He also knew that odds were against so many new paintings suddenly coming to light. He did not open the packages because he knew he was emotionally overly disposed to buy them even though cognitively he was dubious of the possibility that the art was genuine.

Woodin's understanding of the marketplace was coupled with an understanding of himself. The United States was fortunate that a person like that was on the spot in March 1933. It explains why he was the right person to be calming the markets after FDR's inauguration.

Woodin's Coin Collection

The U.S. dollar coin from the beginnings of the country went through many iterations. Initially the coin was under the control of the different states. In 1792 the U.S. Mint was established in Philadelphia. The half-dime (5 cents, what we now call the nickel) was created that year.

As the future of the U.S. money supply was debated in the early 1900s, Woodin saw the opportunity for collecting pattern coins and managed to acquire an impressive collection.

In 1913, in the same year that the Federal income tax was created and the Federal Reserve System came into being under the aegis of Congressman Carter Glass and others, Will Woodin wrote a book with Edgar Holmes Adams on United States Pattern, Trial and Experimental Pieces. Young men starting out in the coin business 100 years ago started by trying to memorize this book.

This was 20 years before Woodin was to become Treasury Secretary.

Woodin sometimes used his avocations to win new friends. Miner says that his Grandpa called on the King of Siam to sell some railway cars and was lectured beforehand on Siamese protocol, the importance of backing away facing the King, etc. But when the two of them had wrapped up their negotiations, they emerged arm in arm, the King entranced with Woodin’s knowledge of rare coins.

Although a Republican, William H. Woodin supported Franklin Roosevelt for President and was made his Treasury Secretary in 1933. In a humorous carving of a wooden coin - the only known Hirschfeld work in wood - the artist simultaneously makes a pun in the title about wood, refers to Woodin's Secretary of the Treasury post, and credits his role in ending the 1929-1933 banking crisis by issuing new money. He may also be commenting on Woodin's nickname ("Little Wooden Willy") in the Raggedy Ann Song Book, and Woodin's world-famed coin collection. "The Woodin Nickel, 1933." Published in Americana, July 1933. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress - Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Al Hirschfeld.

Judging from the recent successful sales at the Stack's Bower auction of Pogue family coins by Sotheby's, the coin market is going strong. Coins that were once part of the Woodin collection are so identified because the association adds value.

[More to come.]

Notes

Maybe you're right, Charlie Charlie Miner has told this story to me twice, in 2013 and a second time on July 30, 2015.

References

Adams, Edgar Holmes (1868-) and Woodin, William H.  United States Pattern, Trial, and Experimental Pieces Being A List of the Pattern, Trial and Experimental Pieces Which Have Been Issued by the United States Mint From 1792 up to the Present Time. 1913.

Akerlof, George A. and Robert J. Shiller. Phishing for Phools: The Economics of Manipulation and Deception. Princeton University Press. Reviewed by Cass R. Sunstein in "Why Free Markets Make Fools of Us," The New York Review, October 22, 2015.

Woodin, William H. Estate Catalog (for auction after the death of Woodin’s widow Nan). First Editions, Original Drawings, Paintings, Caricatures, the Work of the Great English Illustrators and Authors of the XVII-XIX Centuries: Henry Alken, Thomas Rowlandson, George, Robert and Isaac Cruikshank, James Gillray, John Leech, W. H. Ainsworth, Charles Dickens, Pierce Egan and Others, Richly Extra-illustrated Books, Standard Sets, A Superb Illuminated Manuscript & Other Rarities. Auction Catalog, Parts 1, 2, 3. Title varies slightly for each book. (New York: Parke-Bernet Galleries, 1942). Copies located in Berg Collection, Room 320, New York Public Library, 42nd Street.

Woodin, William H. (1868-1934). Magnificent Collection of Rare American Coins. Catalog. To Be Sold ... at the Collectors' Club ... March 2nd, 3rd and 4th, 1911.

© John Tepper Marlin 2013-2015. For permissions or other information, contact the author at john@cityeconomist.com.