Copyright 2003 by Amos Press Inc.; reprinted by permission from the Feb. 10, 2003, issue of Coin World, Sidney, OH (www.coinworld.com –CoinWorldOnline)
Button collectors undone
by coin collectors in auction
Button collectors who might have become unbuttoned in the excitement of a Stack's auction Jan. 21 instead found coin collectors overwhelming them.
Stack's tantalized both groups with 40 lots constituting the J. Harold Cobb collection of George Washington inaugural buttons. The whereabouts of this storied group had been lost to general knowledge for 35 years.
"The room was packed, with collectors and dealers from the numismatic, political and button fields," cataloger Michael J. Hodder said. "Stack's set record prices for pieces that probably won't be beaten for many years.
"Almost every button went to someone in the numismatic world. After the sale, a major button dealer told me the prices Stack's got were astronomical."
The stage was set for fierce competition soon after the collection came to light late in 2002. That's when heirs posted a general request on a Usenet newsgroup, for assistance in dealing with the pieces.
The original owner had died in 1968. His son inherited the collection intact, then died the next year himself. The buttons remained in a bank vault, arranged in folded boards.
Hodder saw the heirs' message early and quickly arranged a deal for Stack's.
Cobb was an accountant in Connecticut when he began the collection in 1950. By 1956, his collection numbered 58 pieces and was the largest in existence, the auction catalog states.
The standard references on these souvenirs from Washington's two inaugurations as president, 1789 and 1793, are by Alphaeus Albert, particularly his Washington Historical Buttons, published in 1949.
Little known, but more exhaustive, is Cobb's own George Washington Inaugural Buttons & Medalets 1789 & 1793, Hodder said. This book was privately published in 1963, in an edition apparently of no more than 100 copies. Cobb also issued a pamphlet with some updated information in 1964. A friend incorporated and updated these works in a new edition in 1968. Cobb also sold 28 sets of photographic plates, the Stack's catalog says.
Whereas Albert might have commented on the rarity of an item in his narrative style, Cobb would be specific: "three known," for instance, then trace ownership, Hodder said.
In cataloging the Cobb collection for auction, Hodder also had the collector's own scrapbook of clippings and other information, on loan from the family. Works by David F. Johnson, William S. Baker, J. Doyle DeWitt, George Fuld and Russell Rulau are also reflected. The 23 pages devoted to the Cobb collection in the auction catalog thus combine to form a new reference in their own right.
At the sale, there were three or four principal bidders for the Cobb buttons, with 10 to 15 active underbidders, Hodder said.
"Stack's had reached out to the button-collecting fraternity, to many, many button clubs," he said.
"Button collectors generally don't participate in numismatic auctions, because they're not familiar with them."
Successful bidders were all numismatists or agents for numismatists except on the last lot, Hodder said: three costume buttons, which sold together for a few hundred dollars.
"There was one particular lady who had never ventured into Stack's and was a pure button collector," Hodder said. "On an off chance, she came in to look. She spent two hours, and she was reminiscing. She knew Cobb, DeWitt, Albert. She used Cobb's book as a guide. It seems the hard-core collectors go for Cobb as the reference. She had the supplemental plates."
The Cobb collection was so specialized and so small that some collectors might find it hard to think of this obscure accountant, about whom Hodder says little seems to be remembered except his collecting, as a forgotten giant.
"Cobb was clearly a force in his own little field," Hodder said.
In Southampton, Mass., sometime in the 1940s, a library was being renovated. A tree was in the way. When workers cut a limb on the tree, a bag fell out. It was found to contain five Washington buttons, which a local resident bought. Later, when Cobb was known as "a major player in the field," he acquired one.
In the auction catalog, Hodder mentions a couple of peculiarities of Cobb's collecting methods.
Cobb pasted a label with attribution to the back of each piece, Hodder said.
Also, Hodder said, "Most of Cobb's buttons were once lightly polished, but this has done little to harm them and over time has given them a remarkable visual appearance of classic quality." (Most of the buttons are brass.)
The highest prices were paid in the auction, Hodder said, for buttons that had the most explicit references to Washington: name, face, initials, identification as president.
As gratifying as prices were to Stack's and the consignors, Hodder came away with another lift: "A professional Colonial dealer said the catalog showed him things he didn't know existed."