There was a moment, early on during the Nov. 16 auction, when anonymous internet bidder 3975 had a kind of epiphany.
He was acquiring medal after medal, each from the legendary collection of William Spohn Baker, all being sold at a Baltimore auction on behalf of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Baker, who died in 1897 at his Arch Street home, had directed his collection be held by HSP in perpetuity, but HSP decided perpetuity had its limits — 122 years, to be exact, from the time of their donation to the time they were boxed and sent out of town last year, with prior approval from both the Attorney General’s Office and Orphans Court.
Bidder 3975 didn’t know about that, he said. What he did know was that this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to buy one of the great numismatic collections in the nation, a collection painstakingly gathered over decades by Baker, a writer and collector of books, documents, prints, and coins and medals, all associated in some way with George Washington. (The books and documents remain at HSP.)
“I was shocked that such a historical and unique collection would be sold off,” he said. “I went into it thinking I’m just going to pick up a few pieces. But I realized the opportunity is there to keep [the collection] intact.”
So it was that Dwight Manley, 54, a California coin collector since he was a kid, the man who rescued the career of bad-boy basketball player Dennis Rodman and made him rich again, came to what may be his biggest achievement yet.
“I bought 85 percent of the lots,” Manley said. “Some I didn’t buy because I already had the medals. Some I bought after the auction from other buyers. I bought over 850 individual lots."
Now Manley plans to make the collection accessible to the public. An exhibition is already in the works for the spring of 2021 at the Money Museum at the Colorado Springs digs of the American Numismatic Association.
“I want to give people the opportunity to see the collection and to use it for research," Manley said. “I want people to know that the collection is mostly intact and that it will be available for scholars and the public.”
This may, he added, “give some level of comfort to those offended by the sale.”
The museum will hold the medals on loan, incorporating them into its educational programs, according to Douglas Mudd, Money Museum curator and director.
Mudd called the collection “amazing.”
“They are beautiful works of art, aside from their rarity,” Mudd said. “They really do tell you something of the times and what people were thinking.”
When cash-strapped HSP made the decision to sell its entire holding of 1,102 Baker medals, it had to break the terms of Baker’s will to do so. Baker donated his entire collection of Washington materials, including the coins and medals, in 1897, to the historical society with the express proviso that the whole remain intact, never to leave the confines of HSP at 13th and Locust Streets.
But HSP, which divested virtually all of its artifacts earlier this century and now identifies itself as a library, not a museum, petitioned Philadelphia Orphans Court in 2018 and received, without a hearing, permission to break Baker’s will, carve the medals out of the collection, and sell them. (Orphans Court has jurisdiction over nonprofit organizations.) The Attorney General’s Office had no objection.
The entire medal collection, a legend in the world of rare coins, sold at the November auction for more than $2 million, stunning those collectors who were poised and ready to bring home part of numismatic history.
For most would-be bidders, it didn’t happen.
One bidder, DCW, writing on an internet message board, commented that “I watched ... one guy just ... buy ... everything! .... Pretty much the whole collection auctioned piece by piece to THE SAME GUY! 3975.”
DCW concluded, “So bummed.”
For Manley, 54, who began collecting as a boy and turned it into an engine of wealth, the collection became the object of desire. There is no quenching that. Besides, he says, it was a bargain.
“For the total value of the iconic Baker Collection to be around $2 million is real cheap,” he said. (HSP says all proceeds will be used for acquisitions and collections care.)
“George Washington — nothing could be more meaningful than that,” Manley said.
Only the collection itself, laid out in all of its obdurate gold, silver, and bronze, conveys the commitment and labor of Baker, Manley believes. And only the collection illustrates the enduring, reverent myth of George Washington throughout the 19th century.
“It’s telling a story of perseverance, of the rise of the U.S., of being honest.” said Manley. “You can see how important [Washington] was. He was revered and respected long after he died for what he did. Today, it’s all, aha, the TMZ moment. But then? The Civil War slave token —how historic is that? This is very moving.”
The Civil War token Manley referred to is an exceedingly rare medallion with Washington’s profile on the front and Henry Clarck’s name hand-stamped on the back. The token or tag was issued April 16, 1862 — eight months before Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863.
The token commemorates passage of the little-known Emancipation Act of 1862, which brought freedom to persons enslaved in Washington, D.C. Clarck is believed to be one of those released from bondage.
Manley bought it for $14,400.
Collectively, in Manley’s view, the medals and coins create a composite portrait of America through time, an America anchored by images of Washington.
This view is one not necessarily shared by HSP. In its Orphans Court petition seeking the right to sell the collection, HSP asserted that the medals “have no research value and provide no historical context as to George Washington and his times.”
“That’s written by someone who doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” said Manley, “The collection shouldn’t have been sold.”
But it was, and it was irresistible to a self-described contrarian from Brea, Calif., in Orange County who made a ton of money dealing coins and then got into the sports-managing racket back in the mid-1990s, after meeting a nearly broke Dennis Rodman at a Las Vegas craps table.
As unlikely as it may seem, the two became friends. Rodman, who was at a low point in his career, moved into Manley’s guest house, and Manley pulled together endorsement deals, managed his business details, and turned Rodman from a debtor into a millionaire.
“We had some crazy and eventful times throughout the ’90s with the [Chicago] Bulls for sure.” Manley said. He’s now several years removed from the sports star business.
But coins? Coins are a constant, full of stories, full of clues about the times they were made in.