Benjamin Max Mehl Biography
Providing even a partial biography of B. Max Mehl (1884-1957) would be tantamount to writing a book. But here is some brief biographical information that may be of interest.
Benjamin Max Mehl, who started his career as a shoe clerk but became America’s most famous rare coin dealer of the first half of the 20th century, was nearly always known as B. Max Mehl (Benjamin never mentioned). The pronunciation of the surname was indicated by Mehl himself, who referred to his “Mehl-ing list.” However, some collectors today ignore convention and pronounce it as “mell.”
His first advertisement was carried in the Numismatist in the December 1903 issue. In March of the following year he issued an impressively titled booklet, Catalogue of Fine Selections of Choice United States Gold, Silver, and Copper Coins, Private and Territorial Gold, United States Fractional Currency, Etc., Etc., perhaps his first publication.
By 1910, his innovative advertising and colorful personality projected him to the front rank of dealers. He actually had two separate but related businesses. The first, which went under different names including the Star Rare Coin Company and the Numismatic Bank of Texas (a business title which seems to have been pirated from or, ahem, inspired by William von Bergen’s Numismatic Bank in Boston), sold copies of the Star Rare Coin Encyclopedia to the public for $1 each (price later increased). These were dispensed by the millions to hopeful buyers who dreamed of finding in change such rarities as a 1913 Liberty Head nickel or an 1804 silver dollar.
At one time mail from the public addressed to him accounted for more than half the business of the Fort Worth Post Office. His other orientation was toward the numismatic community. Over a period of years he sold many of the most important collections ever assembled, including those of Messrs. Granberg, Ten Eyck, Dunham, Atwarter and Neil. He also handled the famous rarity-laden Waldo C. Newcomer Collection on consignment.
Mehl was a promoter of coins and arguably did more to advance the hobby than any other individual of his time. His fame endures today, and there is a contingent of numismatic bibliophiles who collect Mehl-iana. During his career, Mehl handled most, if not all, of the classic rarities, including eight different transactions involving the 1804 dollar, as well as the Dunham 1822 half eagle, and other landmarks.
Although Mehl handled many important numismatic cabinets, containing specialized series — the Slack, and other collections of territorial gold, the Dr. French Collection of large cents, and the Dunham Collection of encased postage stamps are but several of many examples that could be cited — Mehl did not insert meaningful scholarship into any of these offerings. As Mehl himself would have been the first to admit, his role was that of a numismatic merchant, auctioneer, and publicist — a role he enjoyed immensely. Historical and technical numismatic matters were left to others.
Without question Mehl can be characterized as the most colorful and most prominent professional numismatist on the American scene during the first half of the 20th century. And, similarly without question, his contributions to popularizing the coin hobby were beyond measure. His death came in 1957, by which time he was considered the grand master of the American numismatic trade.