At Stack’s Bowers Galleries we have many fine memories of Lester Merkin. In the early 1950s he was among the private clients of Dave Bowers, who had started his coin dealership in 1953. After 1958 when Lester entered the coin trade, Harvey Stack knew him as a gentleman of the highest class of ethics, a credit to professional numismatics. He always had kind words for everyone, including his competitors, some of whom were jealous of his success and didn’t mind saying so.
Born in Philadelphia in 1916 to Russian immigrant parents, Lester became a professional musician of outstanding talent, who played with several jazz and other ensembles. Success attended his efforts, and with his wife Selma he enjoyed the arts and antiques scene in New York City.
In 1958 he entered the rare coin business. In 1961 he incorporated as Lester Merkin Coins, Inc. In the 1960s he conducted many fine auction sales in New York City, starting with the August 14, 1964, offering of the Lou Helfenstein collection of large cents, the catalog of which became the sensation of the coin business, especially regarding its innovative “scenic” full color cover, which depicted books, glasses, and beautiful copper cents. The cataloging was by Walter Breen, generally acknowledged at the time as America’s most prominent numismatic researcher. Charles Jay, a cent specialist, helped with some salesmanship. This was the first of 31 sales, the rest mostly cataloged by Breen as well.
In 1968 Merkin was commissioned to sell the coins collected by Mr. and Mrs. Alfred J. Ostheimer, III. Included were many important silver dollars, a landmark offering for that specialty.
For a long time he maintained a store on Madison Avenue, close by the entrance to the Drake Hotel. In later times, Lester closed his store and operated by mail, telephone, private appointments, and at conventions. In 1979 he was the agent for David J. Spink in the sale of the King of Siam presentation set containing 1834-dated Proof coins as well as the silver dollar and gold $10 dated 1804. In the same year he accompanied Dave Bowers to Baltimore and introduced him to the people in charge of the Garrett Collection at The Johns Hopkins University. Dave remembers an enjoyable train ride from New York City to Baltimore, in which Lester told him some of the incidents of his life, such as playing saxophone with such greats as Paul Whiteman and Gene Krupa.
In 1984, George F. Kolbe auctioned his magnificent reference library. Most of his coin inventory was sold to dealer friends and clients. In the same decade, Lester experienced medical difficulties that affected his eyes and, later, his legs. For a time he was confined to his home in New York City, where many of his coin friends came to visit. He maintained his cheery disposition in spite of what must have been extreme discomfort. Lester Merkin died in 1992 and was survived by his wife, Selma, to whom he had been married for many years. He also considered her to be his best friend – a relationship aspired to by many, but achieved by few. In 1994 many coins remaining from his estate were sold by Stack’s.