The Clapps of Numismatics


By chance, probably, the surname of Clapp has been one of the most prominent in numismatics. There are also some Clapps who appear in the annals of our hobby here and there, but of which we know relatively little. In this category of obscurity we have the Clapp of Clapp, Fuller & Browne’s Bank Note Reporter and Counterfeit Detecter, a “detecter” of questionable bank notes, who seems to have been located in Buffalo, New York. We also mention the unknown D.C. Clapp, who in the 1890s sold coins to the well-known John M. Clapp.

 John M. Clapp

John Martin Clapp was born in Mercer, Pennsylvania, in 1835, one of six children of Rev. Ralph and Sally (Hubbard) Clapp. Apparently, spreading The Word among the flock did not pay all of Rev. Ralph’s bills, for he was also the proprietor of a general store in President Township, in Pennsylvania, where young John M. helped with duties, no doubt seeing many large copper cents in daily trade, and whatever else came across the counter. The family was also involved in the building of the President blast furnace in 1854-1855, located about a mile from where Hemlock Creek joined the Allegheny River. During this era, central Pennsylvania was dotted with such furnaces, typically tall structures made of limestone, which were used for the smelting of iron ore. Some still stand today and are interesting to view. (Here in our own New Hampshire, there is but one remaining, the Franconia Iron Furnace.) In 1860, John M. Clapp purchased much of his father’s property. In the meantime, in 1858, Col. Drake had discovered oil in Titusville, setting of a great speculative flurry.

In 1862, Clapp recruited a company for the Army and went into service as a captain in Col. Chapman Biddle’s 121st Pennsylvania Volunteers. In August 1863 he was discharged under a certificate of disability, and returned home. In 1865 he took Anna M. Pearson, of New Castle, Pennsylvania, as his wife. The union produced four children, the most important of whom (for purposes of this article) was John H., born on April 16, 1880.

In the 1860s, John M. Clapp was in the right place at the right time. By poking around here and there on his thousands of acres in President Township, he found a lot of oil, leading to a fortune, and more. In time he also became involved in the flour milling and trading business. By the 1890s he had addresses in Tidioute and Knox, Pennsylvania, and in Washington, D.C., where in the latter place he was involved with banking. In Lakewood, New York, the family had a summer home.

Somewhere, somehow he became a coin collector, and by the late 1880s was quite serious about it. Circa 1893, perhaps inspired by Augustus G. Heaton’s Treatise on Mint Marks published that year, he began ordering coins directly from the branch mints, perhaps the only numismatist of the mid-1890s to order half eagles, eagles, and double eagles in this manner, although a fellow Washingtonian, Charles Deetz, may have done this (of Deetz we know relatively little, except that he was an early collector of high denomination mintmarked coins, an elite niche in the hobby).

Clapp bought widely, had a sharp eye for quality, and was a bidder in most of the important auction sales of the 1890s and early 1900s, until his passing on October 24, 1906, at his summer home. His rare coin collection, containing most of the great American rarities plus many mintmarks (a specialty that was still up-and-coming), passed to his son, John H. Clapp.

John H., born on April 16, 1880, graduated from Princeton in 1902, that university having its own numismatic tradition by that time (T. Harrison Garrett and his three sons all went there). He made Washington his residence, where he engaged in law and banking, increasing the family fortune in the meanwhile. On October 1, 1908, he was elected as a governor of the American Numismatic Association, but neither he nor his father were flag-wavers at the Association, and there is not much of a record of their accomplishments.

Although John H. added to his inherited collection of United States coins, he sought his own specialty, and that was the vast and largely numismatically explored area of Central and South American gold coins. He bought with care, and was ready with check in hand in the 1930s when many important pieces from the Waldo C. Newcomer Collection became available. Clapp, who never married and who resided at The Ontario in Washington, died on June 29, 1940. His estate collection was later purchased by Louis E. Eliasberg in 1942, through Stack’s, for the incredible price of $100,000 (exceeding by far the total realization of B. Max Mehl’s Dunham Collection sale, June 1941, the capstone of Mehl’s career).

In 1982 and again in 1996 and 1997 I had the pleasure of cataloguing much of the Eliasberg Collection (which included many of the Clapp family coins) for auction, an unforgettable experience.

 George H. Clapp

George Hubbard Clapp, also a Pennsylvanian, was born on December 14, 1858, in the year of the great “oil rush” in that state. He was bitten by the coin bug at an early age. On June 4, 1878, he was a founder of the Western Pennsylvania Numismatic Society. As years went on he added to his cabinet, and also did a few other things, such as founding and becoming president of the Aluminum Company of America (Alcoa).

Sometime along the way he became enamored of early copper cents of the 1793-1814 years, perhaps before the early 1920s, but certainly by the time of a transaction he had with his brother Charles, a stockbroker. Charles was also an active numismatist and an important buyer at auctions. He had the opportunity to buy the Ellsworth cabinet of copper cents intact, and did. Ellsworth, who formed one of the largest collections in American numismatic history, is not particularly well known today, for, similar to Waldo C. Newcomer, his holdings were sold privately and no catalogue was ever published. The main part of the Ellsworth Collection was sold on March 7, 1923, through art dealers Knoedler & Co., to New York dealer Wayte Raymond, for $100,000, a sum even more impressive then than the same amount would be in 1942 in the above-noted transfer of another collection. Ellsworth was a member of the board of governors of the World’s Columbian Exposition, 1892-1893, and was on hand at the Philadelphia Mint in 1892 when the first commemorative Columbian Exposition half dollars were struck.

However, in 1923, apparently soon after tucking away the Ellsworth cents, Charles Clapp had severe financial difficulties and sold his coin collection to brother George. After this time the copper-cent affliction attacked George in its most virulent form. His passion for cents extended to the careful study of varieties (such the 64-page monograph, The United States Cents of the Years 1798-1799, published in 1931), leading to his publication of several works on the series.

In 1937 he announced he would eventually donate the coins to the American Numismatic Society, which he did years later in 1946-1947. As to his collecting methods we know little, except that some owners of cents were reluctant to sell to him, perhaps fearful that they would be forever impounded in a museum. Whatever the obstacles and challenges may have been, he was able to acquire 324 of the 327 die varieties of 1793-1814 cents then known to exist. Likely, Clapp’s study of coins and his enthusiastic acquisition of them served as the inspiration for Dr. William H. Sheldon to take from and improve various specialized studies to create Early American Cents, 1949, complete with “Sheldon numbers” for cents and that marvelous Sheldon Grading System, 1 to 70, that some of us love dearly even today.

Somehow, after Clapp’s death, certain of his prizes landed in the personal collection of Dr. Sheldon, prompting the Society to cry, “Foul!” when they learned of what was whispered by some to have been outright theft. It seems that Sheldon stored his collection at the Society, and a few of the Clapp cents developed wings or legs and moved from the Clapp collection to his. Or, there may be another explanation. The whole matter has been kept under wraps, more or less, but a number of Clapp’s cents, sold from the Sheldon Collection into the general marketplace, have been repatriated. In the meantime, the idol of Sheldon is now considered to have clay feet.

The Clapp home was in Sewickley, Pennsylvania, a town which even today reflects the grandeur of generations ago when it was home to the mansion-ensconced members of the Pittsburgh business and social community. On August 27, 1935, members of the American Numismatic Association, in convention in Pittsburgh, were invited to stop by for a visit to the Clapp home, “a magnificent one,” to be followed by dinner at the local country club.

George H. Clapp died on March 31, 1949. His obituary in The Numismatist included this:

Clapp, who was one of Pittsburgh’s most prominent industrialists and citizens, was especially well known in the field of early coppers, which specialty he began by obtaining permission from the keeper of a toll bridge to examine coins in his till for anything unusual. The collection of large cents which he built comes about as near to perfection as is ever permitted to human endeavor. Not only did he achieve completeness in scope, but to this were added the superlatives in quality and condition. His willingness to share the pleasure he had found as is characteristic, and was expressed by him at the time his large cents were deeded to the American Numismatic Society in order that, in that museum, they might be where ‘anyone may consult them;’ they are now among the society’s “crown jewels.”

 James Ford Clapp, Jr. and III

There were numismatic Clapps outside of Pennsylvania, and among them were James Ford Clapp, Jr., and his son, James F. III, of Cambridge, Massachusetts.

James Jr. is prominent in the annals of the hobby for his accomplishments in the 1940s and 1950s, when he was a leading light in the Boston area. In 1953 the American Numismatic Association came up with the idea of creating a reference or primer on coin collecting, and Clapp was named to the Text Book Committee. Similar to quite a few related ANA book-creation projects, this one died before it was born. However, Clapp did many other things, and in August 1960 was general chairman of the ANA Convention held at the Copley Plaza Hotel in Boston. This was the very first convention in the “new market” that arose in that year, and, accordingly, was the most dynamic up to that time.

His numismatic successor was his son, James Ford Clapp III, who collected coins for a half century and who served as president of the Boston Numismatic Society and the New England Numismatic Association. In 1989 he picked up stakes and headed west. He died in Tempe, Arizona, on January 22, 1998. The last time I saw James III was one rainy night in Cambridge years ago, when we had both left an event at Harvard and were walking down Mt. Auburn Street. We discussed coins of ancient Greece, of which Ford knew much and I knew only a little.