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Rose Mary
By Rosemary McKittrick
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Half-Dollar, 1791, among finest known of approx. 2,984 pieces coined. Sold: $176,000. Photo courtesy of Christie's
Byron Reed was one the wealthiest men in Nebraska when he died in 1891. A quiet pioneer, he traveled west from Ohio in 1856, buying-up what looked like worthless land.

Reed had a hunch Omaha would one day be a gateway to the West. He was right and later sold the land for huge profits as the railroads plowed westward toward homesteading and gold.

Profits made collecting possible for Reed. He put together a series of American coins including virtually every example produced by the American mint from the time of its first issue to the time of his death.

These early coins reveal the everyday commerce of a nation steeped in growth and change, a nation where coins replaced beaver skins and tobacco as a means of barter.

“He had little formal education and was sometimes uncomfortable and awkward in his dealings with others,” James Lamb said. Lamb is president of Spink America, the coin and banknote division of Christie’s.

“Yet privately he was deeply interested in the history of human affairs. Like so many self-made men, he began to investigate the outside world through the medium of historic coins and manuscripts.”

Over a 16-year period, Reed made regular trips back East by train where he gathered 16,000 items including coins, manuscripts, books and presidential signatures.

Recognized for his numismatic collecting, Reed was invited by President Benjamin Harrison to sit on the annual Assay Commission. At the time of his death, the collection was considered one of the five or six best in the world. What makes this collection even more special is that it has been locked away for 105 years.

The Byron Reed Collection sold on Oct. 8 and 9, 1996, at Christie’s, New York, for $6.1 million. There were 562 lots offered, and all sold.

“The average price paid for a coin lot in Tuesday nights session was more than $25,000,” Lamb said. “Prices sold beyond our expectation.”

The top lot, an 1829 half-eagle engraved by William Kneass, brought $374,000. According to Breen’s Encyclopedia, Reed purchased this coin from 19th century coin dealer W. Eliot Woodward’s sale of the Emery, Taylor and Loomis Collections on March 9, 1880. The coin was a great rarity even then.

An 1832 12 stars half-eagle also designed by William Kneass sold for $297,000. This coin ranks among the greatest rarities in United States numismatics.

In the manuscript section of the auction, an autographed letter signed by President James Monroe brought $59,700.

“We are particularly pleased with the price realized for the James Monroe letter,” said Chris Coover, Christie’s manuscripts specialist. “A record price for a Monroe letter.”

The letter, written when Monroe was secretary of state, reveals the end of The War of 1812 to Charles Everett, a Virginia friend.

“I have the pleasure to inform you that a treaty of peace was received last night by Mr. Carroll from Ghent, which was signed.”

Q. I’m interested in information about buttons and button collectors. Thought perhaps you might be able to help. Elizabeth Sanders, Pittsburgh.

A. People have been collecting buttons ever since buttons first appeared on clothing. Button-like objects were found in ancient burial sites.

The genre grew during the 1860s when young women began making charm strings from buttons given to them by friends, relatives and suitors.

Senator John H. Tingue of New York had a button named after him for challenging three ladies to make a charm string consisting of 2,500 buttons in 30 days. An award awaited the winner. The women produced a 2,700 button string.

Newspapers printed muddled versions of Tingue’s offer and he was swamped with 90,000 tin, cameo, pewter, brass, glass and mother-of-pearl buttons. One charm string weighed 14 pounds. The strings were later donated to the Connecticut State Historical Museum.

Most buttons seen today date from the 18th, 19th and 20th century. To find a complete set of 18th century buttons from an aristocratic robe would be a real find, but an unlikely one. Collectors would settle for just one button from such an outfit.

Quality in buttons, like most other areas is important. The English Wedgwood jasperware buttons with the cameo-like reliefs would be a good example.

Early buttons featuring paintings on ivory under glass would be another. For more information contact the National Button Society at 2733 Juno Place, Akron, Ohio 44313.

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