The shameless promotion of the coin business and extraordinary search for special rare coins did not begin with the explosion of the Internet. It can be traced to legendary coin dealer B. Max Mehl. From the empire he built in Austin, Texas, Mehl was probably the first coin dealer to market coins to the general public.
Mehl started advertising in The Numismatist in 1903 and in the following year issued his first catalog. In 1906, Mehl paid $12.50 to advertise in Collier’s magazine offering his Star Coin Book for 10-cents. Later, Mehl would expand the book and sell it for $1.
Benjamin Maximillian Mehl was born in Łódź, Russia (now Poland) in 1884. His family immigrated to the United States in 1895 and worked as a shoe salesman before he became a coin dealer. Stories about his relentless promotion report that he was shipping coins to more than 30,000 times a year.
Mehl is famous for his advertising that he “Will pay $50 for a nickel of 1913 with Liberty Head, not Buffalo.” Although he never found one, that did not stop him from advertising and trying.
Then there is the catalog, Star Coin Book. Before the Red Book, Blue Book, and Standard Catalog, there were few books that provided this amount of information and was affordable to the general public. The Star Coin Book was his marketing tool to make and keep people interested and to keep the orders coming in.
Mehl sold so many catalogs that one can be purchased for as little as $5.00 or as high as $50.00 depending on the year and condition. Many are in poor condition since they were not meant to be saved. Mehl wanted people to buy a new catalog every year.
Imagine my surprise when I was going through a box of odd books that I purchased from an estate and found a 1925 edition of The Star Rare Coin Encyclopedia and Premium Catalog. I picked up the book, paused as I tried to focus on the well-worn cover, and smiled as I realized what I had found.
The book is not in good condition but it is part of numismatic lore. It is Mehl’s work as a cataloger and seller of coins and some currency. It is page after page of coins and the values that he would pay if you wanted to sell your coins. These values are a range of what he would pay and he notes that is based on the condition of the coin. He does include a description of the differences in condition and most coin types include some type of picture, whether it is a photographic plate or a line drawing.
After the lists there are a few pages of history of coins, “Coins Past and Present” that is followed by coins he has for sale. All sales were done by phone or by postal mail. Remember, this was long before fax machines and the Internet!
There are both contemporary and modern writings about Mehl that describe him as a huckster and mendacious. Others describe him as a genius of marketing that helped grow the hobby. Regardless, Mehl has a place is numismatic history that has to be respected for being able to use the tools he had to build a successful business.