Eric Newman, Whose Coins Told of America’s History, Dies at 106

He discovered Ohio and Connecticut bank notes engraved with what were almost certainly John James Audubon’s earliest published illustrations of a bird: a meek little grouse, circa 1824, several years before the appearance of the first plates in his masterpiece ornithological portfolio, “The Birds of America.”

He documented Benjamin Franklin’s central role in developing American currency by printing intricate leaf patterns to foil counterfeiters in the 1730s. He studied African-American influences on the nation’s money, notably that of Blanche Kelso Bruce, a former slave whose signature as Register of the Treasury appeared on all United States currency from 1881 to 1885, under Presidents James A. Garfield and Chester A. Arthur, and from 1897 to 1898, under President William McKinley.

He wrote books on fakes: “The Fantastic 1804 Dollar” (1962, with Kenneth E. Bressett), about a coin actually struck in 1934 to make diplomatic gifts, and “The Secret of the Good Samaritan Shilling” (1959), about a bogus 1652 Massachusetts coin exposed by Mr. Newman as a 1750s imitation. In his dry wit, he called it “a muled restrike of a reproduction of an erroneous drawing, copied from a conjured illustration of a genuine coin.”

Mr. Newman also found real riches beyond his dreams — a 1776 silver dollar minted by the Continental Congress and a 1792 penny with a silver center (each fetched $1.4 million); a 1796 blue-and-gold quarter with mirror-like surfaces ($1.5 million); and a set of five 1913 Liberty Head nickels (more than $3 million). He sold part of his fabled collection in a series of auctions in 2013 and 2014 for $44 million.

From the proceeds, he committed millions to the Newman Money Museum, which he founded in 2006 at Washington University in St. Louis, and to a numismatic educational society he founded in 1959. The society’s mission was to promote a hobby that has captivated a fraternity of aficionados for millenniums.

Mr. Newman was a practicing lawyer early in his career and, for four decades, an executive with a retail shoe chain based in St. Louis. But his real love was numismatics. He specialized in Colonial and early American money, but his interests ranged over international currencies, engraving, production methods, printing errors, counterfeiting and other subjects.

“He belongs to that tradition which barely exists today,” Ute Wartenberg, executive director of the American Numismatic Society, told The New York Times in 2014. “The key thing about Mr. Newman is the breadth of his knowledge. He is not only a collector but a writer. Many collectors can tell you some of the narrative behind their coins, but Eric discovered the narrative.”

A prime example is the story of Robert Morris, whose service to the United States had not been fully understood until Mr. Newman, in the 1970s, found conclusive evidence in promissory notes that Morris had been a major financier, not only of the Revolutionary War, for which he had been known to historians, but also of the young national government in its most vulnerable days.

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Four sales of coins from Eric P. Newman’s collection by Heritage Auctions of Dallas yielded $44 million in 2014.

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Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

“Two centuries ago, when a grave fiscal crisis gripped the newborn nation, this wealthy Philadelphian literally substituted his personal credit for that of the government,” Ed Reiter wrote in his coin column in The Times in 1981. “He did so by issuing and redeeming notes of his own, which served, for all intents and purposes, as national currency. These were accepted in payment of taxes in every state but Georgia and North Carolina, and were used as money in other matters, too.”

Mr. Newman found that Morris had issued vast quantities of notes in denominations from $20 to $100. They were serially numbered, signed by Morris and engraved in complex swirls to deter counterfeiters. The notes were widely accepted in the early 1780s when the government, still operating under the Articles of Confederation, was hamstrung with fiscal problems, did not yet have a Constitution and could not count on virtually worthless currencies issued by the separate states.

Morris, a signer of the Declaration of Independence who lost his fortune before dying in 1806, “helped to re-establish the credit of the United States,” Mr. Newman wrote in a groundbreaking 1977 article in The Numismatist, the journal of the American Numismatic Association. “He sustained the government with his own personal credit during an interval when no other solution appeared to be available.”

Eric Pfeiffer Newman was born in St. Louis on May 25, 1911, to Samuel and Rose Pfeiffer Newman. His father was a surgeon and his mother a pianist.

Eric grew fascinated by coins after his grandfather’s gift, and was encouraged by his parents, who appreciated the many-sided numismatic disciplines in metallurgy, art, history, politics and economics. They also took the boy twice to Europe to experience other cultures.

When he was 10, he began regular visits to Burdette Johnson, a coin dealer in downtown St. Louis.

“On one visit to his store, he refused to sell me the coin I selected because I knew nothing about it,” Mr. Newman told The Times. “But if I would take home a book he would lend me, and recite the coin’s history on my next visit, he would sell it to me.”

He graduated in 1928 from John Burroughs, a private preparatory school in suburban St. Louis, and from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with a bachelor of science degree in 1932. He earned a doctor of jurisprudence degree from Washington University in 1935 and joined a St. Louis law firm. His fascination with numismatics continued, as did his friendship with Mr. Johnson, who advised him on purchases for his growing coin collection.

After the death in 1936 of Col. Edward H. R. Green, a wealthy Round Hill, Mass., businessman and coin collector, Mr. Newman and Mr. Johnson bought many of the best lots from his estate, including the first United States silver pieces, in near-perfect condition, from the 1790s, and the five 1913 Liberty Head nickels, the only known set of them. They paid $2,000 for the nickels and decades later reaped millions for them.

In 1939, Mr. Newman married Evelyn Edison. She died in 2015. He is survived by their son, Andrew; their daughter, Linda Newman Schapiro; five grandchildren; and many great-grandchildren. His grandson Joshua Solomon confirmed the death.

Mr. Newman left private law practice in 1943 and joined Edison Brothers Stores, a prospering retail chain founded in the 1920s by his wife’s family. He rose to executive vice president in 1968. He retired in 1987 and became president of the Harry Edison Foundation, serving until 2005.

Mr. Newman’s books included “The 1776 Continental Currency Coinage” (1952), “Nature Printing on Colonial and Continental Currency” (1964), “The Early Paper Money of America,” (1967, with revised editions) and “U.S. Coin Scales and Counterfeit Coin Detectors” (2000).

His honors include the Farran Zerbe Memorial Award, the highest given by the American Numismatic Association, which inducted him into its Hall of Fame in 1986, and the Archer M. Huntington Medal of the American Numismatic Society for career scholarship.

Approaching his own centennial in 2010, he and Robert M. Peck, a curator at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, reported in The Journal of the Early Republic that they had found 1824 and 1825 notes for banks in Bridgeport, Conn., and Norwalk, Ohio, engraved with the image of a grouse. Based on its research, The Magazine Antiques called it “almost certainly the earliest published illustration of a bird by John James Audubon.”

Mr. Newman’s favorite collector’s item was a one-of-a-kind gold coin bearing the head of George Washington. Struck in 1792 by Obadiah Westwood of Birmingham, England, from dies engraved by John Gregory Hancock, it became a pocket piece of America’s first president, with obvious signs of wear from its owner’s breeches in his horseback-riding days.

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