M.E. Hart's Coins of the Golden West Set

M.E. Hart's Coins of the Golden West was a marketing concept devised by Farran Zerbe to sell Western souvenir gold tokens in San Francisco during 1915 and 1916. 1915 was the year of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, and Zerbe, as P.P.I.E. Director of the Coin and Medal Department, held down a booth in the Palace of Liberal Arts. There, he sold the official P.P.I.E. medal in various alloys (HK-399 through HK-401), and the well-known P.P.I.E. commemorative coins, such as the 1915-S half dollar, gold dollar, quarter eagle, and round and octagonal fifty dollars. The latter two issues are by far the most valuable entries within a complete set of classic commemorative issues.

Zerbe also exhibited his remarkable personal numismatic collection, billed as Zerbe's Money of the World.

Zerbe's Exhibit within the Palace of Liberal Arts

From Frank Morton Todd's exhaustive history, The Story of the Exposition

Exterior View of the Palace of Liberal Arts

Besides his official duties for the P.P.I.E., Zerbe had other activities during 1915. He founded the Pacific Coast Numismatic Society, effectively the earliest coin club formed in the U.S. west of Chicago. Zerbe also attended the 1915 American Numismatic Association convention, held in San Francisco due to the P.P.I.E. It was the first ANA meeting on the West Coast, and the convention had only 14 member attendees. The low attendence was not, as some have stated, due to the controversial actions of Zerbe as ANA President and publisher of the Numismatist during the 1909 ANA election. The low attendence was due to the lack of rapid transit from the rest of America to California in 1915. Plane and auto journeys were theoretically possible but clearly impractical. One could take trains, of course, but such a round trip required more than a week.

The Pacific Coast Numismatic Society is formed

From the July 1915 Numismatist.

Official Photo of the 1915 A.N.A. Convention

A grim-faced Zerbe is front and center, standing between famous Fort Worth dealer B. Max Mehl and San Francisco Mint Superintendent W.H. Shanahan.

Member Attendees of the 1915 A.N.A. Convention

B. Max Mehl of Fort Worth, Texas was the leading coin dealer and auctioneer during the first half of the 20th century. H.O. Granberg of Oshkosh, Wisconsin, was a wealthy collector. Since Mehl auctioned his first collection in July 1913, Granberg and Mehl undoubtedly found much to talk about. Edgar Adams of New York City was a highly regarded numismatic author, and perhaps used his West Coast visit as an opportunity for territorial research. Huddart, Nygren, and Steinman were officers of the nascent Pacific Coast Numismatist Society. Dr. Henderson and his remarkable wife Cora attended virtually every ANA convention into the 1940s. Dr. Henderson succeeded Zerbe as ANA President in 1909, thanks to proxies gathered by Zerbe and other ANA insiders.
The P.P.I.E. closed on December 4, 1915, and most of the buildings comprising the grand city of plaster were torn down. The Palace of Fine Arts was not among them, saved by the leading figures of San Francisco, who wanted it preserved as an art museum.

In 1916, Zerbe moved his exhibit into the Palace of Fine Arts. This exhibit continue to grow over the years, and was sold in 1928 to Chase National Bank, where it served as a widely visited New York City money museum until January 16, 1978, when it was donated to the Smithsonian and American Numismatic Society in return for a tax deduction.

The Palace of Fine Arts, 1919

Photograph by James David Givens
Back to 1916. Zerbe, from his Palace of Fine Arts booth, continued to sell the remainder of P.P.I.E. medals and tokens, in addition to sundry numismatic items, among them framed sets of M.E. Hart tokens. Given Zerbe's efforts, sales of the tokens must have been disappointing. Only about six framed sets are known today. Heritage Auctions auctioned one of those sets for $35,250 in January 2017. The online lot description mentions the other auction appearances of framed sets known to the cataloger.

M.E. Hart Framed Set

Frame dimensions are 10 x 8 inches. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions.

In addition to the framed sets, the M.E. Hart Co. also issued a mailing card, which solicited sales of the "Coins of the Golden West", more accurately described as better-made series of Western souvenir gold tokens. The mailing cards are even rarer than the framed sets, with only two examples known to the Heritage cataloger.

M.E. Hart Mailing Card

Card dimensions are 158 x 88 mm. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions.

M.E. Hart Mailing Envelope

How do we know that Zerbe was the force behind the M.E. Hart marketing campaign? The "smoking gun" is the great similarity of the framed M.E. Hart sets with the framed sets of P.P.I.E. commmemorative coins. Both frames were made to order from Shreve & Co., a San Francisco jeweler still in business today. The different frames are approximately the same size and have similar construction, down to a hammered copper outer frame, a plate of glass, insets for the coins or tokens, and descriptive purple labels.

Frame for Single Set of Panama-Pacific Exposition Commemoratives

Notice the similarities with the M.E. Hart framed set shown above. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions.

Zerbe wrote an article for the August 1919 Numismatist that favorably discusses the then-obscure "Coins of the Golden West" set.
But if Farran Zerbe was M.E. Hart, why all the subterfuge? Because Zerbe valued his reputation among leading numismatists, who typically (and incorrectly) regarded any issues of Western souvenir gold as counterfeits or imitations of the California Fraction gold pieces struck circa 1849 to 1885. Zerbe wanted to have his cake, and eat it too. That is, he wanted to enjoy sales of his favorite series of Western souvenir gold, without any direct ties of the token sales to Zerbe himself. Zerbe's fascination with Western souvenir gold dated to at least 1904 and 1905, when Zerbe issued his own series of small gold tokens at the Louisiana Purchase and Lewis & Clark Expositions.

But if there was no actual M.E. Hart in Zerbe's token enterprise, was Zerbe's nom de plume named after a real M.E. Hart? Speculation in recent years has focused on Mrs. Mary E. Hart, a celebrity of the era best known for her colorful lectures on Alaskan Native American culture. Researchers, particularly Jeff Shevlin and William D. Hyder, have discovered many potential ties between Zerbe and Hart. For example, both exhibited at the 1904 L.P.E. and 1915 P.P.I.E.

But it is doubtful that Mrs. Mary E. Hart played any direct role in what might have been her namesake token sales firm. For example, the only contemporary mention of the M.E. Hart Co. in the Numismatist was a blurb in the June 1916 issue. By then, Mrs. Mary E. Hart had returned to her beloved Alaska, as reported in this newspaper article.

Contemporary M.E. Hart ad in the June 1916 Numismatist

The medals referred to are presently collected as HK-426 through HK-431.

Zerbe's efforts to sell tokens through his M.E. Hart front was less than fully successful. By late 1916, he had left the splendid weather and natural wonders of the Bay Area to return to his hometown of Tyrone, Pennsylvania. But over the years, the rare framed sets commanded increasing numismatic interest along with ever-higher prices. Today, the M.E. Hart series of Western souvenir tokens is far more famous among numismatists than it ever was during Zerbe's lifetime.