Editor’s Note: This is one of three esteemed collectors whose collecting prowess is profiled in this series.
By Mike Fuljenz
John Jay Pittman, like Louis Eliasberg, wasn’t a man of great wealth. He made a good living as a chemical engineer for Eastman Kodak Co., and his budget contained sufficient discretionary income to allow him to purchase coins within reason. But he didn’t have a fortune when he took up the hobby in earnest in the mid-1940s. What he did have was a razor-sharp mind and a keen eye for quality and value.
He also had an uncanny instinct for spotting exceptional bargains, and he could close a deal better and faster than virtually anyone else.
Few understood just how big those bargains were. It became clear to everyone, though, following Pittman’s death in 1996. Between 1997 and 1999, the Pittman Collection was sold at a series of three public auctions for prices totaling more than $30 million, making it one of the most valuable coin collections ever sold at auction. Pittman’s initial outlay probably came to just a few hundred thousand dollars.
Pittman was hardly a private hobbyist. During more than 50 years of active collecting, he was widely known as a man with major holdings. He had enough rare coins, in fact, to ll many safe deposit boxes in his longtime hometown of Rochester, New York.
Amazingly, though, his status as a world-class collector tended to be overshadowed by his role as a hobby leader. I can vouch for this firsthand, as I came to know and respect John Pittman personally. Around the time he was a member of the board of governors of the American Numismatic Association, I was an authenticator and grader for the ANA Certification Service (ANACS). I used this as an opportunity to get to know Pittman at that time, and I got to know him even better when I was an instructor for the ANA at its summer seminars.Many people got to knowPittmanaswarm and personable, with a sharp sense of humor.
In the late 1930s, a Rochester coin dealer first kindled Pittman’s passion for coins. Before long, Pittman’s interest in coins was burning brightly and he started putting together a formidable collection. His interests were many and varied, reflecting his restless nature and his sharp, inquisitive mind.
Classic U.S. gold coins held special appeal for him. “John was not a wealthy man, except in knowledge,” a longtime friend recalled. “He was one of the smartest people I’ve ever known, with a wonderful memory, and he was way ahead of his time in terms of knowing which coins to buy. But he was on a definite budget.”
Judged by today’s standards, coin prices were incredibly low in the 1940s, when Pittman bought many of his coins. Still, few coins have risen in value as dramatically since then as those in his collection.
At a time when most collectors put far less emphasis on quality than on rarity, Pittman had the foresight to insist upon the best, not just average uncirculated quality, but the very nest specimens he could afford.