By Leslie A. Elam
Harry Wesley Bass, Jr. was born on January 6, 1927, in Oklahoma City and was the first son of Wilma (Schuessler) and Harry Wesley Bass, Sr. His brother, Richard D. Bass, was born two years later. Harry’s father was an adventurous driller and producer of oil and gas as well as a pipeline operator.
Harry Bass, Sr. was born in Enid, Oklahoma, in 1895, served in the 82nd Field Artillery during World War I, studied banking at the University of Oklahoma, and took a job in a bank. Soon thereafter, in 1919, he struck out for the oil fields during the early Texas boom days. By 1925, be had formed his first company, Champlin & Bass, oil operators and drilling contractors. In 1928, Bass, Sr. developed the first portable drilling mast, the A-frame derrick still in use today.
In 1932, the Bass business and family moved to Dallas, a city more centrally located for the management of the various companies created by Bass, Sr. that owned and developed oil and gas properties then spread across five southwestern states. He formed the Trinity Gas Corporation in 1939 and was one of the first entrepreneurs to build a natural gas recycling plant, a conservation operation that quickly proved a wise business decision. Other family companies included Can-Tex Drilling, Ltd., begun in 1941 for exploration in Alberta, Canada; Wilcox Trend Gathering System, a 150 million cubic-feet-per-day pipeline serving, South Texas; and Goliad Corp. for the construction and management of natural gas processing plants.
A generous supporter of scientific, religious, and educational institutions, Mr. Bass, Sr. established the Bass Foundation in 1945 for charitable purposes. Following the death of Wilma Bass in June 1963, the foundation, together with Harry Sr. and his sons, Harry Jr. and Dick, provided half of the $1 million construction fund to build the women’s dormitory at the Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas, containing the Wilma Bass Memorial Hall. Harry Bass, Sr. died in 1970.
From his arrival in Dallas in 1932, Harry Bass, Jr. called that city his home for the rest of his life. Summers often were spent at the family-owned Delmar Ranch, a spread on the Bosque River near Waco that eventually grew to be the largest working ranch in Central Texas. Following graduation from Texas Country Day School (now St. Mark’s School of Texas) he briefly attended the University of Texas and Southern Methodist University.
Between “semesters” at SMU, he served for two years in the U.S. Navy during World War II, spending most of the time in the South Pacific. Soon after returning to Dallas, he married Mary Mathewson in 1947 and the couple immediately left for Calgary. They spent three years in Canada where Harry gained first-hand experience working for the family firm, Can-Tex. His progress was rapid; by the time he was 30, Harry was president of two corporations, H.W. Bass & Sons, Inc. and the Harry Bass Drilling Co., and a director of two others, the Great National Life Insurance Co. and the Texas Bank & Trust Co. Of interest, he was elected a junior director of Texas Bank in 1951 when he was only 24, becoming a full director in 1956. In 1960, Goliad Oil & Gas Co. was added to the list of family businesses, witnessing a shift from the emphasis on drilling and producing. As Harry noted at the time, “Our newest projects involve extraction of butane, propane and natural gasoline and then marketing these products. Our companies that handle these products are Goliad Oil & Gas Co. and Goliad Corporation. These interests range from Northern Canada to South Texas and Louisiana.”
Unable to vote in the 1948 presidential election due to his Canadian residency, Harry took an active role in the 1952 Republican campaign that led to the election of Dwight D. Eisenhower to his first term. He attributed his interest in politics to “a deep-seated respect for conservative politics” gained from his close association with Bass, Sr., and to “a sincere desire to take a part in deciding what philosophy of government this country is to follow.”
Early successes in raising money to support campaigns and promote Republican programs led to his appointment as precinct treasurer in North Dallas and a member of the Dallas County Finance Committee. Then, in January 1957, at age 30, he leapt over intermediate positions to be elected chairman of the Dallas County Republican Committee, considered “the most potent Republican organization in Texas and perhaps the South.” At a time when computers were in their infancy, Harry developed computerized records of voters by precinct, including giving patterns. Often, he personally wrote the software to set up and run applications and even spent untold hours keying in the personal data himself.
Following his term as chairman, he continued to be active in the Republican Party as chairman of the Dallas County Republican Finance Committee and vicechairman of the Texas Republican Finance Committee, as well as state committeeman for Dallas County, in which capacity he attended the 1964 GOP convention in San Francisco.
Bass Buys a Mountain
“Oil, politics and skiing” is the catch phrase journalists used in the late 1950s to describe Harry Bass’s principal interests. Harry became aware of sport skiing while in Calgary, but his real interest stems from 1953, when his brother Dick invited Harry’s family to share a winter vacation in Aspen, Colorado. Dick had skied the Vermont slopes while at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. In a 1977 interview, the then-seasoned skier, Harry Bass, recalled that he was not immediately smitten with the ski bug. “I found it to be quite a terrifying experience,” he said of his initial efforts, “with the bear trap bindings and twisted and tangled legs and unable to get up without assistance.”
Nevertheless the Bass family returned to Aspen the following Christmas, and by the end of the 1954 holiday, he could speak of himself and his family as having “caught on” and “pleased with the turns we were making.”
In 1955, Harry organized the Dallas Ski Club, which quickly grew to over 700 members bent on making frequent winter excursions to the mountains of Colorado, Utah and New Mexico. For Harry, skiing had become his “favorite form of relaxation.” At the same time, he was also analyzing the ski industry, specifically Aspen as a resort destination. As early as 1956, he believed that “the future held inflation, more vacation time, increased income, more leisure activity and early retirement on the part of masses of people in the years ahead.” Based on his analysis, he began buying stock in the Aspen Skiing Corporation, founded by Walter Paepcke, then chairman of the Container Corporation of America in Chicago. Paepcke had transformed a sleepy silver-mining town into a world-class ski resort. Together, Harry and Dick amassed a 7% interest in the company by the late 1950s.
His interest in Aspen attracted the attention of Colorado native Peter W. Seibert, who was looking for financial backing for his brainchild – Vail. Like Paepcke, Seibert skied with the Tenth Mountain Division in the Colorado Rockies during World War II and realized the potential of Vail as a ski resort. In 1960, Pete Seibert traveled to Dallas to meet with John Murchison and Harry Bass in an attempt to secure financial backing. He went away empty-handed and soon set up a limited partnership vehicle to get the fledgling company off the ground. “Partnership Units” at $10,000 each were offered by Seibert, with added incentives to investors, including lifetime lift passes and the right to participate in drawings for choice homesites on the mountain. John Murchison built one of the earliest homes on his site, an impressive structure designed by Dallas architect Bud Oglesby. As well, Dick Bass was an early investor in the partnership units, building a home that was to gain fame in the mid-1970s as President Gerald Ford’s “winter White House.”
The initial capital raised for Vail was only $1 million; in 1962, that built the core of the village, a gondola, two chairlifts and a beginner’s lift. The pragmatic Harry Bass did not hop the Vail bandwagon early. Said he, “I’m not much of a visionary. Just as I didn’t invest in Aspen until I saw it in three dimensions, I didn’t invest in Vail until I saw it at least in skeletal form, operating for a couple of years.” Harry purchased five partnership units in the third offering round, excluding the land option. He purchased his Vail home in 1967.
An investor in the Vail Limited Partnership by virtue of his units, Harry continued to strengthen his investment through stock purchases following incorporation of Vail Associates in 1965. Dick Bass served on the initial Vail board and when his interests turned to Snowbird, the Utah ski resort near Salt Lake City, Harry took his place as a Vail director in January 1972, at the age of 45.
By 1976, Harry owned 115,000 shares of Vail Associates, Goliad Oil and Gas, of which Harry was president and CEO, owned 35,000 shares, and Dick Bass, another 17,000. The previous year, Contran Corp. of Dallas made an unsuccessful tender offer for controlling interest in Vail Associates. Realizing that the company was vulnerable to an outside takeover, Harry sought to protect his interest in a “healthy company in which long-term investment looks favorable.” In typical Harry Bass fashion, he had carefully studied the company, knew its operation in minute detail, and was deeply committed to its growth and well-being.
At the same time, Goliad’s Alberta operation was coming to conclusion and Harry was looking to ways to reinvest the capital of the company in new ventures, the proceeds from which fed into a trust for the benefit of Harry and Dick’s children. Vail Associates presented such an opportunity. In August 1976, Harry Bass made a tender offer for 250,000 shares of Vail Associates at $12 per share, seeking 40% of the stock, a controlling interest. The Bass offer differed markedly from that of Contran. First, it was $2 per share higher; also Harry committed himself to buy all shares offered even if he failed to get the full 250,000 shares sought. Contran had protected their takeover bid by reserving the right not to buy any stock unless the full amount was tendered to them. The flurry of activity elicited the interest of Twentieth Century Fox, which countered the Bass offer with a bid of $13.50. Harry raised his bid to $14 for 400,000 shares and Fox dropped out. (Less than two years later, Fox acquired the Aspen Ski Corporation for $48 million!)
The response to Bass’s offer was overwhelmingly positive. The Vail management approved the offer and sent a letter of support to the stockholders urging acceptance of the tender offer. Fully 90% of the 770,000 shares outstanding were tendered; Bass took 400,000. A humanitarian even at this level of finance, Harry noted “our purchases were apportioned among all offering stockholders. We bought from the very largest and from the smallest – even from some holders of one share.” The Basses now owned slightly more than 52% of Vail Associates. Asked why he wanted controlling interest in VA, Harry replied, “oil fields, no matter how good they are, have a limited life, but ski areas are non-depleting. All they need is terrain, snow and accessibility. That’s why Vail is a good long-term investment.”
At the board meeting of February 12, 1977, Harry Bass, who had turned 50 the month before, was elected chairman of the board of Vail Associates, Inc. Peter Seibert, the founding president and chairman, was elected vice chairman. Also elected as members of the board were Goliad Executive Vice President William Neely and Fred R. Deaton, vice president and managing director of Wood, Struthers and Winthrop’s Dallas office. WS&W, the New York-based investment firm headed for many years by Samuel R. Milbank, president of the American Numismatic Society from 1958 through 1978, was later bought out by Donaldson, Lufkin, Jenrette.
Contrary to Harry’s own words, it did take a “man of vision” to see the true investment potential of Vail Associates. In March of 1976, just months before the tender offer, an accident on the Lionshead gondola resulted in four deaths with an additional eight people injured; eleven lawsuits against Vail Associates were eventually settled, and although the company was adequately insured, it incurred substantial expenses. As fate would have it, the snowfall during the 1976-77 season was well below average and by the end of 1977, the bid price of Vail Associates stock had fallen to $6.50 per share, giving Bass a paper loss of some $3 million. Fortunately he was looking long term. In 1978, he made a tender offer for an additional 275,000 shares, looking toward “perpetual control of the board of directors and the management of the company.” Shareholders knew they had a good thing with Harry Bass and most held on to their shares. Only an additional 83,000 shares were acquired, increasing his ownership position to about 65%. As one reporter put it in February 1979, “Harry Bass almost owns his mountain.”
Vail Associates owned the mountain and, initially, the town and surrounding property at the base. That real estate was gradually sold off to provide the capital for expanding the ski operation – the mountain. Eight miles west of Vail is Beaver Creek, which, in 1979, Harry Bass and Vail Associates began developing as a new ski community. Harry noted at the time, “Beaver Creek offers an opportunity for Vail Associates not only to develop a mountain and sell off home sites and condominium sites, as in Vail, but also to retain ownership of a large percentage of the commercial core. That’s the land that will generate perpetual income – and that’s the challenge that Vail Associates has for itself right now.” In 1977, Vail was set up to handle a peak of 12,000 visitors per day. That was increased to 14,000 by 1980 with the installation of additional and replacement higher-speed lifts, and with the opening of the China Bowl area. By the 1983 season, Vail Associates, Inc. was moving 21,000 skiers per hour up the faces of the largest single mountain ski resort in Colorado, with over 60 miles of trails covering 10 square miles of terrain.
Beaver Creek was originally scheduled to handle a maximum of 10,000 skiers per day, the peak set by the Forest Service. In 1984, its trails covered 560 acres of land including the Centennial Trail, remarkable for its 2.75-mile run down the fall-line, with a 3,300-foot vertical drop. The 34 ski trails, including Peregrine and Golden Eagle, part of the Birds of Prey runs, also take advantage of the extraordinary vertical drop of the mountain. As decided from the inception, the resort was designed through determined and sensitive planning. The architecture of the village has been scrupulously monitored for its total effect – personable, uncrowded, natural. Luxury condominiums and duplexes dot the slopes, affording magnificent views and natural surroundings.
While the growth potential for lift operations alone is limited, the ski industry itself fosters growth in a number of related sectors including travel, recreation, building materials, food sales, clothing, automobiles, and service industries. At the time Harry Bass made his investment in Vail, consultants to the industry were proclaiming “we’ve observed an interesting phenomenon at work in the ski industry where supply – the number of ski resorts and lifts – actually stimulates new demand rather than just meeting the needs of existing skiers.” It was the beginning of a boom era that has yet to abate.
Harry Bass continued as chairman of Vail Associates until the spring of 1984. And now, in his memory, the fountain in the Town Center of Beaver Creek has been named the Harry W. Bass, Jr. Fountain with a sculptured bust of him placed there.
The Lore of Numismatics
Reporters in the 1950s could not have known that within a decade they could add a fourth term to the list of “Harry Bass’s principal interests” – numismatics, the study of money. Unsurprisingly his initial impetus to enter the field was long-term profit. Harry recounted his introduction to American coin collecting in a 1992 Coin World interview:
“In 1955, an accountant friend of Bass’ asked him if he could obtain some 1955-D Washington quarter dollars, since the mintage on the coins was low. Bass served as a bank director at the time.
Bass said he was able to obtain a $10 roll of the coins for face value. Ten years later the friend brought that roll of quarter dollars back to Bass and explained a coin dealer down the street offered him 10 times the face value.
‘That captured my attention,’ Bass said. ‘I looked at numismatics being first, perhaps, an investment vehicle.’ “
Harry vividly recalled one of his first purchases – an 1803 Capped Bust U.S. $10 gold eagle, obtained in 1965 from a New Orleans auction on his behalf by a friend. He had obeyed the dictate of the influential numismatist Aaron Feldman to “buy the book before the coin” and had already acquired an impressive general library. Armed with magnifying lenses clipped to his regular glasses and hand-held loupes of varying strengths, he set out to examine his new possession, promptly discovering the “14 star” reverse variety. Harry was later to say that this experience was the catalyst that led him to concentrate on die varieties of U.S. Federal gold coinage and later to advance to the study of die states and die mulings, as a means to gain insights into early U.S. Mint practices. At his death, Harry Bass had brought together easily the largest and most in-depth survey of U.S. Federal gold coinage ever assembled.
Beyond this astounding concentration, Harry developed other specialized collections of notable quality, including U.S. pattern, experimental, and trial pieces, with a prejudice toward acquiring those pieces struck in the precious metal of the ultimate intended coin. His collection of U.S. large-sized currency is also distinguished, covering the period of the initial “greenbacks” issued during the Civil War through 1930 when the small-sized notes were introduced. Among the great collections acquired intact by Bass was that of Robert Schermerhorn, bought from his estate and forming the nucleus of Harry’s own paper money collection. A modest assemblage of silver coins, an extensive holding in California fractional gold pieces, and a discriminating collection of monetary materials related to Texas rounded out his numismatic collecting specialties.
Those who knew Harry’s penchant for organizing and systematizing will not be surprised to learn that he applied these skills to his numismatic pursuits almost from the onset. It will be news to many observers just how innovative he was in assembling his U.S. Federal gold collection. In a posting of March 15, 1997, Harry described his grading system and one can do no better than to quote him in toto. He titled the post “Use of Sheldon Scale in Grading.”
Here’s a little kindling for the fire!: [used extensively by Harry, and interchangeable with -VBG, – to convey “Very Big Grin”] Having accumulated since 1966, some 10,000+ numismatic items have passed through my hands.
When I started, I bought books, lots of books (still do). Penny Whimsy was one of the first. In 1966 or 1967 1 started using the Sheldon scale for assigning grades to gold coins, but with four primary parameters – my objective being to have a notation system that would give me an accurate idea of what I had so that such information could be readily used from my records when viewing items at shows and auctions.
1. Use of conventional Alpha abbreviations in addition to numbers for clarity
2. Use of numbers only in increments of 5 (almost always – my few slabbed purchases and some more recent evaluations for me by others caused some deviations)
3. Adding plus (+) and minus (-) characters to convey what is today called “eye appeal”
4. Adjectival words to point out important qualifiers
My primary areas of interest have been the U.S. gold series and U.S. patterns. The latter explains what may at first appear to be an inordinate number of Proofs.
In 1967, I had conversations with Abe Kosoff regarding my use of the Sheldon scale for U.S. coinage other than large cents. Needless to say, I was most pleased when he decided to extend its use in the preparation of his May 14, 1968 mail bid sale of the Alex Shuford Collection. He limited its use to increments of “5” and even then only through AU 55, I believe. His was the first such use in a catalogue of which I am aware. What has ensued is, of course, history…
The listing below (captured from my database) shows how many variationson a theme can occur over 30 years. The main point, of course, is that it is a method which makes sense to me and that I can understand and replicate.
I got nothing but flack from all of my dealer friends for many, many years. But in time, they all had to come around to the numbers – which, as now used with increments of one, imply an exactitude that is highly debatable in my mind. But then, I don’t have to write catalogues, mailing lists, etc. As for taking another’s “word” as to grade, I have ALWAYS (nearly) seen before purchase. Mike Brownlee, Julian Leidman, and Stanley Kesselman have been (were) [Mike Brownlee died November, 21, 1996] the only persons who could and would view items on my behalf using my standards. Having such a relationship with a few qualified dealers is to be sought after and cherished!
Do I plan to go through all of my coins and regrade and conform their grades on their holders/flips/envelopes AND THEN get such accurately entered into my records and database? Of course!! That’s at the very top of my “to do” list of things to do tomorrow. <VBG>
There followed a tabulation of 3,537 U.S. gold coins from his collection, arranged by this grading system and ranging alphabetically from “AU polished” to “VG rough” and “Was mounted”; included are such characteristic notations as “PR v sl impair” and “PR vv sl impair” Harry was not one to take the slightest benefit of the doubt!
1989 ANS COAC Exhibition
The greatest public appreciation of Harry Bass’s collecting acumen and the depth and quality of his research on U.S. Federal gold coins took place at the sixth annual Coinage of the Americas Conference at the American Numismatic Society, November 4-5, 1989. For this occasion, Harry displayed over 1,500 prize coins from his collection, accompanied by a preliminary report of his collection by die variety and die state, using a system of his own devise, based on the prior work of Walter Breen.
In a keynote address to the gathering of over 80 attendees, Harry stressed the joys and the difficulties of collecting American gold, and outlined his reasons for using the descriptive nomenclature, “The Harry W. Bass, Jr. Reference Collection of United States Federal Gold Coins.” The exhibition amply justified his choice of terms.
“This exhibit,” said Bass, “is the realization of my lifelong dream, the culmination of my efforts to build a collection that merits being shown at the American Numismatic Society to a gathering of preeminent colleagues.” He went on to highlight some of his discoveries that were included in the exhibition: a rediscovery of the first reverse of the 1796 quarter eagle; the 1825 quarter eagle with a new obverse die; the 1856 proof $3 gold with DOLLARS in large letters over the same inscription in small letters; and the 1803 eagle with a fourteenth star (his initial discovery).
The late Walter Breen, whom Bass credited with paving the way for his own research by virtue of the work he had published on the gold coinage by denomination, was a participant in the 1989 COAC and openly admired the quality and scholarly presentation of the Bass exhibit. One of the most endearing memories of those present was captured in a photograph by Margo Russell – Harry Bass thoroughly enjoying the close, respectful scrutiny given his coins by Walter.
It was our intention at the ANS to publish the catalogue prepared by Harry for the exhibition as an Appendix to the Proceedings volume of the conference. We got as far as having him approve the brief Introduction, culled from his keynote address, and the form of the catalogue entries. There it ended; Harry could not bear the thought that among his vast array of unique treasures, he might have missed a detail that another would bring to his attention. Since his oral description of the collection and his intended catalogue listing have not heretofore seen publication, those remarks are warranted here as part of the historical record. Perhaps they may, some day, comprise the preface to the published record of a unique endeavor.
The Harry Bass Era
In 1966, Harry Bass applied for and was elected an Associate Member of the American Numismatic Society. He promptly traveled to New York and sat down with ANS Librarian Geoffrey North, soliciting his advice on guiding his reading and building his personal library in American coinage. The two became lifelong friends; the respect and admiration each had for the other continued after Geoff’s retirement in 1975 and was inherited by Geoff’s successor as ANS Librarian, Frank Campbell. Harry’s reciprocity for counsel was generous. He contributed to the library book purchase fund and donated money to refurbish the library workroom where new accessions are processed, henceforth known informally as the “Bass Room.”
Harry Bass took membership in the ANS seriously. He was respectful of the institution and of its staff, and was, during his entire 32-year association with the ANS, an uncommon gentleman, equally the model of politeness and of candor. He was uncannily observant, whether it was dust gathering in an exhibit case, guards greeting visitors at the museum entrance, the supervision of visitors handling ANS coins, or the presence of rare or irreplaceable publications on open shelves in the reading rooms. His tack, more often than not, was to inquire as to standards – what they were, how they were arrived at, how they were administered. The result, more often than not, was to focus our attention at the ANS on the awesome responsibility of overseeing a numismatic library and collection perhaps unparalleled in the world while obeying a primary mission to make these great treasures readily available to numismatists and the interested public.
Harry’s interest and concern for the Society’s well being resulted in his election as a Fellow, or voting member, of the ANS in 1971. The following year, he was elected to the Society’s governing Council, a natural consequence of his intimate knowledge of the organization, vision for its future, and great leadership qualities. ANS President Samuel R. Milbank appointed Harry a member of the Executive Committee concurrent with his election as a councillor.
It was a busy period in the Society’s history. The ANS was the lead partner, together with the Smithsonian Institution, preparing to host the International Numismatic Congress in September 1973, the only time that this body has met in the United States. In addition to scheduling concurrent sessions for the week-long congress with venues divided between New York and Washington, the ANS mounted a major new exhibition on “Coinage of the Americas,” accompanied by a profusely illustrated catalogue edited by T.V. Buttrey. The Society’s decision to emphasize its strengths in Western Hemisphere numismatics, despite the fact that most foreign participants in the Congress knew the ANS for its great classical and Islamic collections, was not lost on Bass. From his earliest days as a councillor, he championed the position that the Society had a responsibility for the promotion of studies in American numismatics. A decade later, that vision led to the inauguration of his grand plan for an annual Coinage of the Americas Conference, first held in 1984.
His commitment to the Society manifested itself early and generously. He brought to the Council, and its Finance Committee, to which he was appointed in 1974, the concept of “funds functioning as endowment,” whereby his major gifts of the next five years were placed in the Society’s pool of invested funds while remaining available as working capital if needed. Happily, those quasi-endowment contributions have remained and grown as part of the invested assets of the Society.
Bass enthusiastically shared the Council’s approval of plans for celebrating the Bicentennial of our nation’s founding with a major exhibition of “Money of the United States,” including Colonial and Federal issues from the Society’s holdings as well as loans from private collections, principally that of Eric P. Newman of St. Louis. A volume of Studies on Money of Early America, edited by Newman and ANS Curator Richard G. Doty, was also issued by the ANS in 1976. In August 1977, robbers smashed exhibition cases and stole a substantial number of the American treasures on display. Happily, in less than one year, the perpetrator was apprehended and all the objects were recovered in good condition; due, in no small measure, to the cooperation of the late David Sonderman, a dealer to whom a number of the coins were offered by the principal thief. This unhappy chapter concluded on a high note, however, as Harry Bass represented the Society during ceremonies at the 1978 ANA Convention in Houston, presenting Mr. Sonderman a specially designed plaque on behalf of the ANS and a substantial reward from the insurance underwriters. Later that week, Harry served as master of ceremonies at the gala Awards Banquet marking the end of the ANA Convention.
In 1974, Harry was elected first vice president of the ANS, and during the next several years found himself increasingly called upon to preside at Council meetings and public functions, substituting for the ailing President Sam Milbank. At the end of his 1977 term, Milbank decided not to seek reelection and Harry Bass was elected president of the ANS at the Annual Meeting held in January 1978. If Dallas and Vail were Harry’s two homes, the suite at the Salisbury Hotel in New York now became a regular haunt. Harry devoted himself to the business and well being of the ANS. And added an important new dimension.
By the waning months of 1978, key ANS staff members were in detailed discussions with computer consultants, introduced to the ANS by Bass, toward developing databases for the ANS collections, library, and services. Within a year, the hardware and software were in place at the ANS to begin the historic transition of the ANS from an institution that served those who came to it to one that increasingly makes its resources universally known. The initial project, development of the COINS database, has proceeded steadily over the intervening years and by mid-1998 contained over 550,000 highly detailed records of objects in the collection, available on the Internet.
One of Harry’s proud moments early in his tenure was the agreement of the Council to his recommendation that Margo Russell be invited to join the Society’s board. Elected in April 1979, Russell, Executive Editor of Coin World, the weekly newspaper published by Amos Press, brought to the Society’s Council the experience of 25 years’ daily involvement in the scientific, professional, and collecting aspects of American numismatics. Fortunately, the ANS continues today to benefit from her wisdom and insight.
The year 1979 also marked the beginning of the ANS Newsletter, now one of the most effective communication links between and among Society members. Issued quarterly, this publication played an important role in developing interest in and support for one of the great events in the Society’s history, presided over by Harry Bass as President – the 125th Anniversary Celebration of the ANS in 1983.
Planning for the event had begun almost coincidently with Bass’s tenure as President and he was directly involved with all of its aspects, as was the Society’s First Vice President Harry W. Fowler, then chairman of Fiduciary Trust Company in New York. Together they provided the leadership that enabled the celebration in September 1983 to be both one of great moment and of lasting value.
Within the Society’s building, the occasion was marked by the grand opening of a completely new permanent exhibition, “The World of Money,” employing the latest concepts in museum display design and lighting, and presenting the history and evolution of coins and currency based on modem numismatic research. Organized by ANS curators Michael L. Bates and William E. Metcalf, the success of this major undertaking owed to the efforts of all members of the Society’s professional staff as well as exhibit design and fabrication companies with whom the staff worked, and to the Society’s Council, which raised the large sums of money necessary. A bronze tablet set at the entrance to the Society’s West Gallery pays tribute to the many individuals and firms that financed this exciting project.
In keeping with the Society research mission, the celebration included an international symposium, held in the lecture hall of the American Academy of Arts and Letters located adjacent to the ANS in the Audubon Terrace Museum Complex. Preceding the conference, greetings were presented by representatives of leading sister institutions in the discipline, both of this country and abroad. It was here also that President Bass, in a keynote address, presented his vision for an American Numismatic Society known more widely, appreciated for its great resources and consulted more frequently by a larger audience, attracting visitors to its door and to its new exhibition hall, while also seeking opportunities to reach out to a broader public. He spoke of computers as a necessary tool in the Society’s efforts; of the value in hosting gatherings at various academic meetings where past and future Graduate Seminar students will be in attendance and having a presence at large coin conventions to make the ANS better known to the collecting fraternity – and his grand view.
Harry had a simple idea, that each year the ANS host a conference on a specific theme in Western Hemisphere numismatics, with emphasis on the money and monetary history of our own country. He committed the ANS to bring together academics, independent researchers, collectors and the public, to hear papers and share information on topics deliberately narrowly defined in order to encourage attendance and participation by those interested in the subject and enable generalists to become familiar with the discussion over the course of the conference. He envisioned a Proceedings volume as the permanent record of each Program. Exhibitions on the theme would round out the experience, both from the Society’s cabinet and by invitation to individuals to display their collections at the ANS for the education and enjoyment of others. From this vision, the Society’s “Coinage of the Americas Conference,” or COAC as it is popularly known, was born. Each year since 1984, COAC has proven a valuable centerpiece in the Society’s educational outreach program. As anticipated by Bass, the Papers presented each year are brought together in book form and already comprise an important body of Published research now commonly referenced by students of American history and coinage.
The medal struck to commemorate the Society’s 125th Anniversary was one of Harry’s favorites. The Society’s Committee on Medals invited several prominent artists to compete for the commission to sculpt the anniversary medal; their entries were presented to the Council for consideration at a special meeting. Bass argued forcefully and convincingly for the concept submitted by artist Marcel Jovine depicting machines related to the coining process on the reverse, together with the inscription, while on the obverse of the rather large rectangular medal the kneeling figure of “the minter” is superimposed on an array of coin images from various periods and regions. Happily, the Council agreed with Harry that the medal enables the viewer to “hold history in one’s hand,” and indeed, this much-acclaimed medal has come to symbolize the transition from past to future that 1983 truly was.
The anniversary was celebrated in yet another tribute of lasting importance. In an extremely generous gift in kind, Coin World, a division of Amos Press in Sidney, Ohio, cooperated with the ANS to publish a special Supplement in September 1983, devoted to the Society and its 125th Anniversary. Printed on special paper stock, this “paper in a paper” brought together a number of numismatic research articles solicited from prominent Society members interspersed with reporting on the Society’s history, personnel, collections, library, programs and projects, all brought together as a lasting snapshot of the ANS at this point in its history by Editor Margo Russell and her staff.
Lastly, few of those fortunate to be in attendance will ever forget the lovely evening hosted by Doris and Harry Bass at the famous “Windows on the World,” atop New York’s World Trade Center, bringing the Society’s Council, staff and close friends together to extend thanks and enjoy mutually the satisfaction of a job well done. In character, the man to whom so much was owed gave to every member of the “team” a gift unique to the occasion and circumstances. Harry had commissioned the famous Murano glass foundry of Venice to craft for him specially designed figurines of a stylized Athenian owl, symbolic of the ANS’s own core classical tradition. This limited edition work of art is, for the fortunate recipients, a prized treasure and very personal memento.
In April of the following year, Bass announced his mid-term resignation as ANS president, effective as of the July 20, 1984 Council Meeting. We were to learn later that events totally separate from the ANS precipitated the decision that followed directly on his resignation as chairman of Vail Associates. He was accurate in noting that the ANS presidency placed heavy demands on his time. To Harry’s great credit, during his almost seven years as president, he rarely missed a meeting of the Society’s Council, its Executive or Finance Committees, was always well prepared to discuss the agenda and new business that came before the bodies, and willingly made himself available to preside over ANS-sponsored public meetings and social activities, lending grace and dignity, touched with wholesome good humor, to these numerous events. He also remained true to the assurance given the Council that while he sought to have less direct responsibility for the affairs of the Society, he would nevertheless remain an active and interested member of its governing body.
When Harry announced his resignation at the April meeting, he noted that one of the factors in his decision was the knowledge that Harry Fowler was available to succeed him. Each an inspiring leader in his own right, the two enjoyed working together on Society business and had become personal friends as well. As President pro tem, Fowler took pleasure in presiding over a tribute to Bass at the Society’s October 1984 public meeting. Prior to presenting Harry Bass with the Society’s Gold Medal, engraved to record his term of office, Fowler summarized Bass’s service to the Society and numismatics in his various capacities, and concluded presciently, “Harry Bass’s years as President are important for another significant attribute – he has been the spokesman for the Society to a wider audience, articulating the objectives of the ANS while helping to shape this organization to serve an enlarging circle of patrons. This period has, in the history of the Society, truly been the Bass years.”
While remaining interested and involved in Society governance, Harry Bass focused attention in the years that followed on computer-related advances at the ANS and on its library. Nevertheless, when in 1990, the premier collection of Paraguayan coinage was offered to the ANS, he was unhesitating in his decision to fund the acquisition. The addition of the collection of 201 coins formed by Howard Herz dwarfed the Society’s previous Paraguay cabinet of 27 objects. Reporting the Society’s good fortune, ANS Curator John Kleeberg noted that the purchase was “no mere assemblage of valuable objects, but a serious scholarly achievement which illuminates the history of what has hitherto been one of the darkest corners of the South American continent.”
Bass joined the ANS Library Committee in 1968, reflecting his interest in and commitment to the Society’s library almost from his inception as a member. From 1980 until his death, he served as its chairman and, in numerous ways, as its chief benefactor. From small ad hoc gifts in support of improvements and of the binding program, he went on to endow the Bass Library Fund for acquisitions and other purposes; to encourage acquisition of – and finance – the Spacesaver shelving units installed in both the east and west library reading rooms during the early 1980s, permitting a greater portion of the collection to be immediately available to readers while also allowing the staff to control access to individual shelving units housing rare and fragile items.
This latter was of great concern to Bass since he was at the time acquiring his outstanding personal library, making him aware of the escalating value of rare books and other print materials in numismatics. As significant collections became available at auction, Bass cooperated with the Society’s Librarian in assessing opportunities to improve the collection. With unparalleled generosity, Bass provided the lead gifts, augmented by those of other interested Society members, that permitted the ANS to acquire many very important items in the sale of the Armand Champa library over three auctions through 1995. Details of these outstanding additions to the ANS Library have been reported by the Librarian in the 1995 and 1996 ANS Annual Reports.
In 1997, Bass’s ambition, shared by one and all, to convert the Society’s library catalogue to machine-readable format, began to be realized. A highly specialized collection, the library has not lent itself to standard computerized cataloguing software, necessitating the development of appropriate applications software for the purpose, a task completed successfully this past year. In place at the ANS are two key elements presaging a successful conversion and an extremely valuable result.
First is that the library staff has traditionally and conscientiously catalogued all titles in detail, including articles in journals and compilations, not relying at any point on finder guides. Second is the five-year project overseen by the Society’s Librarian that created a specialized authority file of numismatic subject terms, and the subsequent emending of the Society’s catalogue cards to reflect this subject discipline and arrangement. In late 1997, a contract was signed with Gaylord Information Systems to begin the conversion; by early 1998, the first few thousand records were up on the Library server, available for Harry to peruse with the Society’s Librarian and software consultant. All agreed that the Library’s new era had begun auspiciously – Harry was already looking to the day when the ANS catalogue would be available on the Internet.
Mounting searchable databases of the ANS collections and library on the Internet were only the latest manifestation of Harry’s compelling interest in advancing the role of computers in Society operations. By 1984, he became convinced that the Society ought to adopt a single standard for its overall computer development – Microsoft- based, IBM-compatible PCs, linked through peer-to-peer local area networks, and with rules and procedures for accessing the various databases. The COINS database, begun in 1979 on a Prime minicomputer running on a Pick system, was converted in the early 1990s to a PC-based Revelation system, following detailed study of various options by Harry, the Society’s consultant Skip Hill, and ANS staff members. The fledgling library database is running on the same platform; its earlier developmental software, including the authority file, having also been converted from the Prime computer.
PCs to run business and membership functions began arriving in late 1984 and with them began also an intense effort by Harry to develop highly refined software applications based on Microrim’s R:Base relational database system. He was to become an expert programmer and, at his death, administered the on-line listserve for R:Base consultants and software specialists. By mid-1985, the Society’s membership records had been converted to Harry’s application software, the refinement of which continues unabated. The underlying, elegantly simple structure has remained virtually unchanged, a credit to his careful preparation and attention to detail in analyzing the use and purpose of the database before committing to a course of action.
Almost immediately, fundraising-related application software was added through Harry’s efforts. In 1985, the ANS launched its ambitious Development Campaign, chaired by its president, Harry Fowler. The public campaign opened in 1986 and concluded successfully in 1989 with a total of $4 million raised to strengthen the Society’s general endowment, establish a capital fund to support the Margaret Thompson Curator of Greek Coins, create the Eric P. Newman Education Fund in support of the Society’s Graduate Seminar program, and fund interior building renovations of coin rooms, curatorial offices, and the East Hall which now serves as a multipurpose lecture hall and exhibition gallery.
In addition to a leadership contribution in support of the goals of the campaign, Bass worked long hours to provide application programs and report capabilities that enabled ANS staff to enter and track pledges, report the progress of the overall campaign and its component special fund goals, as well as analyze target objectives, such as donors per giving levels and membership categories. The Society was successful in receiving an NEH Challenge Grant for the campaign, to be matched 3:1 by donors who specified that their gifts were to be used for matching purposes. Bass provided the programs to track and report that important aspect of the campaign as well. At the conclusion of the campaign, all these efforts were adaptable to other general and specific uses in maintaining giving records at the ANS.
The greatest “learning-curve” challenge that ANS business office needs presented to Harry was the development of a financial records system. The ANS uses fund accounting, commingling its moneys for investment and banking purposes, but maintaining each of its 50-plus designated purpose funds separate on the books as self-balancing accounts. To understand this concept well enough to take the lead in developing the necessary applications compelled Harry to brush up on or, indeed, to learn anew, theory and practice of the chart of accounts system, the more sophisticated aspects of double-entry accounting as it applies to transfers among accounts, and integration of bookkeeping entries and accounting record and report systems. It was a heady experience for all concerned, particularly when Harry decided the only way to succeed was to camp out at the ANS until it worked. Particularly during stretches in 1988, he was checked into the Salisbury Hotel for weeks at a time and often never left the Society, preferring to work through the night toward solving a problem or achieving an objective.
That the entire exercise was inefficient is without doubt. The value of what we learned about our own record keeping; what we learned that we could and should be doing; what we gained in terms of a useable, adaptable, efficient system, integrated with our membership and development programs, cannot be underestimated. What we learned about the will, sheer determination, intelligence and work ethics of a singular individual can never be forgotten. While the ANS staff has made great strides in maintaining and updating the several computer systems now in operation, it remained a source of some comfort knowing that Harry was ever there, both as a personal resource and as a sympathetic and generous supporter of the Society’s needs and desires.
While he had the patience to deal in details, Harry never lost the broad view of the ANS. As the Society’s Council and administration debated the mission of the organization, looking to the new millennium, Harry was at the center of the discussion and heartily endorsed the ultimate decision to seek a new home at a location within New York more conducive to the Society’s goals to serve a wider audience and attract the general public to come to know and appreciate the Society’s great treasures. Tied to the Society’s forward-looking mission was the need to reorganize the administrative functions of the Society, in place for many years.
In 1995, ANS President Arthur Houghton created a Governance Committee to which Bass was appointed. The committee, in turn, fostered an in-depth self-assessment of all ANS departments, activities, and objectives, based on a forceful presentation made to the committee by Harry, coupled with his offer to fund the effort. The formal assessment was carried out during the first six months of 1997, utilizing the Museum Assessment Plan of the American Association of Museums and the services of consultants made available to the ANS by the National Executive Services Corps. All members of the Society’s Council and professional staff took part in the assessment study which culminated in a full-day retreat workshop attended by the Council, senior staff, and consultants. Bass was an active participant in all phases of the study and in the workshop, via computer and conference phone links. This serious effort to clarify the Society’s governance structure and to provide guidance for the development and direction of future endeavors succeeded on many levels.
Of immediate consequence, the position of Executive Director was created, and ANS Director Leslie A. Elam was appointed to the new position. Provision was made for a new position of Assistant Director; following an extensive search, Ute Wartenberg was invited to join the staff in this capacity as of July 1, 1998. Of importance also, the decision to move the Society was confirmed and continues to be an important objective for the Society. Many of the longer-term goals and objectives arrived at through the self-assessment study rely for their adoption on the Society’s successful relocation. Toward this objective, Harry Bass pledged his generous support.