It is time to set the record straight on Al Overton’s relationship with John Cobb. For more than 50 years commentaries on this matter have been rife with speculation and misinformation. The background is simple. In the early and mid-1960s Cobb and Overton were separately assembling data on die varieties of lettered edge bust half-dollars. Each knew that M.L. Beistle’s 1929 Registry
was cumbersome and overdue for an update. Cobb’s research focused on the Capped Bust series, 1807-1836. Overton took on the full series, 1794-1836. Cobb was headquartered in Mountain View, CA, the heart of what is now Silicon Valley. Overton operated his coin shop in Colorado Springs, CO. Both were PNG members. Both were active in state and national organizations devoted to promoting numismatics. Cobb, for example, conducted California State Numismatic Convention auctions in 1965 and 1967 and chaired the semi-annual event in 1963 and 1969.
Cobb and Overton were acquainted before Overton published his 1967 1st Edition but did not collaborate on the book. Neither shared his research materials with the other. Cobb told me this directly when I interviewed him April 17, 1965 at his home in Burson, CA, a sleepy town in Calaveras County, alongside foothills of the Sierra Nevadas. I have a 2 hour recording of our conversation that day, never disseminated. (It is a story for which the world is not yet prepared
, as Sherlock Holmes remarked to Watson when speaking of an unpublished case, the Matilda Briggs, a ship associated with the giant rat of Sumatra
Cobb assembled a magnificent 442 page Manuscript, containing attribution keys, rarity ratings and detailed descriptions of the dies used to coin Capped Bust Half-Dollars. (See lot 113.) Overton never saw it until April 1969. That month or bit earlier Cobb sold his bust half-dollar collection to Steven Markoff, President of A-Mark Coin Co., Inc. Cobb was in the throes of an unhappy domestic situation. He elected to abandon the coin business and move on. Markoff, then and now, was a brilliant numismatist and businessman, known for deep pockets and a quick check. (Google him if you are so inclined.) Markoff contacted Overton and in short order Overton visited Markoff in his Los Angeles office. They struck a deal. Overton agreed to Markoff’s price, $23,000, payable 50% down, the balance “in trade or in value.” In return Overton received 421 pieces (including Cobb’s 1817/4), consisting of the finest examples in Cobb’s die variety collection. Overton also received the Cobb Manuscript “and all publishing rights thereto.” Markoff said that he wanted the original Manuscript back after Overton copied it. He would need it, said Markoff in a letter of May 16, 1969, as he would “have a heck of a time selling [Cobb’s] duplicates without it.” (The Cobb collection was massive, around 3,000 pieces, including at least fifty 1815/2 half-dollars.)
In an October 1971 letter to Walter Breen, Overton discussed his purchase of the Cobb Collection and Manuscript. He acknowledged the use of Cobb’s rarity ratings “as a factor” in assigning the ratings that appeared in Overton’s 1970 2nd Edition.
This lot consists of 5 documents, each of great historical significance.
- Original, signed letter dated April 9, 1969 from Markoff to Overton, offering Cobb’s prime collection and rights to his Manuscript for $23,000.
- Original invoice on A-Mark Coin Co. letterhead dated 4/14/69 to Al Overton for “Set of Bust Halves 1807-1836, Cobb’s ‘finest’ of each. Also including his book publishing rights ….”
- Original letter on A-Mark Coin Company, Inc. letterhead, signed by Markoff and dated May 16, 1969, to Al Overton, enclosing “a signed copy of the manuscript release” and requesting that Overton provide a conversion table, Cobb to Overton.
- The original “Release,” signed and dated (May 16th ’69) in Markoff’s hand, conferring “exclusive publishing rights to any or all material in Mr. Cobb’s manuscript” to Al Overton.
- Carbon Copy of Overton’s letter to Walter Breen dated 10-5-71, described above.