Copyright 2011-2017 John N. Lupia, III

Fig. 1. Passport photograph of Wilhelm von Bergen in 1914.

Wilhelm or Willem (Americanized as William) Von Bergen (1850-1916), was born on April 24, 1850, at Berne, Switzerland, son of Christian Von Bergen and Elizabeth Von Bergen.

He lived at various addresses including : 87 Court Street, Boston, Massachusetts; 89 Court Street, Boston, Massachusetts; 91 Scollay Square, Boston, Massachusetts; Numismatic Bank, Washington Street, Boston. 

He immigrated to America in 1871. 

On September 16, 1872 he became a naturalized citizen of the United States.

Gouldings New York City Directory (1877) : 1460, lists a William von Bergen working as a porter living at 401 West 18th Street, New York. 

In Scientific American, Volume 45, August 27, (1881) : 138 he is reported to have invented a device that acts as both a camera and magic lantern, while residing at Andover, Massachusetts. In The Boston Directory of 1882 he is listed as an agent for Union Camera Company, living at 20 Conant Street, Roxbury, near W. E. Woodward. Von Bergen was a coin dealer well known through his book Rare Coins, and from his many advertisements. He is ANA Member No. 10. He is the publisher of Rare Coin Encyclopedia. He was a large man with a dark beard who spoke with a German accent and was also fluent in French and at times worked as a translator of French books.

Wilhem Von Bergen apparently first published Rare Coins of America in 1885,[1] which borrowed from Dye's Coin Encyclopedia, first published in 1883, largely the work of Ebenezer Locke Mason, Jr, who published it under the name of his old friend and colleague during and after the Civil War, John Smith Dye.  

On March 14, 1887, he married Hulda E. Schnorr (1865-1913), a German immigrant. They had three children. His marriage license records him as a boot maker.

Fig. 2. Von Bergen's classic Rare Coins 5th edition published in 1889. Courtesy Lupia Numismatic Library. Estimate $100

Fig. 3. 1889 his business envelope was printed on brown paper and had an engraving of a Roman coin of the Emperor Vespasian as his corporate logo below W. Von Bergen, 
NUMISMATIST, Millville, Massachusetts with a handstamp showing a change of address from Millville, Massachusetts to Cambridge, Massachusetts. Very Rare. Courtesy Lupia Numismatic Library. Estimate $100-$200 

In June 1890, Ebenezer Locke Mason, Jr., is the first to give us a report about Von Bergen in one of his signature ribald accounts. It relates an event  that probably occurred five or six years earlier when Wilhelm was as green as a new mowed lawn as a coin dealer not even knowing the value of the 1802 half dime, something a beginner should have known. 

"A large advertiser, a foreigner, has recently startled the country by opening a "Bank" (he is not a burglar, but on the contrary quite an intelligent gentleman, lacking only in numismatic lore and practiced experience as a "coin dealer"). By "opening a bank," we would simply say, it was a "Numismatic Bank" that he opened, whatever that may mean; but all banks partake of a numismatic character; hence our new dealer is not far astray in his nomenclature. Well, a collector, well known in this balliwick, had a valuable half dime, one of the early United States rarities, and offered it to the above-named "Bank" for sale. The President, or presiding genius, who holds forth in a small office, about three flights up (the nearer to heaven the cheaper the rent) on the street named after the immortal George, of cherry tree fame, and somewhat noted as our country's paternal ancestor. The diminutive coin was handled and examined by the dealer for a few moments, when the following dialogue occurred :

DEALER.-- How mooch you vant for it?

COLLECTOR.-- How would five dolls. strike you?

DEALER.-- Vat, five dolls. for such a little piece like dat. Why my frent, dat is too small, and I would noot gif two dollar for little bit coin like him.

Our friend, the collector, had to retire to the entry to give the concealed titter vent, and when the street was reached, he indulged in a guffaw that was heard in the Daily Globe office.

Lucky it was that a friend was near the two gentlemen at the time, or the above incident would have been lost to posterity. The collector will doubtless offer "cart-wheeled dollars" when he seeks again to sell coins to the "Numismatic Bank".“Good Morning Friends,” Mason’s Coin Collectors’ Magazine, Vol. XIII, No. 1, June (1890) : 3.

Four and a half years later in his classic essay, Augustus Goodyear Heaton, "Tour Among the Coin Dealers" The Numismatist, January (1895) tells us : "On a wide street in the same section of the city we found on a third floor front room of an office building the so-called `Numismatic Bank' of W. Von Bergen. The room contained a long counter and showcase of assorted coins, a safe or two, a young lady clerk at a table, and the dealer who is a rather large man with a dark beard and the deliberate manner of his nationality. We drew a few satisfactory copper coins from the 'bank' and made a deposit of some greenbacks and silver to add to its capital."

Fig. 4. Von Bergen's classic Rare Coins revised edition published in 1891. Courtesy Lupia Numismatic Library. Estimate $50

Fig. 5. Von Bergen's 1892 fixed price circular No. 19. Courtesy Lupia Numismatic Library. Estimate $50-100

Fig. 6. 1896 his business envelope illustrated with the Numismatic Bank building, a theme B. Max Mehl will clone later on. Courtesy Lupia Numismatic Library. Estimate $100

Fig. 7. Von Bergen's classic Rare Coins revised edition published in 1901Courtesy Lupia Numismatic Library. Estimate $50

Fig. 8. Von Bergen's 1902 fixed price circular. Courtesy Lupia Numismatic Library. Estimate $50-100

 Operating his shop at 89 Court Street by 1901 and living in Winthrop. The Agent's Circular would extend the address of that shop back at least to 1889/90. 

In the winter storm of January 1905 his summer home along with his neighbors summer cottages at Crescent Beach were ravaged by wind, ice, and snow causing severe damages.

By 1906 his work address is still 89 Court Street but his home was listed as 23 Spring Park Ave in Jamaica Plain. 

The New York Times, August 5, 1907 lists him as a crew member in the Oarsmen National Regatta, Intermediate Four-Oared Shells-Nonpareil Rowing Club, New York.

In December 1914 he traveled to Cuba for his health.

"The 1917 Boston city directory lists Edwin (1890-1954), Harry (1888-1971), and William Jr. (1888-1931), all still living at 196 Chestnut Avenue, but it includes the following line---“William died June 18, 1916.”

He committed suicide by gas from his kitchen stove at 196 Chestnut Avenue, Jamaica Plain, Boston. Tragically he suffered severe pain and anguish over a long protracted illness and lost his will to live. A very sad ending to the life of one of American numismatic history's significant men. 

His obituary in the Boston Globe is surprisingly graphic: 

COMMITS SUICIDE-- William von Bergen Jamaica Plain Coin Dealer, Despondent Because of Ill Health. “Despondent after a long siege of ill health, William von Bergen, 65, single, a Jamaica Plain coin dealer, went to the kitchen of his boarding house at 196 Chestnut av, Jamaica Plain, some time between 1 and 5 yesterday afternoon and committed suicide by attaching a tube to the gas stove and holding the other end in his mouth." 

Oddly, his suicide with its graphic description by the Boston Globe seems to have given rise to the expression in American idioms "to take the gas pipe". This is not exactly the legacy that the good William von Bergen would have imagined he would have left in American history. His despondency grew out of control after the death of his dearly beloved wife Hulda in 1914, at a time he was already greatly physically suffering. That is when he took a trip to Cuba seeking relief but found neither cure nor relief. Everything in his life, besides his illness and depression were fine. He had three successful children, a solid estate owning many real estate properties, money, and other assets. I suppose when a man has lost his wife of twenty-seven years and finds his health is gone and suffers tremendous physical agonizing pain without any relief it contributed to his mental deterioration, emotion breakdown, despondency and death. Von Bergen should be remembered as the originator of the Numismatic Bank, an iconic name borrowed by B. Max Mehl. He also was a mass advertiser in many periodicals, another business ploy imitated by B. Max Mehl. He also promoted a handy fixed price coin book that was a rare coin encyclopedia. A book very obviously borrowed by B. Max Mehl. His real legacy is that he paved the path to streamline coin dealing in America and those who carried the torch that he passed on were the great successes we know today. I suppose in many respects William von Bergen is one of the fathers of modern American coin dealing as we know it today.


[1] The first published edition of Rare Coins of America by W. von Bergen seems to have been 1885 but no known copy extent is known bearing that date. This assumption is based on the imprint of the 1889 edition that says "Fifth Edition". The assumption, therefore, is the book was an annual, and if so then the first edition would have been 1885.

Work :

The French Doctor's Book, Containing a Collection of 1,200 Favorite Prescriptions, by the Most Eminent Foreign Physicians. English translation. Copyright 1893 by Wm. von Bergen. Boston : Wm. von Bergen. 1893.

Bibliography :

“Our Numismatic Directory” List No. 4, No. 65, The Numismatist, Vol. 3, No. 5 & 6, March (1891) : 25

The Numismatist, Vol. 3, No. 11 & 12, June (1891) : 49

Plain Talk, August (1891)

Golden Days for Boys and Girls, Vol. XIII, No. 1, November 28 (1891) : ad send two stamps for illustrated list shows highest prices paid.

Golden Days for Boys and Girls, Vol. XIII, No. 51, November 12 (1892) : address as Scollay Square

The Numismatist, Vol. 4, No. 1, January, (1892) : 17 (ad); No. 2, February (1892) : 30 (ad); No. 3, March (1892) : 44; No. 4, April (1892) : 66; No. 5, May (1892) : 83; Vol. XV, No. 1, January (1902): 31 (advertisement); No. 3, March (1902) : 94 [full-page advertisement]; No. 4, April (1902) : 107, 126 [full-page ad]; No. 5, May (1902) : 158 [full-page ad]; No. 6, June (1902) : 191 full-page ad]; No. 7 July (1902) : 223 (ad); No. 8, August (1902) : 253; No. 9, September (1902) : 287;

Boston Herald, Sunday, January 29, 1905, page 12

Philatelic West, Vol. 35, No. 2, February (1907) : full-page ad on recto 66th leaf, or last from back end of the magazine.

Pete Smith-American Numismatic Biographies (1997?) : 235

“Good Morning Friends,” Mason’s Coin Collectors’ Magazine, Vol. XIII, No. 1, June (1890) : 3; humorous anecdotal story

Nancy Oliver & Rich Kelly, “WILLIAM VON BERGEN INFO SOUGHT,” The E-Sylum:  Volume 8, Number 13, March 27, 2005

Jim Hirtle, “B. MAX MEHL - WILLIAM VON BERGEN BUSINESS CONNECTION SOUGHT,” The E-Sylum:  Volume 10, Number 15, April 15, 2007

Jim Hirtle, “WAS THERE A WILLIAM VON BERGEN - B. MAX MEHL ALLIANCE?” The E-Sylum: Volume 10, Number 21, May 27, 2007

                Dan Hamelberg, “MORE ON VON BERGEN AND MAX MEHL,” The E-Sylum:  Volume 10, Number 22, June 3, 2007

Patrick McMahon, “ON THE BUSINESS AND DEATH OF WILLIAM VON BERGEN,” The E-Sylum: Volume 10, Number 23, June 10, 2007

Dan Hamelberg, “MORE WILLIAM VON BERGEN RESEARCH,” The E-Sylum:  Volume 10, Number 24, June 17, 2007

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