Life-long Collector

Photo by Neil Docherty

Photo by Neil Docherty

Peter Baugh

When Tom Schweich was an 8-year-old in the 1960s, his father came home from work one day with a present – a 1909 penny. Little did Schweich know that this coin would start a lifetime of collecting.

“I remember just being fascinated about such an old penny, because even then a 1909 penny was pretty old,” he said.

Schweich, the Missouri State Auditor and a Clayton parent, started a penny book and became friends with Eric Newman, the owner of the finest collection of coins outside of the Smithsonian. Schweich is still friends with Newman, who is now 103 years old.

Though he started with pennies, Schweich’s collection grew to include ancient coins and other pieces of rare currency. He has coins that date back to 500 BCE, including ones issued by Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar. These ancient coins served not only as a form of currency, but also as the main source of news for citizens at the time.

“It was the only systematic way to reach everybody in the empire,” Schweich said.

Schweich’s collection is not limited to coins. He and his wife have taken great interest in the golden age of Hollywood, the period of movie making from the 1920s to the 1950s. One attraction that drew Schweich to these films is a sense of national pride.

“The 1920s and 30s is where the United States really invented a unique art form, which is film,” he said. “It’s done all over the world but that’s our art form. We didn’t invent impressionism, we didn’t invent a lot of things, but we did invent the idea of the Hollywood film.”

Schweich collects signed pictures from famous Hollywood actors and actresses. One of his favorites is a signed picture of Greta Garbo, a star known for being stingy with autograph requests.

“It’s the toughest autograph in all of Hollywood,” Schweich said. “It’s harder than Marilyn Monroe, it’s harder than Humphrey Bogart, it’s harder than even the toughest of the tough.”

Schweich’s Garbo signature is even more valuable because the photo it is signed on was the original printed picture. The photo is signed to her makeup man.

“It’s probably one of the best autographs of Garbo in existence,” he said.

He also has signed items of Humphrey Bogart, Marilyn Monroe, Ronald Reagan as an actor, John Wayne and countless other stars.

“It brings a lot of the history to life. I collect them because it’s so much easier to understand a period of time if you can see the texture of the paper, the writing, what the subject matters are, what they did and I think it brings a lot to it,” Schweich said. “And I get a lot of energy and excitement from it.”

Schweich, who keeps the majority of his collection in a safety deposit box at a St. Louis bank, has also amassed a multitude of historical documents. One of his most valuable ones is a letter signed by Napoleon Bonaparte requesting for more troops to be sent to him after a disastrous invasion of Russia.

“You can sort of see the whole Napoleonic era falling apart when you read the content of this letter because he’s got so many people to replace,” Schweich said.

He also has a document signed by every president of the 20th century. In this set lies one of Schweich’s favorite items: a letter from Lyndon B. Johnson regarding the death of John F. Kennedy.

The day Kennedy was killed started with a morning speaking event in Fort Worth, Texas. Shortly after, he and Johnson, the vice president at the time, flew to Dallas, where Kennedy was shot. Johnson’s letter discusses the joy of the morning event followed by the tragedy of the afternoon.

The letter, according to Schweich, is “probably one of the only references he ever made in writing to the Kennedy assassination.”

His collection also features a George Washington signed envelope, a land grant signed by both Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, a John Hancock signature and an Abraham Lincoln pardon.

From these historical documents, to coins, to signed photos, the items Schweich collects are large investments. Therefore, he has to be careful with what he buys. There are plenty of forgery artists who specialize in duplicating rare items and selling them. Fake signatures are very common. Though most are easily identifiable by collectors, some fakes are very convincing.

“You have to be extremely careful not to get ripped off,” Schweich said.

As a precaution, Schweich has multiple parties examine each object that he purchases. Sometimes he even has an independent certification company certify his pieces, as he did with his John Wayne signed photo.

Ever since the day in the 1960s when he got his first old coin, collecting has been a part of Tom Schweich’s life. He loves how his collection has been a catalyst for discussion around his household and cherishes the history that he holds in his own home.

“Think how much this helps your kids learn about history – about history of film, about history of the United States, about history of coinage and money and Rome and Greece,” he said. “We talk about this all the time.”