The numismatic world lost a legend when James E. Charlton, the “Dean of Canadian Numismatics,” died Sept. 20, at the age of 102. He is survived by his wife Mary, his son James R., and his wife Pamela; grandchildren Daniel, Trevor and his wife Christa; and great-grandchildren Lucas, Dexter, and Lillyana.
Born on July 26, 1911, he started collecting at the age of 15, when his brother gave him an 1863 Indian Head U.S. cent. That interest stayed with the young man, eventually leading him to become a coin dealer, auctioneer, author and publisher. A string of catalogues considered “the bible” of Canadian numismatics continues to be published under his name. Among those paying tribute are a number of Royal Canadian Numismatic Association past presidents, all of whom benefited from a relationship with Charlton.
“Jim Charlton probably did more to popularize the coin hobby than any other individual in the last 50 years,” Geoff Bell said “He was a man of integrity, honesty and always asked fair prices when dealing. He encouraged new ventures that I personally experienced when we opened our auction house. He was generous to a fault that mirrored his Salvation Army faith. He will be greatly missed at our annual conventions. Jim rest in peace knowing you left the world a better place than when you entered it.”
“Getting to know Mr. Charlton was the singular greatest joy of my numismatic hobby,” Dan Gosling said. “Mr. Charlton’s generosity was outstanding. His numismatic contributions have left a lasting mark on our hobby. His first mail auction sale on May 22, 1950 set the stage for many future publications.” Another past president, Charles Moore, is a former employee of Charlton’s. “It was with great personal sadness that we learned of Jim Charlton’s passing. He was a mentor and great friend. It was a privilege to have known him so well, and we will never forget his thoughtfulness and kindness. With deep personal sorrow we wish to express our deepest sympathy to his wife Mary and his family.”
William Cross, current owner of Charlton Press, recalled an incident that speaks volumes regarding Charlton’s character. “In 1967, when Jim sold Canada Coin and Stamp (Charlton’s retail outlet) to Jack Forbes, the copyrights to his catalogues were not included. In 1972 Forbes decided to sell the company, and I offered to buy. When it became clear the Charlton catalogues were not included in the sale of the company, the sale came to a screeching halt,” Cross said. “Forbes went to Jim and Jim signed over the copyrights to Canada Coin and Stamp to Forbes in order that the sale could go through. “He signed over the catalogue copyrights five years after the original sale, with no gain to him. There are very few people who would do this. Jim was a man of honour.”
Montreal numismatist Louis Chevrier called Charlton a pioneer. “Numismatics is loosing a pioneer, a sad day indeed, my condolence to the family,” he said. Ironically, Charlton’s numismatic achievements started later in life. He first worked as a salesman for Roselawn Dairy in his native Toronto. As he moved on to other jobs in the dairy, he found himself assisting the firm’s stationary engineer. “We were working seven days a week and they got big-hearted and gave us a half day off a week and then a full day,” he recalled in a 2011 interview with Canadian Coin News. “We a got the day off except for the engineer, as there was nobody to take his place.
One day he said ‘why don’t you get a certificate and then I can get a day off?’ ” Charlton did just that, working full time, then studying evenings at a technical school. He achieved his fourth-class certificate and then worked his way up to first class. “I’m better known as a numismatist, but I am also an engineer,” he said. In 1933 he moved to northern Ontario, working at mines and power plants in Sudbury, Levack, Nobel, and Chalk River, which would later become Canada’s first nuclear power plant. At that job he was hired “under sealed orders.” “All I knew (at first) was I was employed as power plant engineer,” he said. “Of course, in 1945 they let it be known to the world (after the atomic bombs were dropped in Hiroshima and Nagasaki).”
It was during this time that he married Mary, a marriage that lasted 68 years. In 1948 Charlton returned to Toronto to work as the chief engineer at the Toronto Star building. He began scouring banks on his lunch hours, looking for old coins. As his interest picked up he began part-time dealing. His son James R. recalls those days with fondness. “I remember he came home one day with a bushel of large cents, if you can imagine,” he said. “He spent the entire weekend sorting and grading them. “I don’t think he had any idea where it would take him and what he was going to do with this,” he said. “For him it was a genuine interest.” His son recalled a fact many people did not know: Charlton was also an amateur magician who liked to put on shows for local church groups.
“I was always in awe as I watched him make a cake out of a pitcher of milk, or pull a rabbit from a hat, or make a box of Corn Flakes vanish to be replaced with a cooing dove,” his son said. He published his first book, A Catalogue of Canadian Coins, Tokens & Fractional Currency, in 1952. After more than 60 years of continuous publication, literally millions of copies have been sold. In 1954, Charlton opened a shop on Toronto’s Front Street, under the name Canada Coin Exchange. That same year he conducted his first auction, for the Canadian Numismatic Association convention. A highlight of this time, which he described as “an exciting thing,” was an armed robbery of his store. Two robbers brandished a .38 revolver, shoved Mary in a closet, and demanded coins and cash.
An employee, who was also a retired police officer, grabbed the gun and tried to fire it at one of the thieves, but it jammed. Luckily police arrived and the robbers surrendered without a fight. Charlton quietly moved the store and carried on business, along the way becoming the most respected numismatist in Canada. In 1969 he conducted has last auction and sold the coin store; what he called retirement. He continued to publish the Charlton catalogues, however, until the 30th edition in 1980. He then sold the publishing house to William Cross, who continues to carry the torch to this day. Looking back, he recalled not so much the coins, but the people he met along the journey.
He collaborated or met with numismatic greats such as John J. Pittman, Dick Yeoman, and Fred Bowman. “It was a privilege to work with them,” he said. “It was quite a thrill.” Along the way, he gathered numismatic achievements and honours. He was president of the now Canadian Numismatic Association from 1977 to 1979. He has received the fellowships from the CNA (now RCNA) and the Canadian Numismatic Research Society, and in 2008 was named the first recipient of the Paul Fiocca Award for service to the RCNA. In 1972, he received the J. Douglas Ferguson Award for service to Canadian numismatics, and in 1988 was named honorary president of the CNA.
Over the years he attended scores of association conventions, most recently the 2011 event in Windsor, Ont. Prior to that convention, he looked back on his experience. “It would be like a farewell,” he said. “I attended over 50 CNAs. We had lots of interesting conventions.” His citation for that award sums up the respect in which Charlton has continually been held by the numismatic community: “You are one of the few Canadians who has earned, and deserve, the designation professional numismatist in the finest sense of that term. As a professional coin dealer for over 20 years you established a reputation for honesty and integrity that greatly added to the prestige of Canadian numismatics at home and abroad.”
In 2011, the RCNA honoured his 100th birthday with a tribute during the organization’s awards banquet. The event included a cake made in the image of the new Canadian $100 polymer note with the portrait of prime minister Robert Borden replaced by Charlton. The funeral service was held at the Giffen-Mack Funeral Home in Toronto on Sept. 28. Interment was at St. John’s Norway Cemetery.