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A Collector’s Portrait

Dr. Arthur E. Corby

WHENEVER the collectible under discussion is a penny bank, sooner or later the name of Dr. Arthur E. Corby of New York City will come into the conversation. With a collection of more than four thousand of these banks, most of which he keeps in a shelf-lined room adjacent to his professional offices in one of the Wall Street skyscrapers, he ranks as one of the big six of penny-bank collectors of the United States. Nor is he or his collection inaccessible.

On the contrary, if one is interested in penny banks of any type or kind the "Doctor," as he is familiarly known to bank enthusiasts the country over, whether they know him personally or only by correspondence, can always find time to meet and exchange information on the subject. In fact, with the true collector’s spirit, he is never happier than when in his bank room, which is one of the country’s most extensive private museums of this specialty of antique collecting, he is reaching from shelf to shelf for this or that bank. Only one of a kind known, a rarity, or one that is not difficult to find, he shows them with equal delight. To him any bank, regardless of its status of rarity, has a place in the collection of any specialist in this field.

"I started acquiring examples of American glass, both blown and pressed," Dr. Corby recently explained, "then before I realized it, penny banks became my particular interest. I guess that it was the romantic side of that American virtue, thrift, that captivated me. The important personal fortunes or business enterprise that had come into being because years earlier a small boy had a bank into which he slipped a part of the pennies that came his way.

"Thrift in the abstract is humdrum, but add to it banks in general, or a specific one with a known history dealing with the material from which it was made, its special design, or an inscription put there by either the maker or the child who owned it, and the element of romance enters the picture. Two banks I have are prime examples of the human stories that give bank collecting glamour. One is a homemade affair. Originally it had been an oval wooden spice box, but into the lid the young owner had cut a coin slot. On the bottom he had written his name and the date with a goose-quill pen. It was that of J. D. Mott and the year was 1780. When he grew up he founded the J. D. Mott Iron Works which for at least two generations was one of the leading iron foundries of the country, making everything from ornamental columns for buildings to decorative hitching posts. I think it also produced many of the Victorian cast-iron seats and benches for lawns or cemeteries that now rate as collectibles. To my mind the making of that simple little bank was the germ of what followed.

"Of the other bank I know nothing more than what its inscription and the material from which it was made tell me. It is an example of brown glazed Pennsylvania-Dutch pottery in the shape of a woman. On it beneath the glaze is an incised inscription in the patois of that racial strain. Freely translated it reads: ‘When the penny you put in, it is saved and I laugh. Gretchen, March 10, 1831.’ The identity of the little girl whose name this bank bears is lost information, but it is obvious that her father or some other relative or friend was one of the folk-art potters in the Pennsylvania-Dutch country and that it was an offhand piece made for Gretchen. The date was probably her birthday. I will never know how many pennies she saved, but she certainly cherished her bank, for it has not a nick or a chip."

As a bank collector, Dr. Corby has gone far afield and has gathered everything he could related to banks and their making. So, today, bank specialists rank the Corby collection as tops for size, scope, and unique specimens. His first love and still his chief interest are the cast-iron mechanical ones in which there is action after the penny has been put in place, the button pressed, or the lever pulled. Serious or comic, these banks provide plenty of drama. There are about three hundred of them known and Dr. Corby has an example of practically all of them. His still banks are of all sorts — iron, tin, glass, pottery, wood, pasteboard, or any other material strong enough to serve as a coin container. He also has a few bronze originals of banks which, as far as he knows, never reached quantity production in cast iron. Such a one is the Boys and Girls Slot Machine Bank, the artistic quality and individuality of which strongly point to the work of the artist John Rogers, of Rogers Group fame.

"To me, bank collecting has been more than just acquiring. It has been a wonderful education," he said. "From my banks I have learned to know and appreciate pottery and glass as I would never have done otherwise. Take, for example, this blown presentation glass bank, made in the early years of the Sandwich glassworks. It stands thirteen and one-half inches high, and above the coin container are three tiers of arched loops supporting a spire-like finial, surmounted in turn by a small bird. Just to look at it or handle it brings home to one the wonderful glass craftsmanship that this unknown Sandwich glass blower possessed. Here is a presentation piece on which he expended all his skill as a designer and glass blower. It is by seeing such banks made as gifts, whether of glass, pottery, or other material, that one comes to appreciate the skill and individuality of concept that the early American journeymen workers possessed and that is a liberal education in the American way of life."


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