Coins added up to H’wood pull

Guest column

In Bruce McNall’s memoir, “Fun While It Lasted,” he recalls spending much of his youth in Los Angeles kicking around the fringes of Hollywood. Always enthralled by the industry’s elite, he finally hit upon a way to be at its center. He wouldn’t have to write scripts or broker talent deals. He would simply sell coins.

After leaving UCLA, my main concern was finding great coins to build a first-rate collection for a customer — Sy Weintraub — who didn’t know a denarius from a button and didn’t seem to care. Because I knew he didn’t love the coins, I didn’t expect Sy to stay interested for very long. For that reason I wanted to sell him as much as I could, as fast as I could. To do that, I had to appeal to both his ego and his wallet.

To feed Sy’s ego, I had to find a way for the coins to become a truly visible status symbol. The trouble was, unlike a house or a car or even a painting, a coon makes a poor display.

To solve this problem, I had photos taken of each one. I had the photos enlarged and printed along with little text blocks noting each coin’s history. When the text and picture were framed with the coin, Sy had something he could put on a wall, or a table, and show off to his friends.

Sy’s friends were like him: rich, famous, and hard to impress. I was drafted into the effort. Every few weeks Sy would throw a big party or have just a few good friends over for dinner, and I would be the entertainment. Though I was barely an adult, and a complete stranger to their world, a word from Sy was enough for me to be accepted by the likes of Berry Gordy, Richard Zanuck, Leonard Goldberg, and Aaron Spelling. He also introduced me to some of Hollywood’s younger power players like David Geffen and Peter Guber. We would enjoy our drinks and hors d’oeuvres, and then Sy would trot me out like a trick pony to dazzle them with tales of Caesars and senators, soldiers and traitors. I always had a couple of coins in my pocket. Putting a twenty-five-hundred-year-old coin in someone’s palm, as casually as you might hand them a quarter, inspires a certain awe.

As always, I tried to tailor the story to my audience. My approach to David Geffen, then a major record company owner, was typical. A regular at Sy’s parties- in those days he wasn’t “out” as a gay man, so he often came with Cher as his date — Geffen was obsessed with music. I showed him coins decorated with instruments. One in particular was a nero dupondius showing a lyre. (Though it is highly improbable that Nero actually fiddled while Rome burned, he was a musician and loved to play.) Geffen was an avid collector of modern art, but only mildly impressed by the coins as objects. As I would find with all the others, he wanted an investment. When Sy told him he could make 20% or more per year, he signed up for $100,000 worth in coins.

Geffen’s order was relayed by Sy, who, as this stream of business began to flow, made himself my invisible, if not-so-silent partner. It was a brilliant move. He would hand me the clients, help me woo them, but maintain the appearance of detached objectivity when, in fact, he was a partner taking half the profits on every sale. In Geffen’s case, for example, I spent about $80,000 on the coins that he bought for $100,000. When the sale closed, Sy and I each took $10,000 profit.

The same kind of thing happened over and over again. Gordon McClendon, who owned TV and radio stations around the country, put up more than $5 million. Leonard Goldberg went for $1 million. Others, like movie producer David Begelman’s wife Gladys, took smaller bites, buying $100,000 worth of coins here, another $100,000 there. Pretty soon I was in receipt of orders for so many ancient coins that I was hard-pressed to come up with the stock. I would fly to Europe and find some new ones, bearing the expense of the hunt. I didn’t mind, as long as Sy was buying too.