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Richard Doty, R.I.P.

I just learned that Richard Doty, who served as Coin and Currency Curator at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History for over a quarter of a century, passed away yesterday, having lost a battle with cancer.

I had the good fortune of getting to know Dick while doing research for Good Money, and his help proved absolutely indispensable in shaping my understanding of the workings of the British token coinage industry and of Matthew Boulton's Soho Mint in particular. Of course I drew heavily on Dick's magisterial 1998 book, The Soho Mint and the Industrialization of Money. But I will be forever indebted to him for much more than that crucial resource, for Dick also answered countless questions I posed, and responded very thoughtfully to my own developing thesis, in the course of what ended up being a quite lengthy correspondence. Then, when I finally visited him in Washington, Dick shared with me–no, he gave me–whole thick files of notes and other materials he'd assembled in conducting his own meticulous research at the Boulton and Watt archives in Birmingham. Thanks to his kindness I was able to make much more efficient use of my own scarce time spent buried among Soho's dusty records.

Dick did all of this, and much more besides, not just unstintingly but with evident pleasure. What's more his enthusiasm only seemed to heighten as my findings and conclusions began to diverge from those he reported in his own work. So far as he was concerned, what mattered was that I was doing my best to build upon what he had begun, and not whether I did or didn't do a little demolishing in the process. Would that some other builders whose labors my own encroached upon had been similarly supportive!

And what a pleasure he was to correspond and talk with! Whatever he said or wrote, he said or wrote with great elan, leavened with wit. That he took great joy in his work was abundantly evident; but so too was his seriousness. He was, like most passionate scholars, not one to suffer fools gladly. Yet there was, even in his most caustic remarks, a hint of the jovial and effervescent. A big fellow, he came across, with his sometimes savage humor and generous nature, as a curmudgeonly version of Santa Clause.

A few years ago, when I'd long since moved on from my work on private tokens, I was surprised to get a call from Dick. He was, he told me, planning to step down from his position at the Smithsonian, and looking for a successor. He then encouraged me to apply for the job. Of course I was flabbergasted. "But Dick," I said, "I'm an economist. The only coins I know anything about are the Birmingham tokens." "You can learn the rest," he said (or some such words). Of course, I didn't end up applying for the job. But I won't easily forget that invitation: I never had a nicer compliment from anyone.

I don't know whether, when he called me that day, Dick had already been diagnosed with the cancer that was to kill him. In fact, I did not know that he'd been ill until I learned about his death earlier today. If I had, I would surely have made a point of staying in touch. Fortunately I did keep most of our correspondence, which I'm now planning to go through again, for old time's sake–and also, I'm sure, for a few good laughs.