LaVere Redfield Remembered
In June, 2007, club president Paul Williams gave a lecture on Reno legend LaVere Redfield to the Reno
Historical Society and this a portion of the text.
Wealthy people who choose to be private often get labeled as “reclusive,” “eccentric” or “secretive.” I
tend to admire wealthy people for their common sense ability to get ahead in life through hard work,
thrift and buying-low-and-selling-high. Lavere Redfield has left an entertaining history of folklore for us
to sift through to try to find the character of the man who left the greatest private hoard of American
silver dollars when he died in 1974.
One description of him is Reno’s “Little Howard Hughes.”
But Hughes’ father left him a $250 million-a-year oil rig tool company. Redfield’s father died when he
was an infant and his mother raised seven children giving piano lessons at 50 cents each in Ogden,
In 1974, I was researching the Carson City Mint at the Nevada Historical Society and an elderly librarian
working there recalled attending high school with Redfield’s family. “His proudest moment,” she
remembered, “was when Lavere fixed his mother’s ringer washing machine with baling wire so they
wouldn’t have to buy another one.” Like most children of poverty, thrift became a lifelong habit for
When he was 24, he married Nell and they moved to Los Angeles and he started investing in stocks.
“Like other suckers, I invested but never on the original issue (now known as IPOs)—only after the
prices had been beaten down on the open market,” he said. He bought on margin only once and
borrowed money only once: at the depth of the Depression of the 1930s when he got a bank loan to
buy stocks at rock bottom prices. “I made far more money during the Depression than in times of
prosperity, if I can save a nickel on an item, I buy it by the case, thus saving one or two dollars. If I hadn’
t done that all my life, I’d be just like so many people today—one step ahead of the bill collector.”
Redfield made a fortune in Southern California: he bought real estate at tax sales and bought oil
companies that were coming out of bankruptcy during the early 1930s. By 1935, the rumor of a
California State Income Tax caused him to move to sleepy little Reno Nevada.
In Reno, he continued buying large parcels of land at tax sales, many of which had been given up by
the Southern Pacific Railroad high up Mt. Rose and near Lake Tahoe. He wound up owning over
50,000 acres of Washoe County land. He would frequent the Washoe County Assesor’s office and at
county tax sales, pull $50,000 in cash from the bottom of his sandwich bag.
He bought dented cans of food at discount, he parked his truck at the top of the hill to save gas and his
starter by rolling downhill and popping the clutch. And his fortune grew.
He and Nell bought a 15-room fieldstone house (from an unsuccessful candidate for governor) and
surrounding farm at Mt. Rose and Forest Streets and he began hiding silver dollars. He would obtain
unopened bags of silver dollars, put a hole in the bag to check the date and mint mark, and return the
bags to the banks or casinos if it wasn’t a good one. Mike Sion, in his fine article in Rlife magazine last
year, tells the story of Redfield loading 10,000 silver dollars from the Nevada Bank of Commerce into
his Chevy, but when the banker told Redfield there was a $10 a bag fee, Redfield had the coins
unloaded and drove away.
He liked to play roulette, (in flannel shirt and blue jeans), and would have a table set aside for himself,
and often would spin the wheel himself, while the floor man and the dealer kept an eye on him. A report
from a dealer at Fitzgerald's recalled he would be able to set aside a table for himself, and often would
spin the wheel himself, while the floor man and the dealer kept an eye on him. A report from another
dealer recalled Redfield would win or lose up to $250,000 at a session. But would always ask to be
paid in silver dollars.
Attractive blackjack dealers would be taken to dinner, but one account says “but that’s all it was,
usually.” But in 1952, one date got back to the house on Mt. Rose and seven culprits stole a safe
holding $1.5 million in cash, jewelry and stock certificates. Police nabbed the thieves and recovered all
but $150,000. After the notoriety of the theft, the IRS eventually tried Redfield for income tax evasion in
1960. Redfield served as his own attorney, telling the judge he couldn’t afford to hire one. He was
convicted of a $350,000 income tax evasion charge and sentenced to five years in prison (at Terminal
Island or McNeil Island depending on reports) and a $60,000 fine. In 1962 he was paroled after serving
eighteen months. While in jail, he received a free gall bladder operation.
He also received an offer from a Texas development company for his land around Reno. The map
showed over 500 sections of land Redfield owned. “You missed this 20-acre piece up here,” he said,
“And while I was in prison, I bought this one up here.” In 1963 another burglary took place in which
about one hundred thousand silver dollars were taken. That case has never been solved. When
Redfield died in 1974 his estate was estimated between 70 and 200 million dollars. Executors and the
IRS found 680 bags of precious metal silver and gold coins hidden in the basement of his home.
Behind false walls constructed of cardboard boxes and concrete under enormous piles of trash were
407,283 Morgan and Peace dollars. 351,259 were uncirculated.
The court battles began immediately. Two handwritten wills were found, and a handwriting expert’s
testimony proved the second will to be a forgery, so the estate went to Redfield’s widow and niece. (Nell’
s foundation has since fulfilled much of the intent of the second will, bequeathing UNR, the City of Reno,
the Reno VA Hospital, and other public institutions.)
The battle for the vast hoard of coins also caused much controversy. The esteemed New York firm of
Stack’s performed a secretive appraisal of the hoard, expecting to be asked to handle the sale. (the
secrecy was to keep the inventory of the hoard from affecting rare coin prices) When the estate sold
the hoard to A-Mark of Los Angeles for $5.2 million, Stack’s brought suit for their appraisal fee. In
1975, the probate court authorized A-Mark to purchase a portion for $5.9 million. Meanwhile, Joel
Rettew of Rare Coin Galleries formed a joint venture with Bowers and Ruddy (owned by General Mills
who could afford to provide financing) to buy the hoard, but they couldn’t obtain information on the
number of coins involved, so they hired Stack’s to find out what they could.
In January of 1976, the joint venture bid $6.5 million and included a bank check with their offer. The
probate court cancelled the previously agreed upon sale and scheduled a public sale. A-Mark
appealed but the Nevada State Supreme Court upheld the probate court’s decision.
A-Mark won the bidding at $7.3 million, but when other coin dealers Leon Hendrickson and Jules Karp
put up $700,000 to help finance the deal, yet another litigation began. A compromise gave Karp and
Hendrickson their $700,000 back plus 150 1879-CC MS-60 silver dollars, 14,000 uncirculated dollars,
and 7000 circulated silver dollars. 1879-CC MS-60 dollars are now retailing for $3900 each, so Lavere
would have laughed at the excellent interest return Karp and Hendrickson made on their loan to A-Mark.
More lawsuits were brought by Bowers and Ruddy, Joel Rettew, and other parties involved, and the
case dragged on until 1983.
A-Mark took possession of the coins and marketed them over a period of years, to avoid depressing
the value of the silver dollar market. Overall, the market was stimulated by new collectors of dollars, and
the rising price of silver. The Redfield Peace dollars moved up with the market, while the later date
Morgan S-mints carried the stigma of a Redfield date for many years with relatively slow price
appreciation. It was not until 1983 that the 1890-S and 1891-S made rapid advances in price again.
We see the result of the Redfield fortune being put to use in the Redfield Prominade, the Redfield
buildings at UNR and the campus on Mt Rose Highway. I admire the man as an unique American
institution who puts a local stamp on a fascinating life story. He fixed his mom’s washing machine, didn’t
your stories to the
website, you can:
mail or e-mail me a
story to put up or go
to the LaVere
Redfield group on
Facebook and type
in your story as part
of a blog. Please do
not let the story die.
2845 Edgewood Dr.
Reno, NV, 89503
|We want to provide a space to collect memories of LaVere Redfield. Reno's Howard Hughes,
who owned half the town and a vault of thousands of silver dollars.