Until the mid-19th century, a few coins were occasionally offered in auctions of paintings or books, but never in a dedicated numismatic catalog. Then came Feb. 20 to 21, 1851, when Dr. Lewis Roper’s collection was sold at public auction in Philadelphia.
A dentist and pioneering coin collector, Roper was lucky to befriend William DuBois, assistant assayer of the Mint, who helped him find rarities. However, Roper was unlucky to die of cholera in 1850 while sailing home from the California gold fields.
His collection merited the first American catalog in which coins were the main event: Catalogue of the Entire Collection of Rare and Valuable Coins, Medals, Autographs, Mahogany Coin Case, & c., Late of Doctor Lewis Roper, Deceased, published by Moses Thomas & Sons of Philadelphia.
The Roper catalog is divided into sections offering coins from different eras and nations, and the descriptions are mostly familiar, although some sound strange to modern ears, such as “Dollar with Flying Eagle.” The overall organization is unusual, with 52 “lots,” each lot containing a number of individually numbered items; in all, the auction offered 698 coins and 21 autographs. No illustrations are included; not until 1869 would the first photographically illustrated American coin catalog appear.
The Roper name drew coin collectors from Philadelphia, Boston and New York City. So many attended that Thomas & Sons had to reprint the catalogs. These two printings can be distinguished by examining the bottom fourth of page 24. In the first printing, this area is blank; in the second, the following appears: “M. Thomas & Sons, Philada., February, 1851 Auctioneers, 93 Walnut Street.”
Collectors in attendance competed for delicacies such as a 1792 half disme, a 1794 Flowing Hair dollar, an 1848 Coronet, CAL. quarter eagle, and two original Libertas Americana medals.
Rudimentary descriptions often led to great bargains. Bostonian Ammi Brown won lot 22, no. 19, described only as “Cent, 1793” for his opening bid of 10 cents. Imagine his delight, for it was an Uncirculated Flowing Hair, Chain cent! The Roper sale was a roaring success, realizing $1,172.47, an extravagant amount in 1851.
Numismatic bibliophiles love the Roper catalog — first or second printing — and bid thousands of dollars when one comes onto the market. Perhaps 10 to 12 copies survive outside of institutional collections, making this catalog rarer than an 1804 silver dollar. The aristocrats among them are “priced and named”; that is, catalogs in which purchasers’ names and the prices paid are written beside each lot. In George Frederick Kolbe’s 1998 sale of the Harry Bass Collection, Part One, the priced and named copy of Charles Bushnell sold for $9,000.
Priced and named or not, there is a special thrill in owning the “granddaddy” of the approximately 15,000 American coin catalogs produced since those two rainy nights in 1851 Philadelphia that launched the modern coin market.
JOEL J. OROSZ is a charter member of the Numismatic Bibliomania Society and co-author of The Secret History of the First U.S. Mint. He can be reached at Joeljorosz@gmail.com.