In the marketplace for A Guide Book of United States Coins (the
“Red Book”), the key to this 65-volume (and counting) set is the first
edition of 1946 (cover date 1947), which comes in two flavors.
Whitman’s first printing was only 9,000 books and quickly sold
out. For the second printing — also of 9,000 copies — R.S. Yeoman
changed one sentence on Page 135, which is the only way to tell the
two printings apart!
Since this was a reference book, most first editions were used to
death: bindings broken, pages dog-eared and gilt lettering rubbed off
the covers. Copies of either printing with unfaded covers and bright
gilt are rare birds, and regularly sell well north of $1,000 in
numismatic bookseller auctions.
For those unwilling to spend that much, Whitman, in 2006, produced
a Tribute Edition (an exact facsimile of the first printing), which
sells for $17.95.
The third edition (1949), is rarer than the second, bringing about
$375 in Fine condition. This edition is notorious, however, for muted
gilt, so a bright copy could approach $1,000 at auction.
The rarest of all Red Books in collectible condition is the fifth
edition (1952-1953), for literature dealers unanimously report having
handled more firsts than fifths. The fifth edition, however, sells for
about half the price of either printing of the first, suggesting that
it is undervalued. It is hard to find a copy of the fifth that hasn’t
been used to the point of (as large cent collectors say) “scudziness.”
Over the decades, the Red Book has grown bigger and better, and
its print runs have expanded along with its collector base. All
editions after the 1950s are common, generally found in top condition,
and usually reasonably priced.
Collectors’ compulsion to assemble complete sets, however, makes
even recent editions desirable. If you collect error coins, you will
delight in collecting error Red Books. The most famous (and one of the
rarest), occurs in the 16th edition (1963), which is missing Page 237,
but has two Page 239s. A cockeyed printing exists for the 39th
edition, and even a “doubled die” cover printing of the 15th is
available. The most numerous errors are the inversions, in which the
text of the book is bound into the covers upside down. Some 23
different editions have been found with inverted printings, from the
19th (1966) to the 59th (2006).
Yeoman was often approached at shows by people clutching inverted
printings. Invariably, he offered to replace the error with a perfect
copy, only, just as invariably, to be told, “No you don’t, either!”
If you are tempted to hop aboard the Red Book collecting
bandwagon, an indispensable “guide book to A Guide Book” exists,
namely Frank J. Colletti’s A Guide Book of The Official Red Book
of United States Coins: History, Rarity, Grading, Values,
Varieties. All of the facts in this column were checked against this
superb volume, which is available from Whitman for $18.95 in
paperback. It contains endless Red Book data and lore, including
year-by-year price reports, rarity estimates, special editions
information and even a photo of the legendary 30th edition that Ken
Bressett impishly bound in fur as a gag gift to Q. David Bowers! These
extraordinary editions will be the topic for the next installment of
“The Numismatic Bookie.”
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