For most numismatists, collecting goals are about the same — complete
a predefined collection with the finest coins that are acquirable.
It’s a pattern that is inculcated in every Whitman folder-filling kid,
and reflected in everyone who has ever scanned a price guide to
determine the best grade they can afford.
Colonial specialists are no different. While quality may be defined
in different ways, with strike and planchet quality taking the place
of luster and technical grade, most Colonial coin collectors try to
buy the nicest coins they can get while working toward a completable
goal, whether it be a variety collection or a type set or a
Professional Coin Grading Service Set Registry set.
Curators and the museums they represent just plain collect
differently. Coins, medals, and paper money are objects that help tell
a story, and what collectors call “grade” is not necessarily a
paramount museum consideration. Completeness is defined not with a
checklist, but with an overall view of the era and the stories that
need to be told.
While everyone loves pretty coins and medals, curators often prefer
an example that shows clear designs but looks like it belongs in the
era it’s from. In other words, they want an old object that looks old.
A beautiful Mint State Washington Funeral medal very nicely depicts
the designs of the medal, but a holed and worn piece that was clearly
displayed and enjoyed by a mourner of George Washington tells a richer
and more interpretable story. A sheet of Colonial paper currency may
tell the story of printers in the Colonial era well, but a note with
inked notations, contemporary repairs, and a handmade pin holding it
all together tells a host more stories about the history of that note
and its era.
While well-worn coins, medals, and paper money may look nice in
certain exhibits and collections, curators also use their Colonial
numismatic items as a visual resource library of the 17th and 18th
centuries. Think of the coins and medals of this era as a form of
historic clip art. All sorts of allegorical images, everyday objects
and historical personages are depicted on the items we collect. Those
depictions are often what makes a numismatic item useful to a museum,
and they allow a curator to interpret its designs without really
interpreting the object itself.
Even for a noncurator, it’s perhaps easier to enjoy the art and
history of numismatic items of the Colonial era with this sort of
collecting ethic in mind.
While most collectors enjoy collecting sets, it is often far more
satisfying to collect stories and historical vignettes that coins
represent than to collect the coins themselves.