collectors today purchase items for their collections via auctions
held by professional coin firms. Today, that can mean different
things. Perhaps you enjoy the experience of bidding online, where you
can blow up a photo of a coin to many times its actual size, examining
every nook and cranny to make sure it’s what you want. Or perhaps you
feel that there is no substitute for seeing the actual coin being
offered and participate in auctions held at major coin shows where lot
viewing is available. You can submit your bids in person, online,
through email, over the phone, via fax, and so on. The options can
thing most professional auctions have in common, though, is a printed
catalog. While Internet-only sales are increasingly popular and have
their place, the printed catalog retains an important place in
numismatics, providing a permanent record of significant collections
and sales. Indeed, one could quite easily argue that auction catalogs
provide much of the history of our hobby.
auction catalogs in this country were simple affairs, with listings of
coins that seem to readers today to be remarkably brief and more than
a little lacking in detail. First appearing in substantial form in the
1850s, the facts in these catalogs are occasionally a little off (or a
lot off!), and grading was quite a bit different than it is today.
Before the late 1860s, they were unillustrated, and they were only
infrequently illustrated after that.
numismatic auction catalogs of our hobby’s infancy provide us with an
invaluable foundation. Reliable price guides didn’t exist yet, so
collectors in attendance at sales tended to make careful note of what
specific coins sold for. They also often recorded the buyer of each
lot. Some auction houses, to monetize what would otherwise be
wastepaper, hired clerks to hand-price catalogs after the sale, and
made the resulting priced copies available for purchase by interested parties.
today are increasingly aware of the value of provenance information:
being able to trace the ownership of a particular coin back in time.
Annotated copies of early auction catalogs are often the only way we
can extend a coin’s ownership history beyond the point when
photographs of coins became a common feature in catalogs.
catalogs provide us with more than a way to trace the ownership of
coins, however. They also provide us with a snapshot of the hobby at a
particular time and place. It can be important sometimes to be able to
say what we knew and when we knew it, or what we thought we knew at a
particular time. Numismatics is a science, and, as such, we are
constantly revisiting our understanding of the facts upon which we
base our hobby. We can watch the story of coinage develop before our
eyes as we read these catalogs.
can also watch as the catalogs themselves change over time from being
paper-bound pamphlets cheaply printed on poor paper to the
high-quality products published by many firms today, featuring
full-color illustrations, glossy covers and professional layouts. Some
firms even issue hardcover versions of their catalogs, which does much
to ensure their survival over time. Part of this upward trend in
quality is pure marketing, but another part of it reflects the
important role these catalogs play as a record of our endeavors.
future of printed auction catalogs is occasionally cast into doubt,
but one thing is certain: the catalogs of the past have retained their
ability to guide and instruct us in our collecting in the present.
David F. Fanning is a partner in the firm of Kolbe &
Fanning Numismatic Booksellers, Gahanna, Ohio. The firm continues to
offer printed catalogs of its auctions along with online versions at
the company’s website.