US Coins

Classic auction catalogs strong in Kolbe-Fanning sale

More than 100 bidders competed for a choice selection of 368 lots as Kolbe & Fanning hosted an auction of important numismatic literature featuring the library of John W. Adams on July 14. 

In the catalog’s introductory appreciation, co-founder David Fanning wrote on the prolific author, “Not every man becomes a book—not even most writers. John W. Adams has managed not only to become a book, he’s become several.” 

While selections from the Adams library have been featured in previous auctions, the recent sale focused on classic American auction catalogs, “those catalogs closest to his heart.” Fanning added, “This is a library that has been curated by a connoisseur. But be in no doubt that forming it was also tremendous fun.” 

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The sale realized over $550,000, and Fanning said that, while the classic American auction catalog area of the numismatic book market has been somewhat weak in recent years, due to the proliferation of online resources and other factors, “The Adams Library dispelled fears that online resources such as the Newman Numismatic Portal had made collecting classic numismatic literature a thing of the past.” 

Classic auction catalogs by the Chapman brothers, Tom Elder, Ed Frossard, Lyman Low, and other well-known dealers were presented alongside exceptionally rare plated catalogues from a number of different firms. 

Joining these were “seemingly unremarkable, but extremely rare, unplated sales necessary to those striving to complete sets of given cataloguers.” Fanning concluded, “The Adams library was formed out of a fascination with the rich history of our hobby. The results show that this interest is shared by many other collectors.” 

Fanning cited the broad participation across bidding as evidence of deep interest in this field, explaining, “This wasn’t a case of two or three collectors sustaining an entire market.” 

Lot 28 was numismatic personality David Proskey’s contemporary annotated copy of the June 20 to 24, 1882, auction of the Charles I. Bushnell Collection by the Chapman brothers, with plates. It brought $20,400, far in excess of the $5,000 estimate. The 3,000-lot Bushnell sale included 12 fine phototype plates, a prices realized list and was hand-priced throughout in pencil with the names of buyers and other notes. The description explained, “Also featured are Proskey’s numerous corrections, notes on counterfeit specimens and restrikes, observations on condition and additional specimens of ‘unique’ pieces, along with many other interesting and informative observations, sometimes quite amusing.”

Adams in his 1982 book United States Numismatic Literature, Volume I, wrote that the 1882 catalog, of which 500 were printed with perhaps 100 issued with photographic plates, is “Definitive for colonials, medals, Washington material and tokens.” 

An 1882 numismatic journal noted, “The late Charles I. Bushnell, Esq., of New York, left, at the time of his death, some two years ago, a large, beautiful, and valuable collection of American coins, collected with much taste and perseverance at a time when collectors were few and rarities cheap.” The resulting catalog was a sumptuous production, featuring an oversize format, thick paper, gilt letters and plates. The catalog description concluded that although it was not the most important collection ever sold, “it had a profound, perhaps unequalled, impact on the course of professional numismatics in America.”

Smashing expectations

Some lots flew past the expectations like Lot 127, dealer Virgil Brand’s copy of Thomas Elder’s Dec. 19, 1907, J.B. Chase auction that sold for $19,200 against a $2,000 estimate. The 1907 auction featured 1,396 lots and included three photographic plates. The offered copy was inscribed by Elder to Brand on the third page. 

The recent offering represented the only appearance of a complete plated copy of the 1907 catalog sold as an individual lot, although the catalog has been included in the sale of a set of Elder catalogs and an incomplete set that was missing one of the three plates has been offered. 

The condition of the Kolbe & Fanning offering, with its original gilt-printed paper card covers, was exceptional, described as “nearly fine, with only minor wear to the spine, has plates with fine, clean impressions, and bears an outstanding provenance.” 

The content of the three plates provides an indication of the diversity of numismatic material in Chase’s collection: “The first plate depicts war medals, mostly British; the second illustrates rare United States gold and large silver coins, patterns, two Oak Tree shillings and a few miscellaneous pieces; the third plate depicts large cents, United States dimes and half dimes, a few United States gold coins, an 1870 pattern dollar, three ancient Greek Alexander III silver tetradrachms from a hoard and a Japanese 5 momme piece from the Meiwa era.” 

Fanning thought that the most shocking price in the library auction might be Thomas Elder’s Dec. 19, 1913, 16-page Catalogue of the Eighty-Ninth Public Sale. Gems, Jewelry, Necklaces, Curious, Antiques, Stone Relics, Coins, Medals, Tokens, Paper Money, Etc., that realized $19,200 on an estimate of just $350. It was the first copy of the rare publication that the auctioneer had offered, although Adams was not particularly impressed with the contents of the catalog, describing it simply in his 1982 book, “A few half dimes but mostly non-numismatic.” 

The lot description explained, “But perhaps he [Adams] was overly harsh—after all, where else could one turn to purchase (lot 26) ‘Another lot containing some very fine stones, a few real’? In all seriousness, however, the numismatic content spans lots 162–400 and 412–429, a bit over half of the sale, and includes a long run of ancient Greek and Roman silver coins, numerous lots of paper money, a smallish group of American and foreign gold coins, and U.S. minor denominations,” further showing the rich eccentricity and charm of these early sales. 

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