US Coins

Guest Commentary: Special edition numismatic auction catalogs offer benefits

Special editions of numismatic auction catalogs have been produced since the middle of the 19th century, when the hobby in this country was in its infancy. Early special editions were often printed on thicker or larger paper, and were frequently hand-priced as well (the printed prices realized list being a somewhat later development). In the absence of printed price guides, hand-priced catalogs were the “Red Books” of their day, allowing collectors to get some sense not only of the value of collectible coins but also of what coins even existed.

As the hobby developed, things changed. By the end of the century, a number of dealers were publishing occasional price guides, and collectors were somewhat less reliant on hand-priced auction catalogs to determine value. But other features were beginning to appear in these catalogs. The use of photographic plates began with the June 1869 Edward Cogan catalog of the Mortimer Mackenzie Collection, but became more common in the 1880s and 1890s. Generally, these sold for a premium while unplated catalogs were distributed free.

Early plated auction catalogs are a popular collectible today and have significant utility for research purposes. The plates were produced through various photographic printing processes and their verisimilitude remains striking. Unlike today’s halftone images, which dissolve into a series of dots under magnification, the older heliotypes, collotypes and other photographic plates can be magnified for examination of detail, assisting with provenance research and die studies.

By the 1930s, catalogs with photographically printed plates were rarities, as the halftone process had developed as a less expensive, if less useful, method of illustrating coins for sale. The period between the 1930s and 1950s is not known for the excellence of its catalogs, but there were exceptions. The Stack’s firm began issuing the occasional special edition hardcover catalog with its 1940 sale of the A.C. Gies Collection. Abe Kosoff and other firms adopted the practice of issuing limited edition hardcover catalogs, though these were usually reserved for especially notable sales.

With their January 1986 offering of the Ezra Cole Collection, the firm of Bowers & Merena began issuing limited edition hardcover catalogs for all of its sales, available on a subscription basis. This practice gradually became more common, with Superior and Stack’s issuing hardcovers for most of their sales by the 1990s. In the subsequent era of consolidation, however, the number of firms offering such productions dropped.

Why produce or collect special edition hardcover catalogs? Part of it is simply aesthetics: They look nicer on a shelf. A more practical reason is that hardcover catalogs better preserve their contents. We have all grown familiar with the typical numismatic auction catalog of today: printed in an 8.5- by 11-inch format on heavy clay-based coated stock. There are advantages to this type of catalog: The larger size provides for a more attractive layout, and the coated paper is ideal for color photos. But there are also drawbacks: They are heavy, and when standing vertically on a shelf for a long period of time they tend to collapse under their own weight. The “perfect” binding eventually proves to be anything but, and pages start to come loose.

These drawbacks are ameliorated in a hardcover catalog: The boards prevent the catalog from folding under itself and the increased strength of the binding stands up to the pressures exerted upon it. These features make special edition hardcovers popular, especially for important sales.

Our own firm, Kolbe & Fanning Numismatic Booksellers, produces hardcover editions for each of our sales. In addition, we have been commissioned by the Eric P. Newman Numismatic Education Society to produce limited edition hardcover catalogs for each of its sales. Information on these can be found on our website at

Beyond their immediate purpose of selling coins (or books!), auction catalogs serve an important role in preserving information for future generations. Much of the provenance research conducted today is based on published auction catalogs. Special edition catalogs can enhance this preservation process by including additional information (photographic plates, perhaps) or by simply making it easier for the physical catalog to survive over the years (hardcovers). Whatever their form, these special editions are collectibles that are both popular and useful.

David Fanning is a dealer in numismatic literature, and a partner with George Frederick Kolbe in Kolbe & Fanning Numismatic Booksellers.

Community Comments