The Value of Old Numismatic Books
By Charles Morgan and Hubert Walker
Special Contributors to CoinWeek -
When Hubert and I set out to write numismatic books, we did so because the kind of book that we wanted to read just wasn’t readily available. We weren’t sure if such a book had been written before and was somehow absent from store shelves, or if the economics of the numismatic publishing world precluded the possibility that volumes covering a wide-range of topics would ever be possible again.
Most of the nation’s bookstores have all but disappeared during our lifetimes, and those that survive give very little shelf space to the subject of coin collecting (and most of that space is taken up by coin albums and quarter boards).
We quickly found in the writing process that both Krause and Whitman, arguably the two largest publishers of numismatic books, while being receptive of new ideas and professional enough to consider all of the pitches we sent their way, are deeply concerned with meeting a certain level of market penetration. As a matter of business, it’s the right way to approach things. If you can’t sell it, why print and market it?
The problem with this defensive posture, however, is that in the process of repackaging the same concise volumes year after year, covering the same well-trodden ground, the hobby’s literature starts to lose its intimacy with the subject, and this contributes to the shrinkage of the market.
It wasn’t always this way.
In fact, there was a golden age of coin writing that is well in the past. The better volumes, or at least those that are extant, tell the story of American numismatics as it was happening. These days, much of what passes as insight is the recitation of mintage numbers and anecdotes about the personalities behind the coins. Those that actually bore witness to our shared coin history still have the capacity to surprise. In fact, I find their perspectives still have currency in a modern context and show us that problems we think are unique to us transcend time.
Take for instance this great volume I recently picked up called Selections from The Numismatist: U.S.Coins, compiled by the American Numismatic Association, and printed in 1960 by the Whitman Publishing Company of Racine, Wisconsin. The book was part of a four-part series of reprinted articles from The Numismatist magazine (which has been in print in one form or another since 1888 and is now headed by Barbara Gregory). Other volumes covered tokens, paper currency, ancients and medieval coinage, as well as foreign currency. The articles in this volume were written by some of the hobby’s most important figures: Stuart Mosher, Richard S. Yeoman, Farran Zerbe, Ted Hammer, and a young Walter Breen.
The volume is filled with some of The Numismatist’s finest articles from the first sixty-plus years of its existence. What it has to offer us is a graduate level program in American history and the economics of change. I personally feel that any interested reader who spent a weekend going cover to cover in this book would not only have a better grasp on the history of 19th and 20th century coinage, but would also better appreciate the tools they have at their disposal now.
Many of the authors’ perspectives on coin design are refreshingly modern. Consider this first-hand account of the release of the Jefferson nickel:
“A building on the reverse of a regular issue of United States coins is an innovation, and a welcome one. Whatever criticism may be directed against it is probably because it is an innovation. It is time to realize that something besides wreaths and eagles may fittingly be placed on our coins.” (Brown 145)
We’ve lived with the Monticello reverse (save for two years) since 1938. It’s hard to think of the coin as modern by today’s standards. But it was fresh, new, and architectural to those among whom it first circulated. Without that Monticello reverse, do we get Frank Gasparro’s Lincoln Memorial cent reverse in 1959? Also, consider how much coin art aesthetics had changed since the end of the Augustus Saint-Gaudins era.
Think about how this first-hand account of the release of the Washington quarter in 1932 mirrors the mania that surrounded the release of the U.S. Mint’s 50 State Quarters® program:
“The new Washington quarter dollar was officially placed in circulation August 1, and for a few days afterward they were handed out sparingly through the banks of the country to those who applied for them. The purpose of this is not clear. It was announced that only a few would be allowed any one person, the object being to prevent, if possible, their being sold at a premium. But as a matter of fact the policy of making them scarce and difficult to get encourages their sale at a profit.” (165)
And consider how the 1930s-era numismatic writer was so finely attuned to matters of relief and wear in this little tidbit that contrasts the Standing Liberty quarter with Flanagan’s new design:
“An almost universal objection to the design just discontinued was that after a little wear the date on the obverse became almost obliterated…. The objection to the old design must have been in Mr. Flanagan’s mind while preparing his model, for he has placed the date between the truncation of the bust and the rim of the coin, both of which are considerably higher than the figures in the date, giving it amply protection of wear.” (165)
I admit, modern coin production has become much more mechanized and therefore uniform. There will never be another period quite like the one detailed in Selections from the Numismatist, but what we shouldn’t lose sight of is what we expect from this generation of numismatic authors. That is, to excite us, to open our minds to new perspectives, and to constantly feed our voracious appetite for more.
So when you’re considering your next coin purchase, keep an eye out for tomes such as this. They can be had cheaply if you catch them at the right time.
I leave you with the following maxims prepared in 1909 by Howland Wood, then Chairman of the Board of Governors of the ANA and later curator of the American Numismatic Society in New York. They are just a few of the scores of maxims included in the book. I find that they’re as true now as they were true then:
“If you are a young man, you can afford to wait; it is only the old men who cannot.”
“Don’t try to collect everything, you will never catch up… and you will not enjoy what you have.”
“Collect, if possible, coins in the best condition; you then buy but once, and when you want to sell, you have something worth selling.”
“A collection near at hand is worth two in a safe-deposit vault. This can be taken two ways- from the standpoint of your own interest and the standpoint of the burglar.” (51)
Truer words were never written.
FLIP OF A COIN:
Profit-taking at the Mint: With announcement that the Mint would produce circulation strike America the Beautiful quarters at the San Francisco Mint, the Mint is set to make a lot of money… literally. The first year of the NIFC Presidential dollar program has seen demand sky rocket, and there’s reason to believe that the new quarter program will fare even better. In 1954, its final year of circulating quarter production, the S-Mint made 11.8 million quarters, and most of those were spent in the economy. It’s possible that we’ll see numbers approaching that with nearly all of them being hoarded in hopes that they go up in value someday.
Members of the Coin Community Forum are trying to spend $100,000 in golden dollars. They’ve been at it since April and so far have circulated $1,300 of them. It’s not as easy as you’d think. Never fear, pretty soon I’ll post a column that will propose the perfect figure to memorialize on a re-introduced circulating quarter eagle.
They say a picture is worth a thousand words. This picture, furnished by Michelle Kumpf at CAC is worth quite a few more… dollars that is. Pictured are two of five known MS-66 1972 Type 2 Eisenhower dollars, and one of 40 or so known in MS-65. These rarities were brought together to serve as CAC’s initial grading set for the series. It’s a moment like this that reminds me why I collect in the first place.
Photo credit: Michelle Kumpf, CAC © 2012. All rights reserved.
Brown, Vernon L., ed. Selections from the Numismatist: United States Coins. Racine, WI: Whitman Publishing, 1960. Print.