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Brilliant Concepts – Uphill Labor, Creating the 1983 ANA Catalog

davidtalexandersmallBy David Thomason Alexander  for  CoinWeek ….

Cataloging the 1983 ANA auction was a “white water rapids” experience.

This was most important sale to be held in the U.S. that year, and its creation offered lessons in the value of brilliant ideas, knowledge, teamwork, public relations and working with the major national organization and coping with its demands.

Actual cataloging got rolling after much initial confusion, as staff was divided between the Midwest and California, and most catalogers and production people had never worked with each other before. A division of labor was in effect with consignments arriving by mail or accepted at coin shows by Kagin’s employees sent to those events. Catalogers were expected to catalog, not simultaneously act as “Fuller brush men” spending their time on the phone drumming up consignments.

As noted earlier, the cataloging style adopted for the ANA was new and untried. Most VIP’s were in the San Francisco office and had little involvement unless a new Des Moines staffer happened to be their particular protégé.

New staff in California included George Fuld and wife Doris, most recently of Bowers & Ruddy in Los Angeles and coin wholesaler Ron Howard.

New Des Moines staff included myself and John W. Smithwick, just emerging from a spell of unemployment that followed the end of Paramount International’s glory days in Englewood, Ohio.

Senior cataloger in years of service was long-time Des Moines veteran Philip Joseph, one of the most hard-working colleagues with whom I ever worked; Mary Sauvain was active in U.S. coins and also handled ancients; consignment representative Kurt Langland kept busy with U.S. coins. These were a few of the people laboring on the ANA project. Although it was not publicized, Art Kagin was not active on the 10th floor at this time, either in management or in cataloging.

1983kaginsDue to the size of the workload, the actual cataloging stretched over 15 seven-day weeks: 6 AM to 1 or 2 AM the following day; back to work at 6 AM the same day and so on; although I did take a couple of hours to attend a Fathers’ Day breakfast at my son’s preschool. Emerging from our labors was a 16.5mm thick paperback catalog, with a few hardcover examples for select staff and VIP’s. I cannot readily report the total page number, as the five sections were paginated separately as each was rushed to completion.

Lot numbering was also intermittent: section one comprised lots 1 through 718; section 2, 1001-1743; section three, 2001-2866; session four, 3001-3764; session five, 4001-4800. This odd arrangement was necessary to cope with the logjam of incoming consignments and the necessity of teaching the whole staff the new grading and cataloging styles just adopted.

It should be noted that a massive nationwide sales program was being built up at this time, employing an ambitious network of financial planners all over the U.S. who were to hustle coins provided by the firm to their clients. A separate sales staff based in Des Moines handled this network and had no comprehension of the work of the auction department.

Added to the inherent difficulties imposed by long distances was a corporate culture that viewed non-cooperation among departments as a desirable display of power. “Throwing your weight around” helped establish one’s position on the food chain, and the sheer size of some personal egos contributed mightily to resulting confusion.

Office manager Lois Norder handled a wider range of duties than her title suggested, including creative writing that seldom bore her name. She and I struggled to implement systems for receiving and recording incoming consignments, as at the beginning there was no consistent method of acknowledging incoming material.

Directing production and a wide range of activities not ordinarily belonging to her department was Coe Ann Franklin; typographer Paula Matkin diligently plugged away to create catalog pages until the early morning hours; striving manfully with the chaos was staff photographer Bill Stout, a good-hearted former “Hell’s Angels” biker.

Occupying a side office was “idea man” Peter Theodore, whose unsheathed saber hanging behind his desk unnerved many. Peter had already successfully developed a new look for Kagin’s logos, catalogs, brochures and promotional literature that thrust them (not always willingly) into the 1980’s.

The finished catalog included high quality early American material in the first, third, fourth sessions and part of the fifth (patterns, Proofs, paper money and rolls). World material filled session two, highlighted by “The Americas Collection” created by Howard “Howdy” Herz of Lake Tahoe and Reno, Nevada. Definitive by type for El Peru from the earliest Cob coinage through coins of independence, the collection also included definitive collections of Bolivia and Uruguay.

The cataloging staff never saw these coins, which were handled by guest cataloger Freeman L. Craig, Jr. in a style distinct from the rest of the sale including little dropped-in snippets of hand-drawn art. The cataloging staff never heard how well this specialized collection sold, or for that matter how any other consignments fared.

ANA was concerned about the number of lots in the 1983 sale, recalling the 7,500 lots in the 1977 Kagin ANA auction. The sheer size of that historic event necessitated very late-night sessions and resulted in a bitter lawsuit from the late Confederate expert Col. Grover C. Criswell.

criswellThe Colonel believed that his definitive collection of Sutler paper did badly when it went under the hammer at 2:00 AM. Criswell ignored the fact that there was only one collector who really cared about Sutler material, himself.

Session four was the highlight of the 1983 ANA sale, devoted to U.S. Patterns and gold coinage. There were many great regular issue and Proof U.S. gold coins, but this session’s 189 lots of Pioneer and Private gold pieces stole the show.

By 1983, Don Kagin had established himself as the grand guru of the Pioneer field through publication of his Private Gold Coins and Patterns of the United States (ARCO Publishing, New York, 1981). His researched in this field had earned a Doctorate in Numismatics from the Union Graduate School, an alliance of high-power graduate faculties of Midwestern colleges centered at Antioch College, Yellow Springs, Ohio.

The 1983 sale brought together an unprecedented offering of Pioneer material, and I cataloged most of it. Sometimes dealers sent in more material than could be used. For instance, I had most of the existing population of copper trial strikes of the 1849 Moran & Clark $10 coin on my desk at one time though only one example appeared in the sale.

All the classics were on hand, including an 1830 Templeton Reid Georgia Gold $5; an array of Bechtler Georgia and Carolina gold coins; United States Assay Office-Augustus Humbert octagonal “Slugs” and smaller denominations; Baldwin, Dubosq, Kellogg & Co. coins including their famed round 1855 $50; Miners Bank, Moffat & Co.; Norris, Gregg & Norris; Wass Molitor &B Co., plus the Oregon and Mormon-Deseret Mint coins and many more.

Patterns and trial strikes added to the excitement. Some of these figured in the long-lived controversies between John J. Ford Jr., Eric P. Newman and their camp followers that long agitated the waters of the numismatic world. Already decades old, these struggles still echo today and will be re-ignited should the long awaited second revised edition of Don Kagin’s Pioneer gold book ever be released.

In the midst of our labors, our tedium was relieved by the announcement that an innovative color cover would grace the finished catalog. This work was ultimately described as “Peter Max, 1983. ‘Liberty Lady,’ Colored pencil on Arches paper, 23” x 30.” Max was a world famous artist who emerged from the Hippie era with its psychedelic ferment and is possibly best remembered by the general public for his Love Stamp for the U.S. Postal Service.

Max created a subtly colored rendition of the Liberty head placed by Anthony DeFrancisci on the 1921 Peace silver dollar, highlighted by multi-color rays in the pale gray field with this signature MAX/ 1983 at right. This was arguably the most striking cover design of any ANA catalog up to that point but launched fierce controversy.

“You’ve heard the expression, ‘Grody to the Max?’ Well, this is the Max,” one staffer fumed. Most objectors were fixated on photos of selected highlights from the sale for cover art, others fussed that the head was unoriginal. However that may have been, the Max cover brought limitless attention to the sale in a wide variety of media around the country.

ana1983preview2The San Diego ANA was the best attended and busiest show since the disastrous years 1980-1982, and as far as the staff could guess the sale was a success. I’m fairly sure someone said ‘thank you’ for my efforts, though the hard cover catalog with my name stamped on the front cover only came to me in mid-1984.

Many staffers who worked on the ANA sale hoped to continue with the reinvigorated Kagin’s but firings began in December. My turn came at the end of June with a summons to the corner office where I given two settlement checks and assured “Paul will assist you out of the building.”

Standing behind the door, Paul was a serving Des Moines police officer. He was also a near neighbor on the south side, and had earlier assisted Pete Theodore and his saber out of the building; fear of “going postal” dominated management thinking!

About a month later, all Des Moines numismatists were fired by telephone conference call. In due course, some 14 bankruptcies of subsidiaries would follow. Sic transit Gloria Kagin’s, at least for then.

The old Kagin’s sank by the stern, providing an object lesson: there is little stability in the cataloging field.

David Alexander
David Alexander
David Alexander has been an avid coin enthusiast since the age of nine. He has spent most of his professional life immersed in numismatics, writing for Coin World for several decades, and is an expert cataloger with a specialty in world coins and medals. A Life Member of the American Numismatic Association (ANA), Alexander has received numerous accolades over the course of his career, including the ANA's Glenn B. Smedley Award and the Silver Medal of Merit. In 2013, Alexander was named ANA Numismatist of the Year. Alexander is also the founder of the Medal Collectors of America and is a Fellow of the American Numismatic Society (ANS).

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  1. Utterly fascinating, warts and all. Superb writing. It just doesn’t get any better. How does he remember all these details, decades later !


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