By David T. Alexander for CoinWeek….
Becoming a functioning numismatic auction cataloger requires a great deal of hands-on learning. Years of reading and reviewing numismatic auction catalogs can provide basic familiarity with the field, but mastering the actual work of cataloging objects for auction was another matter altogether. No one teaches courses in cataloging, no “how to” lectures are given at ANA conventions or regional coin shows. Most auction houses are secretive about their methods and procedures.
To paraphrase poet Robert Frost, I entered the world of cataloging by “a path less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”
During the 1970’s I developed a deep interest in collectible medals, then a profoundly neglected field in the U.S. I sought out such areas as U.S. Mint medals, Washingtoniana, official Presidential Inaugural issues, Napoleonic and German States medals, British Coronation and Jacobite pieces, art medals of the Circle of Friends of the Medallion and the Society of Medalists and more.
Coin World maintained a wonderful library, but in researching my acquisitions I was made very aware of the general lack of good reference materials in nearly all areas of the medal field. U.S. coin collectors lived in and by the Guide Book of United States Coins, the familiar “Red Book,” and even in the 1970’s had a wide selection of specialized reference from Large Cents to commemoratives.
There was no equivalent general-purpose medal reference and there still is none; the field is too vast. In this time period there was only a mish-mash of old and new titles, if you could find them. The basic catalog of Washington medals was still that published by William S. Baker in 1886; Lincoln collectors still relied of by Robert P. King’s effort of the 1920’s.
One of the few modern works was Hibler and Kappen’s 1963 challenging So-Called Dollars. Here was a book that had value simply because it existed at all, but it had many serious deficiencies A few specialized series were covered by articles in past issues of The Numismatist, such as the late George Fuld’s Franklin and Lafayette listings or cataloging by Nathan Eglit or Ernest Weidhaas of 1893 Columbian Exposition and 1939 New York World’s Fair medals.
The future had arrived, however, in 1977, with the publication of R.W. Julian’s masterful Medals of the United States Mint, the First Century. This massive hard cover book was published by the Token and Medal Society (TAMS), but was released at great cost but without any coherent marketing strategy.
The work won major awards from such numismatic organizations as the Numismatic Literary Guild (NLG) and was honored by professional groups in the fields of typography and printing, but production costs nearly bankrupted TAMS.
Cincinnati attorney Richard Dusterberg released two editions of The Official Inaugural Medals of the Presidents of the United States (1971, 1976), that opened up this particularly fascinating U.S. specialty. Then came H. Joseph Levine’s 1980 Collectors Guide to Presidential Inaugural Medals and Memorabilia.
The publisher was identified as Johnson & Jensen, Danbury, CT. J&J was a partnership of D. Wayne Johnson and Chris E. Jensen who had been conducting all-medal auctions with apparent success since 1977. Early in 1981 I was sent to Danbury, CT, to cover the First Strike ceremony of the Official Inaugural Medal of President Ronald Reagan held at the headquarters of Medallic Art Company (MACO).
The glittering assembly included western artist Edward Fraughton, on hand to unveil his singularly ugly Reagan portrait medal. My journey had been difficult, in part because of the difficulty in even finding company headquarters and getting there from downtown Danbury.
The crowd of invitees had gathered in the ultra-modern MACO headquarters, technicians were poised and the massive coining press was ready when former MACO chief William T. Louth walked in to a thunder of applause. This demonstration of affection for a past officer was vastly greater than that accorded his successor Donald Schwarz.
Danbury was then a city in upheaval, a once-historic New England center of hat-making whose heart had been ripped out by the great 1955 flood and never restored. Such infrastructure as existed was overwhelmed by the arrival of giant Union Carbide Corp. from New York City. Carbide was moving in 3,000 families each weekend, and finding housing would be a serious hassle.
I met with J&J head D. Wayne Johnson, founding editor of Coin World in 1960, who was grateful for the Coin World write-ups I had provided for J&J auctions. I joined the firm in March as director of publications, looking forward to preparing more titles comparable to Levine’s Inaugural medal catalog. It turned out that there were no books in the pipeline, so I was told I would begin cataloging medals for auction.
My transition resembled the old technique of learning to swim by being thrown into the deep end of the pool. Since this was my “first time,” it deserves some attention here. All experience has value, whether positive or disappointing. As J.R.R. Tolkien wrote, “the burned hand teaches best about fire.”
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