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CoinWeek Podcast #43: Numismatic Books Old and New with Dr. David Fanning

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Numismatic Bookseller Dr. David Fanning is this week’s guest on the CoinWeek Podcast.

Alongside partner George Kolbe – a noted numismatist in his own right – their company Kolbe & Fanning has changed the face of the numismatic book market, offering more than just seldom-seen selections of books and literary archive material. The scholarly duo’s research into these items has added tremendously to our understanding of the hobby’s past.

In this episode of the CoinWeek podcast editor Charles Morgan talks to Dr. David Fanning about antiquarian numismatic books, the colorful characters of our hobby’s past, the ever-changing market for numismatic knowledge, Kolbe & Fanning’s upcoming Sale 143, and why serious collectors care so much about this preserving this aspect of the coin collecting hobby.


The following is a transcript of Charles’ conversation with Dr. Fanning:

Charles Morgan: Well Hi David, thanks for joining us on the CoinWeek Podcast!

David Fanning: Absolutely, thanks for asking.

CM: So Dave, I’m a bit of a numismatic bibliophile, and I’m sure I’m not alone as bibliophiles make up the bulk of your clientele…

DF: Absolutely, absolutely. We’ve got people all over the world, literally.

CM: What is it about numismatic books that excites collectors and makes them want to hold onto these books, for perhaps longer than they hold onto the coins they detail or the auctions they describe?

DF: That’s true and a lot of people end up holding onto their books long after they’ve sold their coins. And there are a lot of cases where the books are more rare than the coins. I think part of it, well, part of it is just simple information and that sort of thing. But I think a bigger part of it is the sense of fellowship among other collectors, this feeling that we share something in common with someone who was collecting and studying coins, say, in the 19th century. There’s some bond there. And it’s really not overstating to call it that.

You know, when we talk about the provenance of a coin, for instance. You know, part of the reason why that’s special and often enhances the value of the coin is because we do, we feel some sort of connection with the previous collector… and it’s the same with the books. And sometimes with the books you get things like annotations, signatures, that sort of thing. Things that make the connection a lot more tangible than with the coin, where they presumably didn’t engrave their name. And I think that appeals strongly to a lot of collectors.

CM: You know, one of the things when I look at books produced in this field, a lot of books are written by enthusiastic amateurs. Or people who are professional in their knowledge, but maybe not their approach as writers…

DF: That’s often true.

CM: …and I think in some respects, getting back to the idea of provenance and pedigree when it comes to the ownership of coins, it seems that collecting a Chicago Coin Company catalog that was written by Virgil Brand allows us, in some respects today, to get into the psychology or the collector profile of a major figure like that. One anecdote in one of your recent catalogs, you had a volume by Joseph Florimond Loubat

DF: Uh, huh

CM: …and one of the great things about numismatic literature catalogs, especially the work of you and your partner George Kolbe, there’s a great deal of knowledge–insider knowledge–that goes into the art of cataloging books… and the story you tell about his ostracism from the Union Club

DF: Right, Right…

CM: So how difficult is it to dig into the past in such a way where you are able to recall these colorful stories from the past?

DF: I don’t want to overstate, you know, I don’t want to sound like I’m overstating our importance here, but I see part of our job is being sort of an institutional memory of the hobby. I know for me personally, and I can speak for my partner George on this matter as well, it is the history of the hobby and the history of coin collecting in the United States (or in general) is, to us, just absolutely fascinating.

That’s not how people start out.

You know, you start out being fascinating by the coins and then maybe you start being fascinated by the literature. But as you start to really know the literature and you are able to see the connections between this book I’m looking at and the one that came out on the same topic 10 years before it and the one that drew upon it five years later, you start to see all these connections and the history of the hobby and its development comes alive for you. And it becomes very important to us. George and I, we both find that the history of numismatics has drawn so many fascinating characters, all sorts of different people. A lot of them are pretty quirky. They tend to accrue a lot of good stories. So part of why we write such often lengthy catalog descriptions is not just that we are long-winded and don’t know when to say when, it’s just, you know, we love telling these stories. They appeal to us as part of the reason that we like to collect and we have to think that we are not alone in that, that other people might enjoy hearing of these stories as well.

CM: With rare coins, I think, at least in the U.S. series, there’s a pretty good understand of what’s out there. Now there are always surprises, but for the most part I think people know where the best stuff is and in whose collections…

DF: It’s pretty mapped out, yeah.

CM: So how mapped out, do you think, the numismatic literature area is, by comparison?

DF: Well, ok. Um, it became… until a generation ago, you know, it really hadn’t been mapped out much at all. George Kolbe was not the bookseller to really focus on numismatics, but he was the first to really bring a very rigorous approach to it. He was not just interested in selling current reference books. He wanted to the tell the stories. He wanted to explain why the older literature was fascinating, and to introduce coin people to areas of the book collecting world that could be of interest to them. So George’s catalogs were the first that really sounded like professional booksellers catalogs.

The stuff that tended to come before were [sic] written by coin dealers, who just ended up liking books. And they weren’t necessarily trained in bibliography. They didn’t necessarily spend their free time reading book catalogs. They were coin people first and foremost. George came at it from the perspective of someone who was just as obsessed with books as he was with coins. And my personal interests are more or less identical in that regard. The two hobbies are really of equal importance to me and they’ve developed into much more than just hobbies. So that’s, you know, how that approach just sort of developed.

CM: What do you think has changed since your partnership with George has taken hold? In the market and your approach to it?

DF: The approach has only changed in the sense that we’ve had to adapt to the changing market. Our cataloging style has remained very consistent. We tend to write fairly lengthy descriptions. We get a lot of positive feedback about that. We both always have ongoing research projects. I write a regular column for the Asylum, which is the Numismatic Bibliomania Society’s publication on just whatever has been pricking my interest recently, and so I think our cataloguing style has remained more or less the same but the market has been changing a lot in the last several years. And from a business perspective, we have had to adapt to that.

CM: So how has the market changed, in your opinion?

DF: It’s become a little more complicated – it’s become a lot tougher too. Making a living selling numismatic books is not an easy thing right now. What we are really seeing is mostly overdue effects from the Internet. A lot of information that one used to have to buy books for is now available pretty readily online. That has had a real effect on things. And resources like the Newman Foundation’s Numismatic Portal has had a big influence because now a lot of this information that was kind of rarified and only in the hands of very sophisticated collectors who knew where to look for it, now its available for anyone to take a look at.

The bad side of that is that having access to that information may be enough for some people who used be customers of ours and who may no longer feel the need to buy the book if they can get the information elsewhere. The potential good side is, of course, that an entire generation is going to come about who will first be introduced to people like the Chapman Brothers, for instance, early 20th-century catalogers. Their first introduction to these sorts of works will be through the Newman Portal, and some segment of that group is going to like the idea of owning original copies of some of these things. But in the short term it has made selling certain types of numismatic books a lot more difficult.

CM: Well, I understand your misgivings about that sort of aggregation of numismatic information. I have nothing but good things to say about the professionalism, the approach, and the quality of the product. But I do worry about the dissemination of that information, removed from the cost of creation, because it devalues the continued research and the production of new numismatic works. In a contemporary sense, will content creators ever get their full due, when the work they produce can be accessed in a sterile environment such as the Newman Numismatic Portal? And then, who gets credit? The portal or the creators of the material? Like you said, it’s already hard enough to make a living…

DF: I’m 45 years old and I’m about as young as you get where I still did my undergraduate degree without the Internet. So I was trained in how to do research using traditional books, library resources.

One thing that does concern me about doing research on the Internet is that there tends to be a perception that everything is there. So that if information is not on something like the Newman Portal, well, it just doesn’t exist. When that’s simply not the case. There are estimates about the amount of real, library-grade information that are suggesting as low as 10% of all that information is easily available online. Now, that number is only going to go up, but still it is so easy to do research online that it kind of brings out the laziness in us. You know, we tend to think that if we have to actually get out of my chair or much less get in my car and drive to a library or something, it’s not really worth it. I’ll just make do with what I can dig up in the next 10 minutes through Google. And you know, that sort of thing does not tend to result in the best research.

CM: Oh yeah, no. In fact it takes an already quasi-amateur field and makes it even more amateur.

DF: Yeah, there is that potential, because, I mean a lot of numismatic books are really wonderfully done. They are written by bright people. Some of them are genuinely scholarly. They are written by people with real credentials and yeah there are plenty of others that are labors of love… I don’t want to sound real negative about them. But a lot of time I see these books and it’s just amateur hour. They don’t even know what side of the page should be an odd number. Things like that can really get under my skin from a book person’s point of view. And, yeah, that’s true. If you are doing all of your research from Google, that means the person sitting next to you can do the same research. So what’s so special about it?

CM: So let’s talk a little about Sale 143, you just released your catalog for it. What are some of your favorite lots in this offering?

DF: This is a neat sale for a couple of reasons. It has a very nice wide ranging library on foreign coins. Mostly medieval and modern. A little bit of ancient. Not as much though.

But one of the things that really struck me is it just has a lot of books that are hard to find, at least in this country, books that were never distributed here. That the person who formed this library had to go out of his way to import and order and deal with foreign language websites to order. It’s tough. But he does. He has a lot of books that we either haven’t offered or haven’t offered very often. Often of fairly obscure topics, he’s got some really good Islamic material. It’s got Eastern European material and a lot of it is very hard to find. You’d be hard pressed to find a lot of it online, as well. So, that’s neat.

I like a sale that has a really broad range in that way. But perhaps the most important thing about this sale is that it contains an exceptional collection of early American auction catalogs. These are 19th century and early 20th century, definitely pre-war, and just a wonderful, wonderful library of them. This guy really went out of his way to fill in the blanks whenever he could. He tried to upgrade from unpriced copies to hand priced copies or from un-plated copies to plated copies, when they were available. It’s just has some wonderful items in it, including some very rare items and a couple real landmarks that I’ve never handled before.

CM: An odd item that I found interesting was a photographic negative of the King of Siam Proof Set.

DF: Yeah, and that actually would have come from another party. There are more than the two consignments in here. But yeah, we do deal in things… I mean the bulk of what we sell tends to be books, periodicals, and auction catalogs, but we do also deal in archival materials, which are often photographs and that sort of thing. Manuscripts and material, things that are often unique or have survived through some stroke of luck.

CM: And when is the live auction being held?

DF: That would be October 21st. That would be a a Friday, followed by a Saturday Mail Bid Sale.

CM: And interested CoinWeek Podcast listeners can register to bid by going to Kolbe & Fanning’s website www.numislist.com. Thanks so much for joining me, David.

DF: Thank you, Charles.

-FIN-

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The CoinWeek Podcast is brought to you by PCGS – the Standard for the Rare Coin Industry. PCGS is offering its 30th Anniversary Retro Holder for a special price – visit www.pcgs.com to learn more.

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