By David T. Alexander for CoinWeek….
I have spent the last 40 years as a professional auction cataloger for several prominent firms. As a young collector in the 1950’s, however, I had little knowledge of numismatic auctions, how and why they worked, and I was not alone. As a staff writer for Coin World from 1974 to 1981 I became very familiar with the finished product: the many U.S. and world auction catalogs that crossed my desk each week.
Of course, these catalogs were an important part of the story but in themselves provided little insight into the philosophy and hands-on work of catalog preparation. As most ordinary readers, I had no concept of how a newspaper like Coin World or an auction catalog on my desk came to be. Like many readers, I casually assumed that the elves brought publications to us the readers.
Hands-on experience revealed a whole world that was only dimly perceived from the outside. Auctions had been a basic part of the world of American numismatics since coin collecting blossomed in the years before the Civil War. A catalog of some kind has been fundamental to every sale ever held, good or bad, great or small, in print or electronic form ever since.
At the very least, a successful catalog had to reveal to the reader just what was in the sale. Of course, a simple typed list could do that much, and many of the earliest catalogs were little more than that. Early on, however, perceptive dealers became aware that careful descriptions of each lot written by a knowledgeable cataloger were vital to attract readers’ interest and persuade them to bid on the lot described.
In the modern world, a carefully crafted catalog was an important advertising tool, showing potential consignors how qualified the issuing firm was to handle THEIR treasured collections. Such high quality catalogs were also vital in tracing the pedigree of rare coins, thereby adding to their appeal by linking the successful bidders to the historic past and reinforcing pride of ownership.
I had an eventful time in 1956. Receiving my first auction catalog was one of several formative experiences of this busy year. I found that young collectors can be daunted by their first experience with auction catalogs, and a really bad catalog could be a long-lasting turn-off. Late in the year a member of the old Miami (Florida) Coin Club gave me a slim, orange-covered auction catalog of U.S., ancient and world coins dated Sept. 21, 1956 published by New York dealer Hans M.F. Schulman.
Hans was a scion of a long-established Dutch numismatic dynasty active in Amsterdam since 1880. He and his father Moritz were regarded as something of black sheep by their more elite cousins and Hans was sent to America with the rise of Adolf Hitler.
In New York he perfected many of the attributes of a likable rogue: a smooth flow of confidently expert talk delivered in an exotic accent and the ability to cite obscure references inaccessible to most Americans. Add advanced name-dropping, and skill in delaying settlement with his consignors after successful auctions and you understood some of his success, and as a womanizer he had few rivals.
The 1956 catalogue was a mosaic of descriptive styles ranging from bare-bones for most U.S. coins to convoluted presentations for world items, then called “foreign coins” by most American collectors. Several things leaped out at me. Virtually no one cared about medals, which did not command hefty prices. But many a medal emerged in Schulman sales as a “rare Pattern, medallic crown, small medallic Thaler” or other fanciful description designed to transform the object into a saleable coin.
All sorts of brass knick-knacks appeared as “rare opium weights used as currency” by the Kowabunga tribe of northern Burma or Booga-booga people (or some such) of darkest Africa. The late John J. Ford Jr. treasured a Schulman anecdote of how he sold Hans a quantity of twisted wrought iron balusters from demolished 19th century homes in downtown Cincinnati. These promptly appeared on Schulman’s table as “West African Kissie Pennies, the coin with a soul.” Even as a young collector, I found such descriptions offensive.
I got my first cataloging experience soon after. In the late 1950’s there arrived in Miami the recently retired Major Hernandez S. Lamberton, U.S.A., fresh from the Army Motor Pool in Washington, D.C. An affable and outgoing man, the major enjoyed wheeling and dealing, and deal he did. I used to change buses downtown going home to Miami Beach and generally dropped in to see what the major had today.
One afternoon he showed me a deal he had just made to acquire a couple of hundred Roman Imperial Antoniniani, the reduced silver Double Denarius introduced under Caracalla (211-217 AD) later abolished under Constantine the Great, The coins bore various Emperors’ busts wearing a radiate crown, with reverses symbolizing the ruler’s virtues, achievements and victories.
The coins were in amazing condition, with bright silver surfaces accentuating meticulous strikes. They were undoubtedly an original hoard, though no provenance was offered. The major offered me a modest sum to catalog them, place each coin in a white envelope with brief description and reference numbers from the 1954 edition of H.A. Seaby’s Roman Coins and their Values, then the only popular reference available to beginners or even established collectors.
I set to work with my model of 1896 Underwood typewriter, carefully recording data on 2×2 white envelopes. Seaby values ranged from three Shillings Sixpence to five Shillings, with a few at 12 Shillings Sixpence, about 75 cents to $7.50. Here was harsh lesson: many wonderful coins, no massive value.
The major then made an exciting offer: I should take the whole hoard for $600! I was a starving (almost) university student with next to no money other than what my older brother John kicked in, and we were forced to decline. Dropping by the next day, I was told of the disposition of the hoard.
“I made a deal!” the major boasted, “look here,” drawing aside a curtain to reveal a tower of sturdy wooden cases containing wide-mouth fruit jars full of clear liquid! The liquid was moonshine, traded for the Caesars by a back country distiller from the environs of Highlands, North Carolina! What would Caracalla or Seaby have thought… maybe the bootlegger profited from my cataloging!
I received my Bachelor of Science degree in 1961 and Master of Arts in history from the University of Miami in 1962, followed by a fellowship in African Studies at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA). I found the ideology there offensive but thoroughly enjoyed the booming numismatic world of Southern California, meeting future presidents of the American Numismatic Association (ANA), the founders of the Token and Medal Society* (TAMS).
I met Abe Kosoff, a fellow ex-New Yorker, Abner Kreisberg, the Goldbergs of Superior and many other greats of the auction world, as well as local dealers such as Pauline Ney, sister of Nobel laureate Linus Pauling. Many Los Angeles dealers had “bid boards” on which collectors could post coins for viewing and written bids in a king of week-long silent auction sale.
Returning to Miami. I began an 11-year stint as director of the Historical Museum of Southern Florida. I learned to catalogue a bewildering variety of objects, from 18th century cannon to rare books, pioneer artifacts to Project Mercury materials; Spanish treasure coins to albums of historical photographs.
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