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David T. Alexander: Launching a Coin Cataloger

To make medal auctioning feasible, J&J had introduced several brilliant concepts including a rational and replicable medal cataloging style that would provide all the basic information needed by the potential bidder to make informed decisions. First, a name was assigned to each medal, to be applied to every other example of the type that might appear, along with date and the metal of which it was made.

Each description included diameter in the modern measurement of millimeters and tenths; archaic inches and sixteenths were given for the benefit of one of the J&J chiefs. Weights were de rigeur for precious metal pieces. The sculptor or engraver would be identified and reference numbers provided if any existed.

Adhering to this basic template eliminated the chaos prevailing in medal cataloging by other firms that had seriously impeded the progress of medal collecting. Neatness and order contrasted with the harum-scarum “what on earth is this” presentations seen elsewhere.

Catalog printing offered another innovative opportunity. Collectors generally thought of auction catalogs in terms of glossy paper, stiff covers with bold design, occasionally with hard covers for special editions or major bidders. J&J knew that a majority of medals consigned would be of low value compared to U.S. coins but they still had to be properly staged in order to sell.

The solution was use of newsprint withconcise descriptions, black and white halftone illustrations and signature bright yellow covers. These were not elegant, but honest materials carrying out their no-frills basic function. Printing was done locally, with typesetting costing about $3.50 per line.

It should have been obvious that low-value lots with several $3.50 lines had to be losers but this reality was never perfectly understood, much less acted upon. Even inexpensive photography, printing and mailing cost money, and expenses came due relentlessly whether cash was in the kitty to cover them or not.

Cataloging is a vital function for all numismatic auctions, but was life and death for medal sales. Comprehensive knowledge of American and world history and ready recall were indispensable. American medals made up large parts of each sale, along with world medals since the Renaissance.

J&J staff and a couple of part-time catalogers could handle most American items but world material required a vastly greater range of knowledge at the fingertips. The world issues fell to me and generally kept things hopping.

By the time of the 1982 Boston ANA convention it was becoming obvious that there was trouble in paradise. Sale followed sale and several were major successes, but issues arose when the time came for settling with consignors and paying suppliers. Slow pay drifted toward no pay, complaints went unanswered and hopes for increased capitalization came and went unfulfilled.

Incorporation as Medallion House Inc. did not reverse the downward trend, and when negotiability of paychecks became a problem it was time to go. Some months after my departure, the J&J experiment ended in bankruptcy, to the great loss of consignors whose property was sucked into the resulting legal black hole.

It was now time to enter full-time coin cataloging, beginning in one of the finest venues. My first immersion in U.S. and world coin cataloging was another life-changing event replete with a full roster of experiences with coins, paper money, medals and above all, with people.

Since the 1940’s, American Numismatic Association (ANA) Convention auctions had been one of the most desirable auction opportunities for major dealers, some of whom became “repeaters” with two or more ANA sales to their credit. ANA sale catalogs were key units of any numismatic library and provided valued links in the pedigree chains of many a great rarity.

From 1946 to 1983 the roster of ANA auctioneers included (but was not limited to) Abe Kosoff, Frank Katen, James Kelly, New Netherlands (Charles Wormser and John J. Ford Jr.) Aubrey Bebee, Al C. Overton, Federal Brand Enterprises, Paramount, Stack’s, Rarcoa, Jess Peters, Kagin’s, Bowers & Ruddy, New England Rare Coin Galleries, Steve Ivy.

Don and Art Kagin

The 1983 ANA Sale in San Diego had been awarded to Kagin Numismatic Auctions of Des Moines, Iowa. Kagin’s had conducted the 1977 sale, with which I was familiar since that catalog, composed of five small volumes had been printed by Amos Press Inc. of Sidney, Ohio, publishers of Coin World.

The 1977 sale had been directed by firm founder Arthur M. (“Art, since 1928”) Kagin; in 1984 his son Donald (“Ph.D. in numismatics”) was now in control. Substantive changes were being implemented including moving the executive offices to San Francisco, CA, with most cataloging functions remaining in Des Moines.

I moved to Des Moines with my wife, young son and two Labradors in a two-truck U-Haul convoy from the east. The city was welcoming, clean and well governed with an excellent pre-school for my five year-old son Christopher. The Kagin’s offices were on the tenth floor of the Insurance Exchange building, just under a huge red-neon umbrella, emblem of Travelers Insurance, later adopted by Citibank.

Up until now, Kagin’s sales had been small-sized 9 x 6-inch paperbacks a little larger than a copy of Readers’ Digest. Long ago, these had been illustrated with generic black and white halftones, some cut out from Wayte Raymond’s Standard Catalogue of United States Coins, once the most widely used American reference. This method of illustration had been widely used by several other firms of the 1940’s and 1950’s.

Kagin texts, notably the 1977 ANA sale catalogs exploded with a variety of typefaces, light- and boldface, plain and italic, liberally sprinkled with exclamation points for added emphasis. Color art appeared in the 1970’s, made by colorizing clear black and white photos to look like gold, silver or bronze.

In 1984, however, far-reaching change was implemented in Kagin catalogs, many initiated when “Mr. Red Book” Ken Bressett was associated with the firm. Numerical grading on the scale created for large cents by Dr. William H. Sheldon was now extended to all U.S. denominations.

The new Kagin style would now include grading descriptions based on the style of the American Numismatic Association Certification Service (ANACS), but using both numerical and adjectival grades.

ANACS adjectival descriptions were not those of the commercial marketplace. ANACS usage might be “silver three cents, 1859 MS-63 Select Uncirculated; Copper-nickel three cents 1865 Choice Proof-65; $10 1911 MS-65 Choice Brilliant Uncirculated.” On the commercial market, ‘63 coins were called Choice and ’65 pieces were referred to as Gem. No one else used “Select.”

Physical change in Kagin catalogs was dramatic. The ANA sale and succeeding sale catalogs would measure 11 x 8-1/2 inches. Competitor Q. David Bowers complained bitterly that the new size copied his own “Grand Format” catalogs but expanding sizes were sweeping the auction scene at this time. Remember the key role of a well-designed catalog as advertising for the auction house.

I arrived at my new office on April Fools Day, 1983 and as Chief Cataloger was launched onto the white water rapids of creating an ANA catalog. More on this to follow.

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. Superb writing and handling of the English language. Among the best numismatic writing that I’ve read. Down to earth and non-technical but still sophisticated to a point. Bravo! More!


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