First Read, a continuing series of essays about classic and contemporary works of numismatic literature…
Review by Charles Morgan and Hubert Walker for CoinWeek ….
Coins & Collectors: Golden Anniversary Edition by Q. David Bowers
The pursuit of knowledge has many facets, not the least of which is the exploration of context.
Throughout his 60-year career as a writer and coin dealer, Q. David Bowers has understood this point quite well.
In fact, more than anybody before or since, Bowers has earned a considerable reputation as the hobby’s great storyteller. And while others may have written more definitive volumes in various specialties, few, if any, have brought as much numismatic history and information to the coin-collecting mainstream as has Q. David Bowers.
Earlier this year, in our review of U.S. Liberty Head $20 Double Eagles: The Gilded Age of Coinage, we wrote how easy it is to take him for granted. In the months since, Bowers has published volumes on early American dollar coinage and obsolete paper money, and is currently putting the finishing touches on a lengthy tome for the Token and Medal Society (TAMS). We’re not even sure if this list is exhaustive, such is the man’s workload.
At 76 years old, it would be easier to rest on his laurels and license the use of his name to propagate the Bowers brand–a not-unheard-of practice.
But Bowers continues to helm great projects and put forth genuine effort to the benefit of the hobby.
When all is said and done and Bowers puts away his typewriter, he will have set the bar so high that few in the present generation of numismatic writers will dare take up the guidon and strive to supplant him.
So it is within this context that we pick up the latest entry in Bowers’ long-running and popular franchise Coins & Collectors.
Entitled Coins & Collectors: Golden Anniversary Edition, this newest reworking bears all of the trappings of Whitman’s contemporary design sensibility. A handsome hardcover, Coins & Collectors is a lavishly illustrated, full-color edition that brings Bowers’ prose to life.
It is a celebration of Numismatics in breadth and occasionally in depth. Bowers breezily spans more than 200 years of history, discussing numismatic objects and their backstories while simultaneously proffering his oftentimes first-hand memories of collectors and characters from times past.
And therein lies a great part of the charm of our hobby. In the aggregate, coins are objects through which great stories are told.
This iteration of Coins & Collectors begins with a discussion of the 1792 half disme. To most modern collectors, the 1792 half disme is a stopper; Bowers cites conventional wisdom that 250 or so survive today. Yet it’s an ideal start for a book that crisscrosses history with the greatest of ease.
“As the first coin struck by the federal government under the Mint Act of April 2, 1792,” Bowers writes, “the 1792 half disme has long held a special position in American numismatics.”(2)
That it does so goes without saying. But it’s Bowers treatment–simple, brisk, and expandable–that provides a jumping-off point for those interested in learning more.
From there, Bowers skips ahead to discuss coinage of the 20th century, offering brief commentaries on the artistry of Chief Engraver Frank Gasparro and the curious market for the 1950-D nickel, a coin Bowers himself marketed during its heyday (although the author omits his own role in the roll hunt hullabaloo, he includes contemporaneous ads from other dealers).
Any discussion of the 1950-D nickel is going to draw parallels to the present-day modern coin market–especially the irrationality that drives the price of the American Silver Eagle bullion coin and the skillful marketing of premium-priced, perfect-grade certified coins.
On these topics, Bowers (for the most part) keeps quiet (not that he isn’t outspoken elsewhere). But by keeping his powder dry here, he avoids obfuscation and instead offers readers wise and heartfelt advice:
“For many buyers there are two aspects that are most important: grade and price. A coin is found, paid for, and put into a safe-deposit box…. Personally, the things I collect- numismatic and American history books, music boxes, Civil War tokens, counterstamps, “Good For One Tune” tokens (many of which cost me $5 to $10 each), paper money of New Hampshire- I enjoy as tangible links to a bygone era.”(from chapter 25, “The Mentality of Collecting”, 159)
Coins & Collectors covers many areas that go beyond the scope of major auction headliners or the most popular collectibles. Among its pages are discourses on Feuchtwanger tokens, ANA medals, minstrel show counterstamps, and 19th-century medals celebrating monumental achievements in American engineering.
You’ll also find intriguing nuggets of information and the had-to-be-there backstories behind the pursuit of the 1933 double eagle, the designs of the New Hampshire State and America the Beautiful quarters, and the drama surrounding the SS Central America treasure salvage efforts.
But perhaps more important are Bowers’ reflections on some of the great 19th- and 20th-century collectors, many of whom he knew and conducted business with. The roster is lengthy, but we’d be remiss not to mention the likes of Norweb, Eliasberg, and the great Thomas Elder–all subjects that Bowers has covered in-depth elsewhere. In the present volume, they serve not only as a spur to further discussion, but also as a reminder for present-day numismatists: it will soon be your responsibility to care for and maintain these stories of coins and collectors.
For now it’s clear: the Old Professor isn’t done yet. The keys still clatter with verve and vigor, and we’re all richer for it.
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CoinWeek gives Coins & Collectors: Golden Anniversary Edition our highest possible recommendation. While not a specialist book or thorough reference work, it is a slick and attractive volume that engages the reader and offers glimpses of a variety of coins within a greater numismatic context. It belongs in your library. Editor’s Choice.
Coins & Collectors: Golden Anniversary Edition
By Q. David Bowers
404 Pages. Whitman, LLC. Hardback. $29.95 MSRP.