First Read, a CoinWeek continuing series of essays about classic and contemporary works of numismatic literature

Essay by David T. Alexander for CoinWeek….

The brown cloth cover is worn and stained today, the binding stressed and foxing can be found on the title page, but my original copy of Coins of the World, Twentieth Century Issues 1901-1954 remains a foundation stone of my numismatic library.

Its hard covers well rounded from use, it is treasured as the first coin book that my late brother John (1938-1987) and I ever bought. John was two years older than I and when he began work as a chalk board marker in a Miami Beach stock brokerage at $15 per week, our collection really started to grow.

davidalexandermiamicoinclub
Miami Beach, 1956, (l. to r.) David Alexander, fellow Miami Coin Club member Ken Sellati, John Alexander.

As newsboys for the Miami Daily News, we received many world coins in change, notably Cuban and Canadian pieces. We were genuinely glad to get them, though those who fobbed them off on us congratulated themselves at stiffing these “helpless” youngsters.

Miami provided two great advantages for beginning collectors, though we scarcely understood this at the time. Our new public library had many coin books on the circulating shelves and others for consultation in the reference department. Only later as a graduate student at UCLA did I learn how uncommon such library resources were elsewhere in the nation, particularly in busy Southern California.

Our second advantage was membership in the really hospitable Miami Coin Club, founded in 1948. There were few collectors of “foreign” coins in the Club, but three were famous, the late Dr. John S. Davenport of crown and thaler fame; Russian emigré Andrew E. Kelpsh; and nationally prominent dealer William Fox Steinberg.

Out first dealer, from whom we obtained Coins of the World, had participated in the commemorative coin boom of 1936, and operated a well-appointed shop in the historic Shoreland Arcade: Frederick A. Newman, “Philatelist and Numismatist” as the gold leaf lettering on his vault proudly proclaimed.

The knowledgeable Newman maintained a varied stock with several “junk boxes” offering foreign coins at five cents, 10 cents, 25 cents and (gasp!) 69 cents each. Crowns of the world started at $2.50, world Proof sets and singles were variously priced, including a gleaming George VI 1937 Coronation Proof set that we lusted after.

Newman also stocked books, including Wayte Raymond’s Standard Catalogue of United States Coins and his 20th and 19th Century Coins of the World. We bought the last two on Dec. 24, 1955 for a grand $5 each. Gloating over these purchases that night, we learned another lesson: do not place books in the range of a pot of tea with milk… Yes, of course it spilled!

Our 20th century book was the new fifth edition; the public library examples were the fourth. I learned later that the first edition had appeared in 1938 and set the basic format followed thereafter, but included a list of contributors and a poignant flyleaf notice “This book is dedicated to the Memory of Howland Wood.”

Howland was a curator of the New York-based American Numismatic Society (ANS) who had died just before the first edition went to press. His name never appeared in later editions. He was also a past President of the influential New York Numismatic Club, as am I.

coinsoftheworldfeatureRaymond was a giant in the field since the early 1900’s. He conducted retail and auction sales, marketed the National line of coin albums invented by M.L. Beistle of Shippensburg, PA, and above all was famed for his many coin publications. Profoundly conservative, he opposed fads in American collecting and limited distribution of his books to what he called “established dealers.”

He demanded order in his world coin listings and exercised great care to include only coins struck for circulation by legitimate governments. Proofs were not listed separately and coins generally appeared in chronological order of issue. Coins of monarchies, such as British and British Empire, were broken down by ruler.

First issues of George V from 1911-1927 were distinct from second reverse coins 1927-1936, but the debased silver of 1921 onward was not listed separately. Metal order was Gold, Silver, Bronze, with newer alloys such as Copper-nickel or Nickel-brass appearing in their denominational position.

Raymond presented the highest denominations first, followed by the rest in descending order, in the British case Crown, Half Crown, Florin, Shilling, Sixpence, Threepence, Penny, Halfpenny, Farthing. Dates were presented in ranges, such as 1937-1948, which did not mean that all years in between were actually struck.

A single catalog price was given for the most common date of each type, in Uncirculated for most modern dates, “at least Very Fine” for older pieces. Remember, virtually no one collected world coins by date in the 1950’s, and Raymond paid little attention to Mint marks.

Coins were illustrated by halftones grouped on plate pages, (which caused havoc among fast-evolving Chinese listings) or dropped into the text. Photos illustrated basic types, and many coins photographed came from the ANS collection, such as the Somalia base silver one Somalo with its distinctive fingerprint on the reverse. Hard covers, high quality glossy stock and elegant typography made all editions of Coins of the World durable and attractive.

Raymond never asserted that his work was perfect. Exceedingly slow to make changes, he delayed correcting errors even when these were respectfully pointed out by experts such as Dr. Imre Molnar, who noted the anachronistic 1955 description of Hungary as “bounded on the west by Germany” as it had been in 1938-1945.

Pricing was a source of debate and new additions were seldom priced at all as Raymond believed time had to pass to allow the emergence of realistic pricing. World War II listings for countries like Slovakia included many errors such as metals that were never used, and these remained chaotic until the end. Nevertheless, Coins of the World really established the path for modern world collecting and was a gigantic step forward little appreciated today.

Wayte Raymond died on Sept. 23, 1956 and most of his publications ceased or were purchased by others. Veteran dealer John J. Ford Jr. wrote a five-page appreciation for the February 1957 issue of The Numismatist, “ Wayte Raymond: the Man and his Era” the only obituary ever to win the ANA’s highest literary award.

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