DIGITIZING THE ANS AMERICAN AUCTION CATALOGS
The E-Sylum (1/22/2017)
It's astonishing, really, how many of the ANS library's American auction catalogs have now been scanned and made available online. The number, as of this writing, approaches three thousand. And there will be much more to come out of this project funded and administered by the Newman Numismatic Portal (NNP) as we continue to mine what NNP project coordinator Len Augsburger has called "the mother lode of American numismatic literature" at the ANS. Nearly every one of the scanned catalogs have passed through my hands, as it is my job to update the records in the ANS library catalog, DONUM, and give each a proper title to replace the dates that were used as titles in the past. I then compile the metadata and pass it along to John Graffeo, who does the scanning.
When you're handling a few thousand auction catalogs, you begin to notice things. There are the interesting collectors, for example. I'd love to know more about John Guild, "The Man With Remarkable Memory" whose collection was sold by New York Coin and Stamp in 1904, but when it comes to Guild, it seems the world has lost its memory; I couldn't find anything else on him. Not so the "eminent comedian" John T. Raymond. He made quite a name for himself on the American stage as Colonel Mulberry Sellers in Mark Twain's Gilded Age. His lackluster collection included an altered 1803 silver dollar that he had been duped into buying for $300, believing it to be one of the precious 1804s. It sold for $5.60.
For over a century numismatists have wondered why the Chapman brothers went their separate ways in 1906. Maybe they just disagreed over the spelling of the word catalog! After the split, Henry carried on as the two always had, using the traditional catalogue. His brother Samuel went with the sleeker, more modern catalog, a form long advocated by simplified spelling enthusiasts like Noah Webster and Melville Dewey. Either one is acceptable, though in the United States the shorter form would overtake the longer one in popularity sometime in the late twentieth century. Personally, I prefer the simpler catalog. And this is a word that comes up quite a bit in my line of work. Anyone who has ever gone to battle over the finer points of grammar, punctuation, or spelling knows that these are not matters to be trifled with. Opinions can be firm and loyalties deep. Lucky for me, I have a great authority on my side. The Library of Congress uses the simpler form on its website.
Given my experiences with the cataloging at the ANS Library, I was not at all surprised to find that the previous work done on the auction catalogs was excellent. There were only two I discovered so far that had not been cataloged at all and had to be added to DONUM. And I found very few errors.
Coin catalogs were among the first items acquired for the ANS library, according to an accession list kept from 1858 to 1864. The first official catalog of the library, compiled by Richard Hoe Lawrence in 1883, lists about 140 foreign auction catalogs, though, curiously, for U.S. catalogs readers are referred instead to an annotated copy of Emmanuel Joseph Attinelli's Numisgraphics. By 1917, ANS secretary Bauman Belden could proclaim of the American catalogs, "We now have what is in all probability the most nearly complete set ... in existence."
In recent decades, the ANS auction catalogs have been a foundation for several reference works on the topic. John Adams made use of the ANS Library ("the very bastion of comprehensiveness") for his United States Numismatic Literature, the first volume of which appeared in 1982, followed by a second one in 1990. More than just a bibliographic checklist, Adams work is readable and entertaining, with 36 biographical and historical sketches bringing to life a century-and-a-half's worth of numismatic characters, beginning with "our first coin dealer," Edward Cogan.
Attinelli's book, published in 1876, arrived as coin collecting had been thriving in the United States for a couple of decades, going back to when elite collectors had gathered themselves into groups like the ANS in New York City (1858) and similar ones in Philadelphia and Boston. At this time, the majority of coins were bought and sold at auction. Clients would hire an expert—Ebenezer Locke Mason, for example—to catalog a collection, which was then sold through an independent auction house like Thomas Birch & Son of Philadelphia. Coins at first shared space with all kinds of bric-a-brac and scientific specimens, objects to fill the fashionable "cabinets of curiosity" of the day—Indian relics, bird skins, eggs, guns, shells. At first such catalogs were feverishly collected and shared among the early enthusiasts, but they gradually fell out of favor (despite innovations like the photographic coin illustrations that first made their appearance in United States auction catalogs in 1869).
I find it immensely satisfying, especially as I look back on the history of the collection and think about those who saw long-term value where others saw only ephemera, to have a hand in making these catalogs instantaneously available throughout the world. Though inconceivable to the individuals who began assembling the collection over 150 years ago, I have no doubt they would have embraced this as a natural step in a project they initiated so long ago.
For more information on the American Numismatic Society, see: