Saturday, November 14, 2009

John Spring, Ancient Coin Auction Catalogs: 1880-1980

John Spring, Ancient Coin Auction Catalogs: 1880-1980 (2009), self-​published, distributed by Spink (but not yet on their website). 369 large pages describing 886 auction catalogs. Charles Davis is selling this for $110 and CNG is selling slightly bumped copies for $95.

It's a nice book! Every catalog is described by size and color. The number of plates — Celtic, Greek, Roman aes grave, Roman Republican, Roman Imperial, Roman Provincial, Byzantine, and "barbarian migration" — is given. There is often information about the collector, collection, or auctioneer. Sometimes that information comes from the catalog, but Spring also seeks biogrpahical information from other published sources such as obituaries in numismatic journals. The photos depict the collector or firm. The catalogs themselves are not pictured.

The author does not judge the paper quality, the method of reproduction of the plates, nor the numismatic merit of the coins. Tables of the "most important" sales are provided, broken down by category (Greek, Republican, etc), but imporantance for Spring is the number of plates. For example, Spring lists some Alex Malloy sales among the "most important" for Greek and Provincial. I don't know if those Malloy sales were well-made but the Malloy sales I know from the late 1990s were newsprint-quality affairs. If so it is hard for me to accept them as among the most important.

This catalog will shine is when used in conjunction with an auction catalog from a numismatic book dealer by putting the offered catalogs into context with the series of catalogs available. It will also be handy to use this within a large numismatic library like the ANS'. I only have a few of the catalogs and I'm finding it frustrating looking at Spring's book while unable to follow his leads.

I still haven't decided if I want to own and study old auction catalogs. I'm excited about old digitizing catalogs and having the coins online and individually searchable. I enjoy the few catalogs I have. Yet these old catalogs are not cheap. Very few of them illustrate more than 500 Greek coins. Anyone off the street in 2009 can email a dozen dealers and receive sample catalogs postpaid with more illustrated coins. Are these old catalogs still relevant for coin collectors? There is something lovely about the Collotype plates in the better old catalogs.


Wayne G. Sayles said...

Hi Ed;

Old auction catalogs are like old people (of which I am increasingly tolerant) they have a story to tell.



Ed Snible said...

Wayne- What makes a good story? Perhaps you could blog or write a column on the surprising stories of some of the old catalogs?

Spring has some good stories, my favorite so far is his #212, the Lord Grantley collection of medieval coins.

Wayne G. Sayles said...

Old auction or sale catalogs tell us who was collecting, what they perceived as valuable or interesting, what they knew then compared to what we know now, how much emphasis they placed on things like provenance and a multitude of other market/hobby details. What many people fail to realize is that most early treatises on numismatics were really catalogs of private collections and these collections were often dispersed later at auction. How many coins do we see with a provenance to Charles du Croy? His collection of 18,000+ ancient coins was sold in one transaction to another private collector (The Duke of Buckingham) and the highlights were published by Plantin Press in Antwerp. The negotiator of the sale, and illustrator of the published catalog, was the famous artist Peter Paul Rubens. Where are all those coins now? Old catalogs sometimes provide the link between past and present and in so doing write a small footnote in the history of numismatics. Repeat the above scenario a thousand times and you will find 1,000 interesting stories, or to look at it from another perspective perhaps 1,000 opportunities for a PhD dissertation.

Kevin said...

Great review! The art and methodology of collecting itself is poorly published on within ancient numismatics. Auction catalogs often seem to be the only link to past collections and are often inaccessable. I am very curious to see what this book adds. Thanks for the post.