Monday, December 14, 2009

Coin Monday: The Catalog Stands Alone

Dec. 14, 2009
Written by John Dale

It’s been a while since I last wrote about the coin cataloger’s perspective, so why not this week? (Don’t worry. You’ll get your coin fix closer to the end of this post. See hint at right.)

As a cataloger, I realize that my coin descriptions have two uses: the short-term and the long-term. In the short term, my lot descriptions have to sell the coins - that’s why I get paid - but finding a balance is tricky. Before the auction, if a consignor doesn’t like what I’ve written - doesn’t think it’s complimentary enough, or believes I’ve left out a Very Important Fact™ - and complains to the Consignment Director, I hear about it.

Then again, after an auction, if a buyer doesn’t like what I’ve written - see above, substituting “strict” for “complimentary” and “customer service department” for “Consignment Director” - I REALLY hear about it. So in selling the coin, I have to “sell” the lot description to two different audiences with wildly different expectations, making bidders say “It’s fair” and consignors say “It’s wonderful!”

While the department doesn’t have a 100% hit rate, considering the tens of thousands of coins the cataloging department describes each year, we come surprisingly close.

Once the auction has closed, the descriptions in the Heritage catalogs have a second life as reference material. While even the most basic photo-and-text description can help with tracking the provenance of an item, the greatest catalogs — usually single-collection catalogs focused on a specialty such as early copper or silver dollars — are treated with nearly the same reverence as scholarly books, and referenced nearly as often. A glance at our Catalog Orders page shows a number of catalogs that have attained this level of respect, such as the Lemus Collection of pattern coins, sold January 2009, and the Belzberg Collection of Canadian coinage, sold January 2003

(Conspicuously absent from the list is the Walter J. Husak Collection catalog, covering his impressive collection of large cents, which has completely sold out and now commands a strong price in secondhand numismatic literature circles. You might have heard about the Husak collection — maybe from the Washington Post or Ripley’s Believe It or Not! or even Saturday Night Live. Cue Seth Meyers: "A California man's collection of 301 rare American pennies [Bzzt! Never call a cent a “penny,” even if you’re Seth Meyers. – Noah] sold at auction this week for $10.7 million. Far exceeding my pre-auction estimate of three dollars and one cent.")

In January 2010, Heritage will hold two auctions with specialized catalogs that have every chance of becoming time-tested references. On the World Coins side, the Canadiana Collection will be auctioned in New York City. It’s one of the most jaw-dropping collections of Canadian coinage ever assembled—the legendary 1936 Dot cent is just one of many highlights.

On the U.S. side, the standalone collection leading the way in our Florida United Numismatists (FUN) auction has a distinct Floridian flavor: it’s called The Boca Collection, Part I. The collection contains a complete run of the 71 proof sets issued from 1856 to 1953, covering denominations up to one (silver) dollar.

The 1890 set has an added bonus: the four gold denominations, from two and a half dollars to $20, are also included in proof. Every one of those coins is a rare delight. Each year, Heritage auctions coins and collectibles from thousands of consignors. Every consignment is appreciated, but only a handful of these collections have the value and the strength to stand alone. While I treat each coin that comes across my desk with the respect it deserves, I invariably find myself giving extra attention to coins destined for stand-alone catalogs.

A stand-alone catalog means a great collection, and even if Heritage is going to sell it off one lot at a time, a collection that great deserves to last, if only in pages.

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-John Dale Beety

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