Happy 2013

As I write these words I am contemplating the numismatic landscape of a century ago, 1913, and America in general. I will do a feature on this for one or another of my printed columns, in The Numismatist or Coin World. In the meantime, it is fun to reflect on the changes.

In numismatics in 1913 the leading retail dealer was Henry Chapman, of Philadelphia, who from 1878 to 1906 had been in partnership with his brother S. Hudson Chapman, after which their association dissolved (but they remained friends). While S. Hudson mainly devoted his time to auctions, research, and extensive traveling, Henry minded the store, so to speak, and in Philadelphia maintained a large inventory of coins for sale. In addition, he continued turning out auction catalogs.

Down in Fort Worth, Texas, B. Max Mehl was in his ascendancy and was selling popular coin guides for $1 each plus creating retail advertising and writing auction catalogs. He was well on his way to becoming the most prominent of all American dealers in the first half of the 20th century.

Elsewhere the only regularly issued magazine in the hobby was The Numismatist, established in 1888 and still going strong today, as the official journal of the American Numismatic Association. This came out each month and contained articles of general interest, new issues, advertisements and the like. Today a file of old copies is a great resource for enjoyment and information.

Believe it or not, there were no guides to coin values — no equivalent of our Guide Book of United States Coins. In order to find out what a coin was worth, one needed to check dealer price lists and auction catalogs, admittedly a time consuming process, but one that was eagerly done by collectors as it added to the thrill of the hunt. I might say that today in 2013 such fields as antique automobiles, post cards, Currier and Ives prints, antiques in general, and the like are somewhat similar — no regularly issued price guides that furnish definitive information. In numismatics we are a bit spoiled, for if you want to learn the value of an 1877 Indian cent all you need to do is look in the Guide Book or else punch a few keys on your computer, and you have more information than you need.

There was no grading system back in 1913, and no equivalent of the Professional Numismatists Guild. If you bought a counterfeit you were out of luck, no recourse. Most business was done by mail. Telephones were in service for much of America, but long distance calling was very clumsy, not connected to everywhere, and involved going through a series of operators, not to mention being expensive. Auction bids and other urgent messages were often sent by telegram.

The year 1913 was full of excitement and dynamism in numismatics, although the number of collectors was but a tiny fraction of what it is today — I would guess in the low tens of thousands for those who were serious, and only a fraction of that who belonged to the American Numismatic Association. In New York City, the American Numismatic Society, a somewhat similar name but different organization, had fewer than 1,000 members, mostly dedicated scholars.

Today in 2013 we have a grading system, certified coins, the Internet, long distance telephone, digital photography, more auctions than can be easily kept track of, and more. Indeed, numismatics is a vast panorama. Prices bear no relationship to what they were in 1913. Back then a Gem Mint State 1909-S V.D.B. cent cost less than $1. Today the price is over $5,000. A VF grade 1787 Connecticut copper might cost $2 or $3, today several hundred dollars. Of course, everything else has changed as well. In 1913 a nice room in a downtown metropolitan hotel could be had for $2. Today the decimal point needs to be moved over a couple of points, and sometimes even multiplied beyond that.

We can’t go back to 1913, and probably wouldn’t want to. Today, 2013 beckons with many numismatic opportunities. My good wishes go out to you for a very nice new year.

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