Darryl Atchison also submitted these detailed observations relating to catalog descriptions of rarity.
My second observation regarding the 2009 Stack's 'Philadelphia Americana' sale concerns the question of relative rarity. I could have directed this question directly to Stacks I know, but thought this might also generate some discussion on the way cataloguers describe particular lots.
While studying this phenomenal catalogue, two lots in particular captured my interest. Both are described as being Indian Chief Peace medals - thus both should be equally desirous to collectors of this series.
If you examine the description for lot no. 6108, the medal in question is identified as the 1761 Montreal Medal and is described as "an extraordinary rarity". The cataloguer states that there are seven listed (or known) medals of which only four can be traced. Three of the traced medals are currently in institutional collections which leaves the medal currently up for auction as the "only specimen in private hands". There may be an implied inference here that the other three un-traced specimens may someday surface but as "no collection of early American Indian peace medals is complete without this medal", the underbidder may have to wait a lifetime or longer for this happen.
By comparison, if you read the description for lot no. 6106, the medal in question is identified as a circa 1644-1676 Calvert Indian Peace medal. The cataloguer states that there are three (or possibly an unconfirmed four) known specimens with two in institutional collections. Again, this leaves the medal currently up for auction as possibly the only one available to the private collector. Curiously, reading further into the lot description you find the following statement, "This ranks with the (more common) Montreal medal as an enviably historic Indian Peace medal without which no Indian Peace medal collection can be complete".
Now, unless I have somehow missed or mis-read the cataloguer's point, I cannot see how the two medals described above - each with only one specimen currently available to private collectors - are not equally rare.
At the very least "(more common)" can be viewed as optimistic over-statement on the cataloguer's part.
Writing auction descriptions is a curious art. Sometimes a sale is cataloged by multiple people, accounting for internal discrepancies in style. But even when a single cataloger is involved, inconsistencies can creep in. It can be difficult to write about coin and coin after coin (or in this case, medal after medal) without mixing up the descriptive style for no other reason than to stave off repetition and boredom. Perhaps that's all that's involved here. Or maybe this is some reasoning behind it that's not apparent to the readers. Anyway, many thanks to Darryl for sharing these observations. I'm curious to see what our readers have to say.
Wayne Homren, Editor
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