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The E-Sylum: Volume 3, Number 38, September 17, 2000, Article 5


In response to Tom Fort's request for books which had "published scorn ... poured on them within a year or two after they were printed" brought this response from Dave Lange:

"The first example that comes to mind with respect to American numismatics is Robert P. Hilt's "Die Varieties of Early United States Coins." I bought this book as soon as it was published in 1980. Good books were few and far between back then, and I was quite excited at this new development. While the plates were impressive for the time, I was puzzled from the outset by his radical "die group theory of coinage." It seemed downright wacky at the time, and it still does.

I don't remember seeing any contemporary reviews of this book, though Walter Breen alternately quoted and contradicted Hilt throughout his 1988 encyclopedia. To my knowledge, no other numismatic researcher/writer has even acknowledged Hilt's work, and it's almost unknown to the current generation of hobbyists.

This book was just the first in a planned series, but the succeeding volumes never appeared. I still keep this book on my reference shelf here at NGC, but I simply never use it. Hilt's book remains a curiosity, and I know nothing about the man himself. Perhaps someone can fill in the blanks. Hilt seems to be the A. W. Browning of the 1980s.

I can think of half a dozen other recent books on United States coins that were filled with erroneous and sometimes comical conclusions, yet each received favorable reviews in the numismatic press. Either these reviewers are loathe to write negatively about the hobby or they simply don't know enough to recognize nonsense when they see it."

Tom Fort adds:

"First I would like to thank all of those who have emailed me regarding the posting in the last E-sylum. However, from some of the notes I should have made something more clear. The disasters I am looking for must have published reviews which call them this. There are numerous works out there which I may personally feel to be flawed or awful, but reviewer(s) in journals, magazines or newspapers must say this in print.

Contrary to what may be popular opinion, bad reviews are not always easy to write since they can bring lots of trouble upon the reviewer. I will give a case in point. A former university colleague of mine (whom I shall refer to as 'Ed' to protect the innocent), who specialized in the history of Central America, but who had minored in medieval studies, told me the story of one book which he reviewed on the religious history of Honduras.

The book was originally a Ph.D. thesis. In the work, the author found numerous references in his research to a St. Dominic and spent a whole chapter discussing who this person might be. Eventually he decided these references were to a very obscure saint who was active as a missionary in Guatemala in the 16th century. Because of the obscurity of this man, the author could not understand why there were so many dedications and references to him.

Of course, as Ed noted in his review the author was completely wrong. The St. Dominic was the great monastic reformer and writer of the 13th century - one of the most important figures in the Middle Ages and this Ph.D. had obviously never heard of him. How, Ed asked, could this man's supervisor, history department, external reviewer, Ph.D. committee, and the publisher's editor(s) approve this work?

The editor of the journal where the review was to appear wrote Ed and asked was he sure that he wanted the review to run. Ed thought about it and realized that this lengthy bad review was bound to offend a lot of people and that they, and their friends, would probably be gunning for him when his next book came out. Thus, he changed his lengthy passage about the St. Dominic error to a quick sentence.

The truth behind this story can easily be seen in the acrimony over the Andrews work on Henry I's coinage. Most of his friends broke with the Royal Numismatic Society and formed the British Numismatic Society, made Andrews the editor of the British Numismatic Journal and later he became president of the Society.

(As a footnote it should be pointed out that Andrews' scholarship did not improve. The BNJ serialized a work by him on the coinage of King Stephen that is almost as bad as his work on Henry I).

But there can be serious consequences to both the reviewer who pans a major work and to the publisher of that review. At times such bad reviews can mean that the reviewer knows that he is making enemies who may try to take literary or professional revenge."

Wayne Homren, Editor

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