The Numismatic Bibliomania Society



The E-Sylum: Volume 12, Number 24, June 14, 2009, Article 8


Bruce W. Smith is a real cut-up. He submitted these thoughts on cutting up numismatic literature. This is turning out to be a great topic. -Editor
Dick Johnson's tale of cutting up Frey's Dictionary of Numismatic Names as a teenager reminded me of my experience as a teenager with numismatic names. I began collecting when I was in my teens, but I never really collected U.S. coins. I began with world coins and then ancient Roman coins (only later specializing in Chinese numismatics).

During my senior year (1970), I had completed most of my course requirements, but wasn't allowed to go home during the day, so I spent a few hours each day in the school library. The library had a huge, battered and ancient edition of Webster's International Dictionary, probably from the early 1900's. Flipping through it casually one day, I spotted an entry for a coin denomination. I don't recall which one -- franc, mark, shilling, escudo, peseta -- but as I flipped through more pages, I found more coin denominations. I hit upon the idea to compile a dictionary of coin denominations, and began a card file.

I went through the denomination indexes in Yeoman's Modern World Coins and Current Coins of the World, and Craig's Coins of the World. Then I started going through every other coin book I could lay my hands on. I was especially interested in the origins of the words, and how there are groups of related denominations -- that is, words with similar origins.

For example, several countries use denominations based on the words "crown" or "lion" or "shilling" or on the name of a king or saint. By 1974 I had recorded over 1,200 denominations and was working hard on tracking down the origins of the words. --- Then, I discovered Frey's Dictionary of Numismatic Names, which was reprinted in 1974. Frey had done the same work more than 50 years earlier!

I was disgusted that I had wasted so much time, and set the file cards aside for more than 25 years. Then I found a book by Adrian Room about coin names. Room has authored many books, several of them on word origins. His book on coin names was rather slim --- a few hundred listings -- but it made me realize that Frey wasn't particularly interested in the origins of the terms, and that many new denominations have come along since 1917 when Frey's work was originally published. So, I am tinkering again on this coin name project, mainly focusing on terms which have come into use during the past 50 years.

One thing I discovered in this research is that most of the denominations listed by Frey are not true denominations, but are merely popular names applied to certain coins. I began to think about how to determine the official denomination of a coin, and that is when I noticed that, prior to the 1700's, most coins did not carry a denomination.

Some had a numeral or even an initial for the denomination, but seldom was the actual denomination clear. In earlier times, most states tended to issue one or two gold coins, one or two silver coins and maybe, as an afterthought, some copper coins. Generally copper coins were an afterthought in ancient times, and again after the middle ages.

Money in earlier times meant silver and gold and was mostly for the use of the upper classes and merchants. That relatively small group of people knew what coins were in circulation, and didn't need a stated denomination. Coin names spelled out in full or in part become common only on the copper coins, made for the use of the lower classes. I now have a new hobby -- collecting coins which contain the denomination fully spelled out -- coins which name themselves. I must also confess to cutting up many books and auction catalogs. In the 1970's, to build my own library, I began buying small numismatic libraries and bidding on odd lots of numismatic books and auction catalogs. By 1980 I had one entire room just for piles of duplicate numismatic material -- periodicals, books and auction catalogs -- thousands of them.

In 1981 I began work on my first magazine, East Asia Journal, by going through those piles, mainly the auction catalogs, and cutting out illustrations of East Asian coins and paper money. I was creating a photo file to use for illustrating articles in the magazine. When I had finished, I still had piles and piles of cut-up auction catalogs.

Thinking that Numismatics International might be able to use these to illustrate its magazine, I mailed several large boxes of the stuff to the editor. Later I began keeping a card file on rare Chinese coins and their appearances in auctions. I now try to obtain three copies of important sales of Asian coins and paper money, from the 1950's onward -- one to keep, and two to cut up (left page and right page) for my files.

I am now trying to track individual rare coins using auction photos. I imagine there are other collectors who cut up auction catalogs for similar purposes. At first it broke my heart to cut up books, but when you see them by the thousands -- and at that time, world auction catalogs and world coin books were not widely collected nor worth much -- you begin to see that they can be expendable.

Unfortunately, numismatic books and auction catalogs are becoming too expensive to cut up -- that is to say, their original cost is too high. The good news is that scanning technology may make this unnecessary in the future.

Many thanks to Bruce for sharing these experiences with us. I'll admit to being a catalog cut-up myself. While attending the University of Pittsburgh in the late 70s I decided to start a campus coin club. To promote the inaugural meeting I made posters decorated with coin illustrations cut from catalogs. One of the students I met turned out to be John Burns, a numismatic bibliophile and now a numismatic literature dealer. He'll never let me forget what I did to those poor catalogs. But I tell everyone that meeting John was the curse for my misdeed... -Editor

Wayne Homren, Editor

NBS ( Web

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