Here's another article on the future of our hobby. The May/June issue of Paper Money, the official publication of the Society of Paper
Money Collectors contains the first of a two-part series of articles by Loren Gatch titled "When Institutions Fail". With permission,
we're republishing it here. And yeah, I added that meme for grins. -Editor
Next to my office desk is a book shelf, and on the very top sits a haphazard pile of old red books-literally, "Red Books", or Guide Books
to United States Coins, by one R. S. Yeoman. Rather than residues of my misbegotten youth, these volumes I got at some library book sale, and then
promptly ignored. Inspired (or at least made to feel guilty) by Marie Kondo's decluttering philosophy, I've been casting an appraising eye
around my office, asking the Kondo question: Does anything in this room, books or otherwise, "spark joy?" And the answer is, I have absolutely no
idea, unless you find joy, as I do, in the act of hoarding itself.
As a publishing venture, the "Red Book" is, of course, alive and kicking, even if Richard S. Yeoman himself has been gone for over thirty years.
More than a mere book, the Yeoman volume is a fixture of the hobby. It's what I would call an institution, in the sense that it orients
collectors around a list of desirable objects and their possible prices. It may not be the most informed authority on specialized numismatic topics,
but in one volume it represents the best general introduction to the hobby in the United States. In particular, the Red Book signals to those people,
young and old, who've not yet taken up the pastime: this is what collecting United States coins is all about.
The importance of institutions like the Red Book appears most apparent when I imagine what would happen to the hobby if that volume somehow went
away. Two recent developments more relevant to the paper money field raise similar issues. The first is the Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing of F + W
Media, while the second is the demise of PCGS Currency, a major third-party grader of paper money. Both are examples of institutions failing. I want
to discuss the publisher in these paragraphs, and the grader in a subsequent column.
F + W Media is, of course, the company that had acquired Krause Publications in 2002. Whether because of bad luck, bad strategy, or bad
management, F + W Media has failed, and the status of its stable of collector-oriented publications is now in doubt. This includes such stalwarts as
Numismatic News, Bank Note Reporter, and of course the various volumes of SCWMP.
We don't yet know what bankruptcy will mean for these brands. Chapter 11 could bring the reorganization, sale, or outright liquidation of F +
W's properties. No one publication is necessarily indispensable, but the Krause catalogs come closest to representing a collective benefit to the
hobby. It's not their prices that are important (these change); it's the reference and attributive functions that these catalogs provide. In
particular, the "Pick numbers" that the Krause catalogs record for existing notes, and generate for new issues, literally define the hobby in the
sense that they guide readers towards what to collect in the first place.
While there might be better alternatives to the Pick scheme, what makes it valuable is that everyone treats it as authoritative. Up to now, the
Pick numbering system has outlived Albert Pick, Just as Friedberg numbers have outlived Robert Friedberg. Hugh Shull built on the system created by
Grover Criswell. Yet if such continuity were to be interrupted, I fear that a basic support for the hobby would begin to erode.
I don't want to sound hysterical about the problem. Paper money collecting has all sorts of niches that have generated plenty of guide books
to orient their fans. Auction house catalogs also play a role, particularly when it comes to the attribution and provenance of pricier stuff.
Organizations like the SPMC do their part by crowdsourcing online compendia like the Obsoletes Database Project.
It makes a difference if a catalog covers material that is specific to an historical era. Stale catalogs are still perfectly serviceable if the
type of collectible is, in principle, fixed. As a long-time devotee of depression scrip, I rely on the Mitchell-Shafer catalog even though it is well
over thirty years old. Its prices are now irrelevant, but the context and attributions it provides are still indispensable. But what about parts of
the hobby that are more dynamic, and require up-to-date revisions? The various Krause catalogs serve to assimilate the flood of new coin and currency
issues that the world generates every year. Each item gets its number, and each one of those numbers in a sense defines and extends the boundaries of
the hobby for the benefit of all collectors. If that service were no longer provided, then the enterprise of collecting would, ever so slightly,
begin to lose its focus. And the longer that service wasn't there, the fuzzier would everything notaphilic appear to be.
A little scary, isn't it? We all grow accustomed to familiar institutions, be they organizations, conventions, books, publications or web
sites. What would we do if they were gone? -Editor
For more information on the Society of Paper Money Collectors, see:
Wayne Homren, Editor
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