Coin Collecting – An immaterial cultural Inheritance: Private citizens, dealers and their commercial catalogues

16. November 2021 13:26

The auction catalogues and fixed price lists form another (and at the same time the last) genre of numismatic literature in the library of Alain Poinsignon. Corresponding publications from the second half of the 19th century to about 1950, including isolated earlier lists, form the core of the collection to be auctioned here. These are mostly recorded in individual items.

In addition, Alain Poinsignon has also given us a selection of his more recent catalogue holdings, most of which we have integrated into our auction in bundles, sometimes in the form of closed series. It may come as a surprise that we have given each lot in this auction a very modest standard estimate, from which a hammer price of several or many times that amount should undoubtedly result from case to case. In our experience, however, especially for the 19th and early 20th century catalogues -- some of which were produced in small editions as commercial
utility products in a simple paper quality -- as well as for certain special collection catalogues, the results in today’s auctions are markedly different even for items in a similar state of preservation. For this reason, we have decided to give our extensive clientele the opportunity to establish the realistic market price for each lot.

With regard to the geographical origins of the collection, it should be noted that French publications are of course strongly represented here, as are German and Swiss publications. Austria and Italy are also present with relevant publications. British and US catalogues, on the other hand, are rather sparse here in view of the large number issued there.

Although these publications owe their origins to commercial considerations and not to scholarly research, they form an important source group in numismatics, which their editors as a rule carefully compiled taking into account the current state of publications of the time. They offer an insight into the coin market, the companies involved in it, as well as into the original owners of those collections that flowed back into the market. In particular, those auction catalogues that were furnished by their contemporaries with authentic handwritten entries of the hammer prices, the names of the buyers and, in the best case, even the names of the respective losing counterbidders, represent extremely meaningful and valuable testimonies -- for today’s collectors, professional numismatists, and also for provenance research, which must peruse a more than 700-year history of modern coin collecting and numismatic collections.

The roots of numismatic collecting and research lie in ancient Italy, where the early humanists awakened a growing interest in antiquity during the course of the 14th century, especially in the culture of the ancient Romans, through their preoccupation with ancient culture. The fascination with antiquity stimulated scholars as well as members of the nobility and the wealthy bourgeoisie to collect ancient objects of art and practical use, including coins and cut stones. In the wake of humanism, a sphere of lively collecting activity developed beyond the cultural centre of Italy. Following the Italian example, rulers of other European states also established large coin collections. In their “chambers of art and curiosities”, crowned and uncrowned heads presented coins together with various antiquities, manuscripts, paintings and sculptures, handicrafts, but also objects from nature, such as minerals, fossils or exotic plant parts. The example of the nobility was also emulated by humanistically educated citizens.

The first documented auction, which among other things also included coins, took place in Leiden on 6 July 1599. It included objects from the movable estate of the writer, military officer and politician Philip St. Marnix, Lord of Sint-Adelgonde (* 1540 in Brussels, † 1598 in Leiden): especially the books from his library, but also paintings and both gold and silver coins. Of course, there were no exclusively coin dealers at that time, but jewellers and goldsmiths were also active in this field, trading not only in jewellery but also in collector coins. Early on, experts in coinage roamed the whole of Europe and parts of the Orient on behalf of aristocratic and bourgeois collectors, in search of rarities. The extent to which coin collecting was already widespread in Europe around the middle of the 16th century is documented in the travelogue of the printing entrepreneur, painter and scholar Hubert Goltzius (* 1526 in Venlo, † in Bruges). On his study trip through the Netherlands, Germany, France and Italy between 1556 and 1560, he saw no fewer than 950 coin collections.

Although interest in post-antiquity history increased steadily from the 16th century onwards, coin collectors still concentrated almost exclusively on the ancient world, predominantly on the Roman era, until the 17th century. Only a few outsiders had previously dealt with medieval or even contemporary coins. Now these objects also came into the scope of collectors and authors. Thus, as early as 1592, the mayor of Göttingen, Germany, Tileman Friese, wrote the first general guide for those interested in coinage. In addition to an overview of the history of coins in antiquity and the German Middle Ages, this work contains, among other things, a discussion of German and non-German coin types.

By the 17th and 18th centuries, numismatic research had advanced yet further. The holdings of the important princely collections continued to grow. During this period, coins and medals began to be separated from the heterogeneous cabinets of rarities and kept as independent collections. During the reign of Louis XIV (1643-1715), the coin collection of the French royal house developed into the most important of its time thanks to the monarch’s great numismatic interest. Coin collecting had become a veritable fashion at almost all the courts of Europe. In the 18th century, coin collecting had also established itself among broad circles of the middle classes as an erudite pastime. Merchants and bankers, such as Mayer Amschel Rothschild (1743-1812), founder of the Frankfurt banking house of the same name, also became coin dealers. Coin auctions were not at all uncommon in the 18th century. Collectors could inform themselves about the range of goods on offer through printed auction catalogues; interested parties from outside the city had the opportunity to be represented at the auction by commission agents. The number of numismatic publications now increased considerably. The first purely numismatic journal was the “Wöchentliche Historische Münz-Belustigung”, edited by Johann David Köhler and published in Nuremberg from 1729 to 1750/56. This periodical was intended as a popular medium for collectors and those interested in coinage, and contained mainly historically-oriented confabulation about selected coins and medals. It also contained notices of upcoming auctions, advertisements for newly published coin-related publications, sometimes short reviews, and even lists of coins and medals offered for sale by private individuals or merchants. Numismatics now also found its way into the realm of academic teaching. The first lectures on numismatics were given at German universities in the second quarter of the 18th century, and new methods began to find fruitful acceptance in the field. Until then, ancient numismatics had tended to neglect Greek coinage in favour of Roman coinage. The publications of Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-1786) on problems of ancient art shifted the focus from Roman to Greek antiquity. During the 19th century, the scholarly-critical impact also became clearly noticeable in the study of coins of the Middle Ages and modern times. The care and cataloguing of the large collections in Paris, London, Vienna, Berlin and elsewhere had long been entrusted to methodically-trained experts. In many European countries, numismatic societies and associations were founded to promote the exchange of ideas and cooperation between scholars and collectors. Some of the numismatic journals and yearbooks published in such circles in the 19th century still exist today, such as the “Revue Numismatique” published in Paris beginning in 1836. Mainstream experts, but also numerous dedicated and knowledgeable collectors, produced fundamental studies on a broad scale in the 19th and 20th centuries. The coin trade and numismatic auctions increased considerably in the second half of the 19th century, which also resulted in an increase in auctions and the publication of printed fixed-price offers. In various European cities, numerous firms established themselves which focused on the trade in coins and medals. Thanks to the favourable market situation, many a private collection with rare pieces could now also be expanded enormously. As a list of important European collections published in 1893 shows, the coin collections of middle-class private individuals could number up to 50,000 pieces. The largest private numismatic collection ever assembled, however, was already established in the United States at that time, where the Chicago brewery owner Virgil M. Brand had turned to collecting with great dedication beginning in 1889. By the time of his death in 1926, he had increased his collection to almost 362,000 individual pieces. He also made massive acquisitions in Europe, where the coin trade in many countries during the First World War, due to the soldierly service of dealers and collectors as well as the worsened economic situation, took place only on a reduced scale, gradually flourishing again in the years following the conclusion of peace. The world economic crisis of 1929 and the following years, however, led to an increased influx of consignments for the trade and for auctioneers, which was also reflected in the size of the auctions. Even some fixed-price catalogues of coin dealers, which usually lacked illustrations, could sometimes contain thousands of historical coins and medals in those years which might please many a collector or dealer today.

The rule of the National Socialists in Germany and the concomitant harassment, restrictions and persecution directed against the Jewish population by the state at that time caused the Jewish coin dealers and auctioneers who were firmly integrated in the numismatic scene there to cease business operations. Many of them managed to flee into exile and many succeeded in establishing a new existence abroad. For some companies, the departure of their previous owners meant the cessation of business operations in Germany; some companies could be transferred by the previous owners through sale to non-Jewish employees or business partners; others were “Aryanised” and thus continued to operate, albeit by strangers to the previous owners.

Like the First World War, the Second World War brought about the cessation of the numismatic auction business in continental Europe -- at the latest, during the course of the war – and this business only gradually revived from about 1950 onwards, giving rise to a market that is still growing today.

In many countries, including Germany, legal regulations allow coin dealers and auctioneers to conduct their auctions on their own under the direction of licensed representatives of their companies. Swiss companies are also allowed to conduct their auctions as self-organised events, but the presence of a so-called “Gant official”, who supervises the auction proceedings, is mandatory. A different tradition existed in France until recent times, where an auction of coins or other groups of objects was always under the direction and control of a “commissaire-priseur”, a lawyer appointed as auctioneer, who must document additional academic qualifications in the fields of history or art history. These persons are assisted by specialised dealers who, as officially-appointed experts, compile the auction catalogues and organise such events. Since numismatic experts usually do not work with a single commissaire-priseur, it is not easy to gain an overview of a complete sequence of the auctions they oversee.

Several bibliographies take into account the great professional importance of numismatic auction catalogues and stock lists. The compilation of the holdings of the Fitzwilliam Museum library provides a useful, though not entirely complete, index (T[heodore]. V. Buttrey [Jr.], List of Numismatic Auction Catalogues and Fixed Price Lists, 2 vols. n.p. 2014) of related publications. The work of the art historian and collector Frits Lugt, which lists catalogues of art auctions (including coin auctions) on a large scale from the period 1625 to 1925 and beyond, should also be mentioned in this context (Frits Lugt, Répertoire des catalogues de ventes publiques, intéressant l'art ou ... monnaies médailles, camées, intailles, armes, instruments, curiosités naturelles, etc. 4 vols., The Hague 1937-1984). Further relevant bibliographies exist for the numismatic auction catalogues of certain countries, such as for the USA, for Denmark and Norway, and for Great Britain.

In the case of France: As far as I know, there is no concise compilation of French coin auctions, only a compilation of those auctions in which experts for the House of Bourgey were involved -- which also has some gaps, as some smaller auctions are missing from it (Sabine Bourgey/Georges Depeyrot, Collections Numismatiques. La République Romaine, 1988).

Detlef Tietjen compiled a list of German firms with the catalogue of his Auction 20 of 10 November 1976, which contained the extensive catalogue holdings from the firm library of the Münzenhandlung Richard Gaettens Jr. With this much-acclaimed work, the author introduced a numbering system for the German auction catalogues and stock lists published from 1871 to 1945, based on the respective companies. In addition, he resolved the names of collectors, which had been concealed or abbreviated in ambiguous form by the auction houses of the time for reasons of discretion.

John Spring published a book on the auction catalogues from 1880 to 1980 which contained mainly ancient coins. The book not only lists them bibliographically, but also outlines the history of the coin trading companies involved and contains biographies of their last owners at the time (John Spring, Ancient Coin Auction Catalogues 1880-1990, London 2009). Our modern conception of the auction catalogue was based on Spring’s work. Thus, I have dealt with the coin dealers and auction companies represented in our auction catalogue and also carried out research on the collectors listed there, who are sometimes known only by name; I have set down my conclusions drawn from this research, in particular regarding the persons and companies -- some of which have already fallen into oblivion -- who contributed a building block to the history of numismatics simply by building up collections and documenting them in the commercial catalogues.

Osnabrück, October 2021

Detlev Hölscher