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Numismatics for Librarians

This August, local coin expert Ron Guth has been named Numismatist of the Year by the American Numismatic Association (ANA). In this interview, Guth describes common numismatic research queries, as well as the basic resources used to answer those queries.

What kinds of questions can coins answer?

As material culture, coins can teach us about several aspects of history and economics. For example, the geography of commerce and trade routes, the strength or weakness of monetary systems, metallurgical knowledge and artisanship, highly visible political statements, and the individuals or ideals most revered by a society… including famous historical figures and obscure people we should get to know.  In some cases, coins are the only remaining remnants of a particular person or place.

What characteristics of coins do experts examine?

Metrology (weight, diameter, relation of minting dies to each other, composition and purity) is used to determine authenticity, method of manufacture, and year of issue (within a range).  For commercial reasons, experts evaluate the overall condition of coins, as well as provenance/custodial history and design, to determine their value.

What are the most common sources of information about coins?

Historically, it has been all about books, some of which are mass-market price guides, and others that are highly specialized, niche books.  Auction catalogs and sales records are consulted to estimate current value. More and more, the internet is becoming an important source of information.  Several institutional collections, which were inaccessible previously, have now been digitized.  There are also some excellent databases which are commercially operated and available via subscription.

What are the most common questions researchers ask about coins?

Authenticity first, value second.  Virtually all research inquiries are commercial in nature.

You’ve written several books on coins. What are some of the most interesting research questions you’ve asked, and how did you track down the answers?

Provenance and pedigree (i.e, chains of production and previous ownership) are important for determining historical importance and value, as well as building the census of known examples of rare coins.  In many cases, these chains have been broken, sometimes inadvertently, but sometimes intentionally.  Much of my research is devoted to rebuilding those chains to provide a continuous history.  Once an accurate census is built, the existing coins can be ranked according to condition.  This allows new discoveries to be compared against the current condition census to determine if the new finds  are of special importance.  I am constantly amazed at the number of new coins that enter the market that exceed the quality of any that are currently known or that have been recorded for decades.  A good example of this was the Saddle Ridge Hoard, a hoard of over 1,400 U.S. gold coins discovered in 2013, many of which became new “finest knowns”.

What research obstacles have you faced?

I’m actually mining a database right now (http://numismatics.org/collection/0000.999.6268) which illustrates the need for in-depth research.  This was a donation that appeared to be accessioned improperly or incompletely in the first go-around.  The coins in this collection are assigned accession numbers starting with the year of the donation.  J.P. Morgan donated his coins in 1908, so collectors search for records beginning with that number.  However, some of the coins were missed and eventually entered using a generic 0000 number as the year.  Clearly, the wrong search will miss a large part of Morgan’s donation and skew the research. So, one must not only know what to look for, but how to look for it.

Thank you for your time, Ron, and congratulations on your award.

Ron Guth has published, co-authored, or edited over a dozen books on coins, including “Coin Collecting for Dummies” and “The 100 Greatest U.S. Coins”. He has worked as a dealer since 1976, and has conducted auctions in several countries.  Guth specializes in German coins, and lives in San Diego.

 

Further Resources for Librarians (LoC subclass CJ)

Most coin collections are privately held; public collections are usually owned by anthropology, art, and history museums, and university special collections.  Examples include:

The ANS collections database stores its data in XML using the schema Numismatic Description Standard (NUDS). NUDS is implemented in combination with VRA Core and the Nomisma project’s ontology of numismatic terms and concepts.

Major coin resources include:

 

-Tim Gladson, SLA San Diego Communications Committee

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