I once believed the expression “there is nothing new under the sun” as I often caught myself starting to repeat a topic in one of my columns that I had recently covered. After reading some posts on one of the Internet forums last week, I realized that is not the case with numismatics as there is plenty of new information for those who seek it. What triggered this revelation was a discussion of Walter Breen’s Encyclopedia of U.S. Coinage.
When I started my career as a professional numismatist at the Certification Service in 1972, our library contained fewer than 15 reference books that we used on a regular basis. We had a copy of Cohen for half cents, Penny Whimsy, Judd, Valentine, Taxay, Biestle, Bolender, etc. and slowly added new books as they were published. One of those, the Breen Encyclopedia was a landmark that combined everything. Love him or hate him (there are good reasons for both), he was one of the “great stars” in numismatics. His opinion was given freely to me as an ANA authenticator – I just had to wait my turn with the dealers who surrounded him at shows.
Today, the libraries at the four major grading services (TPGS) are huge. For example, the bookshelves in the private office of one NGC researcher cover the length of one wall and overflows onto another with his frequently needed books close to his desk. That is just one office and one professional at one TPGS. The point I am making is today’s collectors have the world at their feet – especially with the Internet and Internet forums. Not a week goes by when I don’t tell my coworkers how I wish we had the Internet in the 1970s! Back then it could take months to authenticate a single coin, often requiring one or two outside consultants and a trip to the National Collection or the American Numismatic Society.
That brings me back to Breen’s book. One poster on the Internet called him pathetic. Another “numismatic genius in his own mind” expressed a similar opinion in a different way. The forum discussion noted that Breen made up things and his Encyclopedia contained multiple errors. All well and good and possibly true as we look back to the “old days”; yet these assertions were unknown at the time. I’ve written before that today’s researcher’s stand on the shoulders of those who came before. It seems to me that new developments are coming at us with the speed of light. My major take-away from the Internet discussion was an introduction to the Newman Numismatic Portal. There, I discovered the identity of one of Breen’s detractors, who it turns out is another numismatic researcher with excellent credentials! We owe a great debt to Eric Newman for providing a place to visit and discover past research found in numerous publications. In the 1970s, I had to purchase complete sets of The Numismatist magazine (the ANA has these online now) and Numismatic Scrapbook to read in an attempt to catch up with my mentors and longtime collectors. Now, I’ve discovered I’ve missed out on decades of research from that time in more dedicated publications such as those from the Early American Copper Collectors and the Rittenhouse Society. It will be an overwhelming task to fill in years of the independent research I missed.
The fact that you are a subscriber to this publication, or just reading it, probably puts you into the “serious collector” class. I suggest you take it a dozen steps forward by joining the popular Internet forums like Collectors Universe, Coin Talk, and Coin Community. There are many more as NGC has a forum and many specialty clubs do also. Visit the Newman Portal and the ANA websites. These days, the more you get hooked-up and the more you learn, the more pleasurable numismatics will be; and it may even pay off for you financially.
This “Viewpoint” was written by F. Michael Fazzari, author of the column “Facts About Fakes” in Numismatic News.
Viewpoint is a forum for the expression of opinion on a variety of numismatic subjects. To have your opinion considered for Viewpoint, write to David C. Harper, Editor, Numismatic News, 700 E. State St., Iola, WI 54990. Send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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