When you first start collecting coins you will often hear the saying “buy the book before the coin.” This is said for a number of important reasons. Knowledge is an important part of numismatics and the hobby as a whole, and acquiring that knowledge can help collectors make informed decisions, which in the end can save money. A coin collector who does not invest some of his or her collecting budget in numismatic references is like a car buyer purchasing a car without a steering wheel.
Since references are so important in numismatics the references themselves also hold value, and can be collected as a separate specialty. Numismatic books are somewhat different from other collectable books, of which the highest-prized editions are often the first editions. For numismatic (and other nonfiction) books this is not always the case. First editions, while interesting, often contain outdated information and are no longer good as a reference work. Only the most highly regarded standard works will hold premium value as a first edition, and sometimes an updated second edition can be more desirable than the first edition. The quality of the (photographic) plates can also be a factor.
The Red Book (as it is commonly known; the complete title is A Guide Book of United States Coins) was first published in November of 1946 (although dated 1947) and is the most popular price guide covering all American coins from colonial times to the present. Each edition is a treasure trove of information; for numismatic bibliophiles, the early editions are collectibles themselves, and command strong prices for a mass-produced coin book. Special editions, often released in conjunction with coin shows or special events, are also very popular, and can be difficult to find. Collecting Red Books is so popular that Whitman Publishing released a special “Red Book” about Red Books in 2009, and a tribute to the first edition in 2012; and for decades the Red Book has contained an appendix of values for earlier editions of the book. (Coin Update produces an occasional series called “Red Book Recollections,” featuring the reminiscences of prominent numismatists; the first four can be found here.)
The Red Book was not the earliest price guide for American coins, and its predecessors are very collectible as well. The earliest of these is titled The Coin Collectors’ Manual, compiled by George F. Jones and published by Edward Cogan of Philadelphia in 1860. Reprints are easily found but the original is very rare, with even some of the most advanced numismatic literature collections missing this price guide.
As early as the 18th century, auctions containing ancient coins and medals (and often a variety of other items) were held in the United States; the first American auction dedicated to coins was held in 1813. Early catalogs lack photographic plates, and annotated catalogs that include prices paid and who the buyers were are in particular demand for their historical value. The value of these catalogs depends on a number of different factors, including the seller, the items offered, the quality of the descriptions, and the quality of the photographs (if present). Some collectors try to acquire all catalogs of certain companies, while others focus on catalogs of important collections. (Continued below.)
Also collectable (although to a lesser extent) are fixed price lists from noteworthy dealers. In the time before the Internet these were often an important source for collectors to acquire new coins, and the fixed price lists can give a good impression of the coin market at the time. Again, those containing special and/or advanced collections will be more in demand than others.
Of course, numismatic reference works on particular subjects are important as well. One specialty that is very popular is books focusing on early American large cents; many of these are among the earliest specialized works on American numismatics. A dedicated collector of large cents could spend a small fortune on first editions of works related to their collecting field. To a lesser extent this also true of books on American colonial coins and other numismatic areas.
A collector interested in older works will have to cross the pond, where the earliest numismatic references were published hundreds of years before the Philadelphia Mint struck its first coin. Many of these works are related to ancient coins, a subject on which thousands upon thousands of books have been published over the centuries. Medieval coins follow, and some reference works published as early as the first part of the 18th century still count as the standard works in their particular fields of study. (Dutch historical medals come to mind, with the Van Loon reference published between 1723 and 1731 still being regarded as the best work and, as such, remaining in high demand). Fortunately for coin collectors, most of those works have long been out of copyright, and many are available at little to no cost on the Internet.
The final part of numismatic literature that is important to mention are numismatic periodicals. American collectors often seek issues of The Numismatist, published monthly by the ANA (issues date back to 1888, although the ANA did not publish the journal until the 1910s). Early editions are in strong demand, especially when they were bound shortly after they were published. Other important numismatic periodicals include the American Journal of Numismatics, published from 1866 to 1914, and the Numismatic Scrapbook Magazine, published from 1935 to 1976. Dealers have also published their own periodicals at times, and many of those are also collectable.
With so many numismatic books and auction catalogs issued over the years it would be virtually impossible to list all the major works in this article. However, numerous reference works have been published that list major auctions, numismatic books, and other reference works that can prove to be an important starting point for the collector interested in building a library that goes beyond the basics. And for students of numismatics and numismatic literature, the Numismatic Bibliomania Society and its free e-newsletter, the E-Sylum, are crucial resources.
As always, condition is important if you’re seeking the book as a collectible object—but don’t forget that the books contain important information that might not be found elsewhere, especially if the person who wrote it was in attendance at a sale or was a well-known numismatist.