News Stories

Photographic Plate Discovery

Published June 25, 2024 | 2 min read

By David F. Fanning

During a recent visit to the ANA’s Dwight N. Manley Numismatic Library, I made an exciting discovery: a previously unrecorded plated edition of a 1910 auction catalog by New York dealer Thomas L. Elder (1874-1948). Tom Elder, as he is generally known, was a prolific cataloger active from 1903 to 1940, holding nearly 300 auctions during that period. He is remembered today for his work on important collections belonging to the likes of Peter Gschwend, Peter Mougey, Henry Miller, and Dr. George Lawrence. His catalogs are popular collectibles.

Tom Elder (Photo: American Numismatic Society)

20th-Century Illustrated Catalogs

In the early 1900s, the great majority of auction catalogs were unillustrated. While difficult for us to imagine today, the high costs of photography and printing made illustrations largely impractical. Most catalogs featured no illustrations. Illustrated and unillustrated catalogs would occasionally accompany higher-end collections. Usually, the latter was sent for free to those on the dealer’s mailing list. The illustrated version would then be offered for sale or sent gratis to a small number of active and important clients. Most illustrated catalogs through around 1930 featured photographic plates, which is why they are referred to as “plated” catalogs. 

Plated catalogs are important today because the quality of the photographs is far greater than that of the halftones that gradually replaced them. A halftone illustration is printed with a screen of very small dots. Under magnification, a halftone plate is all but useless—all one can see are dots. A photographic plate, on the other hand, can be examined with a magnifying glass just as one would examine a coin. The degree of detail is such that one can trace the provenance of rare coins by matching them to their appearance in a photographically illustrated catalog. Given their utility and rarity, plated auction catalogs are highly desirable today and can be rather expensive in the marketplace.

Celebrated Plate

The photographic plate in Elder’s catalog includes a Confederate half dollar. (Photo: ANA Archives)

The newly discovered plate accompanied Elder’s 38th auction, held on March 11, 1910. The sale was most notable for including one of four known examples of the Confederate half dollar—considered to be unique at the time of the sale—which, of course, was included on the plate. Also illustrated are a few early U.S. gold coins, a Lord Baltimore sixpence and shilling, a Franco-Prussian peace medal, and several U.S. pattern coins. 

The example of the Confederate half dollar now resides in the American Numismatic Society (ANS) collection. It failed to meet its reserve in the 1910 auction, but found its way into the collection of Edgar Adams, one of the finest American numismatists of his day. Dealer David Proskey then purchased it and sold it to J. Sanford Saltus, who donated it to the ANS. 

Unique Find

There is no mention of this plate in the existing literature on the subject. Elder frequently distributed his plated catalogs in very small numbers. A postcard-size photo showing only the Confederate half dollar is known for this sale, but this full-size plate showing 11 lots is new to numismatic researchers. It is an exciting example of what can be found in the ANA Library!

A version of this article appears in the August 2024 issue of The Numismatist (