Numismatic Questions Answered
WHAT IS NUMISMATICS?
Numismatics is just a fancy name for the study of coins and other objects that look like coins and are made in the same way, such as tokens and medals. People who study or collect coins are called numismatists.
WHAT IS A COIN?
This is not quite as simple as it might seem. How do you think a time traveler from the middle ages might react to a current coin? He would recognize that it was intended to be a coin because of the Royal portrait and titles in Latin, but when told what it was supposed to be worth, would condemn it as an obvious forgery. In his day a coin could circulate at no more than the value of the metal with which it was made.
In origin, a coin is simply a piece of metal stamped with a device under the authority of the local ruler, which guarantees that it is of a standard weight and purity. To be of any significant commercial use, coins had to be made of gold or silver. At various times since coins were first invented 2,700 years ago, copper has also been used to enable the poorest people to take advantage of the system, but low value coins imposed a burden on the authorities with little benefit to the economy as a whole, and were not made in times of financial strain. Before coins existed, gold and silver were used in commerce, but a trader had to weigh every piece and test its purity to ensure he was not being defrauded.
The greatest problem with this original coinage system was that it could not cope with fluctuations in value of gold and silver. If the value of a gold guinea was fixed at 21 times a silver shilling, whenever the relative value of the two metals changed, a profit could be made by melting one of them down. This led to shortages of coins, which in turn hindered the flow of commerce. The solution was to put only a token amount of precious metal into the coins, or even none at all, which became acceptable as long as the public believed that the state would always honour them, and there was no risk of a loss in value while they kept them. This is what is meant by the rather confusing term token coinage. Tokens are different, having no legal status, and will be explained later.
HOW ARE COINS MADE?
Over the whole history of coinage, there have been three principal methods of manufacture. All of them require the use of dies from which the coins themselves are struck. The die is to a coin as a negative photograph is to a positive. At first coins were made by placing a blank between the two dies, and then hitting the whole assemblage as hard as possible with a hammer. With skill and craftsmanship on the part of both diecutter and coiner, this could give excellent results, without them, the product could be abysmal.
Machines replacing the crude blow of the hammer with the force exerted by a screw press eventually took over in England in 1662, during the reign of Charles II. This method gave a precise edge to the coin which could be protected from clipping, the curse of all hammered coinages, by the addition of a milled or even a lettered edge. Powered machines that could strike coins rapidly and automatically were first used for the cartwheel coppers of 1797, after years of parliamentary lobbying by the inventor Matthew Boulton. The method had previously been used to manufacture tokens, and in essence is the one still in use today.
WHY ARE COINS COLLECTED?
These days there seems to be hardly anything one can think of that is not collected by somebody, but coins as collectors’ items have a very long history.
It is not easy to pin down the precise fascination of coins, perhaps it is the unique combination of a familiar everyday object, still in the condition in which it was used by ordinary people 100, 500 even 2,000 years ago, which can also be a work of art, and which can also be the subject of hectic activity in the marketplace or the auction room tomorrow. There is also the very practical consideration that coins do not take up much space, and are not easily damaged.
WHAT SHOULD I COLLECT?
The only rule is that there are no rules. Collectors can be far too inhibited, and follow slavishly whatever the current craze happens to be, and this is nearly always a mistake. Start off by keeping anything that you find interesting and do not worry in the least if nobody else seems to agree with you. Only by beginning with a diversity of things will you discover what intrigues and fascinates you the most, and then you can begin to specialize. A glance at our catalogue will show you hundreds of categories of countries, reigns, values, and metals in coins alone. Tokens and medallions are even more diverse, and can be related to other hobbies and interests, especially the study of local and family history.
GOLD, SILVER, OR COPPER?
There is a saying that people hoard gold, collect silver and study copper. It is perhaps significant that there is not a catalogue covering the whole range of British gold coins, and that the literature on British silver is no more than adequate, while British copper coins and tokens have been the subject of several works of the highest scholarship.
ARE COINS A GOOD INVESTMENT?
A great deal of money had been made out of coins and quite a lot has been lost. The curious thing is that the person who buys purely with an eye to a later profit usually ends up with a poor collection and a bad investment, often because he buys the current fashion on a rising market and sells when the popular mood has changed and the market is depressed. On the other hand the true collector who buys for the enjoyment of ownership and the sense of achievement in completing a series or in building on a theme, often finds that he can realise a profit if he sells, and the more time and money he has spent in studying his speciality and ferreting out elusive specimens, the better the result will be.
Profit should not be the first consideration, but you should not spend serious money on coins or any other collectables without taking the investment potential into account. Dealers incur heavy expenses in stocking and marketing their goods, and retail mark-ups have to reflect this. The coin market can go through periods of hectic activity when prices can rise quite rapidly, followed by much longer intervals when prices will remain static or even drift gently down. The wise collector buys during the quiet periods, the foolish investor does just the reverse.
With coins as with all antiques, the price is the product of three factors; rarity, popularity, and a state of preservation. It is often helpful when contemplating a major purchase to analyse these three aspects separately, and to try and judge how the second, popularity, may change. With the more common or worn gold and silver pieces there will also be the bullion or scrap value to consider.
WHAT IS GRADING?
Over the last century an elaborate coin grading system has evolved which has two essential functions. It enables the seller to indicate to a distant buyer how attractive the piece is. It also enables the publishers of reference books to list prices in standard grades, against which actual examples can be judged. The system we use in our catalogue has 14 grades in the following order of merit. The conventional abbreviations used for all except the first three are shown on the right.
4. Very Good VG
5. Fine F
6. Good Fine GF
7. Nearly Very Fine NVF
8. Very Fine VF
9. Good Very Fine GVF
10. Nearly Extremely Fine NEF
11. Extremely Fine EF
12. About Uncirculated AU
13. Uncirculated U
14. Brilliant Uncirculated BU
Your first quite understandable reaction may be to wonder why all this complicated jargon is necessary. Perhaps one example will help. The British crown with the young head of Queen Victoria was issued in large quantities between 1844 and 1847, but very few were preserved in perfect condition. A specimen in Poor or Fair grade will be worth no more than 5 pounds, another that is BU can fetch over 1,000 pounds. When the price range of one coin type can vary by a factor of 200, an elaborate system is necessary in order to cover the ground between the best and the worst.
I shall not attempt to describe each grade. Despite searching a great deal of numismatic literature over many years, I have never found any complete or succinct written description that covers all numismatic material in all circumstances. There is an American book that took ten years of research and discussion to produce, takes up 350 pages of text and line drawings, and is reasonably successful, but this covers just USA coins since 1793, perhaps one ten-thousandth of the whole range of available material.
For the beginner there are two golden rules. Buy from someone you can trust who has a reputation to preserve. Secondly, use your own judgement, once you actually have the piece in your hand under a good light, to decide whether it represents value for money in the context of your own collection. At that point, it matters not at all if one person thinks it is Fine and other would call it VF. If you like it, buy it. If you don’t, don’t!
As you grow in knowledge and experience, you will gradually get the feel of the grading system, until it eventually becomes second nature, and you may even wonder what all the fuss was about! This is not to deny that there are aspects of grading that confuse even the experienced collector, some of which are explained under “Strike wear & damage”. See also the heading “What is a proof” for explanation of FDC.
WHAT GRADE SHOULD I BUY?
Collectors are often told they should “only buy the best”. This has generally been sound advice, but any rigid rule taken to extremes can have bad consequences. Parts of the market in the USA coins have reached the point where an uncirculated specimen with a few tiny marks is worth fifty times as much as an uncirculated specimen with a few more tiny marks. (For the doubters, 1880 New Orleans Dollar MS63 $385, MS65 $24,000, Krause 4th Edition). I hope I am not alone in finding this ridiculous. The sensible attitude must be to judge the benefit one is getting in terms of appearance and relating it to the price differential in every case. The equation will sometimes come down in favour of the cheaper, lower grade coin. I would recommend aiming to buy roughly similar grades throughout a series, rather than drop the grade on the scarcer and therefore more expensive pieces if it can possibly be avoided.
STRIKE WEAR & DAMAGE
These are the three causes that make every coin less than perfect, and it is important to be able to distinguish between the three, because collectors have traditionally regarded them differently, and value specimens accordingly.
The coin may not have been made perfectly in the first place, and standards of care and skill in mints at different times and places are very variable. No coin can be better than the die from which it was struck, and dies themselves are subject to wear and damage. A crack or a piece missing from a die will produce a raised effect on the coin. Faults of this kind are regarded as the least vital by most collectors. A coin may have been weakly or unevenly struck, resulting in flat patches which look rather like wear from circulation, but can be distinguished because they do not occur on just the highest points of the design. All hammered coins and certain later issues are regularly affected in this way. Finally, the coin may have been struck on a defective blank. One common defect is caused by a bubble of air trapped in the original metal, resulting in a ragged effect or even flaking where rolling and striking has forced it to the surface. Another is called a flan clip, where in cutting out blanks from a sheet of metal the cuts are made too close together, taking out a crescent shaped piece from each blank.
In contrast, normal wear from circulation will follow a pattern, starting from the part of the design on each side which is most raised up in striking. When the highest points are flattened, the wear moves progressively down them, until eventually there is little more than a blank disc. Since this happened through the coin fulfilling the function for which it was created, most collectors do not object to wear on a coin in principle, but the wear is reflected in its grade, and of course, its price.
Damage is anything nasty which has happened to the coin since it was made other than normal wear through circulation. This includes scratches, edge knocks, polishing, mounting and piercing, in rough order of severity. Most of these are fairly obvious, but more needs to be said about edge knocks. It might be expected that in many years of circulation a coin would be dropped on its edge once or twice, and the effect, particularly on large copper coins, can be very obvious, yet it does not impair the legibility of the struck surfaces as wear from circulation does. The fact remains that some collectors, and all collectors in some countries, have an abhorrence of edge knocks, and regard even a small one as a major defect.
Collectors of the older and larger silver coins should be on their guard against specimens that have had mounts on their edges, or even their surfaces, which have been skillfully removed. However little trace remains, it severely reduces the value of the coin.
WHAT IS A PROOF?
Originally this term came into use to describe the coins that were struck from new dies to enable the mint to check that they were suitable for ordinary use; to prove the dies. This was of even more importance on the introduction of a new design. It became the practice to give a high polish to both the blanks and the dies, and to operate to give a high polish to both the blanks and the dies, and to operate the presses at greater pressure, all of which helped to produce a coin spectacularly better than normal. Since they were intended for internal mint use, very few were made, but they naturally became of great interest to collectors, leading to a demand for similar pieces for sale. Some numismatists prefer to call the pieces made to sell specimens, and restrict the term proof to its original meaning, but they seem to be fighting a losing battle. Paradoxically genuine proofs are sometimes rejected today because mints did not adopt all the special practices, making some old proofs less brilliant than modern issues.
With proofs a special grade description FDC is normally adopted. The letter stand for the French fleur de coin, and apply only to a perfect specimen in every way precisely as it was the moment it left the coin press. Now that proof or specimen issues are frequently sealed in cases in the mint, these can be described as FDC, and if they have been removed from the sealed medium, as About FDC. It is theoretically possible for an ordinary coin to be FDC, but few dealers now use the term in this way.
The invention of the metal detector, and the increasing sophistication of the latest machines has created a new hobby which has given enormous pleasure and on rare occasions considerable profit to many enthusiasts. Provided there is a proper respect for the law on treasure and the rights of landowners, there can be no valid objection to their use, and despite all the folklore to the contrary, there is no question of finds that need to be and are declared every being confiscated by the authorities. They are always either returned or purchased at the market price. Coins and coin-like objects are some of the most frequent discoveries, and there have been some finds of the greatest significance for numismatic research. On the other hand, after possibly centuries in the ground, the vast majority of the coins that are turned up are not much to look at. Many treasure hunters begin to be interested in coins as a result of such discoveries, but become dissatisfied because of the poor condition of most of them, and the impossibility of forming anything other than the most general collection on the basis of chance. They are often amazed at how attractive an old copper in Good condition, the lowest grade we normally stock, can be in comparison with most recoveries from the ground.
The fun and excitement of treasure hunting is of course an end in itself, but to form a satisfying collection of coins or tokens requires a programme of selective buying.
SHOULD COINS BE CLEANED?
The simplest answer is no. The popular image of a collector polishing his coins with something like Brasso once a week brings tears to the eyes of a numismatist. On the other hand, pieces will be acquired which have accumulated the filth of centuries, and it seems reasonable to expect a degree of cleanliness in coin collecting as in any other aspect of life. I recommend the use of a cotton bud dipped in olive oil as the most innocuous way of removing dirt, as it can be eased into the crevices in the design without the risk of scratching. Any surplus oil should be wiped off with a towel, firmly, but without polishing. Silver coins are subject to toning by atmospheric pollutants, and this chemical process can be reversed by the use of Silver Dip or similar agents, but to achieve the best results needs care and experience, and is not recommended to the beginner. Some collectors prefer toned coins, but it is unwise to pay extra for toning as it can be artificially induced.
WHAT ABOUT FORGERIES?
Forgeries can be divided into two main classes. The first were made to circulate alongside the coins which they imitate. In order to make a profit for the forger, they had to be lighter in weight or made of a cheaper metal than a genuine piece, and so are not too difficult to identify.
Much more dangerous are forgeries made in order to deceive collectors. Since their value as collectors’ items is far greater than any intrinsic cost, the weight and metal content will be as accurate as the forger can make them. There is little risk of coming across of these while buying items up to 100 pounds in value, as they do not give the forger enough profit for the work involved. With more expensive pieces, the best safeguard is to buy from a responsible dealer, who has the knowledge and experience to recognize most forgeries in the first place, and can in any case be relied on to refund the price if one should slip through to a customer.
WHERE CAN I BUY?
There are a number of methods by which the collector can acquire coins. By post, at coin fairs, from shops, at auction and through the internet. Each of these deserves a section of its own. Most of the reputable full-time dealers in Britain, whatever method of trading they adopt, are members of the British Numismatic Trade Association. The BNTA has a code of ethics binding on all its members, and the Association will arbitrate in the event of a dispute.
Since my own organisation deals exclusively by post, I must declare a bias. The collector who lives away from the main centres of population has little choice in the matter, but even those with access to the hub of the trade in London will discover advantages.
There is no risk of a spur of the moment buy which may later be regretted, the goods are delivered to your own home where you can examine them in a good light with the rest of your collection and your reference books to hand. All postal dealers send goods on approval and you have the right to return them and receive a full refund if you decide promptly that you don't want them. It is not even necessary to give a reason, although it is more courteous to do so.
Most dealers will send a sample copy of their price list or catalogue free, but you cannot expect to get them regularly if you don't buy anything. Many will want a subscription even if you do buy. Others may ask for a minimum purchase, or charge for postage and packing.
If you are the kind of person who cannot bear disappointment, postal buying is not for you. Much as he would like to, a dealer cannot sell a single specimen to two collectors, and the second person to order it is unlucky. Strange as it may seem, in my experience this serves to encourage most collectors rather than frustrate them. It makes them feel part of an invisible pack in pursuit of the elusive quarry, and more determined to be the winner at the next opportunity. What can destroy a collector's interest is the feeling that everything he wants is immediately available at the flourish of a cheque book.
This is the one opportunity to see a number of dealers and a wide range of stock in a short time. There are regular events in London and the Midlands, and less frequently in other parts of England. The smaller events often combine coins with stamps and postcards to form a viable grouping of dealers. Details of venues and dates are regularly carried in the numismatic press.
Your friendly neighbourhood coin shop is unfortunately a rarity. Even in London the economics of the coin trade mean that there are now hardly any conventional shops with a range of stock for the collector to view, particularly if he wants to spend less than £20 on each item. Occasionally you may find coins along with the bric-a-brac in a general antique shop, but you will be very lucky to fill any gaps in a specialised collection, and you may find prices surprisingly high.
Buying at auctions can be both rewarding and entertaining, but there are many pitfalls. An auctioneer is not a dealer, he is the agent of the seller, and normally you have no comeback if you find something wrong with a piece after you have bought it. You must view carefully, and however much you want the lot you must decide the maximum you will pay before you go to the auction and stick to it. Any other attitude will result in great grief. Remember that virtually all auctioneers now charge a buyer's premium which can add as much as 18% to the hammer price, so you must deduct this from your maximum in order to arrive at your actual bid.
The economics of the auction trade make it impossible to lot low value pieces as single items, so you may sometimes have to buy pieces you don't want in order to get one or two that you do. In London the principal firms aim at a minimum of £100 for each lot. You can safely leave bids with these firms if you cannot attend yourself in the knowledge that anything bought will be as cheap as possible, subject to the seller's reserve and the other bids.
The mail bid sale is another method of selling. The general principles are similar to a conventional auction except that some operators treat each bid as an offer to purchase at the bid price regardless of the other bids received, on the other hand there is less likely to be a buyer's premium. It is wise to check the conditions of sale carefully.
This latest development of the computer age has given many collectors a new and exciting way to buy and sell coins. An organisation such as Ebay has thousands of items on offer at any time of the day or night. Many obscure and rare specimens have been obtained, sometimes at bargain prices, but there are pitfalls to be avoided. Although specimens are usually illustrated, the pictures are often poor, making quality difficult to judge, and descriptions are frequently less than adequate.
Items are usually on line for a week, but often the really active bidding occurs in the last minutes or even seconds before closure. Payment and delivery can sometimes be complex, especially with foreign vendors.
WHAT ABOUT NEW ISSUES?
Some people dismiss all new issues as "modern rubbish". This is stupid, as everything was a new issue once. The odd fact that needs to be grasped is that popular new issues will always be common, because many will be bought and kept, while unsuccessful new issues are the future rarities. Winkling them out can be difficult, but that is where the skill lies. Why is 1934 the rarest 20th century British crown? Because everyone was eagerly awaiting the special Jubilee issue of 1935, and didn't bother with 1934. You can now buy a nice 1935 for £8, but a similar 1934 will cost nearer £800.
Be suspicious of new issues in metals different from those with which they are normally made, and the many "products" where the issue price bears little relation to the face value or the bullion content. The bullion in a silver crown is presently less than £3, and many recent proof and specimen issues can be bought on the secondary market for much less than they originally cost.
WHAT ARE TOKENS?
If coins are the regimented armies of numismatics, tokens are the unruly rabble. Coins are always issued under the authority of the state, but there have been times when, for the most complex of political and economic reasons, the state has failed to issue enough to satisfy commercial needs. In this event commerce has often filled the gap with tokens which resembled coins but had no official backing, and were usually downright illegal. The authorities would rant and issue edicts against the tokens, but until they were prepared to drive them out with sufficient supplies of good coin of the realm, economic necessity would ensure their continuance.
But in the nature of tokens lie the seeds of their own destruction. Although they begin out of necessity they are also a source of profit in themselves, since the cost of making them is less than the value at which they are accepted as substitute coins. Because they are entirely unregulated, there is no control on the quantity in circulation, and the more rapacious issuers reduce both weight and quality in order to maximise profit. Eventually both the public and the state become united in dislike of the tokens, and their fate is sealed, usually when a reluctant Government at last accepts its responsibilities and issues a sufficiency of good coin.
There have been three periods of British history when major token issues of this kind occurred, and they are so important to the token collector that they deserve a section each.
SEVENTEENTH CENTURY TOKENS
The period after the restoration of Charles II to the throne saw the appearance of the bulk of this first, and still largest in terms of different types, of all the token series. The grand total of varieties discovered now approaches 20,000 and London alone accounts for almost half of them. They grow scarcer as one travels north, and stop before the Scottish border. There are small issues in Wales and Ireland, which are keenly collected. The tokens usually passed for a farthing, although there are many halfpennies and some pennies. The average size was less than a current 1 p, and even though some had unusual shapes which are particularly sought after, a collection is not a spectacular sight.
Their fascination lies in the picture they give of the commercial life of the ordinary people of that time, but the virtual impossibility of completing a collection of even one town, let alone a county, makes it a series difficult to recommend to the beginner.
EIGHTEENTH CENTURY TOKENS
This is the classic token series. They blossomed like the desert after rain, when the coinage had sunk to its poorest level since the middle ages, and had come and gone in the decade after 1786. The commonest types were halfpennies about the size of a current 50p, but there were some farthings and a few pennies. It is difficult to think of any theme or object in use at the time which is not depicted somewhere. They were very much a phenomenon of the rough and rugged urban society spawned by the industrial revolution, and tokens showing scenes and products from this world are popular. Possibly because they coincided with the war of independence, they are keenly collected in the USA, where they are known as Conders, after one of the early cataloguers of the series.
Despite being two centuries old, considerable quantities have survived, and a large and varied collection in reasonable condition can be formed for as little as £10 apiece. There are also great rarities in the series, and over £30,000 has been paid for a single specimen. They began to be collected almost as soon as they made an appearance, and it occurred to one or two enterprising manufacturers that to get sixpence from a gullible collector for a "rare" token they had just made in their workshop was more profitable than putting it into circulation at a halfpenny. The irony is that these quite bogus pieces have since acquired sufficient respectability to make them among the most expensive. They are genuinely rare and interesting, and their dubious origins seem, if anything, to have enhanced their desirability.
An unusual aspect of these tokens, which also applies to medallions of the same era, is their use as propaganda for political and social reform. In the eighteenth century none of the media as we now know them existed. Even newspapers were taxed out of the reach of the majority and literacy was low. But everyone, even the poorest beggar, handled the tokens, and through them the beliefs and activities of the reformers could be proclaimed to all, inexpensively, and beyond the reach of censorship.
NINETEENTH CENTURY TOKENS
The Napoleonic wars caused another expansion of industrial activity, and an even larger production or tokens, at least in terms of sheer weight of metal. Industry was concentrated into fewer and larger units, so there are .fewer issuers but larger quantities. The predominant value was the penny, and hefty objects they were. A few even larger twopences also appeared, and the Birmingham Workhouse copper -threepence was perhaps the heaviest coin or token in British history to achieve wide circulation.
Silver tokens made a brief appearance, usually with a face value of sixpence or one shilling, and a few larger pieces also managed to gain temporary acceptance. Usually token issuers fought shy of silver, as the law was stricter and more likely to be enforced. Even this time there were soon public protests at the exploitation and profiteering involved, since as bullion they were worth a good deal less than their face value. The problem was solved, and this last great effusion of tokens consigned to history, by two means. First, there was a large issue of regal coinage in 1816, of which the shilling ceased to be legal tender as recently as 1990. Secondly the end of the Napoleonic wars saw a massive recession in trade, reducing the need for coinage, and many of the entrepreneur token issuers of the 1810's were bankrupt by 1820.
TOKENS SINCE 1820
The duty of Government to maintain an adequate coinage supply at all times was taken far more seriously after 1820, and, with the exception of the unofficial farthings, later tokens do not resemble contemporary coins at all closely and were not intended to replace them. in most cases they are more correctly termed checks, tickets, or counters, rather than tokens, and were used for a staggering variety of purposes which this brief survey cannot describe in detail. They provide great scope for collectors of a particular locality, as there is hardly a place with any commercial or industrial activity which did not produce a token of some kind in the century up to the first world war. A glance at the relevant part of our catalogue will give an impression of the main series that are popular with collectors.
WHAT ARE MEDALLIONS?
A medallion is made from dies in the same way as a coin or a token, but it is quite different in not being intended to pass from hand to hand. Its main function is to be an object of display, and it combines some of the features of sculpture with those of drawing. The largest specimens are made by a special technique of multiple striking, giving the greatest possible scope to the art of the engraver and diesinker. Most medallions are made to commemorate a person or event, and they provide endless scope for the thematic collector. The study of medallions can give an original insight into the times when they were issued in the way they demonstrate the popular view of current and past events and contemporary taste and fashion.
Many local issues exist to express civic pride, especially at times of general celebrations such as coronations, as with local tokens, there are few places for which no medals can be found.
The difference between medallions and medals is more difficult to define, and sometimes the terms are used interchangeably. Military awards, designed to be worn, are clearly medals, but prizes awarded for sporting or scholastic achievement are usually for display rather than wearing.
Although for convenience we use the same grading system throughout our own catalogue, it is strictly inappropriate to call medallions uncirculated, since they were never intended for circulation in the same way as coins. Some dealers use EF as the highest grade below FDC.
Although not subject to wear from circulation, medallions are prone to knocks and damage, being heavy and often made from fairly soft metal, and lower grade pieces may be expected to have suffered in this way.
While you are looking around the numismatic world in general, it is not worth spending a great deal on books which you may not eventually need. Coin News is a monthly magazine which carries a wide range of general and specialised articles, dealers' advertisements, news of recent issues and publications, and reports of forthcoming Fairs and other events. There are also annual publications which include price guides.
Once you have decided where your main interests are going to lie, it is a mistake to stint on the reference books for your speciality. They may often seem expensive, but one bad buy from lack of knowledge can be more expensive still, and there is the consolation that numismatic hooks can themselves he an excellent investment.
When you begin to acquire reference books, you will find many of them include market prices, often in a range of grades. These can be very useful, but be prepared to take even recent publications with the proverbial pinch of salt.
Most of the authors are not active dealers and at best their information is second-hand. I regard a catalogue price as reasonably accurate if it is within 100% on each side. In other words if an item is valued at £20 it should cost at least £10 and not more than £40.
I hope that this has been more enlightening than mystifiying. A little booklet can do no more than scratch the surface of such a vast subject, but if it has made you want to explore more deeply, it will have succeeded. The hobby seems to attract all ages and types and can be anything from a light-hearted pastime to a lifetime's study. The important thing is to take from it what you find interesting and enjoyable, and steadfastly ignore the rest.