September 15, 2010

American Bank Note Archives Auction, part 6

Robert Schwartz and Archives International Auctions just issued their latest offering of bank notes and stocks and bonds from the American Bank Note Company Archives.

The latest catalog is another beautiful compilation with full color throughout. There are 2,034 lots to be autioned in New York on Friday and Saturday, October 22 and 23. As always with events like this, the intervening time will pass very quickly. Please make sure you get your catalog as soon as possible and make sure you get your bids in right away.

Like the last couple auctions, this sale focus heavily on worldwide bank notes. Nonetheless, railroading and mining stocks and bonds are very well represented.

I count 255 lots of rail-related stocks and bonds from the western hemisphere. (U.S. = 235, Canada = 8, Mexico = 11 and Haiti = 1). As expected, there are probably a 100, maybe 150, certificates that have never been reported before. The majority of the new certificates are specimens that are either unique or nearly so.

There are too many new certificates to try to pick out a few to discuss. Merely let me say that if you are a serious collector, you cannot help but find something you'll want.

I have no idea how many more sales of American Bank Note Company bank notes and certificates Schwartz has planned. But I am warning everyone that the supply is NOT bottomless. I count 12 MAJOR sales of material from the ABNCo archives since 1988, five of which are attributable to Robert Schwartz. On top of that, you can add another 15 sales of unique ABNCo printing plates that have appeared among Stacks' sales of coins and paper money. Twenty-two years of sales of collectibles from one company is hard to imagine, let alone grasp! When that supply is gone – and I don't know when that will be – prices for these unique items are only going to climb. Do not complain if you're priced out of the market in the future because you didn't participate today.

(Don't know what you've already missed? After you've ordered your catalog from Archives International, go to a special page on my web site showing all past sales of items from the ABNCo archives.)

You may order your catalog from Archives International Auctions via its web site. You may also talk to a live person at 201-567-1130. But please don't wait.

September 08, 2010

High-resolution railroad maps online

Back in 2002, I stumbled across a company called TheHistoryCD. Among gobs of other offerings, the company advertised offered a collection of high-resolution scanned images of vintage railroad maps. I quickly grabbed the four-CD set and found the images had originated with maps in the Library of Congress.

The images were organized by state and collected into four main regions. The maps were all pre-1900 vintage. Many dated from the 1850s with some going back to the 1830s. Three even dated from the 1820s!

As advertised, the images were indeed high-resolution. Due to the scanned resolutions, the images would have occupied huge amounts of storage space, probably in the range of eight or ten DVDs had the images been uncompressed. The 4-CD collection of images was made possible by compressing the images using a proprietary format called "MrSid." While a cute moniker, "MrSid" actually stands for "multiresolution seamless image database". The format is now used quite heavily in the mapping business to store massive images such as color air photographs.

The problem with the collection was that the CDs were non-indexed. It was impossible to locate a desired map without cumbersome trial and error. I imagine that most users such as myself would have wanted to locate specific rail lines and that task might have taken as much as a half-hour or more.

For my own purposes, I extracted all the images and discovered there were 279 separate maps. The maps were extremely valuable as historical references, just really hard to use. Even with those shortcomings, I have wanted to recommend the collection to my correspondents many times over the last eight years. Unfortunately, TheHistoryCD company disappeared. Try as I may, I was never able to locate any alternate source for the images.

Until a few weeks ago.

It turns out that all the images originally found on TheHistoryCD set, plus many, many more, are available on the Library of Congress web site. They are found on a sub-site of the library called American Memory in a special section dedicated to railroad maps.

As best I can tell, the library offers 613 maps, all viewable online for FREE. You can also download entire maps if desired. There is a genuine mother-lode of information here for railroad enthusiasts!!!

As always, there is a downside.

Indexing on the Library's site is immeasureably better that when the maps were available in TheHistoryCD collection. Nonetheless, indexing is still greatly wanting. Searching by Keyword can help. Sadly, the trial-and-error method of browsing by Geographic Location is still probably the most useful. For instance, my hometown in southern Indiana probably appears on 15 or 20 maps, but the Keyword search only finds two. Similarly, searching for company names can work sporadically, but the prevelence of railroad abbreviations precludes general usefulness. Moreover, even when a map is located with the desired feature, the web site offers no help in narrowing down where in a given state or region the feature may appear.

It would be great, great, great is some obsessed person would index the maps the way we'd all like. That would take years, so do not expect any improvement over time. Still, the maps are a tremendous benefit to railroad enthusiasts, especially to those with patience.

September 02, 2010

Where do new VARIETIES come from?

A few days ago, I wrote about where I acquire new information about railroad certificates. "New information" includes everything: new sales prices, new serial numbers, new varieties, new issuance conditions, new printers, etc. Out of all this new information, I imagine collectors consider the discovery of new varieties of certificates to be the most important.

It is probably not surprising that, over the last five years, major auction houses combined to contribute the most new varieties (34.6%). Until early 2008, the late R.M. Smythe company contributed the bulk of new varieties. Since that time, the majority of new varieties came from sales compiled and cataloged by Dr. Robert Schwartz (initially for H.R. Harmer and more recently for his own Archives International Auctions.)

Curiously, less than half of all new "auction house" varieties sold the first time they were offered. I suspect part of the reason can be traced to over-enthusiastic valuations by the houses. On the other hand, collectors tell me they are always a little jumpy when new certificates first appear. They don't know whether the certificates being offered are unique or merely the first appearances of thousands more to come.

Over the same time period, the collectors who correspond with me reported a nearly equal percentage of new varieties (32%). While they rarely tell me their sources, I suspect the majority of their certificates came from U.S. dealers. If true, collectors who didn't get in on all those new varieties really need to form closer relationships with dealers.

Granted, dealers don't always know when they have new varieties. Nonetheless, they always know when they encounter certificates they've never seen before. Dealers tend to sell new-found certificates very quickly to their best customers. Rarely do they ever need to offer such certificates in lists, catalogs and web sites. Collectors please take notice: worldwide, only four dealers routinely report their new discoveries to me. Consequently, dealers are greatly under-represented in my records as good sources of new varieties.

In case you're wondering, no, there is no double counting. I always attribute new discoveries to earliest appearances. If collectors get certificates from auctions, auction appearances prevail.

Now for the surprise — and I hope this wakes up advanced collectors!! The third largest source for new varieties was eBay. That oft-demeaned source contributed 22.1% of all new varieties over the last five years.

Yes, I've heard collectors argue for years that they're tired of eBay "junk." They complain that they see the same old certificates day-in, day-out.

That is true. But the opposite is equally true! My census clearly shows that eBay sellers sold an average of 4.3 "new" certificates per week. I stress that I do NOT count eBay items that don't sell, nor do I count items that sell for less than $25.

Please be aware that astute dealers frequently recycle "new" items they find on eBay. Many of those items ultimately end up in dealer inventories and auction house catalogs. I do not know the exact routes those certificates take, but when " tired old eBay junk" is ultimately re-packaged, you must assume that prices will be multiplied several times.

Now for the bad news.

The discovery rate for new varieties has definitely dropped over the last couple years, certainly made worse by the global economy. I expect the rate of discoveries of new varieties will continue to drop.

But let's be clear. In this week alone, I have already recorded five new varieties plus two certificates that have only appeared once in twenty years.

Please note that I only counted first appearances of new certificate varieties for this little exercise. I did not count minor new variations of issued, unissued, cancelled, uncancelled, specimens and proofs as new varieties.





eBay auctions



US auctions



Euro auctions



US dealer sites & catalogs



Euro dealer sites & catalogs



Other US



Other Euro



Total from discoveries



US collectors



Euro collectors



US dealers



Euro dealers



Total from contributions





Grand Total All Sources