Oldest coin photos?

Discussion in 'Ancient Coins' started by Suarez, Jun 26, 2019.

  1. Suarez

    Suarez Well-Known Member

    I visited the ANS library twice on a mission to photograph old coin catalogues. While their system for accessing these rare publications is unfortunately quite cumbersome, here's a link to what are possibly the 20 oldest photos of ancient coins. They are from a catalog run by Giulio Sambon way back in 1881. Close to 120 years old!


    It is possible (likely even) that there were older photos of individual coins in other catalogs but probably not by much. While photography was invented in 1827 the mass reproduction of photos did not come until much later. While a few experimental photos had been printed in newspapers as early as 1873 it wouldn't be, coincidentally, until 1881 that the process was commercialized. It wasn't until 1889, for example, that National Geographic would print its first photo.

    Back in the 1880's Sambon was a leading auctioneer and, I think, getting into photographing coins for publication was probably more about showboating how avant-garde they were than any practical benefit they could get from photographing their lots. I don't know how most sales went down but I doubt these catalogues were primarily intended to be the equivalent of mail order print catalogues of today. I'm guessing if you were a client you'd simply show up to see the coins in person (or your dealer would).

    The printing process was itself expensive and time-consuming involving master glass plates which could be used to transfer the image onto paper. From this we still inherit the word "plate" even though the term has been obsolete for decades! While newspapers used the crude halftone method, these catalogues were typically made with a process called collotype which could capture much finer detail.

    Anyway, I hope this is of some interest. I find the history of printing processes just as fascinating as that of photography itself. By the way, here's a lot the earliest color photograph plate from a 1929 Adolph Hess sale. Unfortunately, they chose gold for the whole plate so somewhat of a wasted effort in terms of showing off the possibilities of rendering many different color tones but, hey, imagine the oohs and aahs this must have caused back then! Don't forget that most printed auction catalogues carried black and white photography until the mid-2000's!!

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  3. shanxi

    shanxi Well-Known Member

  4. dougsmit

    dougsmit Member Supporter

    Perhaps we should note that these and most photos of coins in early publications do not show coins but plaster or sulphur casts of coins. Shooting actual coins was much later. Today there are still workers who prefer plaster casts to photos.

    If being casts is a deal breaker then my candidate for the 'first' honor has a bigger problem. While much older (the card style dates the image to the 1850's by a French photographer) the coins in the form of a bracelet are a small part of the image. I believe they are Gallic antoniniani (Postumus?). I have posted this image several times asking for other old images and had no replies. I still have no idea when the first individual coin was photographed.

    Shea19, chrsmat71, ominus1 and 4 others like this.
  5. Carausius

    Carausius Brother, can you spare a sestertius?

    I could not readily find the catalogue from your link. If it's the Borghesi Sale catalogue, I have that catalogue in my library. It is indeed very early, but not the earliest catalogue depicting photos of ancient coins. I understand some earlier U.S. sale catalogues had plates with ancient coins.

    Update: Did you just replace the link? It works fine now. Borghesi, as I suspected.
    Nicholas Molinari likes this.
  6. Nicholas Molinari

    Nicholas Molinari Well-Known Member

    Not working for me. Browsing on Chrome and Safari.
  7. Carausius

    Carausius Brother, can you spare a sestertius?

    In general, I'm a fan of photos of casts in the early sales. It eliminated the vicissitudes of patina and lighting on the image quality. If you look at some prewar sales that have photos of coins themselves, you'll perhaps appreciate these benefits more clearly

    The difficulty for me, as a provenance hound, is learning how to discount casting variables when determining a provenance match. Overall, the old catalogue cast should not show die details that are missing from the coin in hand, although the casts may often miss die details that are visible on the coin in hand.
    Last edited: Jun 26, 2019
  8. Sallent

    Sallent Live long and prosper Supporter

    Not a photo, but this is the earliest "image" of a Roman coin I could find, dating to around 1480 CE. I believe that's Nero on the coin.

    Could be a Paduan medal, but based on the patina it's probably the real thing he is holding in the painting.

    chrsmat71, Oldhoopster and Carausius like this.
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