Tag Archives: photography

ANS eBay Store Behind-the-Scenes: Coin Photography

As the ANS continues to make duplicates from its collection available on eBay, it may be of interest to Society members and eBay browsers alike to learn how our listings are photographed, as this is one of several important steps in ensuring that objects offered on eBay are described accurately. Detailed text descriptions are of course important, but in our current digital age, many buyers immediately gravitate towards listings with consistent, high-quality photos. This is true for both eBay and almost any other online auction platform.

While the photographic process associated with cataloging the American Numismatic Society’s various holdings is more rigorous and precise than what is required for eBay, the steps for both are generally similar. Once the individual objects and lots have been selected, they are taken to an area separate from the equipment used to photograph collection objects. This photography setup is comparatively low-tech, and relies on an LED light box, a larger professional studio light, a tripod, and staging platforms and props where individual objects and lots can be quickly arranged, photographed, and placed back into protective flips, archival bags, and tubes. The setup is a balance between speed and efficiency coupled with taking sharp, clear, and well-lit photos that require minimal editing.

A close-up and broader view of the ANS’ eBay photography area.

Because speed and efficiency are critical, photos are taken on an ordinary smartphone so that images can be wirelessly transferred to a computer workstation for editing immediately after photos are taken. Likewise, care is taken to ensure that each shot has the proper lighting (both intensity and color) best suited to the objects being photographed, are angled correctly to catch the light and accurately highlight the objects’ surfaces, are clear and sharp by way of a steady tripod adapted to hold a smartphone, and are photographed at a distance proportional to the size of the object. A 3-inch medal, for example, is photographed so that it takes up the majority of the real-estate of the shot, whereas a U.S. silver three-cent “trime” will be photographed close enough to capture its details, while taking up much less space in the shot, so that when the two photos are viewed together, the relative size of each object is clear.

To illustrate the above as well as subsequent steps, we will use two objects as our example pieces: a 32 mm gilt bronze George Washington bicentennial medal, and a 19 mm copper Civil War store card token. In the below photos, we see the obverse and reverse of each object side-by-side, both propped on a clear acrylic stand and angled to capture the light based on the reflectiveness of each object, and taken at a distance relative to their size.

Original obverse and reverse photos of a George Washington medal and Civil War store card token.

Once photos have been taken and all objects are safely stored away, the files can be wirelessly transferred to a computer workstation, where they are edited in a computer program to be more presentable on eBay. Editing is a crucial step, but also one where overzealous editing is discouraged. Photos destined for eBay undergo two steps: rotating the object to ensure correct orientation, and replacing the background with a neutral gradient. You may have noticed that in the above photos, the obverse of the George Washington medal was completely upside down; this was not a mistake, but rather a move to ensure that any shadows appeared at the rear of Washington’s head, and not along his face. After the objects have been rotated, the background is removed, and a neutral gradient is added to avoid the stark contrast of a pure white background.

Rotated obverse and reverse photos of a George Washington medal (background removed) and Civil War store card token (neutral gradient background).

The coins are now ready to be uploaded to eBay. The process is designed so that if only a single object needed to be photographed, the total time required to take and edit the photo should be less than 5 minutes. Regarding the angle of the object, it should be impressed upon the budding photographer that it truly is important to experiment and adjust as necessary to ensure that the object’s surfaces and luster (if present) are accurately captured, providing that the degree of the angle is not so extreme that the object appears stretched or distorted. As an example, the below image highlights how the same George Washington medal appears when photographed head-on versus the soft angle that reveals the true beauty of this medal as if viewed in-hand and rotated around in the light. The light source itself can be adjusted, but generally it is easier to move the object relative to the light source and not the other way around.

George Washington medal photographed head-on compared to a soft angle.

We hope this behind-the-scenes blog post sheds some light on one facet of listing ANS objects on eBay. Perhaps it will inspire others to try their hand at photographing numismatic objects; all it takes is a few pieces of equipment, some basic knowledge, and a willingness to experiment and learn.

A Digital Win, or, What 100,000 Objects Look Like

This week, the American Numismatic Society uploaded images of its 100,000th object into our online database MANTIS. The lucky coin was an aureus, a gold Roman Imperial coin from AD 196–211. It features a portrait of the empress Julia Domna on the obverse and the goddess Cybele seated in a chariot drawn by four lions on the reverse. Cybele was known as Magna Mater or the Great Mother, and her cult derived from ancient Asian beliefs that were absorbed into the Greco-Roman pantheon. Julia Domna was herself born in Syria so the coin is in many ways a tribute to Roman multiculturalism.

ANS, 1955.191.22

Our MANTIS database gives users an easy way to search or browse through the American Numismatic Society’s holdings, with records for over half a million coins, tokens, and related exonumia.
MANTISThe search field has a multitude of categories that allow you to customize your search beyond a simple keyword. For example, when you click on the box for Denomination, a list with small check boxes appears so that you can click on the units that you want to see in the search results. Most importantly perhaps in the context of this post is the “Has Images” checkbox immediately above the Refine Search button, which will limit your search results to those for which digital images are available. So, for example, if you wanted to see all the American dies in the collection, you would simply check the United States box under Department, the Die box under Object Type, the “Has Images” checkbox, and then hit Refine Search. The results will show that we have 89 dies in the US department that have been digitized. Happy Browsing!

Mantis Die Screen

Although we are all very happy to have hit the six-figure mark, we’re hardly satisfied so here’s to the next hundred thousand!

Philadelphia Sanitary Fair Tokens, 1864

Library of Congress

The United States Sanitary Commission was a relief agency created to support soldiers that fought for the Union during the Civil War. It was a private organization that raised funds, coordinated donations of basic necessities and medical supplies, and provided volunteers to care for the sick and wounded. In line with other benevolent organizations of the time, women played a leading role as the Sanitary Commission offered a way for them to make a meaningful contribution to the war effort.

Philadelphia sanitary fair catalogue & guide
Library of Congress

One of the ways that the group raised money was by organizing Sanitary Fairs, which were exhibitions that featured a panoply of art, technology, and entertainment (click on the cover image of the guide to the Philadelphia fair at left to get an idea of the range of attractions on offer). Such fairs were held all over the country during the war, but the one held in Philadelphia in June of 1864 was one of the largest. It was known colloquially as “The Great Central Fair,” and an enormous exhibition hall was constructed at Logan Square to host the proceedings. Patrons paid an entry fee and then there were a variety of goods for sale and charitable opportunities within, the profits from which were subsequently donated to the commission.  The fair occurred in the shadow of the Battle of Cold Harbor, where an ill-conceived frontal assault by Union forces had led to a frightful number of casualties. Despite the grim news from the front lines, the fair itself was by all accounts a great success. On June 16, President Abraham Lincoln paid a visit with his family, and made a rousing speech thanking the Sanitary Commission for its efforts  towards “the comfort and relief of the soldiers,” and beseeched the public for more assistance.

One of the interesting numismatic elements of the Philadelphia Sanitary Fair was a coining press for making tokens, which was operated by machinists at the US Mint.

New York Public Library (click to enlarge)

This stereoview shows the set up of the coining press at the fair amidst a thicket of American flags. The banner overhead advertised copper tokens for 10¢ each and silver for 50¢, and the ANS holds several examples of both kinds.

ANS, 1956.163.1402
ANS, 1956.163.1402


ANS, 1956.163.1401
ANS, 1956.163.1401

At 18 mm in diameter, they are almost exactly the size of a current dime, and they are not particularly rare so a goodly number seemed to have been produced during the fair. The bust might not be instantly recognizable as such, but it is George Washington, and the reverse has a simple and curved descriptive legend. The number of extant examples and the relatively high cost of the tokens vis-à-vis the materials used suggests that it was quite a successful fund-raiser.

A larger and more formal medal was also struck by the US Mint to mark the occasion. It was crafted by longtime engraver Anthony C. Paquet, and it neatly encapsulates the activities and purpose of the Sanitary Commission.

ANS, 0000.999.45520
ANS, 0000.999.45520

If you dropped the last “FOR US” part, the legend would make a nice rhyming couplet! In any case, this particular medal is I suspect a later restrike from the original dies. Together, these pieces are a useful reminder of the significant role that women and charitable organizations like the United States Sanitary Commission played in supporting the war effort and ameliorating the terrible impact the war had on the men who were fighting it.

For more on the Great Central Fair, the Library Company of Philadelphia has a small digital exhibition with lots of images that you can find here. A comprehensive contemporary account by Charles J. Stillé can be read here. On the larger and longer history of fundraising fairs in the United States, see Beverly Gordon’s Bazaars & Fair Ladies (1998).

Matthew Wittmann