Why Museums Hate Ancient Coins
By Mike Markowitz for Coinweek…..
Ancient Coin Series
As collectors of ancient coins, one of the most Frequently Asked Questions we encounter is “Don’t these things belong in museums?” The answer, sometimes with a patient sigh, sometimes with a snort of derision, is an emphatic, “No!”
The Dirty Little Secret is that museums hate ancient coins. Or, to put it more accurately, most museum curators and officials would be happy not to have to deal with them.
Coins are usually two-sided. This means unless a museum owns two good examples of the same type, only one side is going to be visible, unless coins are mounted in front of a mirror or between sheets of glass in cases accessible from both sides. Another solution preferred by some curators is to provide high-resolution photographs of both sides alongside the coin.
Museums hate coins because coins are usually small. This makes them hard for visitors to see.
One might object that the Hope Diamond is also small – weighing nine grams (45.52 carats) and about 25mm wide. But crowds throng to view it at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum every day.
The diamond comes with a dramatic story about being “cursed,” and an estimated value of $200-$250 million; few coins can claim that kind of star power.
Which brings us to a third reason. If they’re valuable or made of precious metal, coins are a security headache for museums. In 2007, the American Numismatic Association Money Museum suffered the theft of 300 historically significant coins with a total value of nearly a million dollars. It was an inside job. Some have been recovered; some are still missing. Recently, when members of the Washington Ancient Numismatic Society visited the Smithsonian American History Museum to view a selection of rare ancients, we had an armed guard–as well as a curator–accompany us.
Another problem is that ancient coins are complicated compared to paintings, sculptures and other artifacts that museums preserve and display. With a painting, if you clearly label the title, the artist, the nationality, the date and the medium–five pieces of information–you’ve pretty much told viewers what they need to know:
● Portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci
● Leonardo da Vinci, Florentine (1452-1519)
● Oil on panel
The full “attribution” of a coin, on the other hand, requires about ten different data fields:
● Issuing Authority: Kings of Macedon
● Ruler: Alexander III
● Metal: Gold
● Denomination: Stater
● Weight: 8.6 grams
● Date: 336-323 BCE
● Mint: Susa
● Obverse: Head of Athena, right, wearing Corinthian helmet ornamented with Sphinx
● Reverse: ΑΛΕΞΑΝΔΡΟΥ ΒΑΣΙΛΕΩΣ, Winged Nike holding wreath and staff, monogram in field
● Reference: Price 3828
The viewer’s appreciation of the artifact is enhanced by additional information, of course, like a translation of the inscription, the find spot or the artifact’s provenance. But few coins displayed in museums have anything like a fully descriptive label.
Consider one example. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has what is probably the greatest collection of Etruscan artifacts outside of Italy: ceramics, carved gems and spectacular jewelry, weapons and armor, a complete bronze chariot… but not a single Etruscan coin on display.
Now the Etruscans adopted coinage fairly late in their long history, and their coins did not circulate widely. But they were the first people to put marks of denomination on their coins.
They may not be great works of the engraver’s art, like Syracusan dekadrachms, but they played some role in the economy and culture of this enigmatic people. Most Etruscan coins are single-sided (the reverses are usually blank), which makes them simple enough to exhibit.
This brings us to the crux of the matter. Compared to the spectacular crowd-pleasing artifacts that museums crave, ancient coins are unexciting.
I know these are heretical words for any coin geek to write. One of the greatest thrills of my life was actually holding a gold diobol of Athens – a coin made of gold stripped from the statues on the Acropolis when Athens faced financial ruin in 407/406 BCE (less than a dozen examples are known).
But a viewer unfamiliar with the history and the context might easily gaze upon such a treasure without a flicker of interest or delight.
Curators of classical antiquity collections in museums are mostly trained as academic archaeologists, or strongly influenced by them. And academic archaeologists rarely learn much about coins. What they learn about are bones, and ceramics. Broken pots are abundant artifacts at many sites. Of course they learn many other things, but coins are often a minor topic. In all the universities across America there are probably fewer than a dozen numismatists holding professorships.
Numismatics and archaeology are sisters. They were born together during the Renaissance, that amazing rediscovery of the Greco-Roman heritage that began in Northern Italy in the late 13th century. With the passage of time, these sisters have grown apart, and even developed a certain mutual antipathy (something familiar, perhaps, to readers from large families).
To some archaeologists, the numismatist is a selfish collaborator with tomb robbers. To some numismatists, archaeologists are arrogant snobs, trying to outlaw private ownership of antiquities and deny poor finders in countries of origin a source of income. Such extremes are caricatures, but in my experience, collectors are often far better stewards of ancient coins than museums, where coins are neglected, inaccessible to the public, poorly documented, and — oh yes — “unprovenanced.”
Many of the great museum coin collections began as the “coin cabinets” of royal patrons. For example, there’s the Cabinet des Médailles in Paris, the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, and the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. Collecting ancient coins was a prestigious pastime of aristocrats, and they hired scholars to organize and document their collections. King Vittorio Emanuele III of Italy (1869-1947) may have been a disastrous monarch, but he was a great numismatist, compiling the monumental 20-volume Corpus Nummorum Italicorum over a period of three decades.
Today’s specialized coin museums are still really “cabinets” not museums — with impeccable scholarship, but limited resources and little public access to the collections. Examples include the American Numismatic Association in Colorado Springs, the American Numismatic Society in New York, the Numismatic Museum in Athens, Greece, and important university collections at Oxford (The Ashmolean Museum), Cambridge (The Fitzwilliam Museum), Harvard (Dumbarton Oaks), Yale, and Princeton.
A notable exception to the generally dismal picture is the Department of Coins and Medals of the British Museum in London, which has a strong tradition of service to numismatists and collectors. The British Museum is often said to have the most skilled and experienced coin conservators in the world.
And the United Kingdom is one of the few nations with good antiquities laws. The 1996 Treasure Act and the “Portable Antiquity Scheme” are just two examples. Very briefly: everything ancient found in the ground must be reported, and both the finder and the landowner are entitled to a share of the fair market value, but the state gets the right of first refusal on acquiring the material for museums. One result of this sensible policy is that we know more about the circulation of ancient coinage in Britain than just about anywhere else.
It seems likely that the future of public coin collections will increasingly be digital. With high-resolution color photography, and powerful searchable database software, the greatest rarities can become instantly accessible to anyone with internet access.
Three-dimensional imaging and display may even make it possible for future numismatists to examine museum coins “virtually” — up close from all angles, including the all-important edges.
The American Numismatic Society recently announced a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to expand its Online Coins of the Roman Empire, “a revolutionary new tool designed to help in the identification, cataloguing, and research of the rich and varied coinage of the Roman Empire.”
A word that museum people really hate talking about is “deaccession.” This means the sale (or exchange) of material that is no longer wanted. In effect, it’s “a business decision to liquidate a non-performing asset.”
A well-known example is the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, which sold off many of its ancient coins some years ago. The Hispanic Society of America recently sold the famous Archer. M. Huntington collection of Spanish coinage from ancient to modern times (following an acrimonious legal battle with the American Numismatic Society over custody.) In a world where many small museums are struggling to pay the bills and keep the doors open, selling off coins that no one ever gets to look at sounds like an attractive option. Deaccession of duplicate or redundant coins to build an endowment for the proper conservation and effective display of more significant material seems like a rational approach in an era of financial hardship.
1. Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., USA – 1,600,000 objects
2. State Hermitage, St. Petersburg, Russia – 1,125,000 objects
3. British Museum, London, England – 1,000,000 objects
4. American Numismatic Society, New York City, USA – 800,000 objects
5. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria – 700,000 objects
6. Kungliga Myntakabinettet, Sweden – 600,000 objects
7. Numismatic Museum of Athens, Athens, Greece – 600,000 objects
8. Cabinet des Médailles, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris, France – 555,000 objects
9. Bode Museum, Museumsinsel, Berlin, Germany – 500,000 objects
10. Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, England – 333,000 objects
11. Münzkabinett, Dresden, Germany – 300,000 objects
12. American Numismatic Association Money Museum, Colorado Springs – 250,000 objects
13. Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, England – 192,000 objects
Mike Markowitz is “Second Consul” of the Ancient Numismatic Society of Washington. He has been a serious collector of ancient coins since 1993. He is a wargame designer, historian and defense analyst, who writes for StrategyPage and Defense Media Network. He designed the game Alexandros, which won the 1991 Charles Roberts Award for best pre-WWII wargame. He has degrees in History from the University of Rochester, New York and Social Ecology from the University of California, Irvine. He has worked as a technical writer, editor and trainer for a variety of aerospace and defense firms. Born in New York City, he lives in Fairfax, Virginia.
In addition, Mike presents his expert insights on three numismatic video features shot by CoinWeek’s David Lisot. They are: Ancient Roman Coins for Beginners, Mike Markowitz, WHIT14-001, 70:00m; Introduction to Collecting Ancient Coins, Michael Markowitz, WHIT13-003, 69:57; and Coins in the Bible, Michael Markowitz, WHIT13-009, 44:26. Mike’s videos are available for purchase at $25 each plus $4 per order for S/H at: coinvideo.com or by emailing David directly.