American Numismatic Society
American Numismatic Society

Margaret Thompson Curator of Greek Coins and Currency: Annual Report 2010

by Dr. Peter van Alfen

I received two major fellowships earlier this year, one from Harvard University’s Loeb Library Foundation, and the other from the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton. These fellowships will allow me to buy time off for a sabbatical this next year in order to work on a book (see below). In anticipation of my time away this coming year, I’ve spent a great deal of this year trying to clear my plate of various responsibilities and projects. I’ve turned the editorship of AJN and the ANS magazine over to our new adjunct curator Oliver Hoover and Ute Wartenberg Kagan respectively, and am bringing to a close several long-term publication projects. You will have already seen the announcement for Coinage of the Caravan Kingdoms, a 600-page volume on pre-Islamic Arabian coinage and monetization

Soon to appear as well is a volume of essays on Greco-Roman imitation in commerce written and edited by myself and Mark Lawall of the University of Manitoba that is being published as volume 30 of the Marburger Beiträge zur Antiken Handels-, Wirtschafts- und Sozialgeschichte (

One project that I’m especially pleased to announce as being in the final stages of production is Ophthalmologia in Nummis, a monumental 1000 page opus on ophthalmic medals, coins, and tokens written by Jay Galst and myself, which is being published as volume 12 in the Hirschberg History of Ophthalmology ( In conjunction with the publication of Ophthalmologia in Nummis, Dr. Galst and I have put together an exhibit of select material on the subject, which is on view in the Sage Room. I want to thank Elena Stolyarick, Muserref Yetim, and especially Sylvia Karges for help in designing and installing the exhibit.

While on the road this year, I gave talks at San Antonio Museum of Art in February and more recently at a conference at the Numismatic Museum in Athens, Greece. I continued to be involved in a multidisciplinary project on the emergence of cooperation organized by Stanford University’s Classics and Politics departments; this project has donated substantial sums, and will very likely continue to do so, to our online Greek Hoards Project (

Peter van Alfen, Visiting Scholar Bernhard Woytek, Rick Witshonke

2010 Eric P. Newman Graduate Summer Seminar Students

Closer to home, we had yet another hugely successful Eric P. Newman Graduate Summer Seminar. Responding to interest voiced on the topic, co-director Rick Witschonke and I organized a special topic sub-group within the seminar this year on Islamic coinage; curator emeritus Michael Bates, trustee Jere Bacharach, and Stefan Heidemann, now of the Metropolitan Museum and Bard College, were guest lecturers and supervisors. From the Austrian Academy of Science, we had Bernhard Woytek as our Visiting Scholar, who is a widely acclaimed specialist on Roman coinage, particularly that of Trajan. Once again we were lucky to have an amazingly congenial and hard working group of students, who came to us from Princeton University; the University of California, Berkeley and Irvine; the University of Chicago; the University of Michigan; the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill; and the University of Texas at Austin. I also want to thank those of you who responded to our pleas for contributions to student stipends this year, especially Larry Adams, Richard Bulliet, Jamsheed Choksy, Sarah Cox, Nathan Elkins, Hubert Lanz, Constantine Marinescu, the Jonathan Rosen Foundation, and several others.

Peter van Alfen, Sylvia Karges, Anouska Hamlin, Josh Illingworth reorganizing medals cabinets
One major project I undertook this year was a complete reorganization of the medals section of our vault. At the beginning of this year, while charged with searching for duplicate medals and arranging items for our digitization project, I decided I had had enough of the chaotic arrangements of the medals. Unlike coins, which can generally be assigned to a specific date and mint, and so offer a ready means of arranging them as a collection, medals offer no such immediate and obvious system for their cataloging and storage. Depending on one’s primary interests, one could arrange medals topically by who or what is depicted, by series, by mint, by artist, or by a noteworthy catalog, such as C.W. Betts’ work on early American medals. Over the course of the last century and a half, ANS curators adopted no single system for arranging the substantial collection of medals and medallic art in the collection. Most were arranged by topic, for example, medals depicting Michelangelo or aviation (one tray—strangely—was labeled: “dog tags/ erotica”!), others by artist, some by series, and many by donor, like the large Robert James Eidlitz donation of 1940 concentrating on architectural themes. Even within a single method of arranging the medals, such as by artist, there was no consistency. Medals that the ANS received as part of the famed 1910 Medallic Art Exhibition were arranged by artist, but were kept separately from other trays also arranged by (the same) artist(s). Needless to say, the arrangement was confused. The search for a single medal could take hours, even days, as multiple trays in multiple parts of the vault would have to pulled in the search. Moreover, we could never be entirely sure at a glance what our complete holdings of a single artist, like Oscar Roty, might be since his work was scattered across many trays in many locations.

Throughout the spring, summer, and now fall a team of assistants and volunteers, including Jonah Estess, Anouska Hamlin, Josh Illingworth, Katie Johnson, Syliva Karges, and I have moved over 3,000 trays, and have rearranged the 60,000+ medals within them. The new hierarchical system we have adopted is rather similar to that used in other cabinets elsewhere in the world. The medals now are arranged by country starting in the western hemisphere and moving towards the east. Within each country the medals are arranged first by series, then by artist, then by topic, each rubric trumping the one that follows. Already our hard work—equivalent to a mini-move—is paying great dividends: locating items is considerably easier now, as is knowing precisely what we have, and where our collecting efforts should be directed. Users of our online database should also notice the difference. As the trays have been rearranged, the items within them are being (re)catalogued with an eye towards standardizing the entries and illustrating them with new digital photographs. Once we have completed this project, users should, with a few clicks, be able to see all the medals we have of, for example, the Series Numismatica Virorum Illustrium, or of Victor David Brenner.

This work on the medals section, however, is only part of our larger efforts at organizing the entire cabinet, which includes efforts at reducing the number of die duplicates in the collection. This incredibly time consuming task, which necessitates careful study of die states and die varieties, is of tremendous benefit to the Society, not only because it frees space within the trays for new material, but also because the sale of the die duplicates directly benefits the collection. The money from the auctioned sale of the duplicates is restricted to either the purchase of new items or to conservation work on older items. I would encourage you therefore to bid on deaccessioned ANS die duplicates appearing in three upcoming sales: ancient material will appear in the January Gemini sale; Papal, French, and Italian material in the January Triton sale; and an impressive selection of more modern European items will appear in the upcoming Numismatica Genevensis sale in late November.

As I mentioned I will be on sabbatical this next year, spending most of my time at the Institute in Princeton. The book project I’ll be working on is tentatively titled The Political Economy of Archaic Greek Coinage. In this study I engage directly in a number of current debates in classical studies and numismatics regarding the nature of coinage and money in archaic Greek poleis. Coinage, which was introduced c. 600 BCE, was tightly implicated in the (often unpleasant) social, political, and economic changes that many poleis experienced throughout the sixth century as these communities developed new types of social registers, forms of governance, law codes, and markets. In current debates, there is a tendency towards polarizing views of the function of coinage in these emerging poleis, viz., that it was either a political or economic tool. To avoid the pitfalls of these discussions, I offer a significantly different approach: close (bottom up) study of the coins, including die studies of the archaic coinage of Euboia, Lesbos, Samos, and Klaozemenai, and appropriate (top down) theoretical applications, drawn from the fields of political science and economics, help frame and model a move beyond a conception of the “state” as the decider in matters regarding coin production. Instead I consider more closely the political processes of coin initiation and administration, including the roles of elites and official agents, institutions, and regime types.