Obituary: Ya’akov Meshorer

Ya’akov Meshorer

On June 23, 2004, Ya’akov Meshorer, one of the world’s leading numismatists and a recipient of the Huntington Medal, died after a long illness. As the founder of the numismatic department at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, Meshorer was one of the most influential figures in the field of ancient numismatics, not least because he wrote most of the standard books on Jewish coins.

Meshorer was born in Jerusalem in 1935 into the prominent Mani family, which has been living in the area for centuries. Always keenly tied to the history of this area, Meshorer and his twin brother Asher were keen amateur numismatists from an early age. At the age of 14, they donated their first coin to the Israel Museum. After his military service in the army from 1954 to 1956, he became a member of Kibbutz Hazerim where he married Adaya Weiss. A gifted artist, she became later a conservator at the Israel Museum. As in his childhood, Meshorer spent his free time as a hobby archaeologist, even establishing a small museum in the Kibbutz. His love of antiquity, and in particular coins then led him in 1960 to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem where he studied archaeology for several years. He received a B.A. and a M.A. in archaeology, which were followed by a Ph.D. in numismatics.

Meshorer founded the numismatic department of the Israel Museum in 1969, which he led until 1993. During these years the collection grew into the foremost collection of Jewish coins in the world. The collections of Roman, Islamic and Byzantine coins as well as other areas also became a major focus. It was due to Meshorer’s extraordinary ability to convince collectors and dealers to leave or donate their collections to the Museum’s holding that the numismatic department grew enormously. Meshorer would negotiate special prices for very rare coins for a collector – with the condition that the collector would turn the coin immediately over to the museum. Meshorer also served twice as Chief Curator of the Archaeological Wing of the Israel Museum, initially from 1975 to 1982, and then again from 1990 to 1996.

Meshorer taught extensively, and the considerable number of outstanding Israeli scholars in this field attest to his legacy. He was a lecturer at the Institute of Archaeology of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and was appointed Professor of Numismatics there in 1983.

Ya’akov Meshorer’s contributions to the field of ancient numismatics are in key areas that were barely touched by scholars prior to his often ground-breaking research. In 1975, he published Nabataean Coins, still a standard work on the coins of the kingdom of Nabataea, which was based on his doctoral thesis. Numerous studies were dedicated to the Roman Provincial coins of Palestine (City-Coins of the Eretz-Israel and the Decapolis in the Roman Period, 1985; The Coinage of Aelia Capitolina, 1989), when few scholars were doing systematic research in this area. He catalogued the ANS’ collection of coins from Palestine, which appeared as SNG ANS Palestine in 1981. His most important contributions were however in the field of Samarian coinage. These coins, which were influenced by Persian, Greek, Jewish and other Eastern designs, were hardly known until the 1990s. These tiny silver fractions were represented by a few specimens in museum collections. Thanks to several hoards and an increased awareness for these coins among coin dealers and archaeologists, the corpus of this series has grown to several hundred different types. The Coinage of Samaria in the Fourth Century BCE by Ya’akov Meshorer and Shraga Qedar brought them in 1991 to the attention of the numismatic community. This groundbreaking book was followed by an updated second edition in 1999 (Samarian Coinage). These monographs and numerous articles on the subject have opened up a fascinating field of research, which vividly illustrates the relationship between different communities in Palestine and the Near East. Apart from these specialized studies, Meshorer also wrote solid surveys and handbooks, which introduce Jewish coins and other local coins to the non-specialist. Ancient Jewish Coinage (1982) and A Treasury of Jewish Coins (2001) are excellent examples of such handbooks, which are widely used by collectors and field archaeologists alike. Additional articles on modern coins, medals, paper currency and many other coin-related objects illustrate the genuine love that Meshorer had for the field.

His expertise in numismatics and his amazing ability to engage people brought him many commissions. He was a member of the Archaeological Council of the Israel Antiquities Authority and a member of the Directorate of the Israel Society for Medals and Coins, serving on the committees that determined the design of the modern Israeli coins.

In 2001 the American Numismatic Society honored him with its highest academic award, the Archer M. Huntington Medal for outstanding scholarly achievement. Last year, he was elected a honorary member of the Council of the International Numismatic Commission.

With Ya’akov Meshorer the numismatic community has lost one of its most popular and outgoing members, who will be missed by many of the friends and members of the American Numismatic Society. Later this year, the ANS will be publishing his final book, a monumental two-volume work, in which he catalogued over 5,000 coins from the collection of Abraham D. Sofaer.