Volunteer Impressions (Summer 2005)

by Rick Witschonke

When I am working at the new ANS building at 96 Fulton Street, I spend most of my time on the fourth floor, which houses: the vault, containing the ANS’ magnificent collection of coins and medals; the offices of Curators Sebastian Heath, Michael Bates, Robert Hoge, Peter van Alfen, and Elena Stolyarik; an open area with tables for visitors; and several desks for the Curatorial Assistants and Volunteers, where I do most of my work. Two walls of this area are lined with card file cabinets, containing one of the Society’s little-known treasures: the ANS Photo File.

The Photo File consists of 446 file drawers containing cards, each with a photo of a coin from an auction catalogue or price list glued to one side, and the details of the auction or list on the other. There are two separate formats: the original 5×8 cards (340 trays), containing photos from auctions and lists from 1904 to 1978, and 106 trays of 3×5 cards, containing photos from 1959 to 1985. In total, there are images of approximately 268,000 coins. The files are all carefully labeled, tabbed, and grouped into: Greek (146,000 cards, organized by geographically); Roman Republic (21,000 cards, organized by Sydenham number); Roman Imperial (76,000 cards, organized by emperor/metal/type); Byzantine (16,000 cards, similarly organized); Islamic (3,000 cards, 3×5 only, started in 1984); and Medieval (6,000 cards, 3×5 only, also started in 1984, organized by country).

The Photo File was begun by Agnes Baldwin Brett in the 1950s as a way of capturing images of (mainly) ancient coinages in order to facilitate scholarly study. For decades, the file was maintained by the Curators and Volunteers. Two copies (plates are generally printed on both sides) of each auction catalogue or illustrated price list were obtained (in addition to the copy maintained in the ANS Library). The plates were then cut up, preserving the lot number. Then, the photo was glued on one side of the card, and the dealer, auction or list number, and date were noted on the other. This allowed one to find the original sale catalogue in the ANS Library, and view the original lot description, if necessary. Finally, the card was filed away along with similar coins.

Although the Photo File was begun in the 1950s, it was first mentioned in 1966 in the ANS Proceedings (later the Annual Report. It is not even noted in Adelson’s 1958 Centennial History of the ANS. The early reports (1966-1975) mention the employment of part-time graduate students to maintain the file. In 1967, new cabinets were purchased, and an initiative begun to screen and correctly file the existing entries. This effort was completed in 1970, and an index prepared. From 1970 to 1975, Beulah Shonnard is mentioned as the individual in charge of the Photo File. In 1976, Shonnard retired, and was replaced in her capacity by John Mancia, who was, in turn, replaced by Marie Martin in 1979. The first mention of the size of the file comes in 1975, where it is said to contain “more than 450,000 illustrations” (each coin represents two illustrations). In 1976, this number increased to “more than 500,000,” where it remained until 1990, when it increased to 600,000. This is probably more an artifact of the preparation of the Annual Report than a true indication of the growth of the file.

In 1979, the file underwent a “rearrangement to weed out errors,” led by Alan Stahl and Hyla Troxell for the Greek, and William Metcalf and Ann Petroni for the Roman. In 1981, it was decided that the 5×8 cards were cumbersome and took up too much space (the only coins that really required that much space were the large aes grave and aes signatum), and a new file of 3×5 cards was begun. Marie Martin was last mentioned as keeper of the file in 1982. In 1984, the Islamic and Medieval sections were added under the direction of Christine Curry. Then, in the mid-1980s, the proliferation of illustrated catalogues, and the increasingly constrained resources of the Society made continuation and the maintenance of the Photo File impractical, and it was discontinued. Even so, this is a massive archive. A few examples will help to put these numbers in perspective. In the Greek section, there are over 24,000 coins of Sicily, including 1300 of Gela alone; in the Roman Republic, 6 of the rare issue of Ventidius Bassus, and in the Roman Empire, 150 of the Empress Plautilla (Sydenham 1175).

So, one might ask, what is the purpose of this mass of information, and why was so much effort expended to build it? There are actually several important uses for the file. Perhaps the most obvious is to research the provenance of a coin. Many, if not most, ancient coins appearing on the market have appeared in the past, but often the reference to that previous appearance has been lost. With the Photo File, it is fairly easy to look the coin up, and discover whether the new specimen has appeared before. Having a known provenance increases the value of a coin, and may associate it with a famous collection. Also, a coin with a known pedigree is less likely to be a forgery. For these reasons, many European and American coin dealers keep their own photo files, but none that I am aware of is nearly as extensive as the ANS’.

Another common use of such a file is to research the images on a particular coin or series of coins. For example, a student might be studying the iconography of Parthian Kings, and having a large collection of the images on coins would be very helpful. Or one might be studying a particular monument which appears on coins. For example, when Professor Fred S. Kleiner was working on his book The Arch of Nero in Rome (Rome, 1985), he consulted the Photo File and found 102 examples of the sestertius of Nero with the arch on the reverse. He used these and other examples to arrange the dies of this series in a chronological sequence. He then concluded that the image of the Arch on the first die was probably the most faithful representation.

Images from the Photo File can also be useful in determining the authenticity of a rare coin. By comparing the coin in question with a number of images of the same type, one can determine if the style and fabric are correct. And, by checking the actual auction catalogues, one can determine if the weight is consistent with genuine pieces. And one may even find a die match with a known specimen, which supports authenticity (however, if both dies match, the matching coin could have provided the mould for a forgery).

Finally, the Photo File is a wonderful resource when doing a die study of a particular series. In these situations, the scholar needs as many examples as possible in order to identify all of the dies used, and arrange them in chronological sequence. For example, Italo Vecchi is currently working on a die corpus of the Etruscan coinage. He had already gathered over 3,000 examples, but, on a recent visit to the Society, he was able to find over 100 additional examples in the Photo File.

What is the future of the Photo File? The ANS would love to fill in the 20-odd year gap to bring it up to date, and perhaps digitize the images so they could be made more widely available. This would nicely complement services like Wildwinds.com, who are making images of coins from recent sales conveniently available on the web, and the digital SNG project. Regrettably, these projects are beyond the financial means of the Society at the present time, but we would certainly welcome initiatives on the part of the membership to make these projects feasible. However, even in its current state, the Photo File remains a valuable tool. Members are cordially invited to make use of it (please, however, prearrange your visit with one of the Curators).

The contents of the photo file break down approximately as follows:

5×8 Format (1904-1978) 3×5 Format (1959-1985) Total
Greek 118,000 cards 28,000 cards 146,000 cards
Roman Republican 15,000 cards 6,000 cards 21,000 cards
Roman Imperial )60,000 cards 16,000 cards 76,000 cards
Byzantine 11,000 cards 5,000 cards 16,000 cards
Islamic 3,000 cards 3,000 cards
Medieval 6,000 cards 6,000 cards
Total 204,000 cards 64,000 cards 268,000 cards