ANS photographer Alan Roche created the short video below to describe the “focus-stacking” photographic technique to produce high-definition, 3D-like images of coins in fantastic detail. Have a look:
There are certain numismatic personalities I expect to encounter over and over again as I work with the historical collections at the ANS—Howland Wood, Sydney Noe, Thomas Elder, Henry Chapman. But there is a more obscure figure I sometimes find myself running into. This would be H. A. (Henry Alexander) Ramsden, a collector and dealer who exhibited an boundless enthusiasm for his area of expertise, Far Eastern numismatics, passionately working at it right up until his untimely death at the age of 43 in 1915.
Throughout the Society’s library and archives are pockets of materials associated with Ramsden. There are his numerous letters in the Howland Wood, John Reilly, and Bauman Belden papers, for example. There are his publications—books, but also periodicals like The Numismatic and Philatelic Journal of Japan, which he founded and edited. Rummaging around in the library’s pamphlet files recently, I happened upon what turned out to be an uncataloged item. It was ANS treasurer John Reilly’s membership certificate for the Yokohama Numismatic Society, which included the stamped signature of Ramsden.
Many ANS members will recall the Reilly Room at the ANS building on Audubon Terrace where the Far Eastern numismatic collections were kept and displayed. Reilly obtained much of what would become the ANS’s premiere collection in that area from Ramsden. Though his influence still strongly reverberates, Ramsden remains a somewhat mysterious figure. There are no known photographs of him. Howland Wood supplied the ANA with what little he had on him for Ramsden’s obituary in the Numismatist, information Wood had gleaned from a biographical letter Ramsden had sent him in 1914. Not too much has been added to what we know about him since. His father was a British diplomat. The younger Ramsden followed in his father’s footsteps and came to be stationed in Japan as a representative of Cuba. He married a Japanese woman and went into business with her brother, stamp collector and
dealer Jun Kobayahawa, in Yokohama. He built up an enormous numismatic collection, over 15,000 specimens, including Chinese, Japanese, and Korean coins, as well as an impressive library. His unexpected death threw the future of these collections into question, and after some back and forth with the executor of his will, they were purchased by Reilly, who retained ownership, though they were housed at the ANS. Reilly’s daughter Frances formally donated the materials in 1938.
Ramsden may not be as familiar a name as some, but his legacy lives on in the ANS’s outstanding Far Eastern numismatic collections. In 2009, a student in the Society’s Eric P. Newman Graduate Seminar in Numismatics, Lyce Jankowski, produced an extremely useful research paper on the Society’s Chinese collection, documenting what she had uncovered on the subject. One interesting fact was that, had Ramsden lived longer, he might have left an even bigger impression on the ANS. Just a few months before Ramsden’s death, Wood had suggested that he might come to New York to be the curator of what Wood was already calling “the best collection of Far Eastern coins known.”
This guest post by our curatorial intern Taylor Hartley describes one of the projects she has been helping us with over the past several months.
Since last November I have been working on a project here at the ANS to catalogue a group of Italian miniassegni from the late 1970s that was donated by our late benefactor Sidney W. Harl in 2001. Miniassegni or “mini-checks” are coupons or promissory notes made to replace small-denomination coins during a shortage of 50 and 100 lira coins, which were the approximate equivalent of American nickels and dimes.
The shortage of 50 and 100 lira coins lasted from 1975 to 1979. Its causes are famously mythologized. Some said the coins were used as buttons in Japan, others that the shortage was caused by trade union strikes. In his book Europe, Europe, Hans Magnus Enzensberger suggests that it was actually caused because the Italian government abandoned their plans for a new mint and the old one simply could not produce enough coins to meet demand.
When the shortage of small-denomination coins began in 1975, vendors started by giving small items instead of change. Candy, grapes, stamps, phone tokens, and even chicken livers were given to customers when there was no way to make change. One café owner in Rome wrote handwritten notes for his customers as credit for their next order.
After the shortage stretched on for a while, stores began to issue little coupons or checks of their own that ranged from 50 to 350 lire. Then banks started issuing miniassegni that could be collected and then exchanged for larger bills.
The ANS collection mostly consists of the notes issued by banks, but they also have a number of “buoni d’acquisto,” the notes issued by shops. My favorite of these is one issued in 1976 by a stamp and coin shop in Moncalieri.
The miniassegni were almost instantly adored by collectors. During the shortage many catalogues were published to help collectors and to assign value to the rare ones.
At one point, coin dealers in Italy were selling more miniassegni than Roman coins. They even gained some popularity in the United States. Boys’ Life Magazine published a letter about them in their coin and stamp collecting section in March 1978. Collecting miniassegni was something of a craze, like tulips or Beanie Babies were in their time.
I can see why they were so popular. Their endless variety and bright colors make them intriguing and highly collectible. Some just look like small bank checks, but others, like these designed by the paper shop of Guerzoni Livio were colorful and beautiful.
Still more have a homemade charm to them, like this small one from La Spezia.
Some had local monuments on them, like the Navina Arch in Moncalieri. The miniassegni from the Bank of Sicily even hearken back to Sicily’s rich numismatic history with a picture of the famous coin of Arethusa surrounded by dolphins.
They are as friendly and fun as Monopoly money, but they were accepted as cash.
After their initial popularity during the coin shortage, the demand for miniassegni as collectibles dropped off. Their values dropped quickly after life returned to normal and there was once again enough change to go around. But they deserve some attention. I have had so much fun learning about the miniassegni through the process of cataloguing this collection. They are memories of an interesting period of recent Italian history when no one had change to spare, and everyone collected and spent little colorful slips of paper instead.