Newell and the ANS as the US Enters the Great War

Edward T. Newell
Edward T. Newell

On January 12, 1918, ANS President Edward T. Newell delivered his President’s Address at the ANS’s 60th Annual Meeting nine months after the United States entered the Great War. 100 years after that commitment, Newell’s address still resonates with hope and an eye towards a collaborative future. Reading the full text of the speech below, one is struck by “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” Collecting, funding, staffing, and housing the ever-growing collection remain core issues, as does outreach and the sharing of knowledge through lectures and publications like the American Journal of Numismatics. The speech details an awakening of the Society where the world has taken note of it, marking a turn towards global citizenship and leadership in numismatics. Even in the midst of uncertain times, the future of the ANS remained bright to Newell whose confidence in the Society and its staff was unwavering in the face of financial hardship. He would be pleased at how far the Society has come in realizing his vision.

Text of the Speech

This is the sixtieth annual meeting of the American Numismatic Society, and of this fact you are doubtless all sufficiently aware. If I had little to say to you this afternoon, this would make a splendid text upon which to dwell at length to the edification of all concerned. I feel, however, that in recent years the Society has had a new birth, and it is never the fashion of youth, in its strength and enthusiasm, to look back; the goal of its desires lies ever forward.

Since the last annual meeting the entry of our country into the world war has taken place, and it is self-evident how this is bound to profoundly affect the Society’s outlook, its activities and their results. Already the effects have been felt profoundly in nearly every department of our work, but, on the whole, the impetus given by the events within our Society of the year 1916 is still carrying us along. Outwardly, therefore, you will not have noticed many changes directly due to this great war.

As you may remember, one of the most impassioned pleas made to the Society at the last annual meeting was the need of a Secretary, who must be a person of unusual attainments and ability to fill a post as important as it is difficult. Within a short time of that meeting the Governors made the happy discovery that this versatile person was actually residing in our midst. Mr. Noe was appointed to the onerous post, and, to the satisfaction of all, accepted. The fortunate results to the welfare of the Society have been patent throughout the last nine months.

The year 1917 has been one of intense activity within our building and in our particular sphere. This has undoubtedly been felt by all of you and has also reacted upon such of our members who are unable to keep in personal touch with us. The ever-increasing number of letters of inquiry, of encouragement, and also, needless to say, of protest or friendly criticism, clearly reveals this state of affairs; while the encouraging fact that the number of visitors to our building has doubled in the last twelve months shows that the outside world is beginning to take cognizance of our existence. This the staff in our building is fostering in every way possible, and it is to be hoped that our members will not fail to do their share in making us known throughout the length and breadth of the land.

The campaign which was inaugurated last year to cause to gravitate towards our building important collections of coins has brought about the highly gratifying results you all know, and which will be more fully described in the Curator’s report. In this field we can certainly point to the past year with pride, and with a feeling that the precedent thus happily set will undoubtedly make it easier for us in the future to secure important collections as may become available. The snowball has started on its way.

The Society has also been successful in commencing a policy of establishing contact with the Universities and learned institutions of the country. As a result we have had more inquiries and visitors from institutions interested in the scientific aspect of numismatics than ever before. Several of the Archaeological Societies of America have pressed us for lectures on our subject. Certain serious workers have not only directed many inquiries to our doors but have already, or are expecting in the near future, to pursue certain lines of research beneath our roof.

Another class of people the Society has established contact with in the past year are the medallists and sculptors of America. The field is large, and we have only commenced operations, but our tentative efforts are beginning to show results. Our Secretary will give you more details in his report, but let me call your attention particularly to the cordial letter just received from Mr. Paul W. Bartlett, President of the National Sculpture Society, accepting on behalf of that Society our invitation to hold a meeting in our building this coming month.

The Committee on Publication of Medals has had a most successful and important year. As you will see by their report, a precedent has now been established by which our Society may take a leading part in the publication or distribution of noteworthy civic medal issues a result which must ledound considerably to our credit and wider recognition.

As stated before, this is a time of national stress and danger. The opportunities of a numismatic society to enter into active war service are not great or even very evident. Nevertheless, such an opportunity did present itself a short time ago, when Dr. Hornaday of the New York Zoological Park approached us with a view to our co-operating with and actively supporting the Hulbert Bill now before Congress. The purpose of this bill and the success attending our efforts to secure the necessary financial backing will be detailed in the Secretary’s report.

This very much restricted statement of a few of our activities of the past year suffices to show that the Society is progressing as well as present circumstances will allow. It has been a year of the most rigid economy, because of the times through which we are passing. It is self-evident to all that ours must now be a policy of making things tight within the Society during the present storm, and particularly of preparing ourselves, in every way possible, for the great days that are bound to come the moment the world is again at peace. With this in mind, the present seemed to offer an excellent opportunity to put our coin room in the state of greatest efficiency.

This could only be accomplished by installing a uniform system of coin cases which would embody the latest devices, and at the same time provide the greatest economy of space. After prolonged work on the part of our Curator, plans for such cases were perfected. Certain of our members who were impressed by the imperative need for this constructive policy within our building responded generously to the appeal made to them, and six and a half steel cases have been ordered, which will just fill our coin room and furnish space, roughly speaking, for well over 120,000 coins and medals.

Thus far I have touched only upon new activities and the encouraging feature of our situation. Unfortunately, as is so often the case, there is also a reverse side to our shield which calls for infinite care and foresight, as well as such suggestions and assistance as the members of our Society can give. The rigid economy of which I have just spoken has enabled us to come through this past year with a very small deficit. In previous years our deficit usually amounted to thousands of dollars, which had to be met each time by special subscriptions. In 1917 more has been accomplished in every department than ever before, with a final deficit of about two hundred dollars only; but it must be remembered that we were assisted by the liquidation of some assets stored within our building, such as old publications, past numbers of the Journal, unsold medals and the like. These have now been converted into money, but the prospect of realizing to any great extent on such as remain is practically nil. What has been rigid economy will this coming year have to become uncompromising penury. This will necessarily have a terribly retarding effect upon the progress of which we are all so proud.

The fund placed at our disposal for the publication of Volume 50 of the Journal and the 1916–17 Proceedings is now practically exhausted, and we have nothing wherewith to issue the next number of the Journal. This does not take into consideration special publications, of which we have at least two available. Such is the impossible situation of a Society which ostensibly stands for the spreading of numismatic learning at home and desires to be on, at least, an equal international standing with similar institutions abroad.

The many and varied activities which have made this past year such a successful one in the history of the American Numismatic Society have also proven how unfortunately short-handed the staff is in the presence of the many calls made upon it. This state of affairs threatens to render somewhat s perfect and less effectual the outcome of such important activities as may be undertaken in the near future. Even this past year, which can record so many things successfully accomplished, must also show many things that had to be left undone, either because of lack of funds or because of the lack of necessary time on the part of the staff. It is the things not done, or only half done, that have always been the bane of this Society.

I do not dwell here upon the reverse side to our shield in any sense as a discouragement, but that the Society as a whole may fully appreciate the conditions. If we were to contemplate only one side of a situation to the complete exclusion of the other, one’s judgment would necessarily become warped, and, therefore, as in life, there is always a certain mingling of the unpleasant with the pleasant; it is vital to take cognizance of both. The staff is indeed immensely sanguine concerning the possibilities of the immediate future, in spite of the war and the general financial situation. At the commencement of the year just past the difficulties ahead loomed up exactly as large, and yet the Society has been able not only to meet some of the most pressing needs, but has won through with the minimum of financial loss. With this in mind the future holds no terrors for those immediately responsible for the success of the Society’s activities, as they know from past experience that they can definitely rely on a whole-hearted support from the members of the American Numismatic Society.

EDWARD T. NEWELL

A Penchant for Abstraction: An American Collector of African Currency

Iron-currency, Nigeria/Cameroon. Original name: Bandaka. According to Ballarini this piece of currency of forged iron resembles a stylized profile of a person: nose, a ponytail tied up in a bun behind the neck, a stylized body which ends in an umbrella handle which is finished off with some ringlets (ANS 2013.17.4, previously of Alan Helms’ collection.)

In the past decade, the American Numismatic Society has been fortunate to acquire a number of African numismatic objects from the Boston-based collector Alan Helms. These objects are mostly produced within the last two centuries and are distinguished by their large size for objects of numismatic value. Most of the objects come from modern-day Congo, Nigeria, and Cameroon. At first blush they come across as simply worked pieces of metal. The ANS caught up with Helms to find out more about his overall collecting practices and what led him to these objects, and to learn about how he grew his collection.

Q: When was the first time you bought a numismatic object from Africa? What inspired you to collect this work in particular?        

I bought my first piece of African currency from Monsieur Huguenin at Galerie Majestic on Rue Guenegaud, and in short order I started buying from most of the galleries in Paris.  Whereas a good Baule wooden standing figure in those days might sell at auction for $3,000, $4,000, or $5,000, one could find superb currency for a fraction of that cost. This work remains one of my favorites.

Q: Where were you acquiring these objects when you lived in Paris? Can you describe the market for African works in Paris at the time?

I was a visiting professor at the University of Paris (Nanterre) in 1983 when a colleague took me to several African art galleries and the African collection at the old Musée de l’Homme.  I remember being totally smitten.  Around the same time, I discovered African metal currency, which I found equally intriguing as African art, and it was more affordable.  So I began to purchase examples in Paris. This launched me into a lifetime of collecting African currency in Europe and the United States. Within a few years I had some 80 pieces.

Q: How have these objects fit within the context of your overall collecting practices? 

The two main collections of my life have been African metal currency and Chinese scholar rocks—both incidentally among the world’s most beautiful abstract arts.

2013-17-2
Iron hoe money, Nigeria/Cameroon. According to Ballarini, this hoe-currency is made out of heavy sheet of iron, forged into shape of fan, with the bottom part ending in a triangle. These models could have actually been used as hoes: some known specimens have a ring welded to the plate, which indeed was used to fit in the wooden stick of the hoe. (ANS 2013.17.2, previously in Alan Helms’ collection.)

Q: How did you learn more about the objects you collected? 

Visual features have been my sole guide throughout so I’ve never studied these objects in any systematic, scholarly fashion. I’m almost exclusively concerned with the forms themselves. But it’s also true that little serious work has been done to date on African metal currency.  Few catalogues exist and many of those are of doubtful value.  It’s a ripe field for art historians who specialize in African art!

Q: You have donated parts of your numismatic collection to several important institutions including the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and Wellesley College. Other than the study and care for your works, what relevance do you think they could carry?

 For one thing, the objects themselves are aesthetically fascinating.  Beyond that, they’re an important part of the material history of the cultures that have created them.