COAC 2021: The Victor David Brenner Sesquicentennial

Figure 1. Photo of the control room main monitor during one of the talks.

After a hiatus of a dozen years, this last Friday and Saturday (17–18 September) saw the resumption of the Coinage of the Americas Conference (COAC) series at the American Numismatic Society. Since the mid-1980s, COACs have been one of the leading venues for the presentation of academic research pertaining to numismatics of the Western Hemisphere. Previous conferences, and their published proceedings, have covered topics on colonial and federal coinages and medallic art in the United States.

Figures 2 and 3. Speaker Christopher Bach presenting his talk, “Victor D. Brenner and the painterly influence of Joaquín Sorolla.”

Thanks to the sponsorship of the Resolute Americana Collection and the Stack Family, ANS Assistant Curator Dr. Jesse Kraft’s efforts to revive the series this year were successful. Along with conference co-organizers Scott Miller (ANS Fellow) and Patrick McMahon (MFA Boston), Dr. Kraft decided to commemorate the sesquicentennial of Victor David Brenner’s birth with two days of papers devoted to the artist’s life and works.

Figure 4. Speaker and conference co-organizer Patrick McMahon virtually responding to questions following his talk, “Victor David Brenner’s Society of the Cincinnati Medal in Context.”

Born in 1871 in what is now Lithuania, Brenner initially followed in the family business of jewel engraving before immigrating to the United States in 1890. After studying in both the United States and, most notably, in Paris with famed French medallic artist Oscar Roty, Brenner quickly positioned himself to become one of the foremost medallists working in New York City, the center of US medallic art. Brenner’s most well-known artwork is, undoubtedly, the Lincoln Cent of 1909, which remains in production today; with over 450 billion examples produced in the 112 years since it was introduced it is the most reproduced piece of art in human history. While it is known that Brenner created a significant body of work beyond the Lincoln cent, much of his other work has been overshadowed by this single piece.

Figure 5. Speaker Taylor Hartley enjoying the exhibit of Brenner’s work organized for the conference in the ANS’s Sage Room by Jesse Kraft and Scott Miller.

Many of the papers in this year’s COAC sought to explore the full range of Brenner’s work, and these efforts were quite informative. By the end of the conference, the trajectory of Brenner’s career, before his life was cut short in 1924 by cancer, came into clearer view. Always pushing himself to obtain greater skills, Brenner explored a number of techniques and styles in medallic art production, more perhaps than many of his contemporaries, designing over 200 medallic works of art throughout his 35-year career. At the same time, towards the end of his career he seemed to have been making an attempt to move decisively away from medallic art towards larger bas-relief and sculpture in the round. His largest artwork, and one of his more successful, is the Mary Schenley Memorial Fountain in Pittsburg, PA, also known as “A Song to Nature”. Significantly, his career path was, in many ways, opposite that of his contemporaries: he began as an engraver of small objects moving towards larger sculpture while others started with larger works before attempting medallic art. Curiously, however, after his success with the 1909 Lincoln cent, Brenner’s career never really took off in the way that those associated with the doyenne of US sculpture Augustus Saint Gaudens did; indeed, Brenner was never part of the Saint Gaudens circle. To the end, Brenner remained something of a struggling artist, designing and producing a number of different sculptural objects, including bookends and wall fountains, many of which were only recently identified and attributed to Brenner by some of the conference speakers. The proceedings of the conference are expected to be published by the ANS in the coming year. In the meantime, a video recording of the conference will soon be available on our YouTube channel. A list of the speakers and their papers can be found here.

Figure 6. Alan Roche and Ben Hiibner manning the newly installed control room during the Zoom broadcast of the conference.

One final note: this year’s COAC also marked a significant change in the way that the ANS will, in the future, host and present conferences. After a substantial investment in new equipment, and thanks to the efforts of Ben Hiibner and Alan Roche, this year’s COAC was a fully hybrid event, simultaneously live and virtual. Those unable to attend in person were able to participate both as speakers and audience members via Zoom. Such hybrid events will continue to allow us to reach a greater proportion of our membership as we resume our usual schedule of events, talks, and conferences.

Were Eraviscan imitative denarii a prestige coinage?

The Latin legend RAVIS which occurs on the reverse of this imitative denarius (Fig. 1) has long been associated with the Latin name of a Germanic tribe, the Eravisci or Aravisci. Other legends that appear on imitative denarii that have been associated with this tribe are RAVIZ, RAVISCI, or IRAVISCI (Fig. 2). These coins present several similarities to the Geto-Dacian imitations of Roman currencies, which I have already addressed here.  

Figure 1. ANS 2015.20.2362. Bequest of R. B.Witschonke.
Figure 2. Pannonia, Eravisci. Silver Denarius, after 76 BC. Imitating 393/1. Davis B.II. Freeman 1/A, pl. 29, 1 (same dies). 17 mm. 3.30 g. Nomos AG obolos 17, 20 December 2020, lot 14.

The Eravisci were a Celtic tribe living in the northeastern part of Transdanubia, i.e., the part of Hungary lying west of the Danube (Pliny, Natural History 3.148) (Fig. 3).

Figure 3. Ruins of Gellért Hill, one of the most important Eraviscan fortifications.

In the last decade of Augustus’s reign, this region became part of the Roman province of Pannonia with the name of Pannonia Inferior (Fig. 4).

Figure 4. The Roman province of Pannonia Inferior.

There are only guesses as to when and from where the Eravisci arrived in that region, but their presence in the area was known to the Roman historian Tacitus (Germania 28). He writes that the Eravisci moved to the right banks of the Danube from the territory of the Germanic tribe of the Osi, in the area of the Rába River (Tacitus, Germania 43) (Fig. 5).

Figure 5. The Rába River in Hungary (ancient Pannonia), a tributary of the Danube. The region encircled by this river represented the first settlement area of the Eravisci.

Their move to the area of Transdanubia was probably related to the collapse of the hegemony of the Boii in the region. According to the Greek historian Strabo (Geography 7.3.11), this happened as a result of a great defeat of the confederation of the Boii and the Taurisci tribes at the hands of the Dacian king Burebista, whose quasi-legendary rule has been connected to the existence of a pre-Roman Dacian state (Fig. 6).

Figure 6. Map of the Dacian Kingdom at around the height of Burebista’s reign, in the second half of the first century BC.

This event might be dated to around 45–44 BC and might represent a terminus post quem for the beginning of the coinage issued in the name of the Eravisci.

Eraviscan coins are all imitations of Roman coinage, mostly Republican denarii struck in the 80s and 70s BC, but also some Augustan denarii. For what concerns Roman Republican denarii, the four main reverse types imitated the issues of L. Papius (RRC 384/1, 79 BC), Cn.Cornelius Lentulus (RRC 393/1a, 76-75 BC), C. Postumius (RRC 394/1a, 74 BC), and L. Roscius Fabatus (RRC 412/1, 64 BC) (Figs. 7–10).

Figure 7. Eraviscan denarius imitating the types of L. Papius (RRC 384/1). ANS 2015.20.2520. Bequest of R. B.Witschonke.
Figure 8. Eraviscan denarius imitating the types of Cn. Cornelius Lentulus (RRC 393/1). ANS 2015.20.2293. Bequest of R. B.Witschonke.
Figure 9. Eraviscan denarius imitating the types of C. Postumius (RRC 394/1a). ANS 2015.20.2524. Bequest of R. B.Witschonke.
Figure 10. Eraviscan denarius imitating the types of L. Roscius Fabatus (RRC 412/1). ANS 2015.20.2375. Bequest of R. B.Witschonke.

Also, the denarii issued by P. Crepusius (RRC 361/1a, 82 BC) and by L. Manlius Torquatus (RRC 295/1, 113–112 BC) were used as prototypes to the so‑called DOMISA, DVTETI and ANSALI issues, possibly featuring the names of local chieftains (Figs. 11–13).

Figure 11. Eraviscan denarius imitating the reverse type of P. Crepusius (RRC 361/1) with the name of the chieftain DOMISA. ANS 2015.20.2361. Bequest of R. B.Witschonke.
Figure 12. Eraviscan denarius imitating the reverse type of P. Crepusius (RRC 361/1) with the name of the chieftain DVTETI. Freeman 8 (5/B). 17 mm. 3.26 g. Rauch Summer Auction 2012, 20 September 2012, lot 75.
Figure 13. Eraviscan denarius imitating the reverse type of L. Manlius Torquatus (RRC 295/1) with the name of the chieftain ANSALI. ANS 2015.20.2532. Bequest of R. B.Witschonke.

As a consequence of this wide range of prototypes, the chronology of these issues has until recently been determined very broadly from c. 80 BC to the end of the first century BC.  However, fairly recent studies based on hoard circulation suggests that they were issued from about 40/30 BC to 12/9 BC, with production ending in correspondence with the Augustan conquest of Pannonia or shortly thereafter.

The largest number of finds was recorded within the primary settlement zone of the Eravisci, which according to written and archaeological evidence may be placed within the modern counties of Pest, Fejér and Tolna in modern Hungary (Fig. 14).  

Figure 14. Finds of Eraviscan coins. A: hoard; B: stray find. Dulęba and Wysocki 2017, p. 57, fig. 4.

However, the recent discovery of a hoard of 14 Eraviscan imitative denarii in the Polish village of Czechy, in the region of Cracow, might suggest that the circulation radius of these coins could have been much wider than previously thought (Fig. 15).

Figure 15. Location of the site of Czechy and the cultural situation at the end of the pre-Roman period on a map of modern Poland. A: Przeworsk culture; B: Oksywie culture; C: Baltic circle; D: Púchov culture; E: Tyniec group. Dulęba and Wysocki 2017, p. 52, fig. 1.

As in the case of Geto-Dacian imitations, the function of this coinage has been hugely debated, with foremost scholars in the field arguing for a very limited use, restricted to prestige-related contexts, as suggested by the very limited finds in situ. This might find comparanda in the other coinages issued in the so-called barbaricum, especially in the early production stages of Celtic coinages in northern Gaul.

However, die-links between different issues (most notably the ones bearing the names of DOMISA, DVTETII and ANSALI ) were noted for the first time by Robert Freeman. This element hints at a very coordinated production for these imitative coinages. Moreover, the different degree of wear evident in die-linked specimens suggests an effective circulation (Figs. 16–17).

Figure 16. Eraviscan denarius imitating the reverse type of P. Crepusius (RRC 361/1) with the name of the chieftain DVTETI. Same reverse die as the following specimen, but with different level of wear. ANS 2015.20.2517. Bequest of R. B. Witschonke.
Figure 17. Eraviscan denarius imitating the reverse type of P. Crepusius (RRC 361/1) with the name of the chieftain DVTETI. Same reverse die as the previous specimen, but with different level of wear. ANS 2015.20.2519. Bequest of R. B.Witschonke.

The R. B. Witschonke Collection at ANS provides further examples of die-linked specimens, which which also show different degrees of wear (Figs. 18–20).

Figure 18. Eraviscan denarius imitating the reverse type of Cn.Cornelius Lentulus (RRC 393/1). This specimen shares an obverse die with the specimen in Fig. 19 and a reverse die with the specimen in Fig. 20. ANS 2015.20.2514. Bequest of R. B.Witschonke.
Figure 19. Eraviscan denarius imitating the reverse type of Cn.Cornelius Lentulus (RRC 393/1). This specimen shares an obverse die with the specimen in Fig. 18. ANS 2015.20.2512. Bequest of R. B.Witschonke.
Figure 20. Eraviscan denarius imitating the obverse type of L. Papius (RRC 384/1) and the reverse type of Cn. Lentulus (RRC 393/1). Same reverse die as Fig. 18. ANS 2015.20.2363. Bequest of R. B.Witschonke.

Finally, an element that seems to be common to all the known Eraviscan specimens is the fact of being consistently lightweight compared to official Roman denominations. For example, the Eraviscan denarii included in the R. B. Witschonke collection have an average weight of 3.27 g. This is a differentiating element in comparison to the Daco-Getan imitations, where several specimens are overweight.  

In sum, it seems very likely that the Eraviscan imitative coinage was a) produced in a somewhat coordinated fashion, as suggested by the numerous die-links; b) a relatively limited phenomenon in terms of chronology and volume of issues, since so many die-links are discovered in a limited sample; c) not (only) a prestige coinage since several specimen appear considerably worn.

The production and circulation of imitations of Roman Republican denarii among the Eravisci thus suggest the existence of an (at least partly) monetized economy, which probably came into existence in the decades leading to the creation of the Pannonian province in the late Augustan Age. Eraviscan imitative denarii are therefore part of a tale of partial cultural and economic convergence toward the Roman world that took place in the course of the second and first century BC in the Mediterranean world at large as a consequence of the Roman expansion. This very topic has been addressed in a three-day international conference held in March 2021 and the coins just presented add further nuances to this fascinating process.