Coins and Target Audiences in the Roman Empire

I spend a lot of time thinking about the significance and intent behind certain images on ancient coins. I am also very much interested in what people really saw and whether visual messages were successfully communicated to people who used coins. There are several ways we can think about target audiences in the Roman Empire and how actors in the Roman government reached them.

Figure 1. A sestertius of Trajan, struck at Rome, from 103 CE showing on its reverse a view of the Circus Maximus. This coin was struck at the time Trajan completed major repairs on the Circus. The type would have had little relevance to viewers outside of Rome who did not benefit from the entertainments there. It is an uncommon type among sestertii of Trajan. ANS 1944.100.44720, Bequest of E. T. Newell.

When considering individual types of designs on coinage, it is important to attend to the frequency of certain images and messages according to die studies, hoards, and/or site finds. Reams have been written about unique or very rare coin types of historical interest but, in reality, such coins would have had a small audience and played a limited role in communication. One of the most beloved topics in the study of Roman coin iconography are coins that bear images of public buildings and monuments. Nonetheless, quantitative studies suggest they accounted for only up to 3% or 4% of what was in circulation among the imperial coinage of the late first and early second century CE, a period of great variety (e.g., Fig. 1 and Table 1). By contrast, personifications of imperial ideals, which made up a larger proportion of the coinage, communicated more broadly, but until relatively recently have received less attention.

Table 1. This table indicates the total number and percentage of base-metal coin types with architectural images from samples in Rome and Trier. The sample from Rome is based on the “sottosuolo urbano I and II” find complexes and the sample from Trier is derived from Fundmünzen der römischen Zeit in Deutschland (FMRD). The table is extracted from N. T. Elkins, “Monuments on the Move: Architectural Coin Types and Audience Targeting in the Flavian and Trajanic Periods,” in N. Holmes (ed.), Proceedings of the XIVth International Numismatic Congress, Glasgow 2009 (Glasgow, 2011), pp. 645–55.

In addition to frequency, we can consider the different types of messages and designs placed on certain denominations. William E. Metcalf’s work on Liberalitas (the personification of the concept of liberalitas, i.e., generosity) presents an informative case. He showed that, in the second century CE, when liberalitas became synonymous with a congiarium (a cash distribution to the urban plebs), Liberalitas appeared on gold aurei (e.g., Fig. 2), used more by elite classes, whereas bronze denominations, more likely encountered by beneficiaries of the distribution, depicted the congiarium itself (e.g., Fig. 3).

Figure 2. An aureus of Antoninus Pius, struck at Rome, from 153–154 CE depicting on its reverse Liberalitas, who holds fasces and a paddle used in the distribution of coins at a congiarium. This denomination represents very high value (i.e., 25 denarii or 100 sestertii), and so would have been used more by an elite and wealthy audience. ANS 1956.184.45.
Figure 3. A sestertius of Hadrian, struck at Rome, from 119–121 CE depicting on its reverse a congiarium scene in which the emperor sits on a platform with an attendant to oversee the distribution; Liberalitas stands in the background with her counting paddle. ANS 1944.100.45626, Bequest of E. T. Newell.

The bronzes denoted the event and the specific benefit that the user received from the emperor, while the personification on the higher-value coins may have allowed elite users to apply their own meaning based on the benefits they reaped from the emperor’s liberality. Quadrantes, the smallest imperial denomination, which circulated primarily in Rome and Italy, naturally bore images that tended to refer to the day-to-day concerns of the common people, such as the quadrantes of Caligula that refer to the remission of the 0.5% tax on auction sales in Italy (Fig. 4), rather than referring to grander political events.

Figure 4. A quadrans of Caligula, struck at Rome, from 39 CE depicting on its obverse a pilleus, the cap awarded to a freed slave and a standard attribute of Libertas (Freedom) and on its reverse R•CC, an abbreviation for remissa ducentisima (remission of the ½%). Together the two sides of the coin communicated freedom from the ½% tax on auction sales in Italy.

Another way to think about target audiences is via regional circulation patterns in a specific time and place. For instance, the publication and analysis of Julio-Claudian and Flavian (mostly) bronze coin finds from in and around Rome gives a great sense of what the urban audience was seeing: types that celebrated imperial ideals, dynastic arrangements and family, legitimacy and continuity, public building, popular initiatives, and so on. By contrast, in the middle of the first century CE, there were few if any such coins in circulation in Judaea, owing to the relatively late introduction of imperial coinage to the region. Here, coins with the emperor’s portrait were rare at the time, as more local and regional coinages prevailed: Nabatean coins, coins of the Herodian dynasty, the procuratorial coinage, etc. (e.g., Fig. 5). With the exception of Herod Philip II, who did not rule over a Jewish area, coins of the Herodian dynasty and the procurators bore symbols a Jewish audience would understand, as these were largely inspired by the Hasmonean coinage.

Figure 5. A prutah of Pontius Pilate, struck at Jerusalem, from 29–30 CE depicting on its obverse a lituus and its reverse the date within a wreath. Unlike most Roman coins that depict the emperor’s portrait, the procuratorial coinage only bore the emperor’s name (in Greek) and depicted symbols intelligible to the Jewish population. This demonstrates how sensitive locally produced coinages could be to the traditions and customs of the local population. ANS 2016.15.238.

In the Roman East, as the example of Judaea relates, people were more accustomed to using regionally and locally produced coinages that bore images of local interest. For instance, the provincial coinage typically bore reverse designs referred to local cults, monuments, games and festivals, and other markers of civic identity (e.g., Fig. 6), which differed from the iconographic content on imperial coinage that circulated more in Italy and the Roman West.

Figure 6. A bronze coin of Hadrian, struck at Ephesus, from ca. 117–138 CE depicting on its reverse the famous Temple of Artemis at Ephesus containing the unique cult statue. The famous temple was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World and attracted visitors from around the Mediterranean. The depiction of the temple on the coinage was an expression of civic pride and identity. ANS 1944.100.46100, Bequest of E. T. Newell.

But even imperial coin circulation was not the monolith it is sometimes assumed to have been, for there were differentiated supplies of base-metal coins that appear to have been sent to select populations. Fleur Kemmers has contributed much to this area, as, for example, she discerned that soldiers stationed at Nijmegen, and elsewhere, were deliberately supplied with coins with martial imagery. Although the sample size for Rome is small, my own study of Nerva’s coinage is suggestive that coins bearing images referring to the remission of obligations to the imperial courier (vehiculatio)in Italy, the cash distribution (congiarium) to the urban plebs, and Fortuna Populi Romani (the Fortune of the Roman People—a more defined message than just Fortuna), might have been more common in the circulation pool in Rome and Italy than in the provinces (Figs. 7–9 and contrast Chart 1 with Charts 2 and 3). That also would have been the audience to which such images were also the most relevant.

Figure 7. A sestertius of Nerva, struck at Rome, from 97 CE depicting on its reverse Nerva seated on a platform overseeing the congiarium; an attendant passes coins to a recipient on a ladder and Liberalitas appears in the background. Only a subset of the urban plebs, the plebs frumentaria were eligible to participate in the congiarium in Rome, making this an image that would appeal most to the population in the city of Rome. ANS 1944.100.42656, Bequest of E. T. Newell.
Figure 8. A sestertius of Nerva, struck at Rome, from 96 CE that depicts on its reverse a cart on its side behind two mules; the accompanying legend denotes the cancellation of obligations to imperial courier (vehiculatio) in Italy, making this most relevant to an audience within Italy than outside of it. ANS 1947.2.446.
Figure 9. A sestertius of Nerva, struck at Rome, from 97 CE that depicts on its reverse the Fortune of the Roman People seated on a throne; she is labeled FORTVNA P(OPVLI) R(OMANI). While Fortuna is a common and generic personification on the coinage, the Fortune of the Roman People is more defined, as populi Romani refers to the citizenry in Rome, making it a more defined message for that audience. Yale University Art Gallery 2001.87.5880, Transfer from the Sterling Memorial Library.
Chart 1. The typological makeup of Nerva’s sestertii found in Rome (data derived from the “sottosuolo urbano I and II” find complexes). Chart extracted from N. T. Elkins, The Image of Political Power in the Reign of Nerva, AD 96–98 (Oxford, 2017), p. 95.
Chart 2. The typological makeup of Nerva’s sestertii found in the area of Mainz and the Taunus-Wetterau limes system (data derived from FMRD IV.1; IV.1.N1; V.1.1; V.1.2; V.2.1; V.2.2). Chart extracted from N. T. Elkins, The Image of Political Power in the Reign of Nerva, AD 96–98 (Oxford, 2017), p. 96.
Chart 3. The typological makeup of Nerva’s sestertii found in the Garonne Hoard (Aquitania). Chart extracted from N. T. Elkins, The Image of Political Power in the Reign of Nerva, AD 96–98 (Oxford, 2017), p. 97.

While there is some empirical evidence that coin designs were made and distributed with relevant audiences in mind, evidence for the intelligibility of designs among target audiences is less direct. Literary texts that describe Roman coins are primarily written by senatorial authors in Rome and do not relate the interaction between non-elite viewers and coin designs. Here, archaeology provides us with some important clues that suggest the broad intelligibility of designs, even if ancient viewers did not think as deeply about coin iconography as modern researchers. Coins deposited in Roman graves show patterns of deliberate type selection based on reverse designs. For example, in graves around Cologne, types bearing on the theme of immortality, eternity, and memory prevail. Excavation of the Blackfriars shipwreck found a Domitianic coin with a reverse of Fortuna holding a rudder on the mast-step, suggesting that shipbuilders recognized the image as Fortuna and personalized her meaning (e.g., Fig. 10).

Figure 10. An as of Domitian, struck at Rome, from 90–91 CE that depicts on its reverse Fortuna holding a rudder and cornucopia. Fortuna, of course, connoted good luck and success, and the rudder symbolizes guidance and stability. The builders of the ship at Blackfriars evidently recognized the figure, her attributes, and personalized her meaning by placing her on the mast-step of the ship. Note this is not the coin of from the Blackfriars shipwreck but a representative example of one similar to it. ANS 1947.2.445.

Interrogating the mechanics and realities of visual communication, and the contextual evidence that informs questions of audience and reception, brings more vitality and depth to the objects we study.

New Candidate for Oldest U.S. Numismatic Society Discovered

Charles Ira Bushnell

A couple of months ago, friend and fellow numismatic researcher Joel Orosz sent me a news clipping containing a piece of information he found puzzling. I was astounded when I saw it and immediately started researching the topic myself, uncovering a second nugget. But that was it. Nothing more has been found. We’re hoping that perhaps someone else can shed some light on this matter. I want to thank Joel for providing the detailed description of the discovery below.

—David Hill

Joel J. Orosz writes:

The chronology of numismatic associations in the United States has been settled history for more than 160 years. The Numismatic Society of Philadelphia was established on January 1, 1858, claiming honors as the first in the United States. Slightly more than 6 weeks later, on the Ides of March, the American Numismatic Society was organized in New York City, becoming the second.  Over the following decades, both Societies would change and re-change their names, and experience vigor both waning and waxing, but no one then or since has questioned their primacy in the birth order of United States numismatic societies.  Now, however, both must fall a slot in the hierarchy, for we have discovered that the first numismatic association in this country appeared in New York City as early as 1854, and still existed as late as 1855. The New York Numismatic Society, as it was styled, seems to have been little noted during its brief lifespan, nor long remembered afterwards.  In fact, by that pivotal year of 1858, memories of its existence had evaporated. Not until 2021 did the scant traces it left behind come to light.

The historically-minded reader might object that the “New York Numismatic Society” was a short-lived Civil War-era numismatic club.  This NYNS was founded on January 23, 1864, by Robert Hewitt, Jr. and 10 other gentlemen, who were all, so far as can be determined, completely disconnected from the newly-discovered first NYNS. The two organizations’ years of operation were separated by nearly a decade, and there is no evidence of overlap in their respective memberships, leaderships, or in anything excepting their shared name. The birth of the second NYNS goaded the American Numismatic Society, which had been dormant since October 1859, to meet just 13 days later, and to reorganize as the American Numismatic and Archeological Society. The second NYNS itself went somnolent after less than four months of meetings, and on July 31, 1866, it dissolved, relinquishing its assets to the ANAS.  So much for the second NYNS; now let’s turn to the discovery of the first one. 

The Times and Messenger clipping referring to a New York Numismatic Society in 1855.

In the early history of U.S. numismatics, it is usually true (paraphrasing Will Rogers), that “all we know is what we read in the papers.” The New York Times and Messenger for Sunday morning, June 24, 1855, presented the headline, “SALE OF COINS AND MEDALS, “reporting on the June 6, 1855 Bangs, Brother & Co. auction sale of the numismatic collection of Pierre (sometimes anglicized as “Peter”) Flandin, a pioneering New York fine arts dealer. The article recounted prices realized by the most desirable coins and medals on offer, especially a pattern Gobrecht half dollar of 1838 for $8.50.  It closed with the following sentences:

The sale was one of unusual interest, from the fact of its being the first regular sale of coins and medals that has ever taken place in our city. The sale was well-attended, and attracted considerable attention. Among the distinguished American Numismatists present, we noticed Mr. Bushnell, of the New York Numismatic Society, Dr. Chilton, Mr. Allan, Mr. Gsell, and others.

Bushnell had the clipping bound into this collection of early New York auction catalogs

This Times and Messenger article was clipped, and tipped in to a truly distinctive bound collection of early New York auction catalogs, created by the “Mr. Bushnell” of the article: Charles Ira Bushnell (1826-1880).  An attorney by vocation, and a coin collector by avocation, he was, in 1855, New York’s most advanced numismatist. Indeed, less than a week after the Flandin sale, he traveled to Philadelphia to personally take part in the auction sale of the John W. Kline numismatic collection, which was the second major numismatic sale held in Philadelphia.  In the absence of published American numismatic references, Bushnell created his own by noting the prices brought by each lot in the sales he attended, as well as the purchasers’ names.  He bound several successive sales together in his signature red Morocco over red-and-blue marbled paper sides, and autographed them in pencil with his distinctive tall, angular script. He rounded out these references by tipping in newspaper clippings about the sales, plus material like photographs of, and autographed letters signed by, the consignors.

Among the earliest in this running record of auction sales, (ex-John Lupia collection, now in the library of the author), is a single bound volume containing Bushnell’s priced and named copies of the June 6, 1855, Flandin Sale; a February 15, 1856 broadside sale by Bangs, Brother & Co. of the Daniel Groux Collection; and the numismatic addendum to the May 17, 1856, Leavitt Delisser & Co. book auction sale (the addendum offered Winslow J. Howard’s coin collection).  The Times and Messenger clipping is tipped in to the page preceding the Flandin Sale.  Interestingly, there is a clipping about the Howard collection auction tipped in to the page prior to that sale, beside which Bushnell annotated in pencil, “written by W. J. Howard.” This raises the possibility that the author of the June 25, 1855, Times and Messenger piece, who seems to have been unusually well-posted on the New York numismatic scene, might have been Bushnell himself. If so, he must have been exasperated by the paper’s misspelling of “Numismatists” and “Numismatic”, not to mention “Bushnell”, all of which he carefully hand-corrected in ink.

The catalog for the Flandin sale of June 6, 1855.

The “New York Numismatic Society” mentioned in this 1855 article predates the second NYNS by at least nine years. There is no recorded mention of the first NYNS when the second organized in 1864, so Bushnell’s NYNS must have sunk without a trace. That is, if the first iteration of the NYNS can be verified.  As it happens, we have found that confirmation. 

In 1854, John Livingston compiled Livingston’s Law Register: A Guide for Every Man of Business, and Hand-Book of Useful Information.  Printed in New York, at the office of The Monthly Law Magazine, Livingston’s tome provided, among many other lists, a compendium of “Societies and Institutions, Literary, Moral, Benevolent, and Religious, in the City of New York.”  Under this roster, on p. 458, we find the following entry: “NEW YORK NUMISMATIC SOCIETY for the collection and preservation of coins.” This terse confirmation of the Times and Messenger mention is welcome, but so far solitary.  Only one other piece of indirect confirmation has surfaced, namely a classified ad in the October 21, 1853, New York Herald, which offered for sale a collection of about 250 Greek and Roman coins.  The ad was directed “TO ANTIQUARIANS AND NUMISMATIC SOCIETIES.”  Would the seller have addressed this ad to “numismatic societies” if none then actually existed in the United States? 

The first NYNS was in being in 1854; possibly as early as 1853.  What remains unclear, though, is that which we really wish to know:   who belonged, what was accomplished, and why was it so quickly forgotten? Bushnell was clearly a member, and perhaps its motive force.  If he was indeed the author of the Times and Messenger article, possibly the others mentioned were also members.  Dr. James R. Chilton was a prominent early American coin hound, whose cabinet won laurels, if not for great rarities, at least for sheer size. His collection, sold by Bangs, Merwin & Co., on March 13, 1865, offered 3139 lots in 202 pages, making it the first of the numismatic “phone book” catalogs.  John Allan was New York’s foremost antiquarian, and one of America’s pioneering coin dealers.  The mystery man of the trio is Mr. Gsell, sometimes given as “G’sell,” whose surname appears often in 1850s priced and named coin catalogs.  Q. David Bowers, in his essential American Numismatics Before the Civil War, records his cognomen as “Charles,” but we know nothing else about him. 

No matter whose names appeared on its membership roll, however, the first NYNS distinguished itself neither by its achievements nor by its legacy.  Whatever the precise date of its expiration, whether later in 1855 or somewhat thereafter, no one remembered it—or at least thought it worthy of mention—when other numismatic societies were established.  Most telling, when the second NYNS was founded, none of its members acknowledged that it took the name of an earlier society: perhaps they were simply unaware.

This disappeared-without-a-trace aspect of the first NYNS may be attributable to Bushnell himself.  He gathered a great collection, and wrote on numismatic and (especially) Revolutionary War topics, but an extrovert Bushnell was not.  His newspaper scuffle with Augustus B. Sage in the New York Dispatch in 1857 aside, he shunned the public eye, and was not a “joiner.”  He never became a regular member of the ANAS, and when elected an Honorary Member in 1868, he politely declined, citing “overwork” as his reason.  If Bushnell was the prime mover behind the first NYNS, one could imagine that it might have met infrequently, and simply lapsed into senescence.

It seems probable that, in some unexplored archival folder, or, perhaps more likely, buried in the files of contemporary newspapers, there is more information to be found about the 1850s New York Numismatic Society.  But for now, we can say for sure that Charles Ira Bushnell was a member of the first numismatic society in the United States, which predated the NSP and the ANS by more than three years.

—Joel J. Orosz

UPDATE: Numismatic researcher John Lupia, having read the above, has provided another piece of evidence of the existence of a mid-1850s New York Numismatic Society—a price list from Frederick Lincoln indicating that he was a corresponding member of this group. John had also been aware of the Times and Messenger clipping, having at one time owned the bound volume that included it. He discusses all of this in a new essay published on his website. Thank you, John, for furthering our knowledge of this mysterious group!

—David Hill

A Correction to “Treasure (Rhode) Island”

On April 9, 2021, Pocket Change hosted a post of mine that took issue with the popularization of a theory originally published by Jim Bailey in the Colonial Newsletter in 2017. In Bailey’s article, it was argued that silver khamsiya coins of Qasimid Yemen (Fig. 1) found (increasingly, it seems) in North America—particularly in Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island—are directly connected to the English pirate Henry Every and his crew after their plunder of the Mughal treasure ship Ganj-i-Sawai in 1695.

Figure 1. Qasimid silver khamsiya of al-Hadi Muhammad III dated AH 1105 (AD 1693/4) similar to coins found in New England. ANS 1971.229.3.

As part of my criticism of the theory that the coins must have come with Every’s men as they sought to escape the long arm of the embarrassed British authorities, I challenged the reading of the date on one of the find coins illustrated by Bailey in CNL—a khamsiya of the Qasimid imam Muhammad III using the laqab al-Hadi (“the Provider of Guidance”) (Fig. 2).

Figure 2. Grayscale image of the Qasimid silver khamsiya of al-Hadi Muhammad III found by Jim Bailey. As published in the Colonial Newsletter 164 (August 2017), p. 4575, fig. 1.

In this greyscale image the vertical linear element in the final numeral of the date gave the impression to me and others that the date should be read as ١١٠٨ (AH 1108 or AD 1696/1697) rather than ١١٠٥ (AH 1105 or AD 1693/1694). If read as AH 1108, the coin must have been struck after the capture of the Ganj-i-Sawai and therefore could not have possibly been carried off by Every’s pirates in 1695.

Last week I was given the opportunity to see the original color images of the coin from the CNL article (Fig. 3).

Figure 3. High-quality digital image of the Qasimid silver khamsiya of al-Hadi Muhammad III found by Jim Bailey.

From these it is very clear and indisputable that the final digit of the date is actually ٥ as published by Bailey and not ٨ as I had suggested. Hopefully, it should be equally clear when comparing the final digit of this coin to the ANS specimen illustrated above how the erroneous reading came about (Fig. 4).

Figure 4. AH 1105 date comparison between the ANS specimen and Bailey’s specimen.

The linear element in the digit on Bailey’s find coin is by no means a regular feature of the Arabic numeral 5 on Qasimid coins and was the cause of the misreading of the date in the greyscale image. Indeed, it would be tempting to suggest that the numeral on Bailey’s coin might be an AH 1101 (١١٠١) date that has been recut as AH 1105 (١١٠٥) if not for the fact that khamsiyat struck by Muhammad III before AH 1105 feature the laqab al-Nasir (“the One Who Gives Victory”) rather than al-Hadi and employ a different arrangement of the Arabic legends. Coins with the al-Nasir laqab are presently known in North America from finds in Connecticut, Maine, and Rhode Island while those with the al-Hadi laqab have been reported from Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

In any case, due to this new revelation, I wish to withdraw the dating argument made in my original post and apologize to both Mr. Bailey and to readers for injecting an unfortunate chronological red herring into the discussion of khamsiyat in North American find contexts. At present, there are no known khamsiyat found in North America with Hijri dates that fall after AD 1695. The latest date on a khamsiya with a North American find context known to me at present is an al-Hadi Muhammad III issue of AH 1106 (AD 1694/1695) found in northern Massachusetts and reported in April 2021.

Despite the mistaken reading of AH 1108 for 1105, however, I still stand by my original position that we are still very much lacking in solid evidence to clearly tie the khamsiyat found in North America directly to the piratical exploits of Henry Every’s crew. At the moment, the case for Every’s men as the mechanism for the arrival of Qasimid coins in the American colonies still seems somewhat circumstantial and speculative. Unless the movement of the coins from Yemen to the New England via the slave and/or coffee trades can be entirely ruled out, or until specimens are found in an unambiguous piratical context connected to known associates of Henry Every, there must remain some element of doubt about his crew as the ultimate source of khamsiyat in North America. For the not infrequent confusion of trade and piracy and the tendency of the East India Company to paint all interlopers into its area of trade as pirates, see John Kleeberg, “The Circulation of Leeuwendaalders (Lion Dollars) in England’s North American Colonies,” CNL 152 (August 2013), 4042–4043.

Even if piracy was the sole possible means by which khamsiyat came to North America, it does not necessarily follow that the pirates responsible had to have been Every’s men. In 1980, a team of French archaeologists recovered the debris that remained of Speaker, an English pirate vessel that sank off the coast of Mauritius on January 7, 1702. Along with two gold bars and a variety of gold and silver coins, the archaeologists recovered several Qasimid khamsiyat of Muhammad III. Two of these were catalogued, but not illustrated, in Patrick Lizé, “The Wreck of the Pirate Ship Speaker on Mauritius in 1702,” The International Journal of Nautical Archaeology and Underwater Exploration 13.2 (1984), 129–130, nos. 11–12 (I am very grateful to Nancy Um for bringing this article to my attention). Coin 11 in Lizé’s catalogue is an al-Nasir issue that must date to the period AD 1686/1687-1693/1694 on the basis of the laqab, while coin 12 is an al-Hadi issue described as “minted in 1697” (in need of confirmation). All of this tends to suggest that Qasimid coins with legends and dates similar to those found in North America were still available to pirates in 1702 and therefore it cannot be certain that khamsiyat with North American find contexts must have been taken as plunder in 1695. Every’s men were not the only pirates to haunt the ports of New England.          

It is hoped that ongoing study of Qasimid coins, Yemeni trade, and Indian Ocean piracy in the seventeenth century, as well as new finds in controlled archaeological excavations will together provide a more unequivocal explanation for finds of khamsiyat in North America.

Cartagena MMXXI: The International Convention of Historians and Numismatists

This past week, between December 1 and 5, the Third International Convention of Historians and Numismatists (Cartagena MMXXI) gathered in Cartagena de Indias, Colombia (Fig. 1).

Figure 1. The official medal of Cartagena MMXXI, designed by Carlos Huatuco Nanzer. Bronze, 33 mm.

Hosted by the Colombian Numismatic Foundation, the event featured 28 in-person speakers and an additional 23 virtual presentations. The event included Latin American numismatic luminaries such as Jorge Baccera León of Colombia, Jorge Proctor of Panama/Florida, Hilton Lucio of Brazil, Eduardo Dargent of Perú, and so many more. There were representatives from Argentina, Aruba, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Spain, the United States, Uruguay, and Venezuela. Similarly, the event was sponsored by many different organizations, several of whom are very well known even to those who may not be familiar with Latin American numismatics—such as Coin World, Heritage Auctions, PCGS, and Stack’s Bowers.

While there were a few pre-conference events (guided tours, etc.), for me, the conference opened on the evening of December 1 with a ceremony at the Palacio de la Proclamación, the freshly-restored palace where Cartagena’s independence from Spain was declared on November 11, 1811 (Fig. 2).

Figure 2. The opening ceremonies at the Palacio de la Proclamación, as some of the delegates hold the newly-released commemorative postal issue.

The palace is located deep within the fortified walls of the old Spanish fort. After the ceremony, we wined, dined, and were entertained by traditional folkloric music and dance, witnessed the launching of a commemorative postal issue, as well as the donation of an important decoration to the Naval Museum of Cartagena by Richard Caccione. There were over 140 individuals in attendance that evening.

The following four days were filled with the most up-to-date research on Latin American numismatics. The conference itself was held in a beautiful downtown resort located along the shores of the Caribbean, the Intercontinental Cartagena de Indias. The large stage and dual screens allowed for all in attendance to see everything (Fig. 3).

Figure 3. Daniel Oropeza Alba, who also acted as one of two conference organizers, delivers the inaugural presentation for Cartagena MMXXI.

Furthermore, for the few of us who are not absolutely fluent in Spanish, two professional translators provided their services through a set of headphones. The level of research, the willingness that everyone had to share their work (even unpublished material), and the overall familial feeling was something that should have come as no surprise, but still made me reflect on how we can all benefit from such incredible comradery.  

In the hallway just outside of the conference doors, Colombian artist Jorge Juan Osorio Orozco offered some of his pieces. His mixed-media works consist of genuine banknotes and colored pencil, where he would extend the vignette well beyond the confines of the original note with the original source of the design. For instance, Orozco used a lithograph of the Liberator, Simón Bolívar as published by the Ramírez Brothers in the late 19th century to extend the bust of a 2,000 Colombian peso note (Fig. 4).

Figure 4. A 2,000 Colombian peso note altered by Jorge Juan Osorio Orozco into a work of art, alongside the original 19th-century lithograph that inspired the banknote design.

The results are nothing short of impressive and intriguing, as each piece was beautifully framed and matted. Orozco must have had 50 works there at the beginning of the conference, and far fewer by the last day. For those interested, he can be found on all the major social media outlets and does ship internationally.

Cartagena, in particular, was chosen for this year’s conference to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the first coinage struck in the city and, as a result, all of present-day Colombia (at the time, a part of the Nueva Reino de Granada). This fact itself is a recent discovery. For decades, researchers believed that the first coinage struck in Cartagena were cob coins (known as macuquinas in Latin America) struck in gold in 1622, though the earliest-known dated pieces were minted in 1625. Recent discoveries, however, revealed that Alonso Turrillo de Yebra struck 1,600 silver macuquinas dated 1621 and shipped them to Spain for inspection by King Philip III. As fate may have it, the coins were loaded onto what became one of the most famous Spanish galleon shipwrecks of all time, the Atocha, which sank off the coast of Florida in a hurricane in 1622. Since the discovery of the wreck in 1985, only nine (9) of these 1621 macuquinas from Cartagena have been excavated (Fig. 5). Some have readable dates, some don’t—but they all come from the same set of dies. The rest are still presumably at the bottom of the sea floor.

Figure 5. One of nine known 1621 8 reales coins struck in Cartagena that helped prove that coins were struck there at that time, not 1625 as was earlier known to be true.

Again, I cannot overstate the level of research at this conference, as well as everyone’s willingness to share both published and unpublished works. I am happy to have been invited not only to this conference, but also into this group. Furthermore, that the ANS is beginning to reinsert itself back into the mainstream of Latin American numismatics (Fig. 6).

Figure 6. Myself and Jorge Proctor. Although the preeminent scholar in Latin American numismatics, Jorge is willing to have fun with his topic as he dressed up as a Spanish conquistador during his presentation.

Even without our presence over the past few decades, many from the region are already well acquainted with the ANS collection (Fig. 7).

Figure 7. A bronze half real of Santander, Colombia of 1813, a coin often misattributed to Cartagena. This was one of several ANS coins that coincidentally showed themselves throughout the course of the conference (ANS 1916.20.13, gift of Howland Wood).

While there are many people that I met over the past week—far too many to name in this post—I would like to especially thank Richard Caccione, a Bronx native who has spent a considerable amount of time in Latin America, currently lives in Perú, and is a noted expert on Peruvian banknotes. Without his unsolicited email to me and his insistence that the ANS have a representative present at the Congress, none of this would have been possible. I very much look forward to the next International Convention of Historians and Numismatists, wherever the organizers decide to hold it.