All posts by The American Numismatic Society

Artist Mark Wagner is Reinventing the US Dollar Bill

Fig. 1. Ben Bernanke. Commissioned and rejected by Time magazine for their 2009 "Person of the Year" cover. Later purchased and exhibited by the National Portrait Gallery at the Smithsonian. Photo: Mark Wagner. Courtesy of the artist.
Fig. 1. Ben Bernanke. Commissioned and rejected by Time magazine for their 2009 “Person of the Year” cover. Later purchased and exhibited by the National Portrait Gallery at the Smithsonian. Photo: Mark Wagner. Courtesy of the artist.

Visual Artist Mark Wagner exclusively uses US dollar bills in his work, and has done so for decades. From creating collage-style portraits, still lives, and sculptures to an actual money tree, Wagner attempts to meticulously use every detail of the banknotes he works with. Wagner’s humorous, approachable, and culturally relevant pieces have made him a favorite of the New York City art world and beyond.

Over the years, Wagner has continued to create subversive works that offer a larger social commentary on money, economics, and beyond. In 2009 he constructed a 17’ x 3’ recreation of the Statue of Liberty entitled Liberty, made from pieces of over 1,000 dollar bills. Several of Wagner’s other works including, FROM DARKEST DECAY was featured at the Expo Chicago in September and his other work, CUT UP CUT CUT is on view at the Bellevue Arts Museum and will be traveling as part of a group exhibition through 2009. We sat down with Wagner to discuss his relationship to money, how he obtains the bills he uses in his work, as well as the larger personal and political underpinnings that fuel his art.

ANS: What first attracted you to working with money?

Mark Wagner: I’ve always been a sucker for paper culture—for different printing methods and graphic design styles, as well as different methods of illustration and text presentation. Everything from fine art printing, to common stuff like packing materials, and paper napkins. In the ’90s I’d been doing a lot of collage from a bunch of different materials, anything I could get my hands on. I always had a large supply of Camel Cigarette wrappers because a couple friends saved them for me. There was something about the familiarity of the package that made those collages effective, especial to Camel smokers. So, I tried to think of other popular pieces of paper I could use and settled on the single most popular piece of paper on the planet: the US One Dollar bill.

At first I loved the dollar bill for material reasons—it was readily available, the paper it’s printed on is super sturdy, more durable than literally any piece of paper you can buy from an art supply store; the printing on it is super fine, and anything you make from it is immediately familiar to the viewer on a subconscious level. It started to dawn on me what it meant to use MONEY. That money is not some neutral thing, it’s not like cutting up bus tickets or playing cards at all. That everyone has money issues  and that addressing those issues with this material could make for some pretty OK art.

"Are What You Eat What You Are" or "Hand to Mouth." Photo: Mark Wagner. Courtesy of the artist.
Figure 2. “Are What You Eat What You Are” or “Hand to Mouth.” Photo: Mark Wagner. Courtesy of the artist.

ANS: What is your process like in conceptualizing a piece and then getting the materials needed to create it?

MW: I’m always processing materials. I’ve got an assistant who helps me as well. We break down bills into rudimentary parts and build these up into shapes, textures, and passages that might be useful in the future—Bins of head parts, a binder full of constructed trees and other plant life, little hands, little birds, little figures of George Washington. Then I work from the other end as well. Drawing sketches and figuring out how I can deploy these “moves” to greatest effect. How I can use money to say something about money  or sometimes just make something pretty.

ANS: How do you obtain the money used in your pieces?

MW: I get stacks of crispy ones directly from the bank when they have them. Sometimes I set aside crispy bills I receive as change. I like the small portrait bills from the 90s for the larger US denominations; usually I buy these on Ebay.

ANS: What is your attitude towards money?

MW: Money is basically a form of magic. Here is a substance I can transform into any other substance. That money and all our attitudes about money are a funny amalgam/chimera of everything money has ever been in the past. It is part honor-exchange, part commodity, part bank draft, part debt. Our last clear foci of money was as an amount of metal: here is a quantity of gold that can be exchanged for a quantity of some other substance. Or new foci, I think, will be more like the electricity inside a battery—here is a quantity of power I can use to perform an amount of work.

ANS: What are some of the broader themes you explore in your work in relationship to wealth and capitalism?

MW: I prefer subject matter that has a direct link with the materials. I use US bills for the most part anything Americana, American identity, or Founding Father-ish. I do portraits at least in part because of coin and currency addiction to portrait busts, sometimes the portraits are representations of some sort of human “value” trying to reclaim that word from its fiduciary use.

There are lots of representations of wealth in the work, architecture, leisure activities, lavish gardens, artworks. Concentrations of wealth have given us both some of the most beautiful things in our culture, as well as gross examples of decadence. There are lots of barriers and dividing lines depicted in the work—fences, hedge, walls. There’s a fair amount of menace. And there’s no shortage of both mystery and mythology. The thing is, I could represent anything out of money and it would seem like I was on topic and making a statement. If I depicted, say, the coffee cup sitting in front of me it would seem like I was commenting on the prices at Starbucks.

Figure 3. Benjamin. Photo: Mark Wagner. Courtesy of the artist.
Figure 3. Benjamin. Photo: Mark Wagner. Courtesy of the artist.

ANS: Do you think there is a gendered component to the work you create? And if so, what do you think that is?

MW: I hadn’t thought about this until you asked, but of course there is. There are no women on US bills I can easily cast as characters in my work. And money itself is probably considered a masculine thing. I do think the patience of execution harkens back to my Mom sewing, though. Quilts and embroidered samplers have informed my work as well as cropping up as subject matter.

ANS: What are some current projects you have in the works, and do you have any upcoming exhibitions?

MW: I’m just finishing up a 6’ x 4’ money tree. I’m making some dollar bill “Loan Ranger” masks. I’m making some portraits of at-risk children from Ghana. I’m working on a couple of essays about the nature of money and art. I’m working on plans for a 12’ x 18’ collage of movie monsters battling over New York City.

ANS: Do you collect any coins or other currency beyond $1 bills?

MW: Yes, mostly in a catch-as-catch-can manner. My coin collection started as a kid with a jar of European coins that my dad had brought back decades earlier from World War II. I came from a small town in rural Wisconsin, and I loved the connection to another place and time.

As a kid I loved—and still love to this day—a few of the coins from the jar, which had circulated for well over 100 years, worn almost completely smooth: Napoleon’s name, or one of the George’s only barely visible. I still have the US silver quarter and about a 1/4 of it worn away that I used for silver-point drawing in art school. I still have the silver quarter I was handed as change at the deli, that I recognized first by the unfamiliar, deeper note within the handful of jingle. I love the beautiful face on the Mercury dime and the oddness of the fasces on the back. I love the weight of the Franklin half-dollar which is  judged most comfortable for practicing my finger rolls and palming.

I’ve got a small collection of paper currency. People know I like money, so they give me unwanted currency left over from their foreign trips. And I’ve got a small collection of late 19th, early 20th century stock certificates I love for the art and design’s sake—the decorative borders, the classicism meeting anachronistically with technology and modernism, all the rubber stamps and signatures and cancellations.

ANS: Have you run into any legal issues with cutting up US currency? If so, what happened and how did you resolve it?

MW: No legal issues so far. I think it’s pretty clear there’s no fraudulent intent in what I’m doing. I’m hurting no one. I’m generating a fair amount of economic activity, tax revenue, and seigniorage through my actions. I’m naughty, but safe-naughty.

ANS: Do you view your work as subversive and are there any political underlinings to your current work given the current administration?

MW: Subversive, I’d like to think so, but then again maybe I’m just commodifying my own dissent. My first reaction to the new regime art-wise was to try to ignore it. I’m still on that tack, trying to make pretty things or timeless things or the same sort of things I would have made a couple years ago.

Before the election I made a portrait of Trump for an art show. It hung in a voting booth next to a portrait of Clinton back in September of 2016. After the exhibition (but before the election) I burnt the Trump portrait because I’d really come to detest the man.

Arsacid Fire-Altar Coinage

khounaniAlireza Khounani is a PhD candidate at New York University’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World (ISAW) focused on Archaeology of the Near East and Central Asia before Islam. Alireza’s main area of interest is the Parthian period in Iran and the role of landscape and cultural hybridity in forming local diversities which manifests itself in the material culture of this period including coinage.

The Arsacid Empire (248 BCE–224 CE) spanned the largest period of antiquity in the Near East and western Central Asia and ruled over a vast area between Mesopotamia all the way to Central Asia. Succeeding the Seleucid Empire, the Arsacids followed the Attic weight to strike their coins. Noteworthy is that within their Empire, the vassal states, for instance Elymais, Persis, and Characene, were also allowed to issue their own coinage, which is seen as a sign of their strong local autonomy. Furthermore, these political powers, who were usually amongst the native royalties, had the right to practice their own religious beliefs.

This social and political diversification of the Parthian period in addition to the scarcity of solid evidence make it difficult to determine what religion the Arsacid kings themselves adhered to. Scholarly tradition claims that ancient Iranian Empires follow Zoroastrianism, an Indo-Iranian religion that survived until today whose main stress is on the preservation and maintenance of the eternal/sacred fire, which is considered to be the manifestation of the great god Ahuramazda. However, most of the evidence for ancient Zoroastrianism comes from post-9th century literary sources and we do not know for a fact what the religion of the Achaemenid, Arsacid, and Sasanian Kings was. Nevertheless, one prominent element, “pedestal fire-altar,” has been seen on rock-reliefs and coins, and has been discovered archaeologically. It is usually accompanied by a king in an investiture scene. It is important to clarify that within this context a fire-altar is the one—predominantly a pedestal fire-altar—that is supposed to guard and maintain the sacred eternal fire rather than the much more common sacrificial altar.

There has been a great deal of confusion over distinguishing fire-altars, especially in the case of Arsacid material where this image is very rare. For instance, the form of the object and the offering gesture of the figure on a reverse type of bronze coins by Artabanus II (Fig. 1) is a sacrificial altar that finds later parallels on Kushan coins as well. A pedestal fire-altar can be seen behind the image of Arsaces (ca. 250–211 BCE), the founder of the dynasty, on the reverse of a silver drachm by Phraates IV (37–2 BCE) minted in Mithradatkert (Fig. 2). This altar is strongly comparable to those found on the Achaemenid tombs at Naghsh-e Rostam, on the Parthian period coins of Persis, and on the reverse of the Sasanian coins. The presence of a fire-altar on a Mithradatkert issue is very meaningful considering it was the first Arsacid capital where Isodore of Charax reports to have seen the “fire of Arsaces.”

Fig. 1. Arsacid bronze coin, Ecbatana, 10–38 CE (ANS 1944.100.83104).
Fig. 1. Arsacid bronze coin, Ecbatana, 10–38 CE (ANS 1944.100.83104).
Fig. 2. Arsacid silver Drachm, Mithradatkert, 38–2 BCE (BMC OR.8645).
Fig. 2. Arsacid silver Drachm, Mithradatkert, 38–2 BCE (BMC OR.8645).

Recent scholarship suggests the existence of a ruler-cult in the Arsacid house. The image of Arsaces is present on almost all the reverse types of his successors; all who were titled after him. Ammianus Macelinus compares this royal practice to that of the “Caesars” of the Roman Empire. Deification of Arsaces can further be suggested by the title Theopater that some of his successors used, and also by the fact that he is, in several cases, shown sitting on an omphalos.

Fire has long been seen as a sign of royal power and as the element through which the spirit of kingship (or Farah) is transferred from a king to his successor. The fire-altar on the relief of Darius I at Naghsh-e Rostam is accompanied by the king who is receiving the ring of kingship from the “winged figure.” Sasanian Kings have their own kingly fire on a diademed pedestal altar shown on the reverse of their coins in a scene of investiture where the king is receiving a diadem from his predecessor (Fig. 3). There are also examples where a figure in flames is on top of the altar, who is suggested to be the ancestral spirit of kingship (Fig. 4).

Fig. 3. Sasanian silver drachm, 272–273 CE (SNS-Ib/2b).
Fig. 3. Sasanian silver drachm, 272–273 CE (SNS-Ib/2b).
Fig. 4. Sasanian silver drachm, 303–309 CE (Göbl-I/1a).
Fig. 4. Sasanian silver drachm, 303–309 CE (Göbl-I/1a).

The context in which a fire-altar is placed alongside the figure of Arsaces on a drachm by Phraates IV is comparable to that of the fire-altar and winged figure on Achaemenid reliefs; and the diademed fire-altar and figure in flames on Sasanian coins. It can be concluded that a form of Indo-Iranian royal cult with a focus on sacred fire was continuously practiced by Iranian royal dynasties throughout antiquity. This study attempts to demonstrate that the Arsacids were prominent actors in promoting this ideology and played the main role in developing its image and transferring it from the Achaemenids to the Sasanians. However, in order to confirm whether this royal cult was eventually evolved into a monotheist religion named Zoroastrianism after the arrival of Islam, requires much further investigation.

The Coin Portrait Types of the Empress Sabina

Fae AmiroFae Amiro is a PhD candidate at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. Her research focus is Roman portraiture, and she is currently writing a dissertation on the portraiture of the Imperial house during the reign of the emperor Hadrian, which addresses broader questions of portrait type creation and the dissemination of sculpture throughout the Roman empire. She was a participant in the 2017 Eric P. Newman Graduate Seminar.

The empress Sabina is not a figure who is frequently given much attention, due in part to her lack of prominence in the literary record. She was wife of the emperor Hadrian and they are said to have had an unhappy marriage, but not much else is known. Her coinage, however, has received more scholarly attention, because it was issued in larger numbers than that of any previous empress and features a good deal of variety in its portraiture. The question of the true chronology of her coinage has been debated for ninety years. However, few have addressed the reasons behind the changes observable in the coinage, in particular the impetus behind its start date and the introductions of new types.


Fig. 1: Sabina aureus with turban portrait type, ca. 128–131 (ANS 1960.175.30).
Fig. 1: Sabina aureus with turban portrait type, ca. 128–131 (ANS 1960.175.30).

In order to address these problems, I conducted a die study of the aurei which display the portrait of the empress Sabina. This had not previously been done and is the best way to form a relative chronological sequence for coinage. The die-link sequence confirms the following chronology for the portrait types which appear on the aurei. First is a type called the turban, dating to 128 C.E. (Fig. 1). The next type is Sabina’s main portrait type, the queue, which was probably introduced in the year 131 C. E. (Fig. 3). The Aphrodite type comes next, around 133/134, and was in use until her death and shortly thereafter. Following her death in 136/7, she was consecrated as a diva and a posthumous issue was created to commemorate this.

Fig. 2: Matidia aureus (ANS 1958.214.20).
Fig. 2: Matidia aureus (ANS 1958.214.20).

So, this answers the question of the true sequence of the types. The reasons for the creation of the last two types, the Aphrodite and posthumous types, are well understood. The Aphrodite is represented in a classicizing style, which is associated with Hadrian’s return to Rome after his trips in the east. The posthumous type was created to commemorate her consecration.

Fig. 3: Sabina aureus with queue portrait type, ca. 131–136 (ANS 1960.175.29).
Fig. 3: Sabina aureus with queue portrait type, ca. 131–136 (ANS 1960.175.29).

The impetus behind the creation of the other types is harder to address. The motivation behind the start of coining for the empress in 128, eleven years into Hadrian’s reign, is unclear. Previously scholars believed that it was because Sabina gained the title of Augusta in that year, but this has been proven incorrect by Eck and the results of the die study. Most likely a number of factors came together at the right time to inspire this change: the ten year anniversary of a reign was a common time for coinage reform, the imperial couple had just returned from a trip abroad and were about to embark on another one, there were no other Augustae alive at the time, and Sabina’s presence on coinage may have helped advertise the family’s prestige, given her relation to the imperial family of the previous dynasty. This last point is supported by the style of the portrait, which resembles that of her mother, Matidia, who was Trajan’s niece (Fig. 2).

Fig. 4: Plotina aureus (ANS 1967.153.139).
Fig. 4: Plotina aureus (ANS 1967.153.139).

Scholars have previously believed that the queue type was introduced to form a visual connection between Sabina and her predecessor, Plotina. However, there are a number of problems with this assessment. This message would have been redundant, since the turban already showed dynastic continuity, and untimely, since Plotina had died eight years previous. A side by side comparison shows that the very assertion that they look alike has been overstated, especially given the prevalence of ponytail-style hairdos among women at this time (Fig. 4). The motivation for the creation of the type is more likely the opposite, that it actually represents a stylistic departure from the previous dynasty and the introduction of a uniquely Hadrianic style.

More work needs to be done, but the results so far show that Sabina’s life events, particularly in association with Hadrian’s imperial travels, had an effect on the appearance of her coin portraits.

The Coinage of Queen Berenice II

Tara Sewell-LasaterTara Sewell-Lasater is a PhD student in the History Department at the University of Houston. Her work focuses on Hellenistic and Roman Egypt. She has previously worked on the role of women in Egypt during the Pharaonic period. Her dissertation will focus on the transmission of Greek and Roman traditions into Egypt and their subsequent envelopment into the Egyptian culture.

Queen Berenice II ruled in Egypt during the period of 246 to 221 BCE as the wife of Ptolemy III. She fit well into the Hellenistic period, which is known for familial infighting, extravagance, and outspoken female figures. From murdering her first husband, to participating in chariot races, eating her dinner with a pet lion, and finally being murdered by her own scheming son, she is an excellent example of all the drama the Hellenistic period could produce. She is perhaps most well-known from the poem by Callimachus, as retold by Catullus, which described the dedication of a lock of her hair at the temple of Arsinoe-Aphrodite and its subsequent catasterism. But, while these details of her life are dramatic and interesting, the most intriguing aspect of this queen is the coinage which was produced in her name.


Silver Dodekadrachm of Berenice II (Classical Numismatic Group VI.494)

The coinage of Berenice was minted in seven gold denominations and five silver. Some of them are exceptionally large; for instance, the silver dodecadrachms (also called pentekaidecadrachms) are some of the largest coins minted in a Hellenistic kingdom, second only to the 20-drachm pieces issued by King Amyntas of Bactria. These coins, and the other large and unusually weighted denominations of Berenice, do not seem to fit into the economic structure of the period. Egypt had a closed monetary system, and in 310 BCE Ptolemy I abandoned the Attic standard (with a silver drachm of 4.3 g) in favor of the Phoenician or Ptolemaic standard (with a silver drachm of 3.575 g). Thus, when Svoronos catalogued the Berenice coins in his 1904 work Ta Nomismata Tou Kratous Ton Ptolemaion and listed them as returning to the Attic standard, they quickly became a subject of contention for numismatists. This has caused historians and numismatist to question if the production of these coins had something to do with the Third Syrian War, or if, perhaps, they were minted outside of Egypt.

My project for the 2017 Eric P. Newman Graduate Seminar is a die study of the Berenice silver and gold coinage which attempts to answer some of these major questions.

For instance, one question about this coinage is which Berenice does it depict? As per Hellenistic tradition, the Ptolemies were fond of using the same royal names, and there were at least three royal Berenices at this time. This has led several historians, most notably Hazzard, to question if the queen on these coins was Berenice II or Ptolemy III’s sister, Berenice Syra. The die study and iconographic analysis conducted on the coinage has proven that the coins belong to Berenice II. There is a strong iconographic continuance between this coinage and that of her predecessor, Arsinoe II, that would have been useless to a Syrian queen. Additionally, these coins bear the inscription of ΒΕΡΕΝΙΚΗΣ ΒΑΣΙΛΙΣΣΗΣ (Berenike Basilissa); Basilissa was a title used by only a few Hellenistic queens, all of whom actively ruled, as Berenice II did while her husband was away during the Third Syrian War.


Gold Decadrachm of Berenice II (ANS 1967.152.562)

The biggest question of all is: on which standard were these coins minted? In the process of completing the die study for this coinage I gathered over 200 samples of the gold and silver coins of each denomination. The gold can be made to fit both the Attic and Ptolemaic standard through various formulas and the inclusion or exclusion of taxes. With the silver, however, lies the issue. My study will show that the silver denominations fit neither the Attic nor the Ptolemaic standard. The strange weight of the silver, then, calls the identification of the gold denominations into question, as the gold denominations were based on the silver. The study will also show that, although these coins did not fit either of the previously used standards, the coins were most likely minted in Alexandria for use within the closed system of Egypt. So, while my study answers some of the outstanding questions, such as who is depicted, where were these coins minted, and how many were minted, it also raises some new and important questions about the relation of this coinage to the weight standards of the period.

Cistophoric Mysteries of Laodiceia-ad-Lycum



Gregory Callaghan is a PhD Candidate in Ancient History at the University of Pennsylvania, and a Kolb Fellow of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. Greg has a wide range of research interests, including Roman Republican politics and the evolution of Athenian democratic institutions. His main focus, however, is the international relations of the Hellenistic Period. His dissertation applies IR theories of status hierarchy and regional powers to the growth of the Attalid kingdom, examining Attalid foreign benefactions through epigraphy and archaeology.

One of the traditional lectures of the Eric P. Newman Graduate Seminar in Numismatics is entitled “Cistophoric Mysteries.” It is an apt name for a lecture dedicated to the cistophoric coinage of Asia Minor. Known as one of the ugliest coins ever produced, the cistophorus was introduced by the Attalid dynasty on a reduced silver standard, somewhere between 190 and 160 BCE. And that is more or less all that we agree on, with the exact date of its introduction, its nature of production, and to what degree it was a closed currency system still debated. But if we still scratch our heads at the nature of the early cistophoric coinage, this is nothing compared to our ignorance of the late cistophoric coinage. From ca. 105–60 BCE, a generation after the end of the Attalid dynasty, several Anatolian mints issued a second series of cistophoric coinage, which was followed by issues produced by these same mints under the direction of Roman magistrates. It is only now that these later issues of cistophori have begun to receive the scholarly attention they deserve. Helped in particular by the generous bequeathal of Rick Witschonke’s collection of cistophori to the ANS—undoubtedly the finest single collection of the coins in the world—Lucia Carbone and William Metcalf have forthcoming studies that investigate the late cistophori of Tralles and the Proconsular Cistophori, respectively.

Silver Cistophorus of Laodiceia-ad-Lycum, ca. 88–60s BCE (ANS 1944.100.37599).

My project for the graduate seminar picks up on these recent studies by examining the late cistophori of Laodiceia-ad-Lycum. This city is described by Strabo as one of the two great cities of Phrygia, along with Apameia—another late cistophoric mint. Hoard evidence suggests that it began minting cistophori around 90 BCE, and continued into the 60s BCE, when the mint switched from seemingly civic issues to issues stamped with the authority of the Roman proconsuls. My die study of the coinage shows that the mint had a stable output of cistophori through both periods of production. This may seem unremarkable, until we place this in a greater context, both chronologically and geographically. Under the Attalids, Laodiceia produced only 4 identified obverse dies, less than 2% of total cistophoric production. Yet it produced 46 identified obverse dies in the late cistophoric period. Furthermore, in the period of late cistophoric production, Laodiceia produced less than 10% of the total cistophori minted in the province, but it produced over 20% of the proconsular cistophori.

Proconsular Cistophorus of Laodiceia-ad-Lycum, ca. 58–49 BCE (ANS 1944.100.37600).

These substantial changes between periods of production need be explained. Until we have more complete studies of all the mints of the late cistophoric period, we can do little more than speculate. But it seems that around 90 BCE, something occurred at the local level that resulted in Laodiceia springing from a mint hardly worth mentioning, to one producing at the level of its more established neighbor, Apameia. In the decades that followed, as we become more certain of Roman oversight, it is clear that a Roman provincial policy developed that maintained the cistophoric production of Laodiceia, while dramatically cutting the production of other mints. My study of Laodiceia can do little more than draw attention to the existence of these situations, and cannot pinpoint the explanation behind them, but it does provide an important piece of the puzzle that I hope can be completed with the addition of further pieces as more of the late cistophoric mints are subjected to similar scrutiny.

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.

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.

Free Article! “Wishes Granted: The ANS and the NEH”

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The Spring 2017 issue of ANS Magazine will be mailed to Members on June 20th, but the article “Wishes Granted: the ANS and the NEH” can be read right now for free (3 MB download).

The article, authored by Peter van Alfen, Gilles Bransbourg, Ethan Gruber, and Andrew Reinhard, details all of the recent NEH-funded work being done at the ANS with a nod to the Society’s past regarding Open Access initiatives and data-sharing.

The 63rd Eric P. Newman Graduate Summer Seminar in Numismatics


On June 5th, the 63rd Graduate Summer Seminar in Numismatics, which has been generously sponsored by Eric P. Newman, began at the ANS under the direction of Dr. Peter van Alfen. Since 1952, the Society has offered select graduate students and junior faculty the opportunity to work hands-on with its preeminent numismatic collections. The rigorous eight-week course, taught by ANS staff, guest lecturers, and a Visiting Scholar, introduces students to the methods, theories, and history of the discipline. In addition to the lecture program, students select a numismatic research topic and, utilizing ANS resources, complete a paper while in residence. The Seminar is intended to provide students of Classical Studies, History, Art History, Textual Studies, and Archeology who have little or no numismatic background with a working knowledge of a body of evidence that is often overlooked and poorly understood.

This year’s Visiting Scholar is Dr. Thomas Faucher of the Institut de recherche sur les archéomatériaux, Centre Ernest-Babelon, part of the Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS) and the Université d’Orléans (Orléans, France). Dr. Faucher is, among other things, a specialist in ancient coin production and Ptolemaic coinages. In addition we welcome eight students who come to us from McMaster University, the University of Pennsylvania, Yale University, the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World (NYU), the University of Delaware, the University of Houston, and Rutgers University.

Learn more about the Seminar.



ANS to Repatriate 94 War-Looted Coins to the Salzburg Museum


Salzburg Museum. Photo: Karl Gruber, CC-BY SA 4.0.
Salzburg Museum. Photo: Karl Gruber, CC-BY SA 4.0.

The American Numismatic Society (ANS) welcomes the Director and CEO of the Salzburg Museum, Direktor Hon.-Prof. Mag. Dr. Martin Hochleitner, and Dr. Peter Lechenauer, an attorney representing the Salzburg Museum, to New York for the repatriation of a group of 94 coins stolen from the Museum Carolino-Augusteum of Salzburg in 1945. The coins will be turned over to Dr. Hochleitner and Dr. Lechenauer by Mr. Kenneth L. Edlow, Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the ANS, and Dr. Ute Wartenberg Kagan, Executive Director of the ANS, on Friday, May 26, 2017.

ANS benefactor, Chester L. Krause.

This group of coins came to the ANS in 1995 after our late Benefactor, Mr. Chester L. Krause, brought them to the attention of the curators. Mr. Krause had learned that these coins were rumored to have come from a museum in Austria in 1945 and donated to the ANS the funds to purchase them, so as to ensure that they could be returned to any rightful owner rather than being dispersed on the market. The ANS accepted the gift and acquired the coins in order to preserve the group intact, while curators Alan Stahl and William Metcalf immediately began inquiries with colleagues in Austria to determine whether a legitimate owner could be identified so that the coins could be repatriated.

Gold florin, Salzburg (Austria), 1365–1396. (ANS 1996.3.1).
Gold florin, Salzburg (Austria), 1365–1396. (ANS 1996.3.1).

The details of the story, as known at the time, were also published in the 1996 ANS Annual Report. In the last year of World War II, the coins from the Salzburger Museum Carolino-Augusteum were moved to underground storage for protection. After the end of the war, the American occupation authorities took custody of those coins; when they were returned to the museum in 1946, over 2,000 coins were missing. Publications from before and after the war made it clear that the coins the ANS had acquired closely matched some of the missing coins from the Salzburger Museum, but no clear proof was available at that time.

Silver denar of CIO, Salzburg (Austria), 991–1023. (ANS 1996.3.18).
Silver denar of CIO, Salzburg (Austria), 991–1023. (ANS 1996.3.18).

Open-access publication of old ANS annual reports has made them much more widely available, and this brought the story to the attention of more numismatists in Austria. As a result, recent work has been able to match a few coins with earlier photographs and many others, which have inventory numbers written in ink on the surface of the coin, with an old card file in the Salzburg Museum bearing similar numbers. This work has demonstrated that the group of coins can in fact be identified as a small but valuable portion of the coins stolen from the Salzburger Museum over 70 years ago.

Silver groschen, Bohemia, 1378–1419. (ANS 1996.3.62).
Silver groschen, Bohemia, 1378–1419. (ANS 1996.3.62).

These coins represent an important body of material for the study of the history of Salzburg and Austria. Highlights include a gold florin of Archbishop Pilgrim II of Salzburg (1365–1396), a silver pfennig of the same archbishop, a silver pfennig of Archbishop Hartwig of Salzburg (991–1023), and a Bohemian groschen of the years around 1400 that was counter-stamped for validation by three different cities, Nördlingen, Ulm, and Salzburg. The ANS is pleased to have assisted with their return home.

Silver pfennig, Salzburg (Austria), 1365–1396. (ANS 1996.3.45).
Silver pfennig, Salzburg (Austria), 1365–1396. (ANS 1996.3.45).

Executive Director Dr. Ute Wartenberg commented on the return of the coins to Austria: “We are delighted that these interesting coins will be returned to the museum where they belong and where people will view and study them. I am also so grateful to the late Chet Krause for his extraordinary initiative in trying to preserve Austrian heritage. A case like this one illustrates that even today museums in the US should be acting perhaps as safe havens for looted objects and be more proactive in acquiring looted objects with the specific purpose to eventually repatriate them.”

The American Numismatic Society, organized in 1858 and incorporated in 1865 in New York State, operates as a research museum under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code and is recognized as a publicly supported organization under section 170(b)(1)(A)(vi) as confirmed on November 1, 1970.

ANS Receives Grant to Clean U.S. Large Cent Collection

(Please note: the announcement below was an April fool’s prank. Enjoy!)

The ANS is pleased to announce today that it has received a Rockefeller-Noggin grant that will be used to conserve its important collection of early U.S. large cents.

After decades of neglect, dust dirt and grime have taken their toll on this part of our collection. This results in a a layer of corrosion, tarnish and oils that cause the once brilliant gleaming coin to have a dull dark brown appearance making photography of these items very difficult. The ANS photographer, Alan Roche, took the initiative to apply for a grant from the prestigious Rockefeller-Noggin Institute to restore the coins to their original lustre. The successful application means the Society will receive $20,000 in funding to hire personnel and purchase conservation materials, including 50 gallons of Brasso™, to conserve approximately 10,000 coins. The work is to commence immediately.