All posts by David Yoon

The Lifetime in Circulation of Visigothic Coins

Individual coins are not very informative, but when significant numbers of coins and their find contexts can be compared, they can tell us a lot about the people who used them. Coin hoards are one of the more important sources of information for numismatists, although they can be tricky to interpret. One topic that hoards can shed some light on is how long coins remained in circulation, a question that is critical for understanding how people used coins and how many coins were in circulation for them to use.

The economy of the Visigothic kingdom in early medieval Spain, Portugal, and France (late fifth to early eighth centuries) is poorly documented in textual sources, so archaeological evidence (including coin finds) is essential. There was a substantial gold coinage, clearly under royal regulation from the late sixth to early eighth centuries, but how these coins were used within the economy remains a matter of debate. Looking at the relative ages of the coins found together in hoards is one clue.

This coin of Sisenand (631–636) was one of the latest coins included in the La Capilla hoard, which was buried in the mid-630s. It shows hardly any wear from circulation. ANS 2016.29.86.
This coin of Sisenand (631–636) was one of the latest coins included in the La Capilla hoard, which was buried in the mid-630s. It shows hardly any wear from circulation. ANS 2016.29.86.

Coin hoards can be formed in many ways. They may contain a group of coins representing what was in circulation at the time. However, they may reflect some unrepresentative selection process, such as a packet of newly minted coins just paid out by the government, or a group of better-quality coins picked from circulation to be saved. Thus, it is important to look at the structure of hoards before leaping to conclusions.

As it happens, most Visigothic coin hoards show a profile suggesting that they were drawn from general circulation. Normally the coins span a range of twenty or thirty years, but the majority of them come from the two reigns closest to the closing of the hoard, with the numbers from earlier reigns diminishing rapidly. Sometimes a hoard contains an outlier or two, older coins that somehow re-entered circulation, much like the occasional wheat-ear cent or buffalo nickel that turns up in circulation in the United States today. But overall, the statistical pattern is quite consistent.

From this evidence, we can conclude that Visigothic coins circulated for a limited span of time, perhaps around ten years on average, with most coins having left circulation before they were twenty years old. However, coins seem mostly to have left circulation gradually, perhaps to be melted down for other uses or for striking new coins; there is only evidence for one wholesale withdrawal and replacement of coins. Near the beginning of the Visigothic regal coinage, in the early 580s, it appears that all earlier coins were removed from circulation as part of a reform of coinage standards.

There was one other significant coinage reform during the period in question, around the early 650s. No withdrawal of coinage at that time is visible in the evidence, but unfortunately there is no hoard from the 660s, when it would have been most visible. The evidence does make clear, however, that the continual reductions in weight and fineness that were occurring at most other times were not associated with large-scale withdrawal and replacement of coins.

A tendency for older coins with higher gold content to be removed from circulation, as predicted by Gresham’s Law, is likely to be an important contributing reason for the relatively short lifespan of Visigothic coins, but it is also clear that coins of significantly different fineness could and did circulate together.

This coin of Reccared I (586–601) may be the oldest known coin from the La Capilla hoard. It contained about 20% more gold than the latest coins in the hoard, those of Sisenand (631–636). However, it has only limited wear from circulation, suggesting that it was not in active use most of the time during the four decades or so between minting and burial. ANS 2015.48.46.
This coin of Reccared I (586–601) may be the oldest known coin from the La Capilla hoard. It contained about 20% more gold than the latest coins in the hoard, those of Sisenand (631–636). However, it has only limited wear from circulation, suggesting that it was not in active use most of the time during the four decades or so between minting and burial. ANS 2015.48.46.

In summary, a brief look at one aspect of Visigothic coin hoards has told us some very useful things about the monetary system. The hoards show that coins could circulate for decades, even as standards of weight and fineness changed, unless there was a complete replacement of the coinage. However, they also show that coins had a relatively short lifetime in circulation, compared to some coinages in other times and places. Most likely older coins were frequently picked out of circulation and melted down due to their higher gold content, keeping the circulating population relatively young.

List of hoards with 20 or more recorded Visigothic regal coins, with median (50th percentile) and 95th percentile dates:

  • Mérida (20 coins, ca. 582?): all 20 coins from Leovigild, Cross-on-Steps series (ca. 581–584?).
  • La Capilla (ca. 1000 coins of which 765 recorded, ca. 631–636): median Suinthila (621–631), 95th percentile Sisebut (610–ca. 620).
  • Vega Baja de Toledo (31 coins, ca. 636–639): median Sisenand (631–636), 95th percentile Suinthila (621–631).
  • Córdoba (46 coins, ca. 642): median Chintila (636–639), 95th percentile Suinthila (621–631).
  • La Grassa (ca. 800 coins of which 175 recorded, ca. 653): median Tulga (639–642), 95th percentile Sisebut (610–ca. 620).
  • Zaragoza (35 coins, ca. 695–702): median Egica sole reign (687–ca. 695), 95th percentile Reccesuinth (653–672).
  • Abusejo (111 coins, ca. 702–710): median Egica and Wittiza (ca. 695–702), 95th percentile Wamba (672–680).

Also, note the very large Fuentes de Andalucia hoard (ca. 4000 coins, ca. 625), which was not recorded, but a large majority of the coins were apparently from Suinthila (621–631) and Sisebut (610–ca. 620). For more details on these hoards, see R. Pliego, La moneda visigoda (Seville: University of Seville, 2009), ch. 9.

Curatorial Intern Kara Woodley

One of the ways that the ANS teaches students about numismatics is through student internships, where a student gets to learn about our work by participating in it. This semester, we have been lucky to have Kara Woodley from Manhattanville College in Purchase, New York, working with our curatorial department.

Kara Woodley cataloguing a token.
Kara Woodley cataloguing a token.

Kara is a senior completing a double major in art history and history. For her two senior theses she is writing about Ireland during the struggle for independence in the early twentieth century. As part of her art history degree, she was required to complete an internship to gain practical experience. Prof. Megan Cifarelli suggested the ANS as a possibility that might be a good choice for a student with more interest in history than in the contemporary art scene.

Kara has worked on a few different tasks at the ANS, but the majority of her time has been devoted to entering our nineteenth-century Irish tokens into our curatorial database. Although these tokens have been acquired since the founding of the Society (some of them were donated in our first year, 1858!), hardly any of them had been entered into the computer yet.

ANS 1858.4.14

1858.4.14.rev.300

Armed with the standard references on the topic, Kara has been going through the tokens one by one, creating full database records for them. One of the tokens that she found interesting in relation to her academic research is a token or medalet commemorating Daniel O’Connell, an early nineteenth-century campaigner for Catholic Emancipation and repeal of the 1801 Act of Union. This piece is pierced for suspension, and the box has a note on the back saying that it was worn at an election meeting in 1865.

ANS 1932.999.1162.
ANS 1932.999.1162.

1932.999.1162.rev.300

Another piece she found interesting is a token issued by the banker William Hodgins in Cloughjordan, Co. Tipperary. This token is typically catalogued among Australian tokens, despite its reference to Ireland. Although originally produced for use in Ireland, large quantities of this token were apparently shipped to Australia, where they helped make up for a scarcity of official coinage.

ANS 0000.999.57452
ANS 0000.999.57452

0000.999.57452.rev.300

During her internship Kara has been learning how museums work behind the scenes; in particular, about the processes involved in how a small staff manages a very large collection. She hopes this will be useful in her future career as an art historian, especially if she ends up working in a museum setting.

Next year Kara will be going to graduate school at Trinity College, Dublin, where she plans to specialize in Irish art of late antiquity and the early Middle Ages.

Italian Emergency Money of the 1970s

This guest post by our curatorial intern Taylor Hartley describes one of the projects she has been helping us with over the past several months.

Since last November I have been working on a project here at the ANS to catalogue a group of Italian miniassegni from the late 1970s that was donated by our late benefactor Sidney W. Harl in 2001. Miniassegni or “mini-checks” are coupons or promissory notes made to replace small-denomination coins during a shortage of 50 and 100 lira coins, which were the approximate equivalent of American nickels and dimes.

The shortage of 50 and 100 lira coins lasted from 1975 to 1979. Its causes are famously mythologized. Some said the coins were used as buttons in Japan, others that the shortage was caused by trade union strikes. In his book Europe, Europe, Hans Magnus Enzensberger suggests that it was actually caused because the Italian government abandoned their plans for a new mint and the old one simply could not produce enough coins to meet demand.

When the shortage of small-denomination coins began in 1975, vendors started by giving small items instead of change. Candy, grapes, stamps, phone tokens, and even chicken livers were given to customers when there was no way to make change. One café owner in Rome wrote handwritten notes for his customers as credit for their next order.

After the shortage stretched on for a while, stores began to issue little coupons or checks of their own that ranged from 50 to 350 lire. Then banks started issuing miniassegni that could be collected and then exchanged for larger bills.

2001.34.83.obv

The ANS collection mostly consists of the notes issued by banks, but they also have a number of “buoni d’acquisto,” the notes issued by shops. My favorite of these is one issued in 1976 by a stamp and coin shop in Moncalieri.

2001.34.152.obv

The miniassegni were almost instantly adored by collectors. During the shortage many catalogues were published to help collectors and to assign value to the rare ones.

miniassegni-catalogues

At one point, coin dealers in Italy were selling more miniassegni than Roman coins. They even gained some popularity in the United States. Boys’ Life Magazine published a letter about them in their coin and stamp collecting section in March 1978. Collecting miniassegni was something of a craze, like tulips or Beanie Babies were in their time.

I can see why they were so popular. Their endless variety and bright colors make them intriguing and highly collectible. Some just look like small bank checks, but others, like these designed by the paper shop of Guerzoni Livio were colorful and beautiful.

guerzoni-collage

Still more have a homemade charm to them, like this small one from La Spezia.

2001.34.14.obv

Some had local monuments on them, like the Navina Arch in Moncalieri. The miniassegni from the Bank of Sicily even hearken back to Sicily’s rich numismatic history with a picture of the famous coin of Arethusa surrounded by dolphins.

2001.34.278.obv

2001.34.278.rev

They are as friendly and fun as Monopoly money, but they were accepted as cash.

After their initial popularity during the coin shortage, the demand for miniassegni as collectibles dropped off. Their values dropped quickly after life returned to normal and there was once again enough change to go around. But they deserve some attention. I have had so much fun learning about the miniassegni through the process of cataloguing this collection. They are memories of an interesting period of recent Italian history when no one had change to spare, and everyone collected and spent little colorful slips of paper instead.

—Taylor Hartley

Ask a Curator: Object Numbers

This is part an ongoing series that answers your questions about our collections. If there’s something you would like to know about, please use the ‘Contact’ form or email us directly here.

A reader asked:

“In a blog post a few weeks back, you demonstrated how object numbers were created when coins were accessioned into the collection using a combination of date, lot, and item numbers. So why do so many of the objects in the database have numbers that begin with 0000.999.####?” 

As we catalogue our collection, we try to identify how each object came to the ANS, but we don’t always have enough information. There are two main clues we use; one is the notes written on the back of the box and the other is the set of ledger books in which accessions have been recorded since 1858.

boxes2

These three boxes, from a group of French jetons that have not yet been catalogued, show the range of possibilities. The one on the left identifies the accession as 1940.176 and adds that it was a gift of Alexandre Orlowski in November 1940. The one in the center says only that it was purchased in May 1934, but it is usually possible to identify the specific accession by looking in the accession ledger book for purchases during that month. The box on the right says nothing at all about the origin of the object.

ANS 1933.126.9
ANS 1933.126.9

Earlier this year I had occasion to catalogue the Society’s holdings of Swedish plate money. Because these cumbersome slabs of copper are mostly too large to fit in our boxes, most of them had no indication at all of their origin. Thus, they presented the same problem as the blank box.

By searching our accession database (a digital version of the ledger books, painstakingly typed into a computer by George Cuhaj in 1981), I was able to identify accession records for plate money, and in many cases I was able to match up the examples in our trays with particular accession records. However, not all accession listings in the ledger book describe the objects in enough detail to identify them. For the plate money, I had three such accessions: 1916.192, “Sweden, 4 plate money” (among other things); 1923.150, “8 Sweden plate money” (among many other things); and 1929.103, “2256 Swedish coins”.

Thus, I was left with a residue of 22 pieces of plate money that had no attached notes and could have come from any of these three accessions. In this situation, our practice is to assign an accession number beginning “0000.999” to indicate that we do not know when or from whom it came into our collection.

ANS 0000.999.56881
ANS 0000.999.56881

—David Yoon