Category Archives: East Asian

Standards for Empire: The Power of Coinage in the Met’s Ancient China Exhibition


Age of Empires: Chinese Art of the Qin and Han Dynasties (221 B.C.–A.D. 220) on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (April 3–July 16, 2017) shows how art was pivotal in the formation of a Chinese identity. Too small to fully appreciate without holding, coins often go unnoticed in major exhibitions. They remain reminders of monetized economies, the flow of goods, and regnal shifts. In addition to commissioning China’s Great Wall, the Qin ruler, Ying Zheng (r. 247–220 BC), unified the empire’s monetary system increasing the circulation of copper coinage. He also introduced standards of universal weights and measures. Such policies made money a cosmopolitan language of exchange across vast territories.

Water clock excavated from burial pit no.4 of Tomb no. 8 at the burial site of the Zhang Family, Fengxiyuan, Xi’an, Shaanxi, 2009. Image: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

An impulse to standardize Chinese knowledge is a phenomenon apparent through several non-monetary objects showcased in the exhibition. A bronze waterclock from the Western Han dynasty (206 B.C.–A.D. 9) embodies this characteristic. A piece of wood or bamboo was likely fed through a small hole in the lid of this container. As water drained out of a tube at its bottom at a steady rate, the wood would sink and mark time. It was the norm for these clocks to be kept in all Qin and Han administrative offices. This simple technological solution brings to mind a number of waterclocks throughout art history. On the opposite side in the spectrum of simplicity, the design for a waterclock of al-Jazari in twelfth-century northeastern Syria/Iraq, a manuscript of which is in the Met’s Islamic holdings, would be a much more fanciful and multipurpose innovation.

“Design for the Water Clock of the Peacocks”, from the Kitab fi ma’rifat al-hiyal al-handasiyya (Book of the Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices) by Badi’ al-Zaman b. al Razzaz al-Jazari. MMA 55.121.15. Image: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The exhibition also features gold ingots (metal exchanged for its value) in the shape of horse-hooves of the Western Han dynasty (206 BC–AD 9). These objects show how certain standards change with the reigns of new emperors. Because of an auspicious vision, the Han Emperor Wu (r. 141–87 BC) transformed the shape of gold ingots from the hooves of qilins (mythical creatures) to horses. A bronze mold for half-ounce coins (banliang) from the Qin or early Han dynasty, ten bronze half-ounce Qin banliangs, and five Han dynasty imitations of Ancient Persian (Parthian) coins are other examples.

Three hoof-shaped ingots excavated from the tomb of Marquis Haihun in Nanchang, Jiangxi, 2015. Image: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Instead of directly showing coins, some of the most iconographically complex objects in the exhibition imply the importance of a monetary economy. The lids of two bronze cowry containers are comprised of sculpted figures, one even displaying a sacrifice scene.

Cowry container with scene of sacrifice excavated from Tomb no. 69 at Lijiashan, Jiangchuan, Yunnan, 1992, lent by Lijiashan Museum of Bronzes. Image: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

According to the exhibition curators, cowry containers such as these could have been adapted from bronze drums. In ancient times, cowry shells were utilized as currency, particularly in coastal regions, before copper became more accessible. The American Numismatic Society’s collection features cowry that are attributed to China, Africa, and India, and perhaps these would be the kind of objects that would fill these sumptuous containers.

Bone cowrie, China, 500–221 BC. ANS 1937.179.4191.
Bone cowry, China, 500–221 BC. ANS 1937.179.4191.

One of the most elegant objects in the show is known as a “money tree” (qian shu) or “money-shaking tree” (yao qian shu). The exhibition label reports that approximately 200 of these are known and they were functioned as funerary goods. The example in the exhibition made of bronze is attributed to the Eastern Han Dynasty (AD 25–200). From afar, the six layers of branches of the tree look highly ornamented, yet coming close one notices that the leaves of the tree are formed of bronze square-hole coins. How were these money trees produced? Did the same artisans responsible for minting money cast them?

“Money tree” excavated from Shixiangcun, Wanfuxiang, Guanghan city, Sichuan, 1983, lent by Guanghan Municipal Institute of Cultural Relics. Image: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

While numismatic evidence may pose many difficulties in museum exhibitions—their scale, legibility, and overall impact on a viewer—being a few, Age of Empires demonstrates how coins were inherent to the process of imperial standardization. Highly ornamented and much larger scale objects potentially imply the power of numismatics.

Happy Birthday John Reilly!

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Homemade birthday card from John Reilly’s daughter

A while back I stumbled onto this great homemade card in the John Reilly, Jr. papers and have been waiting for February 3 to wish Mr. Reilly a happy 141st birthday. It was made by his daughter Frances (born in 1912), sometime in the late 1910s. Two decades later, in 1937, she would formally donate his Far Eastern collections to the ANS. During World War II, Frances was living in Hong Kong with her husband when the city fell to the Japanese. She was imprisoned there for nearly a year, finally coming home in late 1942. She died in 2001.

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The back of the card

Remembered warmly as “Long John” by his Princeton classmates, the six-foot-four John Reilly once lent “his lanky southern paw to the varsity pitching staff” of the college. The result was one long inning, with 17 bases on balls and 23 hits—and a game that had to be called when they ran out of daylight (according to his class’s 50th anniversary reunion book, anyway). He was only associated with the ANS for twenty years or so (1910-1931), serving as treasurer and governor, but his contributions were enormous, and his presence can certainly be felt today, not only in the ANS’s prized collection of Far Eastern coins, but also in his personal papers and library of books that reside in the ANS Rare Book Room.

John Reilly, Jr.

In the ANS Library, we have begun to catalog his mostly nineteenth-century books, producing records with titles and authors in both Roman and Chinese characters, and noting various forms, including English and pinyin. This work is being done by ANS member and volunteer Christopher (Zhengcheng) Li, a recent graduate of Sotheby’s Institute of Art. Christopher is making many interesting discoveries along the way, including some that update the findings of Arthur Braddan Coole, published in The Encyclopedia of Chinese Coins, 1967 (an updated version of his Bibliography on Far Eastern Numismatics, 1940), the standard bibliographical reference for Far Eastern numismatics.

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Books in the Reilly library

It seems that Reilly’s library and papers never stop yielding treasures. I’ve written about his photographs of the World’s Columbian Exhibition of 1893, taken when he was seventeen years old. More on Reilly and his Far Eastern coin collection can be found here.

Samarqand’s Cast Coinage of the Early 7th–Mid-8th Centuries AD: Assessment based on Chinese sources and numismatic evidence

1D3_8288_ppXiaoyan Qi participated in 2016’s Eric P. Newman Graduate Seminar. Qi is a PhD candidate at Nankai University in Tianjin, China, currently a visiting student at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World (ISAW). Her current research focuses on Sogdiana during the Hellenistic period based on ancient texts, numismatics, and archaeological evidence. 

Samarqand, named Kang (康) in Chinese sources, formed a tributary relationship with the Tang Dynasty (AD 618–907). According to Tang Hui Yao, Kangju Dudufu (康 居 都 督 府) was set up in Samarqand in AD 658. The local rulers of Samarqand were considered as the officials of the Tang Dynasty, but the land enjoyed a large degree of independence. In AD 621, the Tang Dynasty began to mint a new coinage, Kai Yuan Tong Bao (开元通宝), featuring a square hole in the center (Figure 1). Samarqand issued its own coinage imitating the Tang prototype. From the early 7th to the mid-8th century, Samarqand’s coinage was cast with the square hole in the center, and the Chinese characters were gradually replaced by the king’s name and title on the obverse (Figure 2).

Fig. 1: China, Kai Yuan Tong Bao (ANS 1995.44.63)
Fig. 1: China, Kai Yuan Tong Bao (ANS 1995.44.63)
Fig. 2: Samarqand, Shishpir ( 152381)
Fig. 2: Samarqand, Shishpir ( 152381)

Ten Samarqand kings have been identified based on the names on the obverse of the coins. Chinese sources render important clues about these kings, so paralleling the names on the coins and records of these kings in Chinese sources helps to construct the chronology of the Ikhshid Dynasty. The primary Chinese dynastic histories are Wei Shu (魏书), Jiu Tang Shu (旧唐书), and Xin Tang Shu (新唐书). The names of two kings known from the coins cannot be identified clearly with the names in Chinese sources. Based on my current research, Shishpir can be identified as Sha Se Bi (沙瑟毕) and Mastich-Unash can be identified as Ni Nie Shi Shi (泥涅师师). The names of two kings, Urk Wartramuka and Afrig (Devashtich), appear on the coins, but are not recorded in Chinese sources. It is difficult for us to find a satisfactory explanation; however, it is understandable to place these facts in the political upheavals when Chinese historians lost track of the periphery of their empire.

The tamghas on the reverse also reflect a complicated picture. The coins can be classified into three groups based on the tamghas. The first group includes the coins of Shishpir, Wuzurg, Wartramuka, Urk Wartramuka, and Mastich-Unash. The second group includes the coins of Tukaspadak, Tarkhun, and Afrig (Devashtich) (Figure 3). The third group includes the coins of Ghurak and Turgar (Figure 4). Compared with the family relation between the kings in Xi Yu Zhuan, Xin Tang Shu, not all the kings using the same tamghas are from the same family. Some earlier study suggested that the tamghas are used as a family sign or a dynastic symbol. But for the tamghas on Samarqand cast coinage, they should have more profound political-historical meanings.

Fig. 3: Tukaspadak ( 50498)
Fig. 3: Tukaspadak ( 50498)
Fig. 4: Ghurak ( 5245)
Fig. 4: Ghurak ( 5245)

Finally, Samarqand cast coinage will be studied in a wider context, which are viewed from the perspectives of historical process, continual exchange and interaction between different cultures as well as the circulation of the coinage within the Sogdian commercial network in the Silk Road.

Redressing the Balance, Part II: The ANS as Pottery Barn

In a previous installment we looked at the under-appreciated and underutilized leaden riches of the ANS cabinet. In truth, however, the lead coins are probably better known to many collectors and scholars than the Society’s holdings of terracotta and porcelain coins. Yes, that’s right. The same materials and processes used to make your floor tiles, your teacup, and your toilet have at various times been used to make money or monetiform objects.

The oldest example—and my personal favorite—in the collection is a remarkable terracotta “elephant stater” of Seleucus I Nicator (312–281 BC) (Fig. 1).

Silver “elephant stater” (tetradrachm) of Seleucus. NS 1944.100.44932
Figure 1. Silver “elephant stater” (tetradrachm) of Seleucus I from the Seleucia on the Tigris mint (second workshop). ANS 1944.100.44932.

Seleucus began his career as one of the lesser commanders serving Alexander the Great during his conquest of the Persian Empire, but after Alexander’s death, he became satrap (governor) of Babylonia and then king in his own right over a vast territory stretching from western Asia Minor to the borders of India. At his mints in Babylonia (and Susiana and Bactria) Seleucus I struck silver “elephant staters” featuring the head of Zeus on the obverse and Athena in a chariot drawn by elephants on the reverse (Fig. 2).

Figure 2. Terracotta “coin model” of a silver “elephant stater” of Seleucus I. ANS 1944.100.44991.
Figure 2. Terracotta “coin model” of a silver “elephant stater” of Seleucus I. ANS 1944.100.44991.

It is unclear what we should make of the Society’s terracotta specimen, which probably came from the Seleucia on the Tigris excavations carried out by the University of Michigan between 1927 and 1937. Terracotta coins of other Seleucid rulers have been published from these excavations, but the ANS piece appears to be the only “elephant stater.” The published examples are usually described as clay models used as references by die engravers in the Seleucid mint. However, all of the terracotta coins (including ours) look very much like they have been cast from moulds made from real coins that have seen some degree of circulation and exhibit some of their own surface wear, none of which we would expect from models for artists. One wonders whether the Seleucid terracotta coins served as tokens at Seleucia (they do not seem to be found anywhere else) in times of emergency, whether they might have served as some sort of accounting tool, or whether they had some other unguessed purpose.

More modern and somewhat less mysterious, but certainly equally interesting are the porcelain and stoneware Notgeld (emergency money) coins produced in the German city of Meissen between 1921 and 1923. After the devastation of the First World War finally came to an end and a punishing Treaty of Versailles was imposed on Germany, the country sank into a nightmarish economic crisis that included shortages of circulating money. In order to make up the shortfall, the Royal-Polish and Electoral-Saxon Porcelain Factory (founded 1710) of Meissen produced porcelain and stoneware coins for German states, municipalities, and private businesses ranging in denomination from the pfennig to multiples of the mark and thaler (Fig. 3).

Figure 3. Böttger ware 5-Mark Notgeld token of Altenburg, Thuringia, produced by the Meissen porcelain factory, 1921. ANS 0000.999.56653.
Figure 3. Böttger ware 5-Mark Notgeld token of Altenburg, Thuringia, produced by the Meissen porcelain factory, 1921. ANS 0000.999.56653.

In many German states Notgeld more commonly came in the form of paper notes rather than coins (Fig. 4).

Figure 4. Paper 2-Mark Notgeld of Hannover-Münden, undated (c. 1921-1923). ANS 1966.88.6.
Figure 4. Paper 2-Mark Notgeld of Hannover-Münden, undated (c. 1921-1923). ANS 1966.88.6.

It is a little ironic that the factory of Meissen was first to make money out of ceramics since the methods for producing white porcelain and a distinctive dark red stoneware (Böttger ware) were first discovered in Europe by the Berlin alchemist Johann Friedrich Böttger (1682–1719) while attempting to create the elusive Goldmachertinktur. This mysterious substance was supposed to give the alchemist the power to cure any disease and, perhaps more importantly, the power to turn lead into gold. Böttger’s efforts attracted the unwanted attentions of the frequently cash-strapped Frederick I of Prussia (1688–1713) and Augustus II of Poland, who was also the Elector of Saxony (1694–1733), and the alchemist frequently found himself held in “protective custody” just in case he was successful.   The secret of porcelain was discovered in 1708, during one such period of “protection” by Augustus II. The King-Elector immediately recognized its implications and established the factory at Meissen. Prior to Böttger, porcelain could be obtained by the European elite only through the long-distance trade with China. As such it was valued like precious metals and was sometimes described as “white gold.” For a time in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries porcelain was as valuable as money, but it only became money in a real sense in the early 1920s.   Unfortunately, while porcelain and stoneware coins helped to fill in the holes in the circulating medium of postwar Germany and also held an attraction for collectors, their utility was hampered by their tendency to break easily. In the end, porcelain coins could not keep up with the hyperinflation that took hold of Germany in 1922–1923 (Fig. 5) and were abandoned as part of the circulating medium before the introduction of the new Rentenmark (a currency backed by land) ended the hyperinflationary period in November of 1923.

Figure 5. Hyperinflationary paper 100,000,000-Mark Notgeld of Cologne, 1923. ANS 1993.35.709.
Figure 5. Hyperinflationary paper 100,000,000-Mark Notgeld of Cologne, 1923. ANS 1993.35.709.

A third notable group of ceramic coins in the ANS collection consists of porcelain gaming tokens that circulated as local money in Siam (modern Thailand) between 1760 and 1875. The colorfully-glazed white porcelain tokens (Fig. 6) were produced in China for use by the numerous private gambling houses in Siam.

Figure 6. Porcelain gaming token from Siam (Thailand). ANS 1937.179.28443.
Figure 6. Porcelain gaming token from Siam (Thailand). ANS 1937.179.28443.

It has been estimated that there were some 500 to 1,000 different firms, or hongs, that operated these houses and issued tokens. They were produced in a variety of denominations ranging from the att to the salung and involved many thousands of different designs as a means of preventing counterfeiting. Issues were also recalled frequently and replaced in order to thwart would-be counterfeiters. The system was evidently successful and the tokens seem to have inspired trust as money. However, the modernizing policies of the Siamese king Rama V (1868–1910), which included the introduction of a European-style royal coinage (Fig. 7), ultimately resulted in the prohibition of the circulation of the tokens. One is reminded of the much more recent use of casino chips as circulating money in Las Vegas before this was curtailed by changes to Nevada law in the 1980s.

Figure 7. Bronze baht of Rama V (1868-1910) ANS 1940.160.245.
Figure 7. Bronze baht of Rama V (1868-1910) ANS 1940.160.245.

In addition to the gold silver and copper coins usually associated with the ANS collection we should always remember the other, not so well known materials that make up the numismatic riches of the Society’s cabinet. Their stories are equally fascinating and worthy of being told. With each raising of the teacup and every flush it is good for numismatists to give a thought to the days of “white gold” and the remarkable places and people as well as the interesting (occasionally frightening) times that have given us porcelain coins.

Lesser known collector and dealer H. A. Ramsden left his mark at the ANS

John Reilly’s membership certificate for the Yokohama Numismatic Society, signed by Ramsden

There are certain numismatic personalities I expect to encounter over and over again as I work with the historical collections at the ANS—Howland Wood, Sydney Noe, Thomas Elder, Henry Chapman. But there is a more obscure figure I sometimes find myself running into. This would be H. A. (Henry Alexander) Ramsden, a collector and dealer who exhibited an boundless enthusiasm for his area of expertise, Far Eastern numismatics, passionately working at it right up until his untimely death at the age of 43 in 1915.

Postcard of the Kobayagawa Company of Yokohama (ANS Archives)

Throughout the Society’s library and archives are pockets of materials associated with Ramsden. There are  his numerous letters in the Howland Wood, John Reilly, and Bauman Belden papers, for example. There are his publications—books, but also periodicals like The Numismatic and Philatelic Journal of Japan, which he founded and edited. Rummaging around in the library’s pamphlet files recently, I happened upon what turned out to be an uncataloged item. It was ANS treasurer John Reilly’s membership certificate for the Yokohama Numismatic Society, which included the stamped signature of Ramsden.

Holiday greeting card from the Kobayagawa Company (ANS Archives)

Many ANS members will recall the Reilly Room at the ANS building on Audubon Terrace where the Far Eastern numismatic collections were kept and displayed. Reilly obtained much of what would become the ANS’s premiere collection in that area from Ramsden. Though his influence still strongly reverberates, Ramsden remains a somewhat mysterious figure. There are no known photographs of him. Howland Wood supplied the ANA with what little he had on him for Ramsden’s obituary in the Numismatist, information Wood had gleaned from a biographical letter Ramsden had sent him in 1914. Not too much has been added to what we know about him since. His father was a British diplomat. The younger Ramsden followed in his father’s footsteps and came to be stationed in Japan as a representative of Cuba. He married a Japanese woman and went into business with her brother, stamp collector and

A spade coin from the ANS collection. Like many of those acquired from Ramsden, it is held in a board that has been specially cut to conform to the coin’s unique contours. 1937.179.17030.

dealer Jun Kobayahawa, in Yokohama. He built up an enormous numismatic collection, over 15,000 specimens, including Chinese, Japanese, and Korean coins, as well as an impressive library. His unexpected death threw the future of these collections into question, and after some back and forth with the executor of his will, they were purchased by Reilly, who retained ownership, though they were housed at the ANS. Reilly’s daughter Frances formally donated the materials in 1938.

Part of a page from a catalog of coin rubbings distributed by Ramsden for the Yokohama Coin Club

Ramsden may not be as familiar a name as some, but his legacy lives on in the ANS’s outstanding Far Eastern numismatic collections. In 2009, a student in the Society’s Eric P. Newman Graduate Seminar in Numismatics, Lyce Jankowski, produced an extremely useful research paper on the Society’s Chinese collection, documenting what she had uncovered on the subject. One interesting fact was that, had Ramsden lived longer, he might have left an even bigger impression on the ANS. Just a few months before Ramsden’s death, Wood had suggested that he might come to New York to be the curator of what Wood was already calling “the best collection of Far Eastern coins known.”