Category Archives: Events

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

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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.

Museum of the American Revolution and the ANS

On April 19, 2017, a new cultural institution, the Museum of the American Revolution, will open in downtown Philadelphia. It will present relics of the Revolutionary War to the public as a way of telling the dramatic story of the nation’s founding. For their inaugural exhibition the Museum of the American Revolution requested the loan of 12 eighteenth-century medals from the ANS. Several Colonial-period Indian peace medals are included in this loan. These medals were issued as tokens of friendship to members of Native American nations to gain their support and allegiance. This group includes two of the earliest Indian peace medals known: a British bronze medal with the image of George I (1714–1727) and a Native American hunting a deer with bow and arrow (fig.1), and a French silver medal with a bust of Louis XV (1715–1774) on the obverse, signed by Jean Duvivier, and a reverse depicting two warriors reaching out and clasping hands, the man on the right representing France, with the other representing the Indian allies of France (fig.2).

Fig. 1: Great Britain. Bronze Indian peace medal. George I (r. 1714–1727). (ANS 1921.132.1, purchase) 40 mm.

Fig. 2: France. Silver Indian peace medal. Louis XV (r. 1715–1774). (ANS 1925.109.1, gift of John W. Garrett) 55 mm.

It is interesting to observe that on another ANS example of this Louis XV medal the name GORGE III [sic] was engraved over LUDOVICUS XV (fig.3).

Fig. 3: France/Great Britain. Silver Indian peace medal. Louis XV (r. 1715–1774)/George III (r. 1760–1820). (ANS 1925.108.1, gift of William B. Osgood Field) 55 mm.

Another remarkable medal in this group was issued at the time of Pontiac’s Revolt in 1763, a conflict named after the Ottawa chief who led the Indians of the Great Lakes region against British rule after end of the Seven Years’ War resulted in the transfer of claimed sovereignty over their lands from the French to the British. The obverse of this medal shows an armored George III with a legend containing his usual titles. The reverse depicts an American Indian and a uniformed British officer seated on bench under tree, smoking a pipe of peace (fig.4).

Fig. 4: Great Britain/United States. Silver Indian peace medal, “Happy While United”, 1766. George III (r. 1760–1820). (ANS 1925.173.1, purchase) 59.6 mm.

These early Indian peace medals carry immense historical importance both as landmarks in American colonial history and as symbols of the importance that the colonial powers placed on building alliances with the Native Americans. This portion of the exhibition explores the consequences of Anglo-American victory in the Seven Years’ War for the diverse peoples of North America, including former French and Spanish colonists living in the newly expanded British dominions and Native American nations of the Great Lakes and trans-Appalachian West.

Fig. 5: Great Britain. Bronze medal commemorating the capture of Portobelo in 1739 by Admiral Edward Vernon (1684–1757). (ANS 0000.999.38125) 36.5 mm.

Fig. 6: Great Britain. Bronze medal commemorating the siege of Cartagena in 1741 by Admiral Edward Vernon (1684–1757), with Admiral Chaloner Ogle (1681–1750) and General Thomas Wentworth (c. 1693–1747). (ANS 1977.135.748, purchase) 38.3 mm.

Also among the ANS items on loan to the Museum of the American Revolution is a group of Admiral Vernon medals (figs. 5–6), exhibited in a gallery that introduces visitors to the Anglo-American sense of shared glory in all things British during the French and Indian Wars. These medals were issued in celebration of Admiral Vernon’s campaigns in the War of Jenkins’ Ear. On November 21, 1739, Admiral Vernon attacked the harbor of Portobelo in what is now Panama with six ships. After brief resistance the Spanish garrison surrendered. The British force destroyed the harbor fortifications before they left and returned to their base in Jamaica. Vernon then assembled a larger expeditionary force for an attack on Cartagena in what is now Colombia (fig.7).

Fig. 7: Great Britain. Bronze medal commemorating the siege of Cartagena, 1741. Ironically, although the siege was a costly failure for the British, this medal imagines the Spanish commander, Don Blas de Lezo (1689–1741), kneeling and handing his sword to Admiral Vernon. (ANS 0000.999.38214) 37.6 mm.

When this fleet set sail in 1741 Admiral Vernon was commander of more than 50 warships, with 12,000 soldiers from England and the American colonies, many of whom died of disease during the futile campaign. Among the American survivors was Captain Lawrence Washington, half-brother of George Washington, who went on to name his home Mount Vernon after Admiral Vernon.

RSVP: Harry W. Fowler Memorial Lecture Monday, May 1, 2017

jpegHarry W. Fowler Memorial Lecture
Monday, May 1, 2017
5:30 pm Reception
6:00 pm Lecture

Prof. Phillip Wagoner

The Deccan as an Integrated Currency Zone:
New Approaches to the Study of Peninsular Indian Coin Hoards (1347–1687)

Phillip B. Wagoner is Professor of Art History and Archaeology at Wesleyan University.

The lecture will be followed by a response from Finbarr Barry Flood, the William R. Kenan, Jr., Professor of the Humanities at the Institute of Fine Arts and Department of Art History, New York University.

RSVP required to: membership@numismatics.org or 212-571-4470, ext. 117.

The Harry W. Fowler Memorial Lecture was established in 1998 with a bequest from Mr. Fowler and with additional gifts from the Fowler family. Harry W. Fowler served as President of the American Numismatic Society from 1984–1990, and for his personal generosity was named a Benefactor of the Society in 1986. In 1995 he bequeathed his collection of Bactrian coins to the ANS, which together with the Society’s already strong holdings, has created one of the most comprehensive collections of Greco-Bactrian and Indo-Greek coins.

American Numismatic Society
75 Varick Street, Floor 11
New York, NY 10013

A New Lecture Series: “Money Talks: Numismatic Conversations”

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The ANS curators and fellows are pleased to announce a new lecture series, “Money Talks: Numismatic Conversations.” In this monthly interactive lecture series, appropriate for all levels of coin collectors and enthusiasts, attendees will view relevant coins, banknotes, or medals while learning about the broader world of numismatics. Light meals will be served, and Q&A sessions will follow. To ensure these events are as accessible as possible to all, most will take place on Saturdays at the ANS headquarters in New York City. On a few occasions, these Numismatic Conversations will take place at other venues.

During Saturday Numismatic Conversations at the ANS, the Society will be open from 12:00 noon to 4:00 pm, so you have the opportunity to view items in our collections or library.

When taking place at the ANS, the fee will be $20 for ANS members, $50 for non-members. Pricing for other venues will be determined.

The series kicked off at the ANS on February 11 with lectures by Peter van Alfen, Gilles Bransbourg, and Ute Wartenberg on “The Origins of Money.” This lecture  considered the beginnings of money and its various guises including cut silver in the ancient Near East, early electrum coinage of Asia Minor, early bronze objects, bars and heavy coins in Italy and the spread of cowries in the Indian Ocean area, Eastern Africa and South Asia, including China.

Next Lecture: March 11

The next lecture in the series will be on Saturday, March 11, at the ANS at 1:00 pm, by Vivek Gupta, “The Beginnings of Islamic Coinage.” This talk will introduce members to the beginnings of Islamic coinage in the seventh century and its vast trajectories within the Arab lands and beyond. It will begin with an in-depth survey of its Byzantine and Sasanian precedents and will provide a basic outline of “Arab-Sasanian” and “Arab-Byzantine” types. Members will also learn about the styles of Arabic calligraphy that were used on early Islamic coins. Members will be able to view and handle fine examples of the ANS’s Islamic holdings with Assistant Curator, Vivek Gupta.

Lunch will be served at 1:00 pm, followed by the lecture at 2:00 pm, and Q&A at 3:00 pm. The ANS will remain open from 12 noon until 4:00 pm. RSVPCatherine DiTuri, (212) 571-4470 #117

Highlights of upcoming lectures (full brochure to follow):

Saturday, May 6

Gilles Bransbourg, “Signs of Inflation.”

Dr. Bransbourg will look at how inflation translates into coinage debasement and banknotes bearing large denominations, from ancient Rome to modern Zimbabwe.

Saturday, May 6, 2017, at 1:00 pm. American Numismatic Society. Lunch served at 1:00 pm, followed by the lecture at 2:00 pm, Q&A at 3:00 pm. The ANS will remain open from 12 noon until 4:00 pm.

David Hendin, “Ancient Jewish Coinage.”

Mr. Hendin will discuss the origins and production of ancient Jewish Coinage from the Persian era until the time of the revolts against Rome.

Date: TBA. Venue: American Numismatic Society.

Alan Roche, “The Art of Photographing Coins.”

Mr. Roche will consider the various aspects involved in the production of high resolution images of coins and banknotes. A hands-on photographic demonstration will be included.

Date: TBA. American Numismatic Society.

Mark Tomasko, “Representations on US Banknotes.”

Date: TBA. American Numismatic Society.

Jonathan Kagan, “Numismatic Book Collecting.”

Mr. Kagan will talk on collecting early books, particularly those with a focus on numismatics.

Date: TBA. Venue: American Numismatic Society.

Speakers: TBA “Wine and Money.”

In this lecture we will consider the strong relationships between coinage, banknotes, and wine throughout history and cultures.

Date and Venue: TBA.

Please mark your calendars and plan on joining us for these informal programs in a relaxed and social environment.

Reserve your spot!

For further information, please contact:

Catherine DiTuri, (212) 571-4470 #117

Gilles Bransbourg, (212) 571-4470 #156