Category Archives: Modern

The Secret Chord: Harps and Lyres on Ancient and Modern Coins

Last month, on November 7, 2016, the internationally acclaimed Canadian artist Leonard Cohen died of cancer. He was regarded as a man of many talents, who painted, wrote novels, poetry, and the songs for which he was best known. He was a man of art, culture, and ideas, who appreciated the value of both Manhattan and Berlin.

Within the large oeuvre left behind by Cohen, the song Hallelujah stands out for its great popularity and the life of its own that it has taken on in the hands of the many other musicians (now more than 300 in multiple languages according to Wikipedia) who have played and modified its lyrics since it was first released in 1984. However, all versions begin with Cohen’s original lament “Now I’ve heard there was a secret chord / That David played, and it pleased the Lord / But you don’t really care for music, do you?” and this has prompted the topic for this edition of the ANS blog. Regardless of whether a numismatist does care for music (Cohen’s or anyone else’s) or not, David’s secret chord and those of other lyric poets have made an impact on coins from antiquity up to modern times.

Fig. 1: ANS 1927.38.76

David is depicted playing his chord on the enigmatic Irish St. Patrick coinage of the seventeenth century, some of which was carried off to New Jersey to serve as halfpence in the cash-starved colony. Its production in two denominations (or one that was later reduced in weight?), date of issue, meaning of its iconography, and the circumstances of its arrival in New Jersey have captured the imagination of Colonial American numismatists for decades and even became the topic for an ANS Coinage of the Americas Conference in 2006. The famous king also plays on contemporary coins of Nuremberg and the Papal States, as well as on psalmenpfennige (medallic awards for the completion of Protestant religious education, which included the memorization of Psalms—the Biblical songs attributed to David).

Fig. 2: ANS 1954.203.63

Harps appear without players on English silver coins struck for use in Ireland in the sixteenth century, but it is not clear whether any reference to King David was intended in this heraldic emblem or whether the instrument alluded only to contemporary Irish culture, which held its native harpers in high esteem. David’s harp (indicated by the winged female column symbolizing the unearthly beauty of its music), occurs on English halfpence produced for Ireland English halfpence produced for Ireland in the eighteenth century—perhaps not coincidentally after more than 100 years of repressive policies had all but crushed the native tradition of harping in Ireland. A pointedly Celtic harp (Irish cláirseach) has been used on all Irish coins, including the current euro, since the creation of the Irish Free State (Republic of Ireland after 1948) in 1922.

Fig. 3: ANS 1944.100.63061

Although it is regularly described and depicted as a harp in medieval and modern texts and artworks, David’s stringed instrument was actually a form of lyre known in Hebrew as the kinnor. A related instrument, the nebel was regularly played as part of celebratory worship in the Jerusalem Temple. The connection of these instruments to the Temple and to David lies behind their prominent depiction on coins struck by Jewish rebels against Rome during the disastrous Bar Kokhba War (AD 132-136). This bloody conflict erupted when the emperor Hadrian sought to refound Jerusalem (already destroyed by Titus in AD 70) as a pagan city. The kinnor and nebel of the Bar Kokhba coins had a dual purpose. They evoked the longing memory of days when the Temple still stood and great Jewish kings ruled the land while casting Simon bar Kokhba, the leader of the revolt, as a Messianic figure who might lead his people to victory and restore the Temple.

Fig. 4: ANS 1944.100.41956

The chelys (Latin testudo) and kithara of the Greeks and Romans appear to have been the rough equivalents of the kinnor and nebel, respectively. The former, which included a sound box made from a tortoise shell or wood formed into the shape of a shell, was said to have been discovered by the god Hermes. While traveling along a riverbank, he was attracted by a beautiful sound and when he went to investigate he found that the wind was blowing tendons that had been stretched across a tortoise shell. From this he fashioned the first chelys to be played by gods and men. The kithara, however, was a more elevated instrument of wooden construction associated with Apollo and the Muses as patrons of culture and the arts. Indeed, music lessons on the kithara or chelys were a staple of state education programs for citizens of the ancient Greek cities. The important role of music in Greek education is underlined by coins of the Bithynian king Prusias II that depict Chiron, the centaur tutor of Herakles, playing a kithara. The instrument is the only element of the type that allows the viewer to identify the subject as the educator Chiron and not some other centaur.

Fig. 5: ANS 1967.152.280

Apollo is a ubiquitous deity on Greek coins struck in the Classical and Hellenistic periods and even under the Roman Empire, who often appears in his role as Kitharoidos—the kithara player. His kithara is also depicted on coins, often paired with the head of its divine player or by itself, as on early coins of Delos, the island of Apollo’s birth. Less commonly, even great human lyric poets or the Muses who inspired them to greatness appear on Greek and Roman coins. Sappho is shown playing a kithara on coins of Mytilene in the Roman period as a means of advertising the cultural importance of the city while Terpsichore, Kalliope, and Erato, the respective Muses of choral song, epic poetry, and love poetry appear holding a kithara (Kalliope) or chelys (Terpsichore and Kalliope) on coins of the Roman Republican moneyer Q. Pomponius Musa as an extended pun on his cognomen Musa.

Fig. 6: ANS 1944.100.2329

While Leonard Cohen attributes a single secret chord to David in his song, the numerous symbolic uses to which harps, lyres, and their players were put on coins of ancient and more modern times would seem to suggest that through the ages there were in fact many such chords aimed at pleasing the mortal as well as the divine.

ANS Assists with Stepping Wavertree Mast

The Wavertree docked at New York City's South Street Seaport. (Photo Wikimedia Commons)
The Wavertree docked at New York City’s South Street Seaport. (Photo Wikimedia Commons)

As part of the revitalization of New York City’s premiere maritime museum, South Street Seaport, the ship Wavertree is currently undergoing restoration at Caldwell Marine in Staten Island. Once the restoration work is completed within the next month, Wavertree will return to her berth in the East River near the Brooklyn Bridge, where she will be open for display and will sail again on a limited basis within New York Harbor. The restoration work on the ship included the removal of all three of her masts, which provided an opportunity to perform the age-old tradition of placing a coin in the mast step before the mast is lowered and secured.

Three children place the coin in the socket for the Wavertree‘s mizzen mast. (Photo Alan Roche)

From archaeological evidence we know that this tradition dates back to at least the Roman Republican period, and very likely dates back even further. The reason for placing the coin is probably sacrificial, much like the coin dedications found in and around ancient temple sites. In this case the dedication was no doubt meant for Poseidon in the hopes he would look favorably upon the ship as it traversed his realm.

The mizzen mast is put in place atop the ANS-donated coin. (Photo Alan Roche)

As the curators at the South Street Seaport prepared for the stepping of Wavertree‘s masts, they approached the ANS for a coin that they might place under the mizzen, the last of the masts to go in. Since Wavertree was built in England in 1885, we selected a maundy fourpence of that year to donate for this auspicious occasion. Given by the British Monarch on Maundy Thursday as alms, these small silver coins serve more of a symbolic than monetary purpose. Thus a symbolic coin meant to serve a good purpose seemed the right choice for yet another occasion meant to serve a good purpose.

1885 Maundy Fourpence (ANS 2004.9.3729)

On August 16th, ANS curator Peter van Alfen and photographer Alan Roche were among the two dozen guests invited to witness the stepping of Wavertree’s last mast. The ANS’s donated maundy fourpence, now encased in lucite, was diligently placed in the mast step by three children before the 10-ton mast was finally lowered into place, where the coin will rest secure until the ship’s next refit, probably sometime around 2066. You will be able to find more information about this event, and the tradition of placing a coin in the mast step in ANS Magazine 2016, vol. 4.

ANS 2004.9.3729 encased in Lucite prior to being placed under the new mizzen mast. (Photo Alan Roche)

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.

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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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.



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