Category Archives: Numismatic History

The Ottoman Kuruş and Control of Coinage

by Ellen Nye and David Yoon

In August 2018, as Turkey faced a currency crisis, its president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan called for people to convert their dollars or euros into Turkish lira. The Turkish lira had dropped by almost 50% against the dollar in the previous twelve months, and many Turkish people were converting their savings to dollars or euros, fearing further losses. Erdoğan implored them not to hoard western currencies, comparing it to a new war of independence.

A curious coin in the ANS collection speaks to an earlier era of currency competition in Turkey and across the Middle East. Long before contemporary concerns about “dollarization,” foreign coins flowed into the Ottoman Empire, a vast empire that ruled the region for more than six hundred years. In the seventeenth century, Ottoman mints lay almost dormant as exchange across the empire relied instead on imported foreign coins, many of which were minted on American silver. Among these coins the Dutch lion dollar (leeuwendaalder) proved particularly popular, often minted particularly for the Ottoman market and imported in great quantities. But the lion dollar’s supremacy in Ottoman trade was about to be challenged.

Figure 1. The Ottoman Empire in 1683 (map by Chamoz).

In 1688, after the strain of war on three fronts against the Holy Roman Empire and its allies, the Ottoman state began a series of ambitious monetary reforms. Payments for more than a year’s service were due to its soldiers in arrears. In Anatolia, a famine had reduced the population to eating roots and walnut husks. The Ottoman state hoped that its monetary reforms would produce much needed revenue. Ottoman mints introduced attractive new copper coins produced for the first time through mechanized minting that yielded high seigniorage. This initiative was then followed in 1697 by an even bolder scheme—a ban issued by Sultan Mustafa II (r. 1695–1703) on the circulation of all foreign coins, the very coins on which most of the Ottoman economy depended. All of the foreign coins in circulation were to be brought to Ottoman mints where they would either be melted down or simply overstruck. Sir Paul Rycaut, a contemporary English merchant, described the event:

What other Sultans have not done, [Sultan Mustafa II] hath had the Ambition to perform; that is, under his own Name all the Pieces of Gold and Silver should pass, within his Empire . . . I cannot say that all the Gold and Silver within the Turkish Dominions was brought into the Mint to be new Coined, but it is certainly reported, that a great part thereof was.

Figure 2. Posthumous portrait of Mustafa II in armor by Abdülcelil Celebi Levni (Musée du Louvre).

These coins formed the first examples of the kuruş, the Ottoman coin that would ground the Ottoman economy for much of the eighteenth century. For the four hundred years before the introduction of the kuruş, the akçe had served as the main monetary unit. But the akçe had been repeatedly debased to the point that it was too small for general use. Along with the kuruş, the Ottoman state issued a full spectrum of silver currency. The kuruş system succeeded in becoming the leading unit of account and means of exchange in the eighteenth-century Ottoman Empire. Some European coins did continue to circulate despite Mustafa II’s ban, but they never again occupied the central role they had once played in the Ottoman economy.

A coin in the ANS collection bears witness to this pivotal moment in Ottoman monetary history. At first glance it is simply a kuruş from the reign of Sultan Mustafa II bearing the tuğra, the stylized name of the sultan used to convey his majesty. On closer inspection, however, above the tuğra and along the rim, Latin letters are visible. These letters identify it as a Dutch lion dollar, and more specifically the CA on the obverse identifies it as a lion dollar from the city of Campen. On the reverse side, the numbers “48” indicate that the lion dollar was minted in 1648. This coin then is one of the many lion dollars that would have circulated across the Ottoman Empire. Its minting date of 1648 also gives a sense of the variegated nature of the Ottoman monetary environment, with coins almost fifty years old, and indeed older ones, still in circulation.

Figure 3. Silver kurus of Mustafa II, overstruck on a lion dollar of Campen from 1648 (ANS 1997.65.2502, from the “Jem Sultan” collection, gift of Olivia G. Lincoln).
Figure 4. Silver lion dollar of Campen dated 1648, for comparison with the overstruck coin (ANS 1997.65.2503, from the “Jem Sultan” collection, gift of Olivia G. Lincoln).

It’s hard to overstate the boldness of Mustafa II’s plan to revolutionize the Ottoman monetary system. The overstruck kuruş conveys a vision of a vast empire united under a single currency minted with the sultan’s name. The establishment of the new kuruş, not only provided much needed funds and simplified the collection of taxes by centering the economy under an Ottoman coin at a time when European empires in the Atlantic often struggled with heterogenous supplies of foreign coinage. It also should be seen as a statement of assertive Ottoman sovereignty.

Within traditions of Islamic kingship, the minting of coins was a fundamental duty of a ruler. As these coins passed from hand to hand, they represented the power of the sultan. In the sixteenth century, the historian Mustafa Ali in his 1581 treatise Counsel for Sultans (Nushatü’s-selatin) affirmed the importance of coinage as a marker of sovereignty:

Footless they climb step, handless they travel, wandering from hand to hand. Speechless they give testimony of the sovereign’s overwhelming power, untaught they tell of his superior might.

With this context in mind, the overstruck kuruş tells a powerful story—how an empire awash with European coins took the emblems of foreign powers and turned them into a symbol of Ottoman might at a time that has too often been seen as a period of Ottoman decline. In the early modern period, as in Erdoğan’s modern Turkey, the competition between currencies had both pragmatic and political stakes.

Money, Pain, and Human Sentiment

As one of the leading international centers of numismatic research, it’s no surprise that the stories coins tell about the people who came before us are daily topics of conversation at the offices of American Numismatic Society, where its staff, trustees, fellows, members, and visitors come together in a shared passion for the study of coinage and history. A weekly ritual I enjoy at the ANS is the informal social hour on late Friday afternoons, during which casual conversation often turns to numismatic topics and ideas. Some weeks ago, Chief Curator Peter van Alfen mused about how much cumulative pain the approximately 800,000 objects in the vault have caused through the centuries, a revelation on which I have ruminated since. People made, used, earned, spent, sought after, and often suffered for the objects we study and it’s important to keep the human element in numismatics at the fore of our considerations.

While “money does not buy happiness,” having it certainly makes life easier; it is essential for shelter, food, clothing, health care, transportation—basic subsistence. Financial security gives us agency and control over our lives. Conversely, the lack of it, or an insufficient amount, traps us in compounding anxieties and limits our choices and ability to direct our own destinies. Money’s ability to offer security and to provide a life of comfort, free from concern of destitution, can cause us to go to great lengths to get it, with extreme examples including corruption, theft, murder, coercion, and the exploitation of other human beings.

Our very economic system is open to criticism, as it asserts the primacy of money in our culture, making it a prerequisite for living without hardship and destitution. The growing wealth gap occupies daily news segments that discuss the inability of families across the country to live on minimum wages. Squid Game, the 2021 sensational Netflix series, presently enjoys international popularity because of its biting allegorical critique of the brutal inhumanities and abject cruelties inflicted by late-stage capitalism and the callous hierarchies it creates, a message that transcends cultural and national boundaries and that resonates with a swathe of global audiences facing increasing financial insecurity and inequities. Beyond the constructs of our economic system, countless psychological studies are devoted to the effects money has on our behaviors and the range of emotions it stokes in us. Money programs us in so many ways.

Figure 1. Allegory of Avarice, oil on canvas, by Jacopo Ligozzi, 1590. Avarice holds a money bag as her attribute. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Eric Seiler and Darcy Bradbury, and Edward A. and Karen S. W. Friedman, 1991.443.

Avarice (Fig. 1)—the emotion most associated with money—is not new, for history is rife with examples and stories of the depths to which we fall to acquire money, and the inhuman things we do to each other for it. The raw materials for a great many of the historical coins we study and collect were procured centuries ago through forced labor and slavery; examples include the Roman mines and the Spanish exploitation of the resources in the New World. Damnatio ad metallum, condemnation to the mines, was a Roman capital punishment worse than an immediate death sentence, because of the abject conditions and prolonged suffering that ultimately would lead to death under hard labor.After metal was struck into coined money and put into circulation, the pursuit of it could cause further pain and suffering.

During the reign of Trajan (98–117 CE), the satirist Juvenal wrote a fictional tale about a miserly Roman patron reluctantly doling out a pittance of 100 quadrantes to undeserving clients at the expense of those who actually needed it (1.95–146). In that anecdote, he invokes several gods with temples and altars, but tells us it is money that is worshipped supreme; greed motivates even wealthy citizens with high office to wait for the paltry payment in his story, displacing those who need it to subsist. Juvenal writes: “Of all gods it’s Wealth that compels our deepest reverence – though as yet, pernicious Cash, you lack your own temple, though we’ve raised no altars to Coins (as already to Honor and Peace, to Victory, Virtue and Concord – where storks’ wings rattle as you salute their nest)” (1.112–116). Elsewhere, I have argued that Juvenal makes subtle allusions to contemporary coin designs to heighten his satire, as people associated his theme of corruption and greed with the designs on coins in their pockets, which actually depicted Honor, Peace, Victory, Virtue, and Concord, especially as he also deploys wordplay with numen (deity) and nummus (coin). The episode concludes with the miserly patron turning away spurned clients to gorge himself on a boar, which also features on Trajan’s quadrantes, further reinforcing his theme of avarice (Fig. 2).

Figure 2. Quadrans of Trajan, struck at Rome, ca. 114–117 CE. At the end of Juvenal’s sketch about the dole of 100 quadrantes, needy clients who did not get a payment wait around for a dinner invitation that never comes; the patron, instead, goes home and dines on a whole roast boar, which I argue is a satirical allusion to the design on some Trajanic quadrantes. Obverse: Head of Hercules wearing the lion’s skin, IMP CAES TRAIAN AVG GERM. Reverse: A boar, S C. ANS 1921.100.6.

Perhaps the most famous tale in the ancient world of the suffering money can cause is Judas’s betrayal of Jesus in exchange for 30 pieces of silver (Matthew 26:15; Fig. 3).

Figure 3. Judas Being Paid the 30 Pieces of Silver, etching by Augustin Hirschvogel, 1547. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Elisha Whittelsey Collection, The Elisha Whittelsey Fund, 1961.544.1.

This was the immediate catalyst that led to Jesus’s brutal execution, and the savage and humiliating events of its prelude, which typified non-citizen executions in the Roman Empire. So great was Judas’s remorse that he attempted to return the blood money and hanged himself (Matthew 27:3–5). While highly improbable that the Tyrian shekels (Fig. 4) in the ANS cabinets were among those paid to Judas, we might wonder what they were witness to centuries ago, what they were used for, and what people did to get them (or any of the objects in collections across the globe for that matter), whether it be theft, assault, betrayal, murder, hard labor, prostitution, self-degradation, and so on.

Figure 4. Shekel of Tyre, 18-19 CE. As the primary silver coin circulating in Palestine in the early first century CE, this is the type of coin that scholars generally agree would have been used to pay Judas to betray Jesus. Obverse: Head of Melqart. Reverse: Eagle standing on prow of ship with club to its left, ΤΥΡΟΥ ΙΕΡΑΣ ΚΑΙ ΑΣΥΛΟΥ, date mark in the right field. ANS 1944.100.72863. Bequest of E. T. Newell.

In addition to the acts people commit to attain wealth, we can also discern emotional residue that people attached to coins when material contexts are preserved. Looking to developments in the field of archaeology, and specifically what is called Cognitive Archaeology, Prof. Frank Holt, an ANS member, advocates for a Cognitive Numismatics in his new book: “Numismatics therefore seems a study of elite self-absorption. For that reason, it has generally been viewed as a top-down discipline more about sovereigns than the societies they ruled . . . Cognitive numismatics firmly rejects that premise. Without abandoning all that coins can teach us as state-sponsored media, cognitive numismatics . . . seeks also in coins the lower strata of society as the next step in advancing our knowledge deeper into history’s darkest chasms” (Holt, When Money Talks: A History of Coins and Numismatics [Oxford University Press, 2021], p. 164).

Indeed, there has been a growing body of scholarship that explores the reception and use of coins by people who are anonymous in the grand narrative arc of history. By interrogating the reception and use of coins, we uncover vestiges of the way nameless people attached meaning and emotion to coins, especially in funerary contexts. For instance, late-third and fourth-century CE coins in infant burials in Roman Britain were placed consistently with the reverse side up, with images suggesting the protective roles of the parents. The grieving parents evidently chose such designs to help guide their children safely on their journeys to the afterlife.

Figure 5. Coin of Maxentius for Divus Romulus, struck at Ostia, ca. 309–312 CE. This is not the specific coin from the catacombs, but it illustrates the sort of coin used. Obverse: Head of the boy Romulus, DIVO ROMVLO N V BIS CONS. Reverse: Tomb surmounted by an eagle, AETERNAE MEMORIAE. ANS 1962.82.3.

From Rome, there is the example of a burial of a fourth-century CE Christian child from the Catacombs of Saints Peter and Marcellinus, about which Maria R.-Alföldi wrote in 1996. Around the loculus in which the child’s body was laid to rest, the family pressed ten coins of Maxentius bearing the portrait of his deceased child, Romulus, into the plaster seal (Fig. 5). One coin remains in situ, while the others have since fallen out (Figs. 6–7).

Figure 6. Coin impressions and coin embedded in the plaster around the loculus of the Christian child’s tomb in the Catacombs of Saints Peter and Marcellinus, Rome. Image from Maria R.-Alföldi, “Münze im Grab, Münze am Grab – Ein ausgefallenes Beispiel aus Rom,” Pages 33–39 in C. E. King and D. G. Wigg (eds.), Coin Finds and Coin Use in the Roman World (Berlin, 1996).

The use of the coins is witness to the parents’ sentimental adornment of their child’s grave with the likeness of a child who was about the same age when he died. That they were Christians and Maxentius was a pagan, who deified his dead son, as indicated on the coin with the phrase divo, seems to have mattered little in their choice to mark their child’s passing this way.

Figure 7. Detail of Figure 6, showing the coin with portrait of Divus Romulus embedded in the plaster. Photo credit same as Fig. 6.

Numismatists have, indeed, begun to use coins in ways that help illuminate the lives, experiences, and emotions of everyday people. To examine such questions, and to complete the potential breadth of information that can be obtained from the study of coins, numismatics needs more than just the objects themselves; the deployment of literature, texts, historical context, and the physical associations archaeology provides enrich numismatics and illuminate the people who used coins. In this way, we can help to tell a more complete story of the human experience and give voice to those that the grand political narrative overlooks.

Which Saint-Gaudens?

Louis Saint-Gaudens, by his wife Annetta (Saint-Gaudens National Historic Park).

We have over 160-years of records in the Society’s archives, including correspondence with big names inside and outside of numismatics—Victor Brenner, Hermon MacNeil, Thomas Elder, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Max Mehl, Tiffany & Co., and so on. Sometimes it’s easy to discover what we have because names that appear on folders have been listed in our archives database, ARCHER. Other times it’s not so simple. Some correspondence was placed in folders designated only by letters of the alphabet. Correspondence with Pietro Oddo, for example, might only be found in general “O” folders. Then again, even if “Oddo” folders exist you still have to check the “O” folders because in some years (or even in the same year!) his letters could have ended up there. There is great stuff in these alphabetical files, but you have to dig for it.

When Homer Saint-Gaudens heard that the ANS was displaying the Franklin medal and attributing it to his father Augustus instead of his uncle Louis, he requested that the labeling be corrected.

A couple of weeks ago, ANS Fellow and numismatic author Scott Miller happened to be digging around in an “S” file when he came upon an interesting exchange of letters regarding the Benjamin Franklin 200th anniversary medal struck by Tiffany in 1906. At various times and places, this medal has been attributed to Augustus Saint-Gaudens, to his brother Louis, or to both of them together. In 1927 the Medallic Art Company (MACO) wanted to restrike the medal. Uncertain of the attribution, the company’s Clyde Trees wrote to Augustus’s son, Homer, for guidance.

Trees told Homer that according to sculptor James Earle Fraser, Louis had done the original designs, and the reverse was certainly his, but the “obverse side was entirely changed by Mr. Augustus Saint-Gaudens” and so it was “beyond question the portrait was his work.” Furthermore, Trees’s associate at MACO, Henri Weil, remembered Augustus being actively involved bringing the project to completion. He had visited MACO, where the dies were made, several times to ensure that everything was just right. Trees also noted that the ANS was displaying large casts of the medal, credited to Augustus. Trees’s solution to get around all this uncertainty was to attribute the medal simply to “Saint-Gaudens.”

Part of a letter to the ANS from Homer Saint-Gaudens.

That didn’t sit well with Homer Saint-Gaudens. “I cannot subscribe to the notion that the Franklin Medal was in any way the work of my father,” he wrote. “Even though he put a great deal of time and trouble into it, it was primarily the work of his brother, Louis.” His father, he said, always considered it to be Louis’s work. He also disapproved of Trees’s plan to credit the work simply to “Saint-Gaudens,” as this would be “equivalent to saying ‘Augustus Saint-Gaudens,’ as far as the general public is concerned,” which was as true then as it is today. As for the ANS, Homer told Trees he would write to the Society immediately, which he did, asking that the labeling be changed “in the interest of accuracy and justice.” Secretary Sydney Noe assured him the alteration would be forthcoming, but judging by the plaque seen here, now in storage at the ANS, Noe never got around to it.

UPDATE: I shouldn’t have been so quick to doubt Sydney Noe! According to my colleague, ANS U.S. curator Jesse Kraft, the attribution on this plaque is correct. He explains:

“The way I’ve understood it is that Augustus sketched the first design (with wreath on his head and the statuesque shoulder) and his assistant, Henri Hering, sculpted it in 1905. Augustus had Henri Weil make a galvano and a reduction. This was the very first reduction Weil made on the Janvier, prior to advertising it and Bela Lyon Pratt getting in touch with him. Augustus, however, didn’t like the design and said Franklin looked like “an old woman wearing a tiara.” Augustus then gave the model to brother Louis who scrapped Hering’s design and completely redid Franklin (but used the same exact lettering and flanking branches—literally the same basin). If I’m not mistaken, the finished medal wasn’t struck until 1907 because of all of this (or at least late-1906, later than had been expected). So, the galvano in the image with the Augustus Saint-Gaudens nameplate is correct (as it is the first version), while the second version (below) is the finished medal and the work of Louis Saint-Gaudens.”

The medal as issued, without the wreath (ANS 1961.137.4)

If this was the plaque being referred to at the time, it would explain why the label was never changed. For more, Jesse suggests having a look at this medal. Thanks, Jesse!

Where Is It From?

There are many ways to describe where a coin is from. One by reference to the place of minting (e.g., Kese). If this is known, it offers a specific, relatively unambiguous location that allows a dot to be placed on a map without too much thought. This option is often favored in ancient numismatics.

Another way is to refer to the political entity by whose authority the coin was produced (e.g., the French Territory of Afars and Issas). This tends to be the favored way of describing modern coinages. It is more easily known than place of minting, and often more specific in a modern context, but not always unambiguous.

However, both of these methods sometimes result in highly specific references to historical geography that can be obscure to the nonspecialist. Thus, a third way of referring to places is very often combined with either of the first two, which is to use terms that group-specific locations into wider regional terms (e.g., Hispania Citerior or East Africa). Unlike the first two kinds of locational references, which are relatively objective if sometimes debatable or uncertain, these regional groupings are purely subjective. In ancient numismatics, the subjectivity tends to be shared among researchers due to the cultural homogeneity of the field—so much so that the subjectivity is sometimes forgotten—but for later time periods there are many different traditions of thinking about numismatic geography.

Consider, for example, a coin minted at Ensisheim for the Landgraviate of Upper Alsace, in the name of Ferdinand II, Archduke of Further Austria.

Silver quarter thaler of Upper Alsace, Ferdinand II, 1564–1595.ANS 1918.999.243

The minting location (Ensisheim) and the political entity (Landgraviate of Upper Alsace) are both clear enough, but for larger groupings some scholars would call it a French local coin, others would call it a coin of the pre-Unification German states, and still others would call it an Austrian coin. Upper Alsace, including the town of Ensisheim, is presently within France, but in the 1500s it was considered part of Germany, and it was ruled by a branch of the Habsburg family that considered it to be a distant part of their Austrian-centered domains (i.e., Further Austria). So all of these larger groupings are true descriptions, but different intellectual traditions emphasize one choice over others within the universe of possibilities.

Historical inertia can have the same effect as cultural difference. At the ANS, some of the arrangement of the collection goes back to the period from 1913 to 1919, when Howland Wood devised a system of storing the coins in steel cabinets. At that time, mostly before the Treaty of Versailles, Wood thought of Austria-Hungary as a coherent region of Europe, and the various territories of then-Austria were all stored together. And when the ANS collection was originally entered into a database in the 1980s, this Austria block was mostly catalogued as belonging to the general region of Austria.

The effects of this can be seen in another coin, minted at Jáchymov (formerly Sankt Joachimsthal) for the Count of Schlick.

Silver thaler of Stephen, Count of Schlick, and his brothers, 1525. ANS 1960.111.172, purchase.

Again, the minting location and the political authority are unambiguous, but there are many ways to group them regionally. One could refer to Bohemia, since the lands of the Counts of Schlick were within the kingdom of Bohemia. The modern country is the Czech Republic, which would be another way to describe it. And from 1526 to 1918, Bohemia was ruled by the Habsburgs, and it was considered a part of Austria from 1804 to 1918. Although Bohemia was not yet part of the Habsburg lands in 1525, this coin was described as Austrian in the ANS database, simply because the arrangement of the collection goes back in part to the time when Bohemia was in Austria.

Howland Wood’s subjective geography of the past was different from the mental maps most people use today, and French numismatists may have a different mental map of the past from German numismatists. We can safely assume that the subjective perception of geography will continue to evolve, as interests and priorities and mental associations change, and therefore the terminology for geographic descriptions in numismatics will also continue to evolve.

Representations of Justice in Numismatics

Since ancient times, justice has been one of the fundamental concepts of civilized society. Through the centuries its allegorical personification has often been represented in art, including in the iconography of coins and medals.

The Roman legal system is historically renowned. Even before the Roman Republic was established in 509 BCE, the Romans had a judicial system based on customary law. However, the Twelve Tables, written in 449 BCE, became the foundation of Roman law. As the Roman Republic grew into an empire, its rulers faced the increasing challenge of governing of populations with diverse laws. This led to the development of the concept of ius gentium (“law of nations”), which was the body of legal customs shared by peoples throughout the empire, considered by the Romans to be based on the principles of ius naturale (“natural law”), which were the basic natural rules governing living beings such as self-preservation.

Worship of Justice as a goddess of the Roman pantheon was introduced under Augustus, and that veneration was continued by other emperors in the following centuries. In January of 13 CE, Tiberius dedicated a statue of Iustitia in Rome. A beautiful bust of Iustitia also was represented on bronze coins issued under Tiberius.

Fig. 1. Roman Empire. Dupondius of Tiberius (14–37 CE), Rome, 22–23 CE. ANS 1944.100.39280

The coins of Nerva, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, Pescennius Niger, Septimius Severus, Caracalla, and Severus Alexander also depicted Justitia, showing her as a goddess with a patera, scepter, or rudder in her hands.

Fig. 2. Roman Empire. Denarius of Nerva (96–98 CE), 96 CE. ANS 1905.57.330
Fig. 3. Roman Empire. Denarius of Hadrian (117–138 CE), 128–132 CE. ANS 1948.19.1209
Fig. 4. Roman Empire. Denarius of Septimius Severus (193–211 CE), 198–202 CE. ANS 1944.100.50262

The Roman personification of Justice was connected with another personification, Aequitas, the goddess of the virtues of equity and fairness. She represents fair trade and honesty and especially the fairness and impartiality of the emperor (Aequitas Augusti). She is usually shown with a balance and holding a cornucopiaor hasta pura (a kind of ceremonial spear).

Fig. 5. Roman Empire. As of Vespasian (69–79 CE), 73 CE. ANS 1951.61.44
Fig. 6. Roman Empire. Aureus of Antoninus Pius (138–161 CE), 148–149 CE. ANS 1972.62.5
Fig. 7. Roman Empire. Aureus of Lucius Verus (161–169 CE), 168 CE. ANS 1959.228.21

Despite the fall of the Western Roman Empire, Roman law continued in use in the Byzantine Empire, experiencing a great systematization under Justinian I (527–565). He formed a commission of jurists to compile all existing Roman law into one body. Their work, known as the Corpus Juris Civilis, collected and summarized all of the classical jurists’ writings on law as well as the edicts of previous emperors. This work was updated with new laws issued by Justinian. Christian traditions were deeply connected with legal thought in the life of the Byzantine Empire; Christ was often portrayed as a divine judge, and in terms of legal theory, the emperor was regarded as God’s representative on earth and was held to be the fount of justice.

Fig. 8. Solidus of the first reign of Justinian II (685–695). ANS 1944.100.14572

An important contribution to the development of the modern judicial system was made by one of the greatest rulers of medieval England, King Henry II (1154–1189). His reforms imposed a standardization of procedures throughout the kingdom, at a time when local customs governed justice in most places. His courts, applying uniform rules and following the guide of recorded precedent, formed the basis for the English common law. Soon the law had become even higher than the king himself, as was made manifest when his son King John was forced by rebel lords to sign the Magna Carta in 1215. This document provided protections for individual rights in jurisprudence and declared the liberties held by “free men” (mainly the aristocracy).

Fig. 9. England. Penny of Henry II (1154–1189). ANS 1967.182.35
Fig. 10. England. Penny of John (1199–1216). ANS 1967.182.36
Fig. 11. One of the four existing medieval copies of the Magna Carta

Through the centuries, monarchs have represented themselves as protectors of their people through fair judgment, military prowess, and protection of basic human needs. These principles were often reflected allegorically through representations of Justice, Peace, and Prosperity along with images of the rulers.

Fig. 12. France. Bronze restrike of medal of Louis XIV (1643–1715), showing Justice and the king with sword and balance, by Jean Mauger, 1667. ANS 0000.999.44232
Fig. 13. France. Bronze medal of Louis XIV (1643–1715), showing the king directing Justice, by Jean Mauger, 1688. ANS 1981.57.29
Fig. 14. France. Bronze medal of Louis XV (1715–1774), depicting the king with Peace and Justice standing beside him, by J. Duvivier (obv.) and J. Le Blanc (rev.), 1723. ANS 1984.30.13
Fig. 15. England. Lead cast of medal of Charles II, showing Britannia welcoming Athena, Justice, and Hercules, by John Roettier, 1660. ANS 1914.47.2

However, when people felt that bad leadership was depriving people of the basic necessities and the rights that were promised to them, a different idea of social justice could emerge. In France this led to the idea that justice should be applied without regard to wealth, power, or other status, which helped bring about the famous French Revolution in 1789.

Fig. 16. France. Electrotype of bronze medal depicting the storming of the Bastille, by B. Andrieu, 1789. ANS 0000.999.44687

The motto of the Revolution—Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité (“liberty, equality, fraternity”)—is still cherished in France to this day. But despite these idealistic slogans, the revolution involved massive loss of life. King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette were beheaded in 1793, as were more than 10,000 other people during the Reign of Terror of 1793–1794. The radical politicians who led the Terror were connected with the influential political club known as the Jacobins. But factional divisions among the Jacobins brought an end to the Terror when twenty-one of the most radical Jacobins, including Maximilien Robespierre, were sent to the guillotine. All of these public executions were meant to symbolize the ideals of revolutionary equality before the law and revolutionary justice.

Fig. 17. France. Silver medal commemorating Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette after their execution, by C. H. Kuchler, 1793. ANS 1920.147.708
Fig. 18. France. Bronze medal in honor of the Jacobins, by P.-F. Palloy, 1791. ANS 1920.147.651

The slogans of the French Revolution reappeared when the Russian Revolution began in February 1917, with the overthrow of Tsar Nicholas II. The Provisional Government, led by liberals and socialists, attempted to establish widely recognized liberal values such as freedom of speech, democratic voting for representatives, and equality before the law. However, the Bolshevik party, headed by Vladimir Lenin, organized a coup, taking over the government buildings on November 7, 1917 (October 25 in the old Russian calendar). The next day they seized the Winter Palace, where the Provisional government was based.

Fig. 19. The storming of the Winter Palace, St. Petersburg, during the October Revolution in Russia, 1917
Fig. 20. Soviet Union. Bronze medal commemorating the 40th anniversary of the October Revolution of 1917, by N. A. Sokolov, 1957. ANS 2000.16.128 (Obv.)

In the election of the Constituent Assembly soon afterward, the Bolsheviks won only about 24% of the seats in this body. As soon as it convened, they forcibly dissolved it and replaced it with the Bolshevik-controlled Congress of Soviets.

Fig. 21. Soviet Union. Silver medal commemorating the 60th anniversary of the October Revolution of 1917, by A. V. Kozlov and S. A. Barulin, 1977. ANS 2019.33.1 (Rev.)

The October Revolution was not universally recognized in the country, and it was followed by the struggles of the Russian Civil War (1918–1921) and the Red Terror that accompanied it. During that time, many aristocrats and supporters of the imperial government were killed. Nicholas II and Alexandra and their children—four Grand Duchesses and Tsarevich Alexei—were shot and bayoneted to death on the night of July 16–17, 1918.

Fig. 22. Russian Empire. Silver medal commemorating the marriage of Emperor Nicholas II (1868–1918) and Princess Alix of Hesse (1872–1918), by Anton Vasyutinsky, 1894. ANS 1925.146.12

The Russian Civil War was not simply a conflict between communists and monarchists. Both sides were involved in massacres of the civilian population, when considered to be potential “enemies.” The Bolsheviks even theorized violence as “mass terror”, which they considered to be an instrument for achieving social justice by eliminating groups they considered to be enemies of the new communist regime. Most crucial for them was to put this violence under Party control, in order to direct it at “class enemies,” who were classified as “enemies of the people”.

Fig. 23. Soviet Union. Bronze medal commemorating battles of the Russian Civil War (1918–1921), by M. G. Manizer, 1963. ANS 2000.16.205 (Obv.)

However, further repressions in Soviet Russia during Joseph Stalin’s regime were directed at the Bolsheviks themselves, and many devoted revolutionaries were executed. As in France, the generalization that “the Revolution devours its children” held true.

Fig. 24. Germany. Bronze medal depicting Bolshevism as a demon, by Elisabeth Esseö, 1919. ANS 1919.6.8

History demonstrates that in the quest for justice of any kind, emotions are bad advisers. They lead to violence and instability, threatening rather than building a civilized society. Equal justice must be impartial for everyone and should be based on rule of law. As the Romans said, dura lex sed lex: “the law is harsh but it is the law”.

Fig. 25. United States. Bronze medal in honor of Chief Justice John Marshall, proclaiming “Equal Justice under Law,” by K. Gruppe, issued by the Hall of Fame for Great Americans at New York University, 1965. ANS 2001.11.31 (Rev.)

He Owned a Fort

Steven Pell, painting by DeWitt M. Lockman

I don’t mean to turn this blog into my own personal travelogue, but I happened to be at Fort Ticonderoga in upstate New York this summer, and I remembered its connection to the ANS. One of the Society’s presidents used to own it.

Fort Ticonderoga

The fort, at the south end of Lake Champlain, was built in the 1750s by the French. It was later held by both the British and the Americans, but after the War of Independence it crumbled into ruins, stripped of anything useful by scavenging sightseers. In 1820, William Ferris Pell bought the fort and surrounding land from a couple of colleges that had acquired it from the State of New York. He built a home on the property and expanded it into a hotel to capitalize on the tourist trade that had been coming to the site since its abandonment.

It was Pell’s great-grandson Stephen Pell (1874–1950) who became president of the ANS, and he did so at a dire moment, stepping “into the breach” (in the words of the Society’s council) to take the position after the death in 1941 of Edward Newell, who had been president since 1916. 

The ANS’s great benefactor Archer Huntington funded some of the renovations at the fort.

Pell had joined the Society back in 1907 and had served on its council since 1916. He didn’t have much formal schooling—and was “rather proud of the fact that he had little more than an eighth-grade education,” his great-grandson said in a 2005 email—but he had no problem mingling with the upper echelon. In fact, when the ANS and its neighboring institutions at Audubon Terrace were skittish about approaching the imposing benefactor Archer Huntington with a plan to erect a fence there, it was Pell they chose as their emissary. Huntington also funded some of the work at the fort.

ANS librarian and archivist David Hill admires the view from the fort (photograph courtesy of Sadie Hill).

William Ferris Pell’s original property at the fort was divided among his descendants. Stephen Pell bought them all out, and, according to an exhibit label at the fort, came up with a plan to restore and open it to the public while chatting with an architect at a clambake in 1908. The fort formally opened to the public the following year. Much of it has been rebuilt over the years as part of the restoration.

Pell’s book of poetry

Pell served in both the Spanish-American War and World War I, and he expressed his experiences in a book of poetry, Hélène and Other War Verses, which he self-published in 1920. It’s not bad, but it’s not cheerful reading either. Here’s a taste:

Out of the night came the German plane,
Scattering death as it went its way,
Leaving a trail of horror and pain,
Of burned and mangled and crushed and slain,
And there in the wreckage I found Hélène—
Calm and still she lay.
Indian peace medal donated by Stephen Pell, 1915.138.4

In addition to his years of service to the ANS, Pell is remembered for arranging to have his collection of over 30 Indian peace medals be purchased and donated to the Society by various individuals in 1915. He donated five of them himself.

Stephen Pell is buried in the family grave at the fort.

Often we can’t even find photographs, let alone videos, of the historical characters associated with the ANS, but Pell can be seen interacting with visitors at Fort Ticonderoga in a 16 mm film from 1942 here.

From Mound House to Manhattan, Part II

This is the second segment of a three-part series to update ANS members and interested guests on the MACO Archives and the pending move of die shells and plasters from their present location in Mound House, Nevada to New York, New York.

After the immense amount of preparation that took place during “Mound House to Manhattan, Part I,” the time had come to put the plan into action. On May 22, with laptop, overly-detailed excel spreadsheet, and solid strategy in mind, I boarded a plane destined for Reno, Nevada. My fine Hyundai Santa Fe rental then took me half-an-hour south to Carson City (just 6.5 miles east of Mound House), to the hotel I would call home for the next 13 nights.

That first evening, I had the pleasure of meeting Rob Vugteveen, self-proclaimed “creative problem solver” and former Northwest Territorial Mint employee, and his family. Rob graciously offered his services to the project. Over dinner, we discussed the goals I had set for the following two weeks: (1) to prepare nearly 20,000 die shells for absorption by the ANS upon their arrival in New York City, and (2) to better pack the 5,000 of the more delicate pieces in order to survive the 2,700-mile journey. However, the magnitude of the collection (both in the vastness of the archive itself as well as the diameter of the individual pieces), proved challenging to these lofty goals.

The necessity of this trip to Nevada was evident early on. While compiling spreadsheets and estimating spatial requirements back in NYC, I had been under the impression that the boxes housing these die shells were all the same size: 24” x 24” x 18”. This was largely due to the lack of calibration target in the images or ability to compare box sizes to surrounding points of reference. In reality, five (5) different-sized boxes were used, and none of them were the aforementioned measurements. Fortunately, the adjusted space requirements were minimal, but this game of theoretical Tetris proved a point: that the ANS was not ready to simply ship this material to its new home without (at the very least) a basic visual inspection to fully prepare ourselves for what we were about to undertake.

If you recall from “Mound House to Manhattan, Part I,” I had gone through many, many images in order to make preliminary decisions of the die shells, entering my thoughts into an Excel spreadsheet by highlighting the cells either red or green. With this document, Rob and I began to go through the collection (Fig. 1).

Figure 1. Jesse Kraft (r.) and Rob Vugteveen (l.) in Mound House, NV, beginning to prepare the MACO die shells for their journey across the country.

Pallet-by-pallet, we compared them to the MACO Spreadsheet and used red and green Sharpies to mark the individual item labels with their respective color. From there, we were essentially able to ditch the spreadsheet and work directly from the boxes. We now began on an item-by-item level—opening each box and separating the “reds” and the “greens” from one another—placing each category into a new box and sealing it when it reached its max weight (ca. 50 pounds), which left most boxes grossly (but necessarily) under-packed.

We had gone through 12 pallets (192 boxes) before suddenly realizing that, at this rate, we would run out of time without even starting on our second task. One achievement from the process, however, was that by the time we were through those 192 boxes, there were only 182 boxes left on the pallets, as we were able to condense those initial boxes by about 5%. Even greater efficiency was found in the fact that we were able to stack the boxes 5-high (as opposed to 4-high, as they previously were) due to information garnered from the shipping companies. This simple change saved an astounding 25% of space.

Though it was now clear that we could not work on an item-by-item basis, the savings we found by working on a box-by-box level proved significant. Perhaps if we worked with that in mind, we would be able to save time, but also continue to condense the material enough to be worthwhile. Instead of having pallets that contained all “greens” and others with all “reds,” we knew that some boxes would be what we called “orange”—those with both red and green pieces (art teachers need not comment).

With efficiency still in mind, the plan shifted to include a gradient of “oranges.” Essentially, we set up all the “reds” on one side of the room and all of the “greens” on the other then filled in the gap. Just after the “pure reds,” we began to place boxes that had all “reds” and only one “green.” Once we found all of those, we began to pallet boxes with all “reds” and two “greens,” followed by those with three “greens,” and so on. Eventually, the last remaining boxes were those which were all “green” but only had a single “red” piece. By the time we were through, we had an order of “red,” mostly-red “orange,” mostly-green “orange,” and “green” (Fig. 2).

Figure 2. Pallets separated into their prospective groups.

Getting through this arduous task was a relief as, not only was this dusty and backbreaking labor, but in the end, it had also provided me with the order for which everything will be brought back to New York: as many “reds” as possible destined for our storage facility in Brooklyn and the “greens” to our headquarters in Manhattan. As I mentioned my relief of knowing this order, Rob joked, “Jesse can sleep easy tonight,” as if the grueling work we just completed wasn’t enough to knock a man out in its own right.

But I’m happy to report that it wasn’t all work and no play. Fortunately, halfway through this business trip, I was able to take a day off to explore…and what better way to spend the day in Carson City than at the Historic Carson City Mint and Nevada State Museum! Friend and ANS Member, Rob Rodriguez treated me to a tour of the facility and exhibits, followed by an afternoon in Virginia City. Rodriguez’s knowledge and love for the area is apparent. At the Mint, we were able to see “Coin Press No. 1” in action (Fig. 3).

Figure 3. Jesse Kraft with Woodrow Davis, Coiner of Press No. 1 at the Carson City Mint. Jesse is holding the Nevada State Capitol Sesquicentennial Medallion, which was struck just moments before the photograph was taken.

This press was built in 1869 by Morgan & Orr and was the original press used at the Mint to strike many of the Carson City rarities; pieces that numismatists from all over now cherish. Still in operation today, the press strikes half-dollar-sized medals for visitors—currently in the process of creating the Nevada State Capitol Sesquicentennial Medallion. Virginia City is known as the epicenter of the Comstock Lode, where Samuel Clemens failed as a miner, began work with the Territorial Enterprise newspaper, and changed his name to Mark Twain. It was because of the Comstock Lode that the Carson City Mint existed. Seeing the geographic connections between the Lode, Carson, and even Reno and San Francisco was a very nice numismatic sidebar to the entire Nevada work-trip.

Other highlights included dinner at the fabulous Mangia Tutto Restaurante in Carson City with friends and ANS Members Howard and Kregg Herz, and a 0.6-mile hike up to the Kings Canyon Falls, one of the natural springs that regulates the height of nearby Lake Tahoe. Lastly, I acquired some authentic western attire from historic Virginia City (our office’s “Western Wear Wednesday” will never have looked so good) (Fig. 4). Refreshed, I was back to work.

Figure 4. Jesse Kraft with some authentic Virginia City Western wear, which he proudly wore for his homecoming that coincidentally fell on the weekly “Western Wear Wednesday” at the ANS Headquarters.

The next day’s focus was on task number two: repacking what truly needed to be repacked. Due to time constraints in 2018, only about 15,000 of 20,000-odd die shells were photographed, individually wrapped, and safely packed into boxes. At that time, the crew was unable to complete the final 5,000 objects of the collection, so (out of necessity) they were hastily stacked into boxes directly on the pallet. Packed for a quick 6-mile jaunt from Dayton to Mound House, they would not likely survive the 2,500-mile journey they are about to make. Sadly, even now, we found pieces that were clearly broken in their prior transit, not before.

Figure 5. Epoxy die shells for the 1986 ANS medal to commemorate the centennial of the Statue of Liberty.

Most of these objects are epoxy die shells (Figs. 5 & 6). Epoxy die shells were introduced in 1975 as a cheaper and quicker alternative to copper galvano die shells. Unlike the hardy copper die shells made by MACO, the epoxy die shells are quite fragile and if one were dropped on the floor, it could easily shatter on impact. Not only were these most-fragile die shells in direct contact with each other, but each box weighed far beyond their intended capacity.

Figure 6. A box of epoxy die shells waiting to be packed up and shipped to New York City.

While I have gone through the MACO material numerous times on paper, digitally, and with the finished medals, the physical die shells are an entirely different beast. Navigating the added weight and cumbersome size and shape of each piece added an unexpected amount of time to the process and, in the end, the clock ran out. I am happy to report that Rob Vugteveen and I achieved 95% of what we had hoped to before the time came for me to leave. Thankfully, Rob lives nearby and is able to wrap everything up before the trucks arrive. All in all, the second phase of getting the MACO die shells from Mound House to Manhattan was a success.

Please stay tuned for “From Mound House to Manhattan Part III,” which will focus on the actual move of the die shells across the country! It will be an exciting few days!

Managing the Collection: An Interview with Dr. Elena Stolyarik

Dr. Elena Stolyarik, Collections Manager at the American Numismatic Society, has held nearly every single one of the Society’s over 800,000 objects. As a critical member of the curatorial staff, the Collections Manager diligently maintains the Society’s vast, encyclopedic holdings of coins and currency, medals and money—all behind the scenes. Dr. Stolyarik’s background in museological, archaeological, and numismatic methods gives her a unique perspective on the purpose and function of the ANS. Prior to coming to the ANS in 1994, she led the Numismatic Department at the Odessa Archaeological Museum, excavated at Tyras on the Black Sea, and was a research associate at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. In an interview at the Society’s headquarters in New York City, Dr. Stolyarik and Assistant Director Austin Goodwin Andrews discussed her work and the particularities of the Society and its holdings.

Austin Goodwin Andrews: What is the role of the Collections Manager at a research institution like the ANS, where object care and curation are so intermingled? 

Elena Stolyarik: First of all, it means that you are a part of the professional team of one of the oldest museums and research institutions in the United States. The Society has been dedicated to researching numismatic objects and popularizing the field of numismatics since it was founded in 1858. Over the past 163 years, the Society obtained the objects in its collection from a range of sources, including from generous donations, bequests, and purchases. These and any new acquisitions should be properly maintained, preserved, and archived according to established museum practices and procedures. As the Collections Manager, I have several obligations. I register and manage documentation for all new museum objects, including accessioning and deaccessioning, cataloging, inventories, and other records. All of us in the curatorial department share responsibilities. We work as a team to ensure the collection is well cared for, documented, and made accessible to the public and for research. Because every one of us can replace each other when necessary, these are our mutual jobs.

AGA: I enjoy reading your column in the ANS Magazine with highlights of recent acquisitions. Before you write these, I know a lot of work goes into processing objects and accessioning them to be part of the Society’s collection, officially. What does the process of accessioning look like at the ANS?

ES: To accession objects, I prepare a list of gifts or purchases for the Trustees to approve. After approval, I register them, assign a group number, and then catalogue each object individually. We have a computer program set up with the correct fields. I indicate what we received and from whom we received. I write a short description and give each item its unique accession number. The curators also assign accession numbers, but I often accession Greek, Roman, and Byzantine coins and for the Medals Department.

Before we accession objects, we need to be sure that they have a proper provenance, especially for ancient and medieval coins. We need to confirm that an object was not stolen from an excavation or taken illegally out of another country; we need to be sure that nobody will claim that this is their property. After accessioning, I give materials to our exceptional photographer, Alan Roche, and I write about a few examples for the magazine. When Alan is done with photographing, we insert them into the appropriate trays in our vault. When someone visits for research or a curator needs to find something, we need to know exactly where everything sits. Objects are grouped by periods, mints, or another system. If we have twenty coins from Roman Alexandria from the second or third centuries, they need to be inserted with the other coins from this mint, according to chronology. On the back of the box, we indicate who made the donation. 

Before our move to digitizing the collection, this process was done on a card the same way books are processed in a library. Now, I register and catalogue on our computer program and this creates an electronic record. We also make records of what we’ve cataloged available publicly with high-resolution images through our online collections database, MANTIS. After that, we have another back-up record: I put all of this information in our huge accession book.

AGA: You’re also involved with exhibitions and oversee all of the loans we make to other institutions. While the ANS regularly loans objects to major museums like the Metropolitan Museum of Art here in New York or the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, we have loans to much smaller organizations, too, like the Bechtler House in rural North Carolina. What are some interesting examples of loans you’ve helped arrange? 

ES: This is also my job: to keep track of loans, to process new loans, to renew loans, for sending insurance and loan agreements. Along with the curatorial staff, I provide consultation services, help with selections and installations of our objects, and serve as courier to the borrowing institutions to accompany our loans. Today, we have over 380 objects on view in permanent, temporary, and traveling exhibitions. We don’t have space for a big exposition here at the ANS, but we maintain our own Exhibition Hall with several cases on display to introduce our visitors to the history of numismatics. At the end of the year, the curatorial staff organizes a display with new annual acquisitions.

When we had the original screw-press for the gold Bechtler dollars in a popular exhibit at the Federal Reserve, someone visiting from the Bechtler House saw it there and coordinated requesting the loan. This unique artifact became the centerpiece in their exhibition at the historic home of Christopher Bechtler in Rutherfordton, North Carolina. This is very important because, year after year, people can now visit this house and they can see real history: not only the coins, but they can see how these coins were produced.

We had another interesting experience participating in an unusual exhibit organized by BVLGARI, known for its glamorous luxury products. This show, which was organized at their flagship store on Fifth Avenue, connected ancient Rome and the luxury brand since it was founded in Rome in 1884. It provided an opportunity to display some extraordinary objects from the ANS Roman Department, including a portrait coin of Julius Caesar and a remarkable example of a silver tetradrachm of Mark Antony and Cleopatra, among others.

We have objects at some of the best museums in the US and abroad. The Met often has objects from the ANS for temporary exhibits—such as their successful World between Empires exhibit about art and identity in the ancient Middle East—but they also prominently display our numismatic objects in their permanent exhibits.

I can think of many other interesting examples. The Jefferson Foundation at Monticello has displayed our silver Thomas Jefferson Indian Peace Medal since 1992 and War and Peace in Miniature: Medals from the American Numismatic Society was recently on temporary display at the Education Center at George Washington’s Mount Vernon. For several years, an exhibition organized by the American Museum of Natural History, called GOLD, traveled with over 70 gold coins from our collections and the Israel Museum presented a temporary exhibit with our material dedicated to the extraordinary discovery of Herod’s tomb at Herodium. The Block Museum of Art organized a traveling exhibit, Caravans of Gold, about cultural and economic exchanges across the Sahara Desert in the medieval period. This show was exhibited at the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto and then traveled to the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art in Washington, DC, where it will be on view until February 2022. All of these loans make our collection even more accessible to people around the world. Coins and medals and other objects from the ANS enrich exhibitions with sometimes very different topics.

AGA: This year has seen a lot of important discourse around how we collectively acknowledge and commemorate aspects of the past. Unlike memorial statues or public plaques, the money and medals in the ANS collection are contextualized, studied, and criticized without necessarily glorifying what they represent. How can the collection be a tool for education and deeper inquiry into these subjects? 

ES: It’s why museums are so important. Each museum aims to preserve knowledge for many generations—information which should be accessible not for one year or two years, but it should be for a thousand years. For me, it’s about the preservation of historical sources. This is our mission and it’s an educational mission. We preserve to teach. 

To examine an idea, you should use as many different sources as you can, to understand it. For history, this can include different literary sources, archaeological sources, and also numismatics. You can look at ancient coins, like the coins of Lysimachus or Ptolemy, and you can see faces. This is astonishing because you can see what they really looked like or how they wanted to be seen from thousands of years ago. I believe numismatics is a valuable kind of evidence for history and for teaching about the past. The Virginia Museum of History and Culture displayed the Society’s Butler silver medal of the Army of the James, which was given to Black soldiers in the Civil War, who were integral in winning the war and abolishing slavery in United States. It might be surprising, but this is why it’s important to see and learn the stories from these objects. 

Along with written historical sources, epigraphic, archaeological, and numismatic sources are a materialization of the past. I still believe that you cannot remove from history difficult events, that you cannot erase the past. You can only learn from it. Coins and other artifacts show us how the world really was in a particular time and place, what was valued and who was in power. Coins are not just dead objects. They can talk, if you listen—if you really want to listen. This is ultimately the purpose of our collection, to allow for this kind of careful study.

AGA: Over the years, you have supported many scholars and researchers as they access the collection to conduct their research. From your perspective, what are the most studied areas of the collection and which could use more attention? 

ES: The current most popular areas for study at the ANS are ancient numismatics, medals, and US material. A lot of people—especially from universities—visit to research ancient material because it’s the basis of their thesis or part of some study. The medieval and Islamic collections are less studied, but that, I think, is due to colleges not offering as many courses in the same way. Classes on the ancient Mediterranean exist and classes on the ancient Roman economy exist, but there are fewer programs in medieval studies like this. We have a brilliant curator of our Medieval Department, David Yoon, who is a well-educated historian, archaeologist, and numismatist. He’s currently leading our new project to digitize the medieval collection, which will put more images and updated information on our database. David does a lot to popularize this area of study and this project will open new opportunities for new research.

Because we are in the United States, there are many people interested in American history—and the ANS’s collection includes a large number of items in the US portion of the Medals Department and in the American Coins Department. On the other hand, if you look at our Summer Seminar, it’s less common for graduate students to come and research US material, even though there are many people interested in American numismatics. Right now, it’s wonderful for us to have someone who is so knowledgeable like Jesse Kraft, who is the Assistant Curator of American Numismatics. I see big potential for our new curatorial staff like him and Lucia Carbone, the Assistant Curator of Roman Coins, who is very hard-working and energetic.

Our chief curator, Peter van Alfen, is also great because he understands people, as a colleague and as an educator. His expertise in the Greek Department and passion for medallic art continues to drive the traditional areas of study at the ANS, while he also spearheads many of our recent innovations and digital efforts. All of our curators are very educated and professional; they conduct their own research and enjoy supporting other scholars and institutions for their research, too. We have very enthusiastic people here at the ANS. Along with our collection, this is our great strength.

Trouble with Names

Augustus Saint-Gaudens by Kenyon Cox (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Du Bois was a big name at the U.S. mint in the nineteenth century. Or was it DuBois? Dubois? du Bois? This kind of thing can drive you crazy when writing. (It’s worse when you have to speak these historical names aloud. In this case I was assisted by numismatic researcher Joel Orosz, who found out that the descendants pronounce it doo-BOYZ.) For guidance you can try looking at an individual’s publications, if they have any, though you might be dealing with someone like the noted numismatist Edouard Frossard (Édouard? Edward?), who didn’t help matters by putting an abbreviation of his name (Ed.) on everything. There is an excellent online tool for straightening this out, the Virtual International Authority File (VIAF), which gives the preferred forms from around the world. This works pretty well for Du Bois, but the entry (by the Library of Congress) for Frossard—Frossard, Ed.‏ ‎ (Edouard),‏ ‎1837–1899—might be helpful for catalogers but is a little less than definitive‏ for writers.

Saint-Gaudens’s signature on a letter to George Kunz in the ANS Archives


One name I always have to double-check is that of revered American sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens. (Hyphenated or not? Or is it St. Gaudens?) Curious about the sculptor’s own usage, I had a look at some of his documents in our collection. It seems he most often used the abbreviated St. Gaudens form when signing, though he did sometimes spell it out, as in the signature that accompanies his photograph in the book of reminiscences published by his son Homer. His wife, the similarly named Augusta, used the spelled-out form in letters she sent to the ANS. The Society sometimes rather insouciantly replied using “St.”

St. Ganden?

In one egregious blunder, the ANS not only used the St. form in the catalog for its “Million Dollar Exhibition” of 1914 but managed also to botch the spelling AND misuse a possessive, a move that must have horrified the ANS’s brand new curator Howland Wood, who I assume was responsible for the catalog. (I don’t mean to dump on Wood too much here. I could easily see something like this happening to me.)

One of the notes that accompanied plaquettes sent to those who participated in a masque honoring Saint-Gaudens at his home in Cornish, New Hampshire.

Of course, Saint-Gaudens didn’t care about such things when it came to those closest to him. Just as the personal correspondence of the Chapman Brothers tells us that, though the two coin dealers went by “Henry” and “S. H.” in business, they were always “Harry” and “Hudson” to friends and family, documents in the ANS Archives show that Saint-Gaudens was called “Gus” by his friends and relatives. (His wife was “Gussie.”) In fact, the artist refers to himself as “Stick in the Mud Uncle Gus” in one of several notes of appreciation we have from him on file.

A masque plaquette (ANS 1961.137.3)
ANS librarian and archivist David Hill admires the Roman temple built at the site of the Saint-Gaudens masque (photograph courtesy of Grace Hill).

These notes originally accompanied plaquettes the sculptor distributed to thank those who participated in a masque presented in his honor at Aspet, his home in Cornish, New Hampshire, an elaborate affair featuring music composed by Arthur Whiting and masks by Maxfield Parrish, who also appeared in the production. The masque was performed in 1905 at a temple resembling a Roman alter built onsite for the occasion, which is reproduced on the plaque. The decaying original plaster temple was replaced in 1914 by a marble one designed by William Kendall of McKim, Mead & White, and this is where the ashes of Saint-Gaudens and his wife and son are interred. The Cornish site is now a U.S. national park—one I highly recommend visiting.


The Franc: A Coin, A Currency, and Orphan

The Franc is one of the oldest and most widespread currency units in the world, currently the official currency of 25 states or autonomous territories. However, the Franc was never intended to become the name of a currency until the French kingdom issued a specific gold piece to gather the massive ransom needed to free King John II the Good, prisoner of the English since the disastrous Battle of Poitiers in 1356. He was depicted in full armor on a horse, with the legend Johannes Dei Gracia Francoru(m) Rex. From “Francoru(m)” came “Franc”. This famed coin is called the Franc à cheval (1905.57.35 and 1966.163.48).

Born in a 14th-century disaster, the Franc carries another unusual quality: it derives its name from the name of the people and nation who minted it. To this day, the Afghani and the Boliviano are the only other eponymous currencies, possibly with the Euro. “Franc” probably derived from old Germanic, meaning “spear”, or possibly “bold”, then came to designate a confederacy of tribes who put pressure on the Roman Empire’s northeastern border. Once they settled in Gaul in the 5th century, the word “Francia”, later “France”, came to name the country inhabited by the Franks. It then accrued the wider meaning of “free person” as well as straightforwardness, hence “franchise”, “enfranchised” or “frank” in English, since the kingdom’s laws forbade slavery on its soil. This is how, much later, Sally Hemmings, a black slave owned by Thomas Jefferson and mother to his children, became technically a free woman during her stay in Paris, until Jefferson convinced her to return to the US.

The Franc’s bigger history takes off with the French Revolution. On April 7 and August 15, 1795, in the midst of the assignats crisis (0000.999.56432), as disorderly deficits and money printing had led to rampant inflation and monetary dislocation, the French Parliament created a Republican currency defined by 4.5 g of pure silver, the Franc, and decimalization was implemented at the same time, inspired by the newly established United States monetary system.

The famous 5-Franc coin, (1911.105.844) conceived by Augustin Dupré with Hercules holding liberty and equality, would inspire later French coinage design. Dupré is the same engraver who had created the 1783 Libertas Americana medal, commissioned by Benjamin Franklin (1964.67.1), which in turn inspired the Large Cent design (1977.203.1 and 1948.143.81).

With the wars of the Revolution and Napoleonic period in the later 18th and early 19th century, the Franc was by then poised to expand its influence (1966.164.324, 0000.999.34906, 1920.147.329, 1920.147.559, 1966.164.465, 1916.999.216, 1923.999.248).

After Napoleon’s final defeat, the Franc withdrew back to the France, mirroring the country’s troubled political history—3 more revolutions, 5 Republics, 2 monarchies, 1 empire, the collaborationist Etat français between 1940 and 1944, and few coups d’Eta (1957.117.9, 1957.172.2000, 1929.77.29, 1897.28.7, 1946.71.5, 1992.117.4974–5).

During this period, the Franc initiated a second period of geographic diversification as the 2nd French colonial Empire expanded across Africa, South-East Asia, and the Pacific. (examples of colonial currencies). (large group of colonial banknotes+1917.216.5102)

Examples of colonial franc notes.

Obviously, most of these pieces reflect the sense of European superiority that sustained the colonial project, highlighting the civilizing mission France was supposedly undertaking in its overseas territories. At about the same time, the Union Latine, an attempt at anchoring a wide range of currencies to the same gold standard, led to the Franc being used as a parallel currency unit in unexpected European countries like the Austrian-Hungarian monarchy, or the Kingdoms of Denmark, and of Sweden (Union Latine coin). (1929.103.14684)

In the wake of WWI, the end of gold convertibility, the great inflation of the 1920s, the economic depression in the 1930s, and then WWII, the Franc sustained multiple debasements. What had been a gold or a silver coin had become a worthless piece of base metal by the 1950s, until Charles de Gaulle reformed the Franc in 1958 (selection of 1920s-1940s pieces) (1947.2.686, 1980.109.1067, 1920.74.8, 1950.135.173, 1963.57.27, 1981.30.140, 1981.30.143).

ANS 1920.74.8

In the 1970s, after the collapse of the dollar-gold exchange standard, silver was abandoned and coins went back to their fiduciary character (1983.121.1).

The weirdest part of the Franc’s long history is that it has become an orphan: used today in Africa and the Pacific mostly, its mother country has abandoned it to merge into the Eurozone (1967.126.9, 1978.223.1, 1992.117.6807, 1992.117.6843).

Switzerland and Lichtenstein are now the last European countries using a Franc (0000.999.53004 and 1977.158.1414), while the Franc thrives, far away from the kings who created it (1905.57.35).