There are certain numismatic personalities I expect to encounter over and over again as I work with the historical collections at the ANS—Howland Wood, Sydney Noe, Thomas Elder, Henry Chapman. But there is a more obscure figure I sometimes find myself running into. This would be H. A. (Henry Alexander) Ramsden, a collector and dealer who exhibited an boundless enthusiasm for his area of expertise, Far Eastern numismatics, passionately working at it right up until his untimely death at the age of 43 in 1915.
Throughout the Society’s library and archives are pockets of materials associated with Ramsden. There are his numerous letters in the Howland Wood, John Reilly, and Bauman Belden papers, for example. There are his publications—books, but also periodicals like The Numismatic and Philatelic Journal of Japan, which he founded and edited. Rummaging around in the library’s pamphlet files recently, I happened upon what turned out to be an uncataloged item. It was ANS treasurer John Reilly’s membership certificate for the Yokohama Numismatic Society, which included the stamped signature of Ramsden.
Many ANS members will recall the Reilly Room at the ANS building on Audubon Terrace where the Far Eastern numismatic collections were kept and displayed. Reilly obtained much of what would become the ANS’s premiere collection in that area from Ramsden. Though his influence still strongly reverberates, Ramsden remains a somewhat mysterious figure. There are no known photographs of him. Howland Wood supplied the ANA with what little he had on him for Ramsden’s obituary in the Numismatist, information Wood had gleaned from a biographical letter Ramsden had sent him in 1914. Not too much has been added to what we know about him since. His father was a British diplomat. The younger Ramsden followed in his father’s footsteps and came to be stationed in Japan as a representative of Cuba. He married a Japanese woman and went into business with her brother, stamp collector and
dealer Jun Kobayahawa, in Yokohama. He built up an enormous numismatic collection, over 15,000 specimens, including Chinese, Japanese, and Korean coins, as well as an impressive library. His unexpected death threw the future of these collections into question, and after some back and forth with the executor of his will, they were purchased by Reilly, who retained ownership, though they were housed at the ANS. Reilly’s daughter Frances formally donated the materials in 1938.
Ramsden may not be as familiar a name as some, but his legacy lives on in the ANS’s outstanding Far Eastern numismatic collections. In 2009, a student in the Society’s Eric P. Newman Graduate Seminar in Numismatics, Lyce Jankowski, produced an extremely useful research paper on the Society’s Chinese collection, documenting what she had uncovered on the subject. One interesting fact was that, had Ramsden lived longer, he might have left an even bigger impression on the ANS. Just a few months before Ramsden’s death, Wood had suggested that he might come to New York to be the curator of what Wood was already calling “the best collection of Far Eastern coins known.”