Last evening was the opening for a new exhibition called “When the Curtain Never Comes Down” at the American Folk Art Museum. It features an eccentric collection of works by some two-dozen outsider artists from the United States and Europe.
The exhibition explores the link between performance art and the folk tradition through a variety of different media–films, sculpture, fashion, paintings, and music. The result is an often strange but lively mix of art that reflects the particular circumstances and preoccupations of their creators. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a collection of works by mental patients features prominently, including a spectacular film about Gustav Mesmer, a schizophrenic German inventor obsessed with designing human-powered flying machines.
The eclectic exhibition is a bit text-heavy, but the works themselves and the stories of the people behind them are almost invariably fascinating. I mention it here because it displays some work by Charlie Logan (1893-1984), a longtime resident of Alton, Illinois. Logan’s particular habit was to sew buttons, coins, and other bric-a-brac into clothing and accessories he made from his socks and beddings. The exhibition features an outfit (coat, vest, hat) and two canes on loan from the Philadelphia Museum of Art that show the his intricate technique. Logan ostensibly sewed coins into his clothes so he would not be robbed and then simply cut them out and used them as needed. In a celebrated study of art and folk traditions of the Black Atlantic, Robert Farris Thompson noted that Logan’s creations incorporated many cultural symbols and traditions of African origin. The “Diamond Sis” coat on display, for example, features a Kongo (Congolese) cosmogram, which is a quartered circle or diamond that symbolizes continuity and rebirth.
Logan’s craftwork was such that the coins are visible but not quite identifiable. Although one presumes that he was for the most part incorporating contemporary US coinage, an effort to figure out exactly what types of coins he was sewing into his wardrobe might be an interesting project.
With close to a million objects in the American Numismatic Society’s collections, the curatorial team occasionally comes across items that are mysteries to us. This series will feature some of these objects in the hopes that the collective wisdom of our readers can help us to identify and learn more about them.
Our first selection is a bronze key of indeterminate age and culture. It has no markings, an overall length of 26mm, and weighs 13.6 grams.
Mystery Solved! Thanks to commenter Forbes who notes below:
Byzantine Folding Key, Circa 5th – 6th Century.
This type of key, commonly used during the Byzantine period, could be easily carried, an important feature at a time when clothes had no pockets. The hoop of the key fits like a finger ring, and the short barrel can be folded into the palm of the hand. Unlike the teeth on modern keys, the slotted holes on this example are purely decorative, while the small crosses were intended to protect the owner’s possessions.
This post is part of an ongoing series that seeks to answer your questions about our collections. If there’s something you would like to know, please email us here.
Megan B. from Chicago asks:
What is the heaviest coin in the collection?
This has proved quite a contentious question, and led to several near injuries this morning as the curatorial staff roamed about picking up various objects.
The consensus that we have reached is that a piece of 17th-century Swedish plate money made during the reign of Charles X Gustav (right) is the best candidate. This 8 daler ‘coin’ is a rectangular sheet of copper measuring 2′ x 1′ and weighing approximately 31 pounds. Swedish plate money was produced in the 17th and 18th centuries in an attempt to use locally available copper as a monetary substitute for imported silver. Although you cannot really tell from this top view, the plate itself is only roughly level, and it varies between 3 mm and 5 mm in thickness.
This particular specimen came to the ANS from Riga, Latvia, where it was dredged out of the harbor formed by the tributary loop of the Daugava River. This was part of a long important regional trade route and the circumstances of its discovery suggest that it was deposited there as the result of a shipwreck.
The above close-ups of the dies hammered into the plate give the denomination (8 daler silvermynt), the authority under whom it was produced(Charles X Gustav), and the date of its issue (1659). Although not indicated on the plate itself, it was minted at Avesta, which is located approximately 100 miles northwest of Stockholm.
There were a few other candidates that were excluded for a variety of different reasons, including a rai stone from Yap, Mexican silver bars salvaged from a 16th-century shipwreck, and an enormous chunk of copper known as a mukuba wa matwi that was used for trade in 12th-century sub-Saharan Africa. The question also sparked some further discussion about what the heaviest singular object in the collection might be. The ANS has two large 19th-century American screw presses, including the one used by Christopher Bechtler to produce his gold coinage, but we believe that our weightiest object is actually a large marble relief carved by Gutzon Borglum. Famed as the driving force behind Mount Rushmore, Borglum was a sculptor and member of the ANS who performed some work for Arthur Huntington and the Society in the early twentieth century. The marble echoes a medal he made for a special occasion at New York City’s New Theatre in 1909.
Borglum’s artwork was restored a few years back and presently rests in our lobby. It portrays a nude female figure from behind with the symbolic masks of comedy and tragedy in her hands, and is ringed with the legend “All the World’s a Stage.” For more on its story, see Eric Silberberg’s excellent article in the Winter 2009 edition of the ANS Magazine.
Following on my post last week about the campaign to replace Andrew Jackson on the twenty-dollar bill, Gail Collins had a column the New York Times making the case that it was past time for a change. She quotes my observation about the rather more equitable situation with regards to gender and currency in Australia. The forthcoming Jane Austen note from the Bank of England is another example that bears looking at. Why not rotate through a cast of historical figures? Regardless of issues concerning representation, it is hard to understand why US paper currency has been so slow to change. As far as I can tell the only relevant part of the law (31 U.S. Code § 5114 )that governs the actual design of US paper money specifies:
United States currency has the inscription “In God We Trust” in a place the Secretary [of the Treasury] decides is appropriate. Only the portrait of a deceased individual may appear on United States currency and securities. The name of the individual shall be inscribed below the portrait.
Beyond this it would seem that the Secretary of the Treasury and Bureau of Printing and Engraving have broad discretion to design the currency as they see fit, although consultation with Congress would undoubtedly be necessary for any major changes.
At any rate, given that the momentum to make a change seems to be building, and with Andrew Jackson lined up as the most likely target, the question of course turns to who should replace him. The New York Times has been hosting a lively discussion on the subject here. Gail Collins has me backing Amelia Earhart, which was a name I mentioned in the course of a larger discussion about possible candidates. Quite simply, I think Earhart would be a good choice because she seems able to garner broad popular support for what might devolve into a bruising political process. Whatever happens, we’ll keep updating and adding our two cents to this fascinating story.
Last week, I was quoted by the New Yorker in a piece on the campaign to replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill with an image of a significant woman from American history. In referring to Jackson as the “low-hanging fruit” of figures on US currency, I was alluding to the fact that his historical reputation has been much more volatile than his moneyed peers–George Washington ($1), Abraham Lincoln ($5), Alexander Hamilton ($10), Ulysses S. Grant ($50), and Benjamin Franklin ($100). Jackson came to power as an advocate of the “common man,” which has traditionally garnered him ire from those of a more conservative persuasion. From a different angle, his putative racism and support for Indian removal have proved problematic for those who would otherwise celebrate his democratic disposition. Fair or not, Jackson does seem like the easiest of the established paper money personalities to mobilize around replacing.
One of the ironies of all of this is that images of women were commonly featured on nineteenth-century bank notes, albeit not usually as individuals, but in the form of allegorical or idealized representations. In the obsolete bank note era, my guess is that Martha Washington (left) was the most prominently and frequently pictured individual woman (she also made a brief appearance on federal silver certificates in the 1890s). I know there were notes circulating that featured the Swedish singer-cum-celebrity Jenny Lind, but no other identifiable women spring immediately to mind as being regularly pictured (perhaps readers have suggestions). Whatever the case, the introduction of federal paper money initially continued the allegorical tradition, and the first twenty-dollar bill issued in 1863 featured a representation of Liberty holding a sword and shield at the center of its obverse. A bust of Alexander Hamilton saw Liberty pushed over to the right side of the bill a few years later:
Grover Cleveland subsequently graced the $20 Federal Reserve Note introduced in 1914, and the change to Andrew Jackson finally occurred in 1929 when the small-size Federal Reserve Note we are familiar with today was put into circulation. Given that we are coming up on nine decades without a significant redesign, it might be time for a change and the WomenOn20s campaign certainly seems to be getting traction.
Whether or not this effort is successful, the big question is of course who should replace Jackson. WomenOn20s is presently having a vote on their website on a list of potential replacements. I was disappointed to see that Jane Addams, the noted social reformer and the first American woman to receive the Nobel Prize, somehow did not make the cut. Luckily, our capable assistant photographer Emma Pratte, was able to whip up a specimen note of my preferred candidate.
I am sure everyone has ideas about this, but it seems to me that one problem beyond the obvious lack of women on US currency is the narrow focus on political figures as the only kind worthy of inclusion.
Australia, for one, not only equitably has a man and a woman on each of their circulating paper issues, they also draw from a broader range of historical personages, which includes poets and authors like Mary Gilmore and Banjo Paterson and soprano Dame Nellie Melba .
All of this got us wondering about potential candidates beyond the world of American politics, and going off a list of women that have already appeared on USPS stamps we came up with the following seven ‘cultural’ candidates:
Last week the ANS was visited by Hilary Becker, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Classics at the University of Mississippi. Dr. Becker was kind enough to sit for a short interview about her work, and what follows is a lightly edited transcript of our talk.
What brings you to the American Numismatic Society today?
I study Etruscan economy and exchange. I have worked on three Etruscan excavations and I currently work at S. Omobono in Rome, but I have never had the opportunity to handle Etruscan coinage. I have seen many, many, examples of Roman coinage but for someone working on Etruscan economy, just the simple fact of being able to handle it and to look for differences in scale was important to me.
How did you first come to the study of Etruscan history?
I went to Bryn Mawr College as an undergraduate, where I studied Classical Archaeology with Jean Turfa.
Were there some particular materials at the ANS that you were interested in?
Part of this visit was simply to be able to look at Etruscan coinage and study it in person for the first time. I am interested in the denominations of Etruscan coinage, especially the varied Etruscan numerals impressed on certain coinage. While it is one thing to study pictures of coins of different size and denomination in a book, it is very helpful to see them. The ANS has a great collection of coins from Populonia—which is worthy of study because it is the city with the longest history of minting in Etruria.
Did you make any new discoveries or see anything that gave you some new ideas about where you are heading with your work?
If anything I have new questions and some things to look up! One thing I was excited to see among the many great examples of Etruscan coinage was that there are about nine coins where you have what is undoubtedly an African head on one side and an elephant on the other. Most Etruscans sided with the Romans during the Second Punic War, but there’s a current theory that at least one group of Etruscans may have sided with Hannibal and maybe this minting was an indication of that.
And finally, when and where might we expect to see some of your published work on the Etruscan economy and coinage ?
I will be working on my monograph on the dynamics of the Etruscan economy this summer. I also have a webpage on academia.edu where you can find and follow my work.
The so-called Lesher Dollars were octagonal silver pieces minted by Joseph Lesher of Victor, Colorado, in 1900 and 1901 as part of a larger movement for the cause of free silver, which had particularly strong support locally. After the Crime of ’73 saw the United States effectively demonetize silver and embrace the gold standard, a diffuse alliance of farmers, miners, and their political allies pressed to reintroduce silver currency and concomitantly expand the money supply. The apex of this ongoing struggle was the presidential election of 1896, in which Republican William McKinley defeated William Jennings Bryan and his coalition of free silver supporters. Although Bryan’s defeat seemingly settled the issue nationally, he had received more than 80% of the vote in Colorado, and it continued to roil the politically tumultuous mining districts there through the early twentieth century.
Victor was a boomtown on the western slope of Pike’s Peak, just a few miles southwest of its more famous neighbor, Cripple Creek, where the 1890 discovery of gold inaugurated a decade-long rush into the region. Joseph Lesher was an early arrival and by the turn-of-the-century he was well-known and established figure in the local mining and real estate business. The contentious politics of the county boiled down to a struggle between the heavily working-class mining districts and the more conservative city of Colorado Springs to its west, where many of the mine owners lived. In 1899, the mining districts broke off to form the new Teller County, named after the progressive and silver-supporting Colorado Senator Henry M. Teller. It was against this background that Lesher conceived of his silver pieces, which he saw as “referendums” on the silver issue because in his words, they were “referred to the people for acceptance or rejection.” No one would be compelled to accept them, but if they did begin to circulate, it would ostensibly demonstrate the utility of silver currency.
The American Numismatic Society holds fourteen Lesher dollars and some related minting equipment–2 obverse dies, 1 reverse die, 2 punches, and 3 bed plates–that were donated by Farran Zerbe (1871-1949). Zerbe also published a useful account of their genesis in the American Journal of Numismatics in 1917 that drew from an in-person visit with Joseph Lesher some years prior. As Zerbe points out, Lesher was clearly in a very grey legal area vis-à-vis the United States government, which held a monopoly on issuing hand-to-hand currency. He differentiated his silver pieces from government money with an octagonal shape and an inscription on the obverse that read JOS LESHERS REFERENDUM SOUVENIR. The dies for this initial issue of one hundred pieces were cut by Frank Hurd and struck by metal stampers in Denver. They were composed of silver .950 fine with copper alloy, weighed 480 grains (equivalent to one troy ounce), and measured 35mm in diameter.
A closer look at Lesher’s “souvenir” reveals several problematic issues. For one, the reverse inscription that it could be exchanged for “currency coin or merchandise” at the very least implied it was legal tender, and the former phrase was duly removed in subsequent emissions. Zerbe informs us that Lesher’s plan was to have merchants pay them out at $1.00 and receive them back at $1.25 in exchange for merchandise, which does not make a whole lot of sense, but accounts for the novel denomination.
The scheme garnered a great deal of attention in the press and the support of a local merchant named A. B. Bumstead, who was the proprietor of a grocery in Victor. A second type of Lesher dollar was subsequently manufactured expressly for Bumstead. This second type had a much more elaborate design, highlighted by a well-cut mining scene by Herman Otto, a Denver artist who made the dies for the remainder of the series.
The obverse shows the sun rising over Pikes Peak, which looms above a large trestle and gold mill at center while a miner pushes a cart out of a shaft in the foreground.
Although shot from a different angle (Pikes Peak is out of frame to the right), this contemporary photograph from the Library of Congress shows that the design bore at least a passing resemblance to Victor at the time. The town was then near the height of its prosperity, with some eighteen-thousand residents and silver and gold pouring out of the surrounding mountains.
This second ‘Bumstead Type’ was minted in late 1900 and included two varieties. They are distinguished by the presence of scrolls on either side of the Colorado seal on the reverse (example below without).
In a very useful census undertaken by Adna Wilde, the results of which were published in the February 1978 edition of The Numismatist, it is shown that around 700 of this type were manufactured.
Lesher’s final 1900 issue questionably replaced the phrase “will give in exchange merchandise” on the obverse with “will give merchandise or cash at any bank.”
When Zerbe conferred with Lesher, he said that government agents seized the dies used to manufacture the initial and Bumstead types, but it has been speculated that it was these ‘Bank Type’ dies that got Lesher into real trouble. The fact that the American Numismatic Society holds what is perhaps the one and only ‘Bank Type’ obverse die in its collection would seem to belie the belief that these were the dies seized by the authorities though. The ANS has one of the few Lesher dollars manufactured with this die as Wilde counted just eight extant examples.
Whatever the case, the subsequent issues, all of which are dated 1901, were smaller (33 mm) and lighter (412 ½ grains as with the standard U.S. silver dollar) than their predecessors. According to Wilde’s census, a total of around 800 of these were struck and then either engraved or stamped for merchants around the state who were sympathetic to Lesher’s enterprise. There are nine main varieties of this second type, each produced in varying numbers and attributable to a different business. One of those was a jewelry shop in Victor owned by Sam Cohen, who later became a prominent attorney in New York City and authored a lively account of his Colorado years in Gold Rush De Luxe (1940).
The other varieties can be viewed in MANTIS, the American Numismatic Society’s online catalogue. Although some supposedly new varieties of this second type have since been ‘discovered,’ they seem to be the result of shenanigans rather than genuine specimens. Ultimately, Lesher’s scheme was unsuccessful, but his silver pieces show an interesting numismatic dimension of the protracted political and economic struggle between labor and capital in the Mountain West.
This is the first in what will be an ongoing series that answers your questions about our collections. If there’s something you would like to know about, please email us here.
Rick S. from Denver asks:
“What is the oldest coin in the ANS collection?”
That is not an easy question to answer. While a number of societies in the ancient Near East and possibly Mediterranean region had performed transactions using precious metals, the origin of coinage proper in the western tradition is generally thought to have occurred in Asia Minor during the last third of the seventh century BC. It came in the form of electrum, a composite and man-made alloy of gold and silver that was stamped with a symbol or text by an issuing authority. It was the ability of an authority to impose a fixed value on coinage that represented the critical transition because it transformed commodity money (anonymous lumps of metal valued by weight) into fiduciary money (value determined legally by the state). While scholars agree that this happened around 600 BC, more precisely when, and exactly why this occurred is still much debated. For an excellent review of the current thinking on electrum and the “enigmatic start to Greek coinage,” see François de Callataÿ’s recent essay in the ANS Magazine.
In sum, the oldest coin in the collection undoubtedly rests among our trays of early electrum, but picking out one in particular as the oldest is at this point impossible. It should be noted, however, that the ANS is presently undertaking a comprehensive metallurgical analysis of our early electrum, which might soon yield and a more definitive and satisfying answer.
It should perhaps also be noted that the oldest object in the ANS collection is actually a clay tablet from the Third Dynasty of Ur, a late Neo-Sumerian empire that flourished in Mesopotamia between 2200 and 2000 BC.
The tablet is a shubati or receipt for rent paid to the House of Damquar by various parties that was originally deposited at the temple of Telloh in certification of the debt having been serviced. The sums were figured in terms of a variety of commodities, including shekels of silver, copper utensils, cloth, and grain. For a translation and more information about the tablet, click the above image to be taken to its catalog record in MANTIS.