Tag Archives: ask a curator

Ask a Curator: Object Numbers

This is part an ongoing series that answers your questions about our collections. If there’s something you would like to know about, please use the ‘Contact’ form or email us directly here.

A reader asked:

“In a blog post a few weeks back, you demonstrated how object numbers were created when coins were accessioned into the collection using a combination of date, lot, and item numbers. So why do so many of the objects in the database have numbers that begin with 0000.999.####?” 

As we catalogue our collection, we try to identify how each object came to the ANS, but we don’t always have enough information. There are two main clues we use; one is the notes written on the back of the box and the other is the set of ledger books in which accessions have been recorded since 1858.

boxes2

These three boxes, from a group of French jetons that have not yet been catalogued, show the range of possibilities. The one on the left identifies the accession as 1940.176 and adds that it was a gift of Alexandre Orlowski in November 1940. The one in the center says only that it was purchased in May 1934, but it is usually possible to identify the specific accession by looking in the accession ledger book for purchases during that month. The box on the right says nothing at all about the origin of the object.

ANS 1933.126.9
ANS 1933.126.9

Earlier this year I had occasion to catalogue the Society’s holdings of Swedish plate money. Because these cumbersome slabs of copper are mostly too large to fit in our boxes, most of them had no indication at all of their origin. Thus, they presented the same problem as the blank box.

By searching our accession database (a digital version of the ledger books, painstakingly typed into a computer by George Cuhaj in 1981), I was able to identify accession records for plate money, and in many cases I was able to match up the examples in our trays with particular accession records. However, not all accession listings in the ledger book describe the objects in enough detail to identify them. For the plate money, I had three such accessions: 1916.192, “Sweden, 4 plate money” (among other things); 1923.150, “8 Sweden plate money” (among many other things); and 1929.103, “2256 Swedish coins”.

Thus, I was left with a residue of 22 pieces of plate money that had no attached notes and could have come from any of these three accessions. In this situation, our practice is to assign an accession number beginning “0000.999” to indicate that we do not know when or from whom it came into our collection.

ANS 0000.999.56881
ANS 0000.999.56881

—David Yoon

Ask a Curator: Roman Mints

This is part an ongoing series that answers your questions about our collections. If there’s something you would like to know about, please use the ‘Contact’ form or email us directly here.

Poppy S. from San Francisco asks:

“What was the largest mint in the Roman empire?”

Although Roman authorities operated important provincial mints like Alexandria and allowed many individual cities to retain the production of local coinages, the mint of Rome itself dwarfed any other production center during the classical period of the Later Republic and the High Empire. The only brief exception to that rule was the mint at Lugdunum in central Gaul, which was hugely productive at the beginning of the 1st century. Below is an aureus bearing the bust of Emperor Tiberius struck there in 15-16 AD.

ANS, 1944.100.39239
ANS, 1944.100.39239

In terms of raw numbers, the American Numismatic Society has around 70,000 coins in its Roman collection. For those coins for which a mint has been attributed, 25,000 were struck in Rome. Coinage from Roman Alexandria accounts for the next largest mintage, with some 15,000 pieces, but these coins are also significantly over-represented in the collection, which skews the numbers a bit. Antioch (4,000), Lugdunum (2,000), and then sundry smaller collections from other Roman and provincial mints make up the remainder.

OCRE
OCRE

A useful tool for understanding Roman coinage is OCRE (Online Coins of the Roman Empire), an ongoing project to catalogue the holdings of the American Numismatic Society and other major coin cabinets. The database has a cool mapping option that allows you to visualize the mint and findspot data for the coins in the ever-expading database.

Gilles Bransbourg

Ask a Curator: Heaviest?

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.

KarlXGustavThe 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.

ANS, 1914.81.1
ANS, 1914.81.1

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.

1914.81.1.details
left-the four corners                                                                 right-at center

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 Marble

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.

Matthew Wittmann and David Yoon

Ask a Curator: Oldest?

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.

Electrum-ANS

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.

ANS, 1913.9.1
ANS, 1913.9.1

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.

Peter van Alfen