Tag Archives: coins

If It’s Baroque, Someone Should Fix It!

by Elizabeth Hahn Benge, previous ANS Librarian

Truer words could not be said by someone with a passion for ancient history, especially when the baroque takes over the ancient. Such is the case with a Roman Bust of Antinous in the collection of the Museo Nazionale Romano, Palazzo Altemps, in Rome. After the original ancient Roman face was broken at some unknown time, the bust received a “new” baroque-style face that was added by the mid-18th century. To many viewers, it is apparent that the face does not match the style of the rest of the bust and is a restoration added later. But then what happened to the original face?

The answer can be found in a new exhibition titled A Portrait of Antinous, in Two Parts, at the Art Institute of Chicago that opened on April 2, 2016. Loans from the American Numismatic Society help introduce Antinous—the Greek youth and companion of Roman emperor Hadrian, who mysteriously drowned in the Nile River in A.D. 130—and his enduring interest throughout history. The ANS loans include four bronze coins of Antinous (1967.152.356; 1944.100.62226; 1944.100.58522; 1944.100.58531) and a 1711 book from the Harry W. Bass, Jr. Library. The coins demonstrate the same iconographic features that were likely inspired by sculptures of the same type of Antinous: broad shoulders, bare chest, and lush, curly hair.

ANS 1944.100.62226
ANS 1944.100.62226

The show brings together years of research that took place to determine whether or not the Art Institute of Chicago’s Fragment of a Portrait Head of Antinous was the original face of the Bust of Antinous (inv. no. 8620) that belongs to the Palazzo Altemps museum, a suggestion first put forth by W. Raymond Johnson, Egyptologist at the University of Chicago. Since the “new” face that the Palazzo Altemps bust received is part of the sculpture’s history, it could not be removed, and added to the challenges of understanding if, and how, the Art Institute’s fragment might have fit. But—Spoiler Alert!—it did!

Left: Fragment of a Portrait Head of Antinous, mid-2nd century A.D. Roman. Gift of Mrs. Charles L. Hutchinson. Right: Bust of Antinous, mid-2nd century A.D. Roman, with 18th-century restorations. Museo Nazionale Romano, Palazzo Altemps, Rome, 8620. Archivio Fotografico SS-Col, num. 589475. Photo by Stefano Castellani.
Left: Fragment of a Portrait Head of Antinous, mid-2nd century A.D. Roman. Gift of Mrs. Charles L. Hutchinson.
Right: Bust of Antinous, mid-2nd century A.D. Roman, with 18th-century restorations. Museo Nazionale Romano, Palazzo Altemps, Rome, 8620. Archivio Fotografico SS-Col, num. 589475. Photo by Stefano Castellani.

This conclusion, and the years of research that led to it, are the focus of the exhibition. Modern 3D printing technology was used to create a mold from which a plaster replica was made in order for the team to effectively demonstrate that the two parts were in fact originally part of one ancient bust. The show is centered around these two parts: the fragment of a portrait head from the Art Institute and the bust from the Palazzo Altemps, which are displayed together along with the full-scale plaster cast reconstruction that gives the impression of its original appearance in antiquity.

The exhibition further tells how the fragment ended up in Chicago, an ocean away from its original location. A video documenting the research and creation of the plaster cast accompanies the show, while a timeline of events spans nearly 40 feet of wall in the gallery. I’ve had fun working on this project, and it is a fascinating story with a lot of content, which can be difficult to convey through photographs alone, and is one of many reasons I hope readers will be able to visit the show in person!

A Portrait of Antinous, in Two Parts will be on display through August 28, 2016, at The Art Institute of Chicago.

The exhibition website can be found here.

And the video that is also part of the exhibition can be found here.

 

ANS Receives Grant to Clean U.S. Large Cent Collection

(Please note: the announcement below was an April fool’s prank. Enjoy!)

The ANS is pleased to announce today that it has received a Rockefeller-Noggin grant that will be used to conserve its important collection of early U.S. large cents.

After decades of neglect, dust dirt and grime have taken their toll on this part of our collection. This results in a a layer of corrosion, tarnish and oils that cause the once brilliant gleaming coin to have a dull dark brown appearance making photography of these items very difficult. The ANS photographer, Alan Roche, took the initiative to apply for a grant from the prestigious Rockefeller-Noggin Institute to restore the coins to their original lustre. The successful application means the Society will receive $20,000 in funding to hire personnel and purchase conservation materials, including 50 gallons of Brasso™, to conserve approximately 10,000 coins. The work is to commence immediately.

Telegraphic Numismatica

Detail of Morse from the reverse of an 1896 $2 silver certificate, ANS 1980.67.17
Detail of Morse from the reverse of an 1896 $2 silver certificate, ANS 1980.67.17

On January 6, 1838, American polymath Samuel F. B. Morse and his partners Leonard Gale and Alfred Lewis Vail hosted a successful private trial of their new electric telegraph system. Morse was a celebrated painter who became fixated on the idea of creating an expeditious means of long-distance communication when his wife fell ill and died while he was away (the news, delivered by mail, arrived only after the fact). Morse’s signature contribution was adding extra circuits or relays to the existing electromagnetic systems, which ensured that the telegraphic signal would carry over longer wires. The first message that was transmitted that day was an aphorism: “A patient waiter is no loser.” (The more famous phrase associated with the telegraph, “what hath God wrought,” was sent in 1844 as part of a public demonstration of the new commercial telegraph line between Baltimore and Washington, D.C.)

The electric telegraph expanded exponentially in the mid-nineteenth century, transforming commerce and communication throughout the United States and eventually around the world. The key to the globalization of the technology was overcoming the challenge of manufacturing underwater cables that were durable enough to survive and transmit signals across vast distances. The first successful effort to lay a trans-Atlantic cable was undertaken by the Atlantic Telegraph Company headed by Cyrus W. Field. On August 16, 1858, the first message was sent from England to the United states, which read: “Europe and America are united by telegraphy. Glory to God in the highest; on earth, peace and good will toward men.” Shortly after, Queen Victoria and President James Buchanan exchanged congratulatory messages, but the cable failed after just a few short weeks.

ANS, 0000.999.4493
ANS, 0000.999.4493

Nevertheless, the venture had demonstrated the viability of undersea cables, even if there were some technical issues that still needed to be worked out. The New York Chamber of Commerce commissioned a medal from Tiffany & Co. to celebrate Field and the engineers that had made the project possible. The richly symbolic result depicted Columbia and Britannia holding a cable across the globe. In the small cartouche below the figure of Mercury stands with the fruits of American commerce, which includes a beaver.

A more entertaining version of Tiffany’s rather formal medal were a series of tokens struck for the occasion by George H. Lovett of New York City.

ANS, 0000.999.4501
ANS, 0000.999.4501

Here an electrified handshake takes place across the Atlantic between ‘Brother Jonathan,’ a contemporary personification and parody of a New Englander, and a British gentleman. The latter asks “How are you Jonathan,” to which he responds “Purty well old feller, heow’s yer self.” Another fascinating momento from this event was a token produced by Granville Stokes, a merchant in Philadelphia who purchased a portion of the failed cable.

ANS, 1952.110.26
ANS, 1952.110.26

Stokes had the cable cut into quarter-inch thick slices and a suitable die was made to serve as a housing and advertising card for his business. It was then attached so that a cross-section of the cable showed as the reverse. It was not until 1866 that trans-Atlantic telegraphic communication was re-established when a new 1700-mile long cable went into operation.

ANS, 0000.999.57219
ANS, 0000.999.57219

The means by which signals were sent and interpreted via the telegraph was by what came to be known as Morse code. In this system, numbers, letters, and symbols were assigned a combination of dots and dashes that allowed for quick communication by simply tapping on a receiver. Skilled technicians could transmit a remarkable amount of text, up to 30 or 40 words per minute. A silversmith named S. W. Chubbuck from Utica, New York, seemed to have a particular interest in the Morse code system. This silver token is one of two minted, though more were made in bronze, and it depicts the full “Morse Telegraph Alphabet” and advertises his business, which apparently had a connection to the telegraph industry. Chubbuck later issued paper scrip during the Civil War that also included a tutorial in Morse code.

ANS, 1945.42.278
ANS, 1945.42.278

Perhaps the most famous bits of telegraphic numismatica are the Canadian nickels minted during the Second World War. New twelve-sided five-cent pieces were struck in brass and chrome-plated steel in 1943 amidst metal shortages caused by the war. As you can see, the device on the reverse was a torch splitting through a large V, which both indicated the denomination (5 ¢) and nodded towards the Allied ‘V for Victory’ campaign.

ANS, 1944.33.1
ANS, 1944.33.1

Some will note that the rims of the coin look a bit strange. This is because Thomas Shingles, the engraver of the Royal Canadian Mint, included a message along the rim in Morse code. Beginning at 6 o’clock (under the N) and reading clockwise it says:

We Win When We Work Willingly

Here’s a closer look at the top edge where the word “WORK” is spelled out: W (·——)  O (— — — ) R (· — ·) K (— · —)

1944.33.1.det

And with that short lesson in Morse code we end our short survey of the numismatics of the telegraph!

Matthew Wittmann

A Countermark Christmas

I was casting about for a subject appropriate to the holiday season when I came across this coin:

ANS, 1943.132.4
ANS, 1943.132.4

And so I figured I would review some of our more interesting countermarked coins for the holiday season. This 1843 US large cent was apparently countermarked for one A. S. Warner as a Christmas gift in 1845. I am not sure if the maker had a full set of letter punches because a C has been used instead of a G in “GIFT.” It has also been suggested that the maker may have been drinking.

ANS, 1957.109.4
ANS, 1957.109.4

This is a silver four drachm minted in Alabanda around 170 BC that has been countermarked with the head of Tyche to revalidate the coin for circulation in Caria (southeast Turkey).

ANS, 1953.171.1081
ANS, 1953.171.1081

A rare bronze as struck in Rome during the brief but supposedly debauched reign of Caligula (AD 37-41). The purpose of the ‘AV’ countermark on the reverse, which depicts the Roman goddess Vesta, is unclear.

ANS, 1960.111.363
ANS, 1960.111.363

The reverse of a silver thaler minted in the German state of Württemberg during the early sixteenth century. The eagle countermark is thought to represent and validate the coin for circulation in the Hanseatic City of Lübeck.

ANS, 1917.215.2628
ANS, 1917.215.2628

A gold dinar bunduqi minted in Maghrib during the reign of Ismail Ibn Sharif (AD 1672-1727), the warrior king who consolidated the power of the Moroccan Alaouite dynasty. The counterstamp, a key between the initials JR, is supposed to have been that of King João V of Portugal, which maintained a string of coastal fortresses and trade centers along the Atlantic coast of northwest Africa.

ANS, 1913.130.209
ANS, 1913.130.209

This is a very worn 1795 US half dollar that features a neat countermark which resembles a spoked wheel. The speculation on the container is that this was marked for circulation in the Bahamas, but that seems dubious. Fred Pridmore suggested that it might be a Dharmarckra, a Buddhist religious emblem. Perhaps one for the “Mysteries from the Vault” series.?

ANS, 1970.156.712
ANS, 1970.156.712

So we are cheating a bit on this last one, which is not really countermarked, but is an appropriately repurposed coin. This is the reverse of a well-worn 1815 silver real from Columbia that some enterprising nineteenth-century American re-engraved as a Christmas gift for a loved one.

Happy holidays and for those in the giving mood, please consider donating to the American Numismatic Society as part of our year-end appeal.

Matthew Wittmann

PELLA: Coins of the Kings of Macedonia

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The American Numismatic Society has launched a digital project that promises to be an important new research tool in ancient Greek numismatics. PELLA: Coins of the Kings of Macedonia is a comprehensive and accessible online catalogue of the coinage produced by the kings of the Macedonian Argead dynasty from 700 to 310 BC. In its current version, PELLA uses the numbering and typology system developed by Martin Price of the British Museum to catalogue individual coin types with additions that greatly enhance its usefulness as an online resource. So, for example, here is a silver tetradrachm struck under the authority of Alexander the Great that is classified as a Price 4.

ANS, 1908.229.1
ANS, 1908.229.1

If you follow this link to the search results, you will be presented with a typological description and all examples of that type from participating institutions. In this case there are 45 objects from the ANS and the Münzkabinett Berlin, which are accompanied by a useful visualization of the geographic and historical context of the coins in the form of a map delineating mints and find spots with a sliding timeline underneath.

Screen Shot 2015-11-30 at 10.57.50 PM

Below this, all of the coin specimens are detailed and usually pictured, making comparative study relatively simple. Perhaps the most useful tool for researchers can be found in the Quantitative Analysis subsection at the bottom of the page. Screen Shot 2015-11-30 at 4.42.34 PMIt calculates and lists the average axis, diameter, and weight of all the examples for the Price 4 specimens, allowing for straightforward analysis of variations within a given type.

One of the other noteworthy features is that the platforms allows for searching based on the symbols common to this coinage. Screen Shot 2015-12-01 at 1.49.17 PMIn the Browse menu, you will find that there are a variety of options for customizing a search along the left hand side of the page. Under the Symbol menu, there are boxes arranged by location which have lists and checkboxes which allow for searching either particular symbols or locations. Although the precise terminology used to describe the various symbols is a work-in-progress, the feature will make it much easier for researchers to investigate this oft-debated subject.

If all of that is not enough, perhaps the neatest feature of the website centers on the way it allows users to Visualize Queries. This gives you the ability to construct a search and query the database with the results displayed as a graph or chart. Below is one that I created which shows the weight of the tetradrachm in ten-year intervals from 340 BC to 140 BC. Notwithstanding what seems to be some bad data in the one outlier decade, what you can see is a slow decline in the weight of the tetradrachm over two centuries.

chart (1)As a linked data platform, PELLA connects to the relevant pages in the online collection databases of the contributing institutions, which presently includes the ANS, the British Museum, and the Münzkabinett Berlin. The catalogue also shares data with the Inventory of Greek Coin Hoards Online, and further links will be created as the project expands. All of this is made possible by stable numismatic identifiers and linked open data methodologies established by the Nomisma.org project.

Mexican-American 'Dollar,' circa 1877

A few weeks back the ANS put together a display for the U.S.-Mexican Numismatic Association that included some of the highlights of our collection of Mexican coins and currency. Among the most remarked upon pieces was a rather unusual Mexican-American ‘dollar,’ which in actuality consists of an 1874 Republic of Mexico 8 reales, an 1850s-era US half dime, and a circa 1875 US dime. As you can hopefully make out in the photo below, a copper rivet was driven through the three coins to join them together.

ANS, 1922.54.13
ANS, 1922.54.13

Explaining exactly why someone would do this is a rather complicated story. Let us begin with the Mexican coin, which was struck at the Guanajuato mint in 1874 and is of the traditional “Cap & Rays” design. During these years the Republic of Mexico was attempting to transition to a decimal-based monetary system centered on the peso, but the older Spanish real denominations proved so durable that they continued to be produced alongside the decimal currency. But what mattered in this case was not really the denomination, but the silver content of the coin. Generally speaking, countries at the time wanted the commodity value of their currency to be roughly equal to its nominal value. With the discovery and exploitation of vast silver deposits in the American West during the 1860s and 1870s, the price of silver declined as the supply increased. As the amount of silver used in particular coins stayed the same, their commodity value correspondingly decreased. A Mexican 8 reales, for example, contained around 377 grains of pure silver, and during the first half of the nineteenth century when the price of silver was stable, its commodity and nominal value corresponded, i.e. it was worth about $1 US as both circulating currency and as silver bullion. As the increasing abundance in the 1870s drove down the price of sliver, the value of the Mexican 8 reales as silver bullion depreciated to where it became worth significantly less than a US dollar. The reason that this was significant was because the Mexican 8 reales and peso were freely circulating in the southwestern United States during the 1870s, as there was a general want for silver coinage in the region.

ANS, 1922.54.13
ANS, 1922.54.13

As the price of silver declined, people soon discovered that their “Mexican dollars” that had been circulating at par with the US dollar were now only being redeemed by banks for around 85 cents. Whoever made this unusual coin came up with a novel solution to the problem. Hammering a dime (10¢) and half dime (5¢) together with the Mexican coin brought the value of the amalgamated piece to  one US dollar.

It is unclear how common this rather strange solution to the unstable currency situation was. At least one other specimen of similar vintage is known to us, via a 1905 inquiry to the Numismatist.Numismatist-1908-MexDollar A dealer named B. P. Wright included the illustration at left in a letter soliciting information about this unusual specimen. In this case the ‘host’ coin was an 1844 Mexican 8 reales, but the method and orientation of the attached American coins suggests it was made by the same person. Editor George F. Heath responded to the inquiry as follows:

During this time (1871-79 ) we resided in the great southhwest. For a period of about fifteen years silver had been driven from circulation and was rarely seen, paper currency having almost entirely taken its place. Long about 1877 the banks in the section began the importation of Mexican dollars in great quantities which were eagerly taken up into circulation at par, but in the course of a couple of years silver had so fluctuated in value that the banks would only redeem them at eighty five cents. This was the condition of things in 1879. It must have been between 1877 and 1879 that the brilliant idea presented itself to the author of this combination of combining these coins in a substantial and permanent way. But it could not have been long after ere the piece which was partly bullion became entirely so, and became a fit subject for the curio portion of the numismatic cabinet.

If you have seen a similar piece, please do let us know!

Matthew Wittmann

Eight Antoniniani of Claudius Gothicus, 268-270 CE

Claudius-Gothicus_Coin-Decay
Marcus Aurelius Claudius (213-270 CE) was an Illyrian of modest birth who worked his way up through the ranks of the Roman army during the tumultuous third century. According to the Scriptores Historiae Augustae, he was a fierce fighter and able commander who eventually became caught up in the imperial intrigues of the day. Claudius was commander of the the reserves of a force led by the reigning Emperor Gallienus in the summer of 268 that was besieging Milan, where the would-be usurper Aureolus had taken refuge. The supposed inefficacy of Gallienus as a ruler led to a conspiracy that ended in his assassination.

Worcester Art Museum, 1915.24
Worcester Art Museum, 1915.24

Whether or not Claudius was involved remains unclear, but he was the one chosen by the army to succeed Gallienus. In what was perhaps a related move, the Scriptores Historiae Augustae reports that the soldiers were promised twenty aurei each for their support. Claudius quickly made peace with Aueolus and then just as quickly betrayed and killed him. He then turned his attention to one of the many external threats facing the Roman Empire, namely an invasion of Pannonia by the Goths. It was in this context that Claudius earned the surname Gothicus (i.e. conqueror of the Goths) by which he is now commonly known after destroying a large Gothic army at the Battle of Naissus. Claudius thereafter quashed an incursion of Germanic tribes at the Battle of Lake Benacus and successfully campaigned to restore territories that had been lost by his predecessors to the Empire. The celebrated reign of Claudius Gothicus was ultimately brief, as he was felled by the so-called “Plague of Cyprian” (probably smallpox) in early 270.

The antoninianus was a new domination of silver coin that was introduced amidst the financial crises that gripped the Roman Empire in the early third century. Over the course of time it was debased until it was mostly bronze. As you can see by the mixed patinas of the eight antoniniani issued under the authority of Claudius at the top of this post, the metal content varied.

13768.obv

The common obverse features a radiate bust of the Emperor and Roman Imperial Coinage lists dozens of reverse types. The example above (RIC 168) was minted in Mediolanum (Milan) and its reverse features Spes, the personification of hope, holding a flower.

Matthew Wittmann

Persian Silver of Judah

Hendin-1050
Hendin-1050

The first coins with Hebrew inscriptions were struck during the period when the Achaemenid or Persian Empire ruled ancient Judah. It seems likely that the earliest of those coins were struck at the Philistian mint of Gaza between 539 and 333 BCE. Later, only small denominations were struck in Judah, quite likely in or very near to Jerusalem. These are part of what is known as “Yehud” coinage because most of them were inscribed with the paleo-Hebrew legend YHD, although some carry the name Hezekiah and one very rare variety has the name of a priest named Yochanan.

It was quite a feat for coins to be minted at all in this area, which was rather out of the way in that time, and had no great technological capabilities. The mints in ancient Judah most likely resembled small blacksmith or jewelry shops, but must have been in the precinct of a fort or a palace because of the need for security in the transport and storage of uncoined silver. The early coins minted in Judah were patterned after Athenian coins and struck some time before 333 BCE when Alexander the Great brought an end to the First Persian Empire.

The denominations of the coins are uncertain. However, this group seems to be related to the known weight of the Judean shekel, which was 11.4 grams around 800 BCE during the Iron Age. The two denominations of the earliest small silver coins struck in Judah weigh around half a gram or a quarter of a gram. These weights correspond to approximately 1/24th and 1/48th of the known weight of the shekel. Archaeologists believe that there were 24 gerahs in each shekel at the time, although Exodus 30:13 informs us that “the shekel is twenty gerahs.” This discrepancy may be due to a slightly different division of the shekel in this earlier period.

Half a gram is very light and small for a coin. Manufacture of such tiny objects presented challenges because the small size of the dies that were created to strike these coins made them very fragile. The diminutive dies were subject to heavy wear and susceptible to breakage. Numismatists today can track the wearing and breaking of the dies if they can identify a sufficient number of specimens.

ANS, 1999.32.45
ANS, 1999.32.45

The most common of the early Yehud coins is a type with an obverse portrait of Athena and the reverse portrait of an owl, just like the classic Athenian tetradrachm. But instead of the AΘE ethnic inscription for Athens, the coin carries the paleo-Hebrew script YHD. The coin measures about 8 mm in diameter and weighs just half a gram, and most extant specimens, as with the example above, are in rough shape. It is estimated that this type represents a full 15% of the Yehud coins in existence.

 

Credit: Don Simon
Credit: Don Simon

While I am on the subject of ancient Jewish coins, I would be remiss not to note the passing of Israeli numismatist Shraga Qedar, whom many in the ANS community knew well. Sadly he died last month, and my tribute to him can be found here.

David Hendin

ANS at the International Numismatic Congress

Screen Shot 2015-09-04 at 9.44.12 AMThe American Numismatic Society will be at the International Numismatic Congress next week in Taormina, Sicily. Indeed, we are one of the sponsoring organizations and we are looking forward to a week full of scholarship and amiable association.

What follows is a rundown of ANS-related events at the Congress, perhaps the most notable of which is the cocktail reception that we are hosting in the picturesque gardens of the Villa Communale on Tuesday, September 22. taorminaThe reception begins at  8:30pm and is being held in honor of Basil C. Demetriadi and in memory of the late Richard B. Witschonke. This event is also being sponsored by the Comune di Taormina and with the generous support of Numismatica Ars Classica AG, the Classical Numismatic Group, Inc., and Harlan J. Berk Ltd.

Here is a chronological list of papers and panels with ANS-affiliated scholars, which includes the work of two graduate students whom the ANS sponsored, Jane Sancinito and Katherine Van Schaik. Although they are not making formal presentations, ANS librarian David Hill and adjunct curatorial associates Peter Donovan and David Hendin will also be in attendance. We hope to see you there.

 

Monday, September 21

  • 12.00 pm — Palazzo dei Congressi, Auditorium — Gilles Bransbourg – The Currency Rates of the Roman Republic
  • 4.00 pm — Palazzo dei Congressi, Theatre — Robert Hoge – The Dispersion and Denouement of the Archer Milton Huntington Collection
  • 4.00 pm — NH Hotel, Room C — Jane Sancinito – Parthian Circulation: a Study of the Wilson Hoard

 

Tuesday, September 22

  • 9.00 am — NH Hotel, Room C — Matthew Wittmann – Empire of Coins: US Trade Dollars in the Late Nineteenth-Century Pacific
  • 9.00 am — Palazzo dei Congressi, Green Room — Katherine Van Schaik – The Currency of Medicine: Healing Imagery on the Coins of Kos, Epidauros, and Pergamon, from the 4th century BCE to the 4th century CE
  • 11.40 am — Palazzo dei Congressi, Auditorium —Andrew Burnett (trustee) – Victorious Emperors and a Happy World: a new coin of Zela
  • 3.00 – 6.30 pm — Palazzo dei Congressi, Auditorium —“Networking Roman coin data repositories” routable with contributions from curator Gilles Bransbourg and trustee Andrew Meadows.
  • 8.30 pm — Villa CommunaleAmerican Numismatic Society Cocktail Reception

 

Wednesday, September 23

  • 11.40 am — Palazzo dei Congressi, Green Room — Elena Stolyarik – The Coinage of the Scythian Kingdom in the Dobrudja: The Evidence of Coin Finds and Monetary Circulation
  • 12:20 pm — Palazzo dei Congressi, Auditorium — David Yoon – Evolution of Stylistic Patterns in Pre-Visigothic Tremisses

 

Thursday, September 24

  • 9.00 am – 1.30 pm — Palazzo dei Congressi, Green Room —“The new LANDscape of Greek numismatics” rountable with contributions from Ute Wartenberg, Andrew MeadowsPeter van Alfen, Ethan Gruber, and Andrew Reinhard.

 

Buon viaggio!

Bryant Park Fountain 'Hoard'

For the Summer issue of the ANS Magazine, curator Gilles Bransbourg contributed a story that explored an interesting numismatic dimension of New York City’s Bryant Park. At the center of this leafy refuge stands an elegant black granite fountain designed by Charles A. Platt, noted architect of the American Renaissance movement.

© Alan Roche
© Alan Roche

Like many fountains around the world, it is a magnet for people seeking good fortune, and these wishes are often attended by tossing a coin into its waters. This act is the legacy of ancient traditions observed by many different cultures around the world that center on making offerings at wells, springs, and other sources of water. Bransbourg, who specializes in Roman economic history, points to Coventina’s Well as a good example of this longer history. This shrine adjacent to Hadrian’s Wall collected the waters of a local spring, and to date over sixteen thousand coins, most presumed to have been offerings from Roman soldiers stationed nearby, have been recovered from the site.

fig.5.IMG_8371
© Alan Roche

Closer to home, the not-for-profit Bryant Park Corporation collects somewhere in the neighborhood of $3,000 worth of US coins each year out of its fountain. The resulting funds are used to support park operations. The foreign coins fished out of the fountain are much less numerous and difficult to profitably exchange. The staff were thus kind enough to share the ‘hoard’ of foreign coins that had been collected over a yearlong period for analysis. This consisted of 732 coins that originated from 76 different countries–86 if the Euro coins, which have a common reverse and a country-specific obverse, are counted separately. The overall distribution of the set organized by the total number of coins and place of origin is shown in the table below (click to enlarge).

Chart 1

Perhaps unsurprisingly the Eurozone (141) and the United Kingdom (123) were best represented in the hoard, but the relatively large number of coins from Russia (51) and Argentina (28) is also interesting to note. The two oldest coins found were a 1936 US cent that had somehow slipped by park staff and, more unusually, a 1936 50-centimes silver coin from French Indochina. But I don’t want to recapitulate everything for this post, and there are many more facts, figures, and suggestions about how and why these particular coins ended up in the fountain in the article, which you can read in full here.

ANS-water coins
© Alan Roche