Tag Archives: coins

Bickford's International Pattern Coin, 1874

This past week I have been working on my presentation for the upcoming International Numismatic Congress, which concerns U.S. trade dollars, the ill-fated silver coin issued in the 1870s for trans-Pacific commerce.

New York Public Library
New York Public Library

Although the trade dollar was the only one struck for international circulation, there were some interesting patterns dating to this period of expanding global commerce, perhaps most notably the 1874 ‘Bickford’ $10 coin. Pattern coins are produced for evaluative purposes, but are not approved for circulation. They are usually minted in small quantities to model proposed designs for the mint and government officials. This particular $10 pattern coin was suggested by the seemingly indefatigable Dana Bickford (1834-1909), a businessman and inventor who had the ear of Henry R. Linderman, the superintendent of the United States Mint.

Internet Archive
Internet Archive

Bickford was perhaps best known for having invented a knitting machine for home use that made it much easier to do circular work, i.e. socks, leggings, and the like. The set up also allowed for the automation of many different kinds of stitches, and it was powered by a simple hand crank. ‘Bickford’s Family Knitting Machine’ was rather expensive but seemingly successful and working devices can still be found in the present day. Unfortunately, the company lost a federal lawsuit for patent infringements in 1879 and he seems to have lost whatever fortune was made from it.

Chronicling America
Chronicling America

Bickford next tried to market a garden and fire pump while also continuing to create new inventions, but none of these seem to have found much success.  An article in The American Machinist from 1902 described him as a “well-known inventor” who was working to secure support for a retirement home for indigent inventors in West Medford, Massachusetts. It remains unclear whether he was himself destitute or if this was just philanthropy on his part, but the home was supposed to have a laboratory where its residents could continue their work. Whatever the case, nothing seems to have come of the venture and Bickford passed away in Epping, New Hampshire on October 15, 1909.

Dana Bickford’s most notable legacy, at least for numismatists, was the idea for a coin that he proposed to Henry Linderman for the US Mint in 1874. The genesis of the pattern was detailed in the February 1876 edition of the Coin & Stamp Journal, which reprinted an article that originally appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer on January 31 (click to enlarge).

American Numismatic Society
American Numismatic Society

The summary version is that Bickford was traveling through Europe in 1873 and experienced all the “difficulties and inconveniences” that accompanied exchanging for and understanding the “money current” in each of the countries that he visited. (That part of the story checks out as Bickford lodged an application with the Department of State for a passport in February 1873). The idea he hit upon while traveling was for a coin that would have its exact composition on its face, as well as its value in terms of each of the major commercial currencies. Bickford called at the mint in Philadelphia when he returned, and Linderman thought enough of the idea that dies were prepared and a pattern was struck. The ANS holds a copper specimen (Judd-1374), but it was also struck in aluminum, nickel, and gold.

ANS, 1960.166.42
ANS, 1960.166.42

Bickford’s proposed system of international coinage would allow countries to display their own particular design on the obverse (hence the Liberty Head), but required that the fineness, weight, and exchange value of the coin be expressed on the reverse. Although struck in copper, this was supposed to be a $10 gold coin or Eagle with a weight of 16.72 grams. The indication that it was .900 fine meant that it contained 15.046 grams or .48375 troy ounces of pure gold. Six cartouches circle the reverse with the value of the coin in US dollars ($10), British pounds (£2.1.1), German marks (41.99), Danish kroner (37.31), Dutch gulden (20.73), and French francs (51.81). The UBIQUE inscription stands for ‘ubiquitous,’ implying that the coin was good everywhere.

Although this was likely an impossible scheme to implement in practical terms, the coin was an intriguing idea in theory. Beginning with the formation of the Latin Monetary Union in 1865, there were a series of international monetary conferences and related efforts to create a more uniform and stable global currency system. The big problem for Bickford’s proposed coinage was that although the price of gold was relatively steady, not all nations were on a gold standard. A drop in the price of silver during the 1870s destabilized the currencies of those countries on a silver or bimetallic standard by dramatically shifting the gold price of silver. This in turn led to fluctuations in exchange rates that would have been impossible to keep up with in terms of minting and circulating coins.

Bickford-half dollar reverse-1876
Reverse of silver half dollar pattern

The article, though, rather optimistically expressed the hope that the coin would be adopted by Congress and issued prior to the opening of the Centennial Exposition in May 1876, but of course this never happened despite the wide support that was implied. Perhaps the most interesting part of the article was its ending, which praised Linderman’s “superior judgement” for “ordering the sample coins.” The illustrations show a 1876 $10 coin modeled after the earlier 1874 pattern, and a silver half dollar with an 1876 date and an interesting new scalloped design for its reverse. Neither of these coins is known to exist but it seems likely that they were struck.

Despite the fact that Bickford’s patterns were never put into production, he could not seem to let the idea go. In 1897, he issued a series of bimetallic “Republican International Dollars” in the same vein as the earlier pattern coins, with exchange rates for the Russian rouble and Japanese Yen helpfully added. Although this particular specimen was a model made with brass and aluminum, the intention was that the actual dollars would contain gold and silver.

bickford international

Bickford rather optimistically expressed the hope, which is inscribed on the obverse, that “This Combination Coin Will When Adopted be Good in All Nations / Heal All Differences Between Gold & Silver Men / and Fully Settle All Financial Questions.”

Matthew Wittmann

The Society's Inaugural Ledger

ANS-LedgerOne of the volumes that the curatorial staff often consults is a folio-sized hardbound ledger that records the first half-century of acquisitions and accessions by the American Numismatic Society. The title page of the volume has a hand-written note indicating that it was presented to the organization, “while yet in its infancy,” by William Leggett Bramhall in December 1858. The American Numismatic Society originated out of an informal meeting held on March 15, 1858 at 121 Essex Street in New York City, which was then the home of a young coin enthusiast named Augustus B. Sage (1842-1874).

Augusus B. Sage

A constitution and by-laws were subsequently formulated and then adopted by the fourteen assembled members at the first official meeting of the Society on April 6. The ANS was one of many learned societies that formed in the nineteenth century and its library and collection quickly became an important repository of numismatic knowledge and objects.

Edward Groh
Edward Groh

Over its five hundred pages, the accession ledger details the growth of the collection from the time of the founding of the Society in 1858 through December 1904. As indicated, the ledger was not given to the ANS until December 1858, but it records donations going back to April 1858 when the Society was founded. All of these early entries are in the hand of Edward Groh (1837-1905), a founding member who first became curator in 1859, so we presume he simply transcribed this information from an earlier set of records when he assumed the position. The ledger starts with a listing for a lot of fifty-two coins and tokens donated by Sage.

Page 1-April 1858

The first item accessioned into the ANS collection was an 1825 ‘Classic Head’ half cent.

ANS, 1858.1.1
ANS, 1858.1.1

For those not familiar with how museums and libraries manage their collections, the object number typically begins with the year that a given item was acquired and then a number is assigned for that lot or accession within the year, hence 1858.1 (year.accession) for Sage’s donation, 1858.2 for the subsequent donation by Edward Groh, etc. Finally, each specific item is given a number when it is cataloged, the result of which is a unique number identifying the object.

ANS, 1858.1.14
ANS, 1858.1.14

A ‘Hard Times token’ in Sage’s donation thus has the same numbers to start, but an object number that is particular to it:

1858 (year) | 1 (accession#) |14 (item#) = 1858.1.14

This 1837 token was issued by Henry Crossman, who was a manufacturer of umbrellas with a shop on Chatham Street, which is now known as Park Row.

Beyond the U.S. coins and tokens in Sage’s initial donation to the Society were a mixed bag of foreign coins. Perhaps the most interesting of these was a counterfeit 1832 eight reales minted in Mexico. Through the 1850s by far the most common coins used as hand-to-hand currency in the United States were Spanish silver coins minted in the Americas. Indeed, it was not until the Coinage Act of 1857 repealed earlier acts “authorizing the currency of foreign gold or silver coins”  that Spanish coins began to be pushed out of circulation in the United States. This counterfeit Mexican dollar indirectly reflects the ready availability of Spanish coin and the polyglot monetary system of the antebellum United States that created such problems for ordinary people and opportunities for counterfeiters.

ANS, 1904.10.1
ANS, 1904.10.1

The Society’s inaugural accession ledger is an invaluable resource, one that allows us to reconstruct the history of the collection in considerable detail. The final entry in this first ledger was recorded on January 14, 1904, and it was not a coin, but a decoration. Richard W. L’Hommedieu was a prominent Brooklyn attorney and Republican politician who fought for the Union in the Civil War with the 139th New York Infantry Regiment. He was wounded at the Battle of Chaffin’s Farm in 1864 and remained active in a variety of veteran’s organizations, one of which issued this insignia to its members.

The system of using pen and paper to document accessions to the Society’s collections continued all the way into the early 1980s when a computer database replaced the ledgers. And while nearly all of our curatorial work these days is done in digital form, the ledger serves as a reminder of our Victorian roots.

Matthew Wittmann

Odd Bronzes of the Georgian Golden Age

***This is a follow-up to Summer Seminar scholar Lara Fabian’s earlier post about the fascinating history of coinage from the Caucasus in the ANS collection.

During the late 11th and 12th centuries, the mountainous South Caucasus kingdom of Georgia flourished. It strategically exploited its position on the edge of the declining Byzantine and Seljuk empires, and succeeded in extending its sphere of influence from the northern coast of Anatolia all the way to the Caspian Sea.

A remarkable series of rulers from the Bagrationi dynasty oversaw this, including Georgi III (1156-1184) and his daughter, Tamar the Great (1184-1213)– a Queen who was addressed as “King” (მეფე mep’e). Stories about this Georgian Golden Age became central to the identity of medieval and modern Georgia as seen in the works of the Georgian poet Shota Rustaveli and the Russian Mikhail Lermontov. Even today, a portrait of Tamar Mepe graces the Georgian 50 lari note.

Georgian 50 lari note with Queen Tamar
Georgian 50 lari note with Queen Tamar

Amid the expansion of the Georgian kingdom and its cultural flowering, this period also produced some of the strangest and most fantastical coinage ever minted in the region. All coinage from this period was bronze (because of the ‘silver famine’ in the Middle East). While some pieces were struck on regular round planchets, others clearly were not– like this coin of Queen Tamar herself (ANS 1917.216.683).

ANS 1917.216.683
ANS 1917.216.683
Tamar's Monogram
Tamar’s Monogram

It is a so-called ‘irregular bronze.’ On the obverse, the central image is Queen Tamar’s monogram within a wreath. Surrounding this is a marginal legend written in the Georgian Asomtavruli script. Although not preserved fully here, it is possible to reconstruct it as: ႵႱႾႪႨႧႠ ႶႧႠ ႨႵႬႠ ႽႣႠႨ ႥႺႾႪႱႨ ႠႫႱ ႵႰႩႬႱ [–], In the name of God, this silver piece was struck in k’oronikon [–] . (The date is missing on this piece). Particularly interesting here is the specific mention of silver when, of course, the piece was bronze. This is repeated across all the irregular Bagrationi bronzes.

On the reverse is an extended 5 line Arabic legend in the center, reading:

الملكة المعظمة
جلال الدنيا والدين
تامار بنت كيوركى
ظهير المسيح
اعز الله انصار
The great Queen
Glory of the World and Faith
Tamar daughter of Giorgi
Champion of the Messiah
May God increase [her] victories

With a marginal legend of:

ضاعف الله جلالها ومدّ ظلالها وايد اقبالها

May God increase her glory and lengthen her shadow and strengthen her beneficence! (Lang and Dundua)

This piece also features two countermarks, which were very common on these irregular bronzes. One is unique to Tamar’s bronzes, while the other is the cypher of Tamar’s daughter, Queen Rusudan (Pakhomov, p. 124).

ANS 1922.193.1
ANS 1922.193.1

Above is another of Tamar’s bronzes (ANS 1922.193.1), which has the same legend but a different of Queen Rusudan’s cyphers. This piece can be dated to k’oronikon 430 (=1210 CE), by the letters ჃႪ just before the cross on the obverse (Lang). Although the irregular coppers are often simply irregular blobs, some of them, like this suspiciously bird-shaped one, seem to play off of forms from nature.

ANS 1917.216.687
ANS 1917.216.687

This is clearer in the fish-shaped planchets best known from the reign of Giorgi IV Lasha (1213-23) (ANS 1917.216.687). This particular ANS example is, according to Lang, likely an overstrike of a bronze of Giorgi IV Lasha from the reign of Queen Rusudan (1223-45).

ANS 1959.165.106
ANS 1959.165.106

Finally, there are the pieces of even more irregular form, like this coin of Giorgi IV Lasha (ANS 1959.165.106), which is recognizable by the bit of its two line obverse legend that is not off-flan:

Giorgi, son
of Tamar

Within a few short decades of the minting of this coin, Georgia would become embroiled in conflicts with Mongol invaders, from which it suffered greatly. As strange and unassuming as these blobs of bronze are, they participated in a true high point of Georgia’s early history.

Source: Odd Bronzes of the Golden Age | Barbarus hic ego sum

Whistler's Peacocks

James McNeil Whistler Arrangement Musée d'Orsay
James McNeil Whistler
Arrangement in Grey and Black, no. 1
Oil on canvas, 1871
Musée d’Orsay

Whistler’s Mother. There are few works like it, artist and subject fixed in the public’s mind through repetition in the popular culture: advertisements, cartoons, dorm room posters. Think Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, Van Gogh’s Starry Night, and Michelangelo’s David. Dali’s melting watches and Warhol’s soup cans. I think it is safe to say, though, that the general public probably knows very little about Whistler compared to these other artists. How many could even come up with his first name? (James, though his bohemian friends in the Latin Quarter called him Jimmy!). While his most famous painting may be stark and somber, Whistler’s life had all the color, passion, and tempestuousness we expect from our artists. You could call him American, but by the age of nine he had already left the country, first to Russia and later to Paris and London, where he made his reputation. He returned to the United States briefly at seventeen for a failed stint at West Point. With a greater interest in drinking and carousing than studying, he accumulated demerits for lateness, card playing, wearing his hair long, and laughing at inappropriate times. This and a flunked chemistry exam led to his expulsion in 1854, despite appeals to the academy’s superintendent, Robert E. Lee, who in the past had been willing to forgive his transgressions.

James McNeil Whistler Symphony in White, No. 1 Oil on canvas, 1861-62 National Gallery of Art
James McNeil Whistler
Symphony in White, No. 1
Oil on canvas, 1861-62
National Gallery of Art

Whistler began giving his works musical titles in the 1860s. The first was Symphony in White, no. 1, a portrait of a young woman in full figure with a white dress against a white background. He also became known for his “nocturnes,” hazy meditations on nighttime scenes that had to be painted from memory in the next day’s light. The official title given to the portait that came to be known as Whistler’s Mother was Arrangement in Grey and Black, no. 1. The painting was purchased by the French state in 1891 and can now be found at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.

I came across Victor David Brenner’s 1905 medal of Whistler while researching an article on the collector Robert Eidlitz, its original owner.

ANS, 1940.100.32
ANS, 1940.100.32

The portrait is one of Brenner’s best, nicely capturing, in the words of cataloger Glenn Smedley, “the vainglorious, belligerent egotist who bickered with critics and writers.” The legend on the reverse, “Messieurs les Ennemis!,” was fitting for an artist who called his autobiographical book The Gentle Art of Making Enemies (1904), which documented his interpersonal battles that played out in the press, including a libel suit against the critic John Ruskin.


And what about that peacock? A common enough Victorian motif, its relation to Whistler would have been instantly recognizable to anyone familiar with the goings-on in the art world at the time. It relates to a commission he received in 1876 to complete the decorative work on a dining room in shipping magnate Frederick Leyland’s London home. Whistler threw himself into the job, obliterating much of the work that had been accomplished already, replacing it with golden plumage patterns and two large gold and blue peacocks.

Smithsonian Institution
Smithsonian Institution

His patron balked at paying for the unrequested additional work, so Whistler doubled down, covering more of the work in blue paint and adding a twelve-foot allegorical mural portraying two more peacocks, one representing Leyland in full rage—his greed manifested by the coins adorning its body and at its feet—the other himself striking a dignified pose.

Smithsonian Institution
Smithsonian Institution

So how did it turn out? If you are in Washington, D.C., you can see for yourself. The Peacock Room was acquired by the Smithsonian and has been open to the public since 1923 in the Freer Gallery of Art, which is, appropriately enough, free!

For more on Whistler and the Peacock Room see Daniel E. Sutherland, Whistler: A Life for Art’s Sake (2014); Stanley Weintraub, Whistler: A Biography (1974); and Ed Rochette, “Artist’s Sarcasm Captured in ‘The Fighting Peacocks,’” Numismatic News (August 4, 1987).

David Hill

Admit One: Sprague & Blodgett's Georgia Minstrels

One of the most popular and complicated cultural forms that enlivened popular entertainment in the nineteenth-century United States was the minstrel show.

University of Virginia
University of Virginia

While musicologist Dale Cockrell has usefully detailed the longer historical trajectory of blackface performance in the United States, the immediate origins of the minstrel show rested on the spectacular success of Thomas Dartmouth Rice’s performance of “Jump Jim Crow” in the late 1820s and 1830s. This was a ribald song-and-dance routine that Rice, a white actor, performed dressed as a ‘black’ man in tattered clothes with his face blackened with burnt cork. His success opened the floodgates of blackface entertainment as white performers and musicians all over the country began ‘blacking up.’ By the 1840s, groups like the Virginia Minstrels and Ethiopian Serenaders were offering full evenings of entertainment know as minstrel shows that featured a mix of songs, dances, and skits.

Blackface minstrelsy was the most popular form of entertainment in the United States during the mid-nineteenth century, but the racial elements that it embodied and transgressed have made it a source of continuing controversy. Many early scholars looked at the minstrel show as an honest representation of black folk culture, which was a perspective that echoed the claims of contemporaries. Other scholars have argued that the minstrel show was a caricature of black life that effectively denigrated blacks and legitimized white supremacy. Part of the problem with trying to understand minstrelsy is that it proved so durable over time, and found such a broad audience, that it makes any overarching interpretations about its meaning problematic.

Library of Congress

One particularly difficult thing for many people to understand is how and why African-American performers began to appear in minstrel shows in the decades after the Civil War. The reasons were of course manifold and complex, but essentially there was an opportunity because minstrel shows were a form of entertainment that already featured ‘black’ performers. African-Americans were able to capitalize on white fascination with black life by playing up their novelty as “genuine Negroes” and offering ostensibly authentic performances of plantation life in contrast to the “counterfeits” of white minstrels.  Because of its association with the South and slavery, the moniker “Georgia” came to signify that a minstrel troupe was made up of African-American performers. The formula proved strikingly successful, and by the 1870s there were a number of black minstrel troupes touring the United States, despite what was often an acrimonious relationship with the white theatrical establishment.

New York Clipper
New York Clipper

It was in this context that the Sprague & Blodgett’s Georgia Minstrels known to numismatists came about. Z. W. Sprague was a longtime manager of white minstrel troupes associated with the city of Chicago. Wash Blodgett was an agent for assorted traveling entertainers, most notably working for the magician and ventriloquist DeCastro. During the summer of 1876, Sprague took out an ad in the New York Clipper, the semi-official organ of the American show trade, looking for black performers. Although listed as co-proprietors, it seems that Sprague financed and organized the troupe while Blodgett was the agent who actually traveled with it. The manager of this initial iteration of Sprague & Blodgett’s Georgia Minstrels was the notable African-American performer Charles B. Hicks.

ANS, 1949.22.1

Hicks had been one of the originators of African-American minstrelsy and was able to put an impressive array of talent together for the ongoing tour. In late December, the troupe took out an advertisement in the New York Clipper that trumpeted its success and reproduced fawning press notices.

Clip-12-7-76Although Hicks soon left the troupe, many of the most celebrated black entertainers of that era, including James Bland and Sam Lucas, performed with Sprague’s show. Sprague’s association with Blodgett was likewise short-lived, and by June 1878 the latter’s name was dropped from the advertising. The countermarked coins associated with Sprague & Blodgett were thus produced sometime between the fall of 1876 and the spring of 1878. 1949.22.1.revIn Gregory Brunk’s comprehensive catalog of countermarked American currency, he lists ten specimens of the countermark on Liberty Seated half dollars, with a date range from 1862 to 1877. The ANS specimen is an 1877 half dollar minted in Carson City, Nevada.

It is not clear precisely how these countermarked coins were used. While they obviously served as a kind of admission check for the show, the denomination of the host coin was actually the same price (50¢) as a ticket for the performance. In this context it seems likely that they were distributed by an agent of the Georgia Minstrels to get favorable publicity from the press or to ensure the goodwill of the local community by giving away some free ‘tickets’ to the show. Although a few circus countermarks are known, this seems to have been the only minstrel troupe to use them.

Sprague sold out his interest in the Georgia Minstrels to Richards & Pringle in 1880, but the show continued under that title into the twentieth century. Over time, black performers undermined and eventually exploded many of the impoverished white-controlled representations of African-Americans that minstrelsy had introduced into American culture. This countermarked coin is a material reminder of the complex legacy of the minstrel show, and the dynamic but often painful interactions between white and black Americans that have animated U.S. popular culture.

The best history of the minstrel show in the United States is Robert Toll’s Blacking Up (1974), but perhaps the most compelling work on the subject is W. T. Lhamon’s Raising Cain: Blackface Performance from Jim Crow to Hip Hop (2000). On African-American minstrelsy, see Lynn Abbott and Doug Seroff’s Out of Sight : The Rise of African-American Popular Music (2009).

Matthew Wittmann

Diplomacy and Display in Commagenian Coinage

This is the sixth in a series of guest posts by students attending the Eric P. Newman Graduate Seminar in Numismatics.

During the late 2nd century BCE, the region of Commagene, located in south-central Anatolia, became an independent kingdom during a period of high geopolitical tensions. By the first century BCE, the Seleucid Empire was waning, the Romans and Parthians were actively working to consolidate their own empires, and the Armenian kingdom continued to expand its territory under the leadership of Tigranes the Great. While these major powers dominated the political and physical landscape, Commagene was the setting for cross-cultural interaction brought about by trade and military activity. Commagene’s multifaceted political and cultural position is particularly evident in the bronze coinage of Mithradates I Callinicus (r. 96-70 BCE), who ruled the area under the sovereignty of Tigranes.


What does the numismatic record tell us about how the Commagenian dynasts saw themselves in relation to the other assorted regional powers? The American Numismatic Society possesses four examples of coins issued under Mithradates, but one in particular is unique:

ANS, 1944.100.65150
ANS, 1944.100.65150

This coin is a rare type with an image of an eagle with a palm leaf under its wings on the obverse, instead of the more typical profile of a diademed king. A caduceus, a rod with intertwining snakes that is associated with the Greek god of commerce Hermes, is represented on the reverse, accompanied by the inscription ‘BASILEWS MITHRADATOU KALLINIKOU (‘of the king Mithradates Callinicus’).

The depiction of animals instead of rulers was common in the Greek world, where the eagle usually referenced Zeus. Yet if we consider the imagery of the eagle and palm branch on Mithradates’ coins within the context of first century Anatolia, the imagery may also express political alliance or allegiance to Tigranes. Specifically, the eagle commonly appears as an emblem of kingship in Tigranes’ coinage. In the example below, two eagles flank a rosette on his crown.

ANS, 1944.100.62299
ANS, 1944.100.62299

The eagle and palm branch on Mithradates’ coinage may thus be read as a conscious appropriation of kingship imagery that was associated with the dominant power in the region. It was a political act that acknowledged Armenian sovereignty on the one hand, and the Commagenian right to rule on the other. Moreover, the difference in the inscriptions on each coin is striking, and contributes to the present interpretation. While Mithradates carefully refers to himself as basilews or ‘king,’ Tigranes calls himself basilews basilewn or the ‘king of all kings.’ Understood in this context, coinage illuminates negotiations of political identity and expressions of kingship in antiquity.


The legacy of Mithradates’ imagery and the impact of Armenian expressions are also manifest in later numismatic and sculptural projects. For instance, Antiochus I Theoshierothesion (sacred tomb) at Mount Nemrud is an innovative fusion of various aesthetic and symbolic traditions, displaying the self-consciousness of the Commagenian dynasts in relation to past and contemporaneous power relations.

For more information on the Commagenian kingdom, see this recent volume edited by Herman Brijder.

Patricia Kim

Golden Coins and Golden Fleeces

This is the fifth in a series of guest posts by students attending the Eric P. Newman Graduate Seminar in Numismatics.

View of the Black Sea from the Batumi Botanical Gardens
View of the Black Sea from the Batumi Botanical Gardens

The Black Sea coast of Georgia is a wildly popular vacation destination, and its beaches are packed every summer with tourists. stalin-soviet-union-foreign-tourists-poster-4-1While perhaps not familiar to Americans, this stretch of coast has a special reputation in the Russophone world as a lush tropical paradise, and it became a popular vacation destination within the Soviet Union.

The history of ‘tourists’ to this region, though, started much earlier. It can be traced all the way back into the depths of Greek mythology in the story of Jason and the Argonauts. Jason, as the legend goes, came to these shores in search of the Golden Fleece. The narrative of his journey hints at the long history of interaction between the eastern reaches of the Black Sea and the Mediterranean world, a history that has also been substantiated by archaeological evidence.

ANS, 1944.100.78502
ANS, 1944.100.78502

This gold coin is a material example of the cross-cultural interaction that characterized the area. On its obverse is a non-naturalistic depiction of a head facing right. The reverse is a schematic frontal depiction of a winged Nike, the Greek goddess of victory. The coin has a high hammered rim, which is typical of coins minted in the region.

While its findspot is unknown, the coin is a local Georgian imitation of an Alexander stater.  It was most likely minted in the territory of what is today Georgia between 100 BCE and 100 CE. A related type of imitation Lysimachus stater is also known from this region. Although Alexander the Great and his successors never directly controlled this part of the world, Hellenistic coinage circulated there, and it was thus a logical choice as a model for local issues.


During this period of history, the Black Sea coast (roughly corresponding to western Georgia) was a polity known as Colchis. Central and eastern Georgia was the seat of the polity of Iberia, known also by its Georgian name ‘Kartli.’ Traditionally, the imitation Alexander staters have been considered to have been produced in Kartli, while the imitation Lysimachus staters have been attributed to Colchis (see Kapanadze 1969). More recently, however, opinion has shifted away from this geographic interpretation, most notably in the work Tedo Dundua and others who manage the online catalog of Georgian numismatics, which is an invaluable resource.

The nature of the minting authority of these coins is unclear–we really do not even know whether they were ‘official’ issues of local authorities, emissions by private individuals, or something else entirely. Given the large gaps in our knowledge of local conditions during this era, it is difficult to place this coin within a more concrete political context. Hopefully ongoing archaeological work in Georgia can help to clarify the situation. The coins do appear in hoards alongside Hellenistic, Roman and Arsacid coins, so they were being used monetarily and were part of a much broader system of exchange.

Travelers, traders and tourists have long found themselves on the eastern shores of the Black Sea, and this enigmatic ANS coin represents just one material facet of the local response to this complex web of interactions.

Lara Fabian

Kushan Coins at the ANS

A long-awaited publication from The American Numismatic Society, Kushan, Kushano-Sasanian, and Kidarite Coins, is now available for sale. The 322-page hardcover catalogue  by David Jongeward and Joe Cribb with Peter Donovan presents all of the Kushan coins in the ANS collection with detailed descriptions and commentary, including 79 full-color plates. The Kushan Empire flourished between the 2nd century BC and the 3rd century AD, covering much of modern-day Pakistan, Afghanistan, and northern India.


Moving beyond previous publications, there have been major revisions to the organization and chronology of the production system of Kushan coinage. The catalogue is based on the latest coin-based research, including site find analysis and die studies. Introductory essays present the historical and cultural context of the kings and their coins, with the coins classified by ruler, metal, denomination, mint, production phase, type and variety.

The catalogue features two series of coins issued by the Kushano-Sasanian and the Kidarite Hun rulers of former Kushan territory as they adapted and followed the Kushan coinage system. The overall work covers four centuries of Central and South Asian ancient history and contains illustrations of all the ANS gold coins and as well as a selection of copper coins.

ANS, 1967.154.5
ANS, 1967.154.5

Andrew Reinhard, Director of Publications, commented on this newest title, “With a very strong cabinet of Far Eastern issues, we at the ANS were excited to produce material on our Central and South Asian coinage. This catalogue is an incredible tool for academics, numismatists, and collectors, as it will assist in identifying coins and with the general understanding of this significant historical period.”

Kushan, Kushano-Sasanian, and Kidarite Coins is available to order on the ANS website at http://numismatics.org/Store/Kushans

You can also call Catherine DiTuri to place your order at 212-571-4470, ext. 117.

The list price is $150; ANS members may purchase it for $105.

Download a PDF of the introduction at no charge by clicking here.

Huntington Award and Houghton Lecture

This past weekend the American Numismatic Society gave the Archer M. Hungington Award for excellence in numismatic scholarship to Arthur A. Houghton III.

Arthur A. Hougton, III (left) and Jere L. Bacharach
Arthur A. Hougton, III (left) and Jere L. Bacharach

We had an earlier post about the history of the medal itself that you can read here. ANS Trustee Jere Bacharach presented the award, after which Houghton delivered the Silva Mani Hurter Memorial Lecture. The lecture, which you can watch below,  derived from Houghton’s long study of Seleucid coinage and was entitled “Seleucid Excursions: More Questions than Answers.”

Duke's Cigarette Card Coins

The New York Public Library has launched a new website for its ample collection of digital images. There is a variety of material on there that will be of interest to numismatists, although there are no actual coins or medals as the NYPL sold off its numismatic collection in a 1982 Bowers & Ruddy auction. The library does retain some incidental paper money in its Manuscripts and Archives Division. One of the more interesting pieces of coin-related ephemera that their digitization efforts have turned up is a curious, and often insensitive, series of cigarette cards that depict various national types and coins. Cigarette cards were small chromolithographed prints that tobacco companies used to stiffen their packaging and advertise their brand. They were also meant to encourage loyalty by  getting consumers to trade and collect cards in an attempt to own the complete series, which often featured actors, athletes, historical personages, and sundry exotic people and locations. Perhaps most famously, the earliest baseball cards were actually cigarette cards. The “Coins of all Nations” series was printed in 1889 by Knapp & Co. of New York for Duke’s Cigarettes, which was based out of Durham, North Carolina.

Duke University Library
Assorted Duke’s cigarette brands and cartons, Duke University Library



The complete set included 50 cards that measure 3.7 cm x 6.7 cm, and they all have the same reverse (left). The coin illustrations seem more or less accurate, and the exchange value of each is enumerated in U.S. currency. The depictions of the various national types, though, are rather more problematic, and often veer into racist caricature. The cards were produced during an age of imperialism when many misguided ideas about race held great sway. The cards clearly trade in stereotypes, with an inebriated Irishman and a Swiss girl carrying wheels of cheese, amongst other rather harmless supposed national proclivities. The depictions of non-white national characteristics are rather more vicious as you’ll see with a look through the slideshow.

Sandwich IslandsOne of the more negative representations was the card for the Sandwich Islands. This was a dated designation for what in 1889 was the independent Kingdom of Hawaii, which was a constitutional monarchy that had, as indicated, issued its own silver coinage. The illustration is a strange mix of race-based presumption (very dark skin), sexualization, and implied foolishness or vanity (clothes and mirror). It’s also a good gauge of prevailing ideas about Native Hawaiians, ones that would help enable the United States’ takeover of the islands just a few years later. While some of the caricatures are undoubtedly offensive to the modern eye, they are also an apt reflection of the way that Americans perceived other people around the world during the late nineteenth century.

Eagle-eyed readers may have noticed that this is not quite the complete set. Either the digitizers at the NYPL missed a few cards or their set is incomplete, as Turkey and Venezuela are missing. If someone happens to have either of those, please just send them along and I’ll add them to the post. Thanks!

Matthew Wittmann