In the past decade, the American Numismatic Society has been fortunate to acquire a number of African numismatic objects from the Boston-based collector Alan Helms. These objects are mostly produced within the last two centuries and are distinguished by their large size for objects of numismatic value. Most of the objects come from modern-day Congo, Nigeria, and Cameroon. At first blush they come across as simply worked pieces of metal. The ANS caught up with Helms to find out more about his overall collecting practices and what led him to these objects, and to learn about how he grew his collection.
Q: When was the first time you bought a numismatic object from Africa? What inspired you to collect this work in particular?
I bought my first piece of African currency from Monsieur Huguenin at Galerie Majestic on Rue Guenegaud, and in short order I started buying from most of the galleries in Paris. Whereas a good Baule wooden standing figure in those days might sell at auction for $3,000, $4,000, or $5,000, one could find superb currency for a fraction of that cost. This work remains one of my favorites.
Q: Where were you acquiring these objects when you lived in Paris? Can you describe the market for African works in Paris at the time?
I was a visiting professor at the University of Paris (Nanterre) in 1983 when a colleague took me to several African art galleries and the African collection at the old Musée de l’Homme. I remember being totally smitten. Around the same time, I discovered African metal currency, which I found equally intriguing as African art, and it was more affordable. So I began to purchase examples in Paris. This launched me into a lifetime of collecting African currency in Europe and the United States. Within a few years I had some 80 pieces.
Q: How have these objects fit within the context of your overall collecting practices?
The two main collections of my life have been African metal currency and Chinese scholar rocks—both incidentally among the world’s most beautiful abstract arts.
Q: How did you learn more about the objects you collected?
Visual features have been my sole guide throughout so I’ve never studied these objects in any systematic, scholarly fashion. I’m almost exclusively concerned with the forms themselves. But it’s also true that little serious work has been done to date on African metal currency. Few catalogues exist and many of those are of doubtful value. It’s a ripe field for art historians who specialize in African art!
Q: You have donated parts of your numismatic collection to several important institutions including the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and Wellesley College. Other than the study and care for your works, what relevance do you think they could carry?
For one thing, the objects themselves are aesthetically fascinating. Beyond that, they’re an important part of the material history of the cultures that have created them.
The Spring 2017 issue of ANS Magazine will be mailed to Members on June 20th, but the article “Wishes Granted: the ANS and the NEH” can be read right now for free (3 MB download).
The article, authored by Peter van Alfen, Gilles Bransbourg, Ethan Gruber, and Andrew Reinhard, details all of the recent NEH-funded work being done at the ANS with a nod to the Society’s past regarding Open Access initiatives and data-sharing.
On June 5th, the 63rd Graduate Summer Seminar in Numismatics, which has been generously sponsored by Eric P. Newman, began at the ANS under the direction of Dr. Peter van Alfen. Since 1952, the Society has offered select graduate students and junior faculty the opportunity to work hands-on with its preeminent numismatic collections. The rigorous eight-week course, taught by ANS staff, guest lecturers, and a Visiting Scholar, introduces students to the methods, theories, and history of the discipline. In addition to the lecture program, students select a numismatic research topic and, utilizing ANS resources, complete a paper while in residence. The Seminar is intended to provide students of Classical Studies, History, Art History, Textual Studies, and Archeology who have little or no numismatic background with a working knowledge of a body of evidence that is often overlooked and poorly understood.
This year’s Visiting Scholar is Dr. Thomas Faucher of the Institut de recherche sur les archéomatériaux, Centre Ernest-Babelon, part of the Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS) and the Université d’Orléans (Orléans, France). Dr. Faucher is, among other things, a specialist in ancient coin production and Ptolemaic coinages. In addition we welcome eight students who come to us from McMaster University, the University of Pennsylvania, Yale University, the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World (NYU), the University of Delaware, the University of Houston, and Rutgers University.
A few weeks ago, quite a large number of Latin American banknotes were donated to the American Numismatic Society, largely early 20th-century issues from Bolivia. Many of these banknotes, One-Boliviano bills dated 1911 and issued by El Banco de la Nacion Boliviana, bear an imprinted overstamp that reads “Banco Central de Bolivia.” Three signatures appear at the bottom, which seem almost as if they had been processed manually because of their range of colors, irregular locations on the banknotes, and various combinations of signatories.
It would be futile to understand the context that had led to their issuance without some understanding of Bolivia’s currency history. Partially ruled by the Incas before the Spanish conquest, the territory of what would become Bolivia became part of the Viceroyalty of Peru until 1776, when it was transferred to the newly established Viceroyalty of the Rio de la Plata. Incorporating the Potosi Mines, the area became Spain’s main silver supplier from 1545 until its independence on August 6, 1825. The young Republic, founded by Simon Bolivar, naturally turned toward silver to create the backbone of its currency system in 1827, with the new Sol exchanged on par against the Spanish colonial Real. However, wars, internal conflicts, excessive reliance on imports, and economic growth led to a permanent lack of monetary supply. Limited use of gold, minting of debased silver coinage and of bronze small change were not sufficient to alleviate this issue, leading to the introduction of paper money in 1867. At the same time, the world was moving away from the bimetallic gold and silver standard, adopting gold as its monetary anchor. As a result, the value of silver fell and Bolivia adopted the gold standard in 1895. Minting of silver coins decreased, coming to a halt by 1909, while Peruvian and British silver coins gained legal tender status. By the early 20th century, banknotes, issued by four private banks, had grown to represent more than half of the country’s overall monetary supply. At that time, a new currency unit, the Boliviano (worth 8-Soles) had been in circulation since 1864.
On January 7, 1911, Banco de Bolivia y Londres was turned into a mixed bank with a 78.4% state participation called Banco de la Nacion Boliviana, which enjoyed exclusive privilege of printing banknotes from 1914 onward. Its first banknotes were overstamped on existing pre-1911 bills, before the regular Mercury-type new banknotes were printed shortly after a May 11, 1911 law covering a 1–100 Bolivianos range:
However, like most other countries all around the world, Bolivia’s cycles of economic boom and bursts worsened with the Great War. Currency convertibility into gold had to be suspended between 1914 and 1928. However, high demand for raw materials from the US stimulated tin production, originally only a by-product of the country’s mining sector, which brought back prosperity. After a provisional fall in 1918, tin exports surged to become 24% of world production by 1929. This amounted to 70% of Bolivia’s total exports. Logically, excessive credit expansion and unregulated speculation reached their peak.
Enter Princeton Professor Edwin Walter Kemmerer. Holding PhDs in Philosophy, Economics, and Finance from Wesleyan and Cornell, he witnessed the suspension of the Gold Standard in most of the world (but not the US) following 1914, followed by a period of strong monetary expansion that degenerated into high inflation and currency disorders in several countries. The breakdown of paper-money convertibility into gold, even if restored provisionally in some countries in the 1920s, had opened the doors for unlimited abuse of monetary expansion at the hands of political authorities and economic agents. A strong advocate of more independent central banks, return to gold standard, and control of monetary supply, Kemmerer was called by Guatemala in 1919, where he oversaw the creation of a central bank. This started a cycle of economic and financial reforms sweeping the continent, Kemmerer and ad-hoc teams of advisors steering a range of financial, monetary and legal reforms in Colombia (1923), Chile (1925), Ecuador (1926), Bolivia (1928), and Peru (1930). At the same time, he was involved with other countries as diverse as China, Turkey, and the Philippines.
In Bolivia, Kemmerer intended to suggest reforms of the taxation, custom, and financial systems altogether, while creating a true central bank with capacity to offer rediscount facilities to other banks. Kemmerer concluded his mission in July of 1927. A law dated July 11, 1928 and promulgated on July 20, 1928 led to the transformation of the existing Banco de la Nacion Boliviana into a central bank, initially named Banco Central de la Nacion Boliviana, operating alongside a banking regulatory and supervisory body, la Superintendencia de Bancos y Seguros, as well as a controlling authority. Regulations protecting private savings were set up as well as reserve ratios between banks’ capital and their balance sheet and limits on the banks’ ability to expand credit. The new central bank’s mandatory reserves of metal were fixed at 50%, and the Boliviano defined as a currency unit equivalent to 0.54917 g of gold. British and Peruvian Pounds were reestablished as legal tenders alongside the national currency. On April 20, 1929, the bank adopted its final name, Banco Central de Bolivia, and initiated its activity on July 1. Although the state owned 62.5% of the bank, it could appoint only 2 board members out of 9.
The central bank started to issue new banknotes bearing “Banco Central de Bolivia” and the July 20, 1928 date, displaying a portrait of Simon Bolivar, which replaced the former Mercury of the 1911 series. The law of 1928 had provided for coinage of silver for fractional denominations up to the 1-Boliviano unit. However, through amendments on February 5 and December 3, 1929, it was agreed to retain the 1-Boliviano notes. As a result, the denomination range produced by the new central bank was no different than in 1911, with banknotes of 1, 5, 10, 20, 50, and 100 Bolivianos to which higher denominations of 500 and 1,000 Bolivianos were added. The date of the law that had established the new central bank replaced the previous 1911 date.
Since no real currency reform had taken place, the monetary structure that had operated since 1911 could be maintained. The law had simply provided for the replacement of the old banknotes with the new ones issued by the central bank, which paid royalties to the central treasury in exchange of this privilege. Pending the printing of the new series, it was then decided to use the older types, incorporating a “Banco Central de Bolivia” overstamp.
Interestingly, a range of overstamps were used, with four different colors—black, blue, pale blue, magenta—and four different sizes for the letters: very large, large, medium, and small. This created potentially 16 combinations for each denomination. Actually, not all these combinations were used for each denomination. As far as the 1-Boliviano banknote is concerned, neither the red overprint nor the largest letter size are to be found. The delay in getting the new series printed may be explained by the fact Bolivia, like most Latin American and many other developing countries at that time, subcontracted the printing job to corporations located in the US or in Europe. In this case, the American Banknote Company, which was responsible for printing the majority of the paper money used by the Latin American countries between ca. 1870 and 1970, was entrusted with that task.
One of the difficult parts was the fact banknotes had to carry the signatures of no less than 3 different officials. In 1911 they were the Contador (Accountant), the Delegate of the Government, and the “Gerante” Director of the issuing bank. The 1928 law had substituted them with the Accountant, the Superintendent of the Banking Authority and the “Gerente General,” the Central Bank Governor. As a result of bureaucratic and political instability, these names changed frequently. No less than 16 possible combinations of officials are encountered on the un-stamped 1-Boliviano 1911 banknotes, to which the three additional combinations displayed on the overstamped series need to be added. The plates and inks that were used for printing the signatures vary as a result, with exact location on the banknote, color, letter thickness, and shape displaying much instability. The range of colors and sizes used for the letters on the stamp added to this variety, ensuring that each banknote featured almost unique characteristics.
The banking reform did not allow Bolivia to escape the consequence of the 1929 market crash and subsequent economic depression. Mining exports collapsed, and private consumption dropped 25% between 1929 and 1932. With high unemployment, capital imbalances and falling salaries, Bolivia left the gold standard for the second time in 1932 after it had defaulted on its public debt in late 1930. A military junta had taken over in July 1930, and the country went into a disastrous war with Paraguay between 1932 and 1935. In 1939, the central bank was nationalized, after its independence had been gradually reduced as a result of the economic and financial crisis.
Kemmerer’s faith into the gold standard had not helped the country: its overvalued currency exchange rate, fixed at the height of Bolivia’s mining activity, had effectively hindered its capacity to export goods in a competitive fashion, while allowing cheap imports. To some extent, Bolivia suffered the fate of those countries that did not leave the gold standard and devalue their currencies soon enough, like France, even though Bolivia left the gold standard before the US did.
Obviously, one cannot only blame Kemmerer’s inspired reforms for what was happening: the crisis was global, and it is likely that reining in excessive credit before 1929 had allowed the country to mitigate some of the economic depression’s impact. In the long run, the most striking tribute to the 1928 financial overhaul lies probably with the survival to these days of some of the institutional framework it had created: Bolivia is still enjoying a Central Bank that helped extract the country from further inflation and hyperinflation in the 1950s and early 1980s.
In any case, most economic crises find their roots outside of the realm of monetary policy, and even the most efficient central bankers have to deal with their governments’ generally sub-optimal economic policy choices.
Coins first appeared in the western world some 2,700 years ago. During most of this long history, coins were entirely handmade. The metals were excavated and smelted by hand; the coin blanks were manufactured by hand; the dies were engraved by hand; and the coins were struck by hand. Their use as monetary instruments required that coins be standardized, but because coins were handmade each individual coin differed in some way from all the others produced at roughly the same time: the alloys would differ from batch to batch depending on the metal sources; individual weights within a single batch would vary; dies would wear and be recut; or different obverse and reverse die combinations would be used. Of the billions of handmade coins produced over the centuries, only a very small proportion of them remain today. The detailed study of every existing coin thus helps us to piece together the bigger picture of a state’s fiscal and monetary policies, particularly the decisions made about how many coins to strike in a given year, in which denominations, and in which alloys. Detailed study also helps us to understand how mints operated as both government institutions and factories, how they developed organizational structures and production processes to meet demand.
For numismatists working on ancient Greek coinage particularly die studies of individual series remain the hallmark of our contributions to our overall understanding of ancient monetary systems. But to complete a die study, especially on larger issues, is a mind-numbingly difficult task, requiring not just the laborious and time-consuming gathering from a multitude of sources of images or casts of all known specimens, which can number in the thousands, but also the tedious and arduous task of comparing the images to find examples struck from the same die(s). The largest die study of ancient Greek coinage completed to date, Wolfgang Fischer-Bossert’s study of the didrachms of Tarentum included roughly 8,000 coins. This monumental undertaking cost Fischer-Bossert nearly a decade of his life and a good deal of his eyesight to complete. To try to tackle a die study the size of the late 5th c. Athenian “owl” coinage, of which ca. 60,000 coins probably exist today, would undoubtedly take a lifetime.
It has long been recognized that developing a computer program to do much of the heavy lifting for die studies is something we all would readily welcome to help us speed smaller die studies along and to allow enormous die studies projects like that for late 5th c. Athenian owls to have a shot of actually being completed. The technology for such a program certainly exists today and a number of individuals in the numismatic community have been attempting to develop such a tool. At the ANS, our late colleague Richard (Rick) Witschonke took it upon himself to privately fund the development of what he called CADS: Computer Aided Die Study Program. During the last three years of his life (2013–2015), he worked closely with Huapeng Su to develop CADS, which he hoped to make a freely available, open source program to aid numismatic research. By the time Rick died in early 2015, CADS was functioning well with certain types of coinage, but still required further work to make it fully operational across a broad spectrum of numismatic material. It was Rick’s hope that the ANS would be able to find the funding to complete the work on CADS.
Happily, Prof. Josiah Ober of Stanford University has now stepped up, generously donating $10,000 of his research funds to the ANS to see a beta version of CADS released by the end of this year. Ober’s interest in this project stems from his attempts to find ways to quantify economic performance in the ancient Greek world, demonstrated, for example, in his most recent book The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece (Princeton 2015) and in the launch of the POLIS website. What we can learn about the production and consumption of coinage has the potential to play a key role in gauging ancient economic performance, but only if we can generate quantifiable data through die studies and hoard studies. Currently, only about 15–20% of all possible die studies for ancient Greek coinage have been completed, meaning we still have a long way to go before we have significant and comparable data sets. It is our hope that with the launch of CADS, we can initiate a new era of numismatic studies, in which other digital tools like OCRE and PELLA can provide the assemblage of raw numismatic material for a series or type that a program like CADS will then use to produce die studies in a matter of hours rather than weeks, months, or even years.
The ANS curators and fellows are pleased to announce a new lecture series, “Money Talks: Numismatic Conversations.” In this monthly interactive lecture series, appropriate for all levels of coin collectors and enthusiasts, attendees will view relevant coins, banknotes, or medals while learning about the broader world of numismatics. Light meals will be served, and Q&A sessions will follow. To ensure these events are as accessible as possible to all, most will take place on Saturdays at the ANS headquarters in New York City. On a few occasions, these Numismatic Conversations will take place at other venues.
During Saturday Numismatic Conversations at the ANS, the Society will be open from 12:00 noon to 4:00 pm, so you have the opportunity to view items in our collections or library.
When taking place at the ANS, the fee will be $20 for ANS members, $50 for non-members. Pricing for other venues will be determined.
The series kicked off at the ANS on February 11 with lectures by Peter van Alfen, Gilles Bransbourg, and Ute Wartenberg on “The Origins of Money.” This lecture considered the beginnings of money and its various guises including cut silver in the ancient Near East, early electrum coinage of Asia Minor, early bronze objects, bars and heavy coins in Italy and the spread of cowries in the Indian Ocean area, Eastern Africa and South Asia, including China.
Next Lecture: March 11
The next lecture in the series will be on Saturday, March 11, at the ANS at 1:00 pm, by Vivek Gupta, “The Beginnings of Islamic Coinage.” This talk will introduce members to the beginnings of Islamic coinage in the seventh century and its vast trajectories within the Arab lands and beyond. It will begin with an in-depth survey of its Byzantine and Sasanian precedents and will provide a basic outline of “Arab-Sasanian” and “Arab-Byzantine” types. Members will also learn about the styles of Arabic calligraphy that were used on early Islamic coins. Members will be able to view and handle fine examples of the ANS’s Islamic holdings with Assistant Curator, Vivek Gupta.
Lunch will be served at 1:00 pm, followed by the lecture at 2:00 pm, and Q&A at 3:00 pm. The ANS will remain open from 12 noon until 4:00 pm. RSVP: Catherine DiTuri, (212) 571-4470 #117
Highlights of upcoming lectures (full brochure to follow):
Saturday, May 6
Gilles Bransbourg, “Signs of Inflation.”
Dr. Bransbourg will look at how inflation translates into coinage debasement and banknotes bearing large denominations, from ancient Rome to modern Zimbabwe.
Saturday, May 6, 2017, at 1:00 pm. American Numismatic Society. Lunch served at 1:00 pm, followed by the lecture at 2:00 pm, Q&A at 3:00 pm. The ANS will remain open from 12 noon until 4:00 pm.
David Hendin, “Ancient Jewish Coinage.”
Mr. Hendin will discuss the origins and production of ancient Jewish Coinage from the Persian era until the time of the revolts against Rome.
Date: TBA. Venue: American Numismatic Society.
Alan Roche, “The Art of Photographing Coins.”
Mr. Roche will consider the various aspects involved in the production of high resolution images of coins and banknotes. A hands-on photographic demonstration will be included.
Date: TBA. American Numismatic Society.
Mark Tomasko, “Representations on US Banknotes.”
Date: TBA. American Numismatic Society.
Jonathan Kagan, “Numismatic Book Collecting.”
Mr. Kagan will talk on collecting early books, particularly those with a focus on numismatics.
Date: TBA. Venue: American Numismatic Society.
Speakers: TBA “Wine and Money.”
In this lecture we will consider the strong relationships between coinage, banknotes, and wine throughout history and cultures.
Date and Venue: TBA.
Please mark your calendars and plan on joining us for these informal programs in a relaxed and social environment.
The American Numismatic Society is proud to announce the publication of Wealth and Warfare: The Archaeology of Money in Ancient Syria, by Frédérique Duyrat. Syria has been the theater of one of the most barbarous wars of the last centuries, characterized by war crimes and persecution of civilians. Beyond the human aspect of this conflict, one of the distinctive features of the war in Syria has been the treatment of cultural heritage. It takes two different forms. The most obvious is the systematic destruction of historical artifacts and remains by ISIS, dubbed “cultural cleansing” by UNESCO’s Director-General Irina Bokova. There is a second aspect to the “cultural strategy” of ISIS. This group is completely different from all the preceding forms of international terrorist organizations since it is only marginally dependent on foreign funding and has accumulated an impressive war chest. The traffic of antiquities has, among other activities, become an essential resource for the group. The income represented by looting and illegal traffic of antiquities has been estimated at around $200 million per year, and may represent the second largest source of income for ISIS. Moreover, the chaos caused by this multiparty war is beneficial to different groups of looters, whatever the cause they defend.
It is extremely difficult to identify objects that come from looting. If they have never been catalogued by a museum or in archaeological records, they have no established provenance. The sand or earth remaining on those artifacts is often the only sign of a recent archaeological discovery. Coins are even more difficult to trace to their source. Mass-produced in large numbers and often circulating over wide areas, they have an intrinsic value when struck in precious metal, as well as an artistic and historical interest. Moreover, they can be easily found with basic metal detectors. Official alerts regarding the looting of coins are extremely rare, although coins are often found in illegal commerce, or in military raids. If the recently publicized documents photographed by the Association for the Protection of Syrian Archaeology are authentic, it is noticeable that the licenses for looting granted by ISIS to individuals cover “collecting antiquities and buried money.” Moreover, the looters’ interest in numismatics has been emphasized by the discovery, in June 2015, of an ISIS cache containing weapons and a book with articles on numismatics. As noted by Ute Wartenberg, it is an academic book probably stolen from a museum library, and it contains useful numismatic overviews on coinage issued in Syria from the fifth century BCE to Byzantine times.
In such a context, the role of the historian of antiquity is particularly crucial: to gather all that can allow us to reconstitute this endangered past, to interpret the artifacts, to make them available for future generations in a future time of peace when people will be able to rediscover their roots. But how can numismatics be involved in such an important mission? Coins are tiny, scattered, and they require highly specialized skills to be interpreted. Even studied with care, they remain difficult to understand as a whole. One of the reasons why coins are such a difficult source is their number: issued in the millions, lost or hoarded in the tens of thousands, they form an ocean in which the non-specialist feels lost. To study the coinages of an entire region is a way to approach coins as a single source. Moreover, to study ancient Syria through this particular source sheds light on new aspects of the past of a region currently devastated by war. This is what author Frédérique Duyrat has done in Wealth and Warfare. The Archaeology of Money in Ancient Syria.
This book assembles for the first time the evidence for coin finds in the region of ancient Syria from the 5th to the 1st century BCE. A full catalogue of all known coin hoards and published excavation finds serves as the basis for an explanation of monetary behavior in an area extending over parts of modern Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Palestine, and Turkey. In seven chapters of analysis, Duyrat establishes the limits of what we can learn from coin circulation, to compare the data from commerce to the data from legal excavations, to try to understand the chronological evolution of coin circulation and how much political events or warfare affect it, and to evaluate what coin finds tell us of the wealth and poverty of the people who assembled them. One chapter is devoted to how the contemporary history of the countries within the scope of this study has influenced the documentation. This book determines more precisely than ever what circulated in the ancient Near East and can provide the patterns by which to evaluate the loss suffered by the cultural heritage of this region.
About the author: Frédérique Duyrat is director of the Department of Coins, Medals, and Antiques of the Bibliothèque nationale de France and is associated to the research team Orient et Méditerranée—Mondes sémitiques (University Paris–Sorbonne) and the Ecole doctorale Archéologie of the University Paris I–Panthéon Sorbonne. She has written and edited more than 50 books and articles on the coinage, history and archaeology of ancient Syria and Phoenicia.
Wealth and Warfare: The Archaeology of Money in Ancient Syria
Numismatic Studies 34, ISSN 0517-404-x
Hardcover, 600 pages, b/w figures, tables
Wealth and Warfare is available for purchase through the ANS’s book distribution partner Casemate Academic/Oxbow Books. ANS Members qualify for a member discount and should write to Andrew Reinhard, ANS Director of Publications, for the online discount code.
On April 12, Dr. Aneurin Ellis-Evans of Oxford University delivered the 2016 Harry W. Fowler Memorial Lecture, “Imperialism and Regionalism in the Athenian Empire: an Attic Weight Coinage from North-West Turkey and its Afterlife (427-405 BC).”
Dr. Ellis-Evans holds degrees from Balliol College and New College, Oxford, with a particular interest in the social and economic history of the ancient world. In particular, he is intrigued by the relationship between geography and history, and will be publishing his PhD thesis exploring this theme with OUP as The Kingdom of Priam: The Troad between Anatolia and the Aegean. Since completing his doctoral studies in 2013, he has written numerous articles and reviews, and presented on a variety of topics relating to the Classical and Post-Classical worlds.
The Harry W. Fowler Memorial Lecture was established in 1998 with a bequest from Mr. Fowler and with additional gifts from the Fowler family. Harry W. Fowler served as President of the American Numismatic Society from 1984-1990, and for his personal generosity was named a Benefactor of the Society in 1986. In 1995 he bequeathed his collection of Bactrian coins to the ANS, which together with the Society’s already strong holdings, has created one of the most comprehensive collections of Greco-Bactrian and Indo-Greek coins.