In June, we took advantage of this space to chat a little about collecting and the coin market. That discussion centered mainly on the current conditions affecting our hobby. Although we think often about the history of a particular coin, or the culture within which it was struck, we seldom find commentary about the history of collecting itself.
During a recent trip to a major convention, we engaged in a discussion of the latter variety with a prominent numismatist who flatly denied the existence of coin collections prior to the Renaissance. No amount of reasoning, evidence or rationale could convince this notable and highly respected person that coin collections existed in earlier times. This is not an isolated view, in fact, many scholars have given credit for the first collection of ancient coins to the 14th century Italian humanist Francesco Petrarch.
The collecting of ancient coins is really nothing more than a variety of art collecting. It is a pastime which has amused the more or less cultured for millenia. Joseph Alsop, in The Rare Art Traditions, a work which I have often quoted and think very highly of, sees collecting as a primeval activity. Man, according to Alsop, collected as a natural instinct long before the dawning of the historical period. True art collecting, he claims, evolved in the fourth and third centuries BC.
As for the collecting of coins, specifically those which we now consider ancient; we find ample evidence both in literature and in the archaeological record that this pastime has existed for over two thousand years. There is hardly space here to fully argue the assertion, however a few "points of light" may be offered in defense.
The view that Petrarch formulated the first collection of ancients is wholly misguided. We find documentation of a formal collection of ancients nearly a hundred years earlier (1274 AD) in a manuscript titled Thesaurus Magnus in Medalis Auri Optimi which detailed the collecting of ancient coins at a monastery in Padua. While it is certainly true that numismatics, as a science, is a post renaissance phenomenon, the allure of coins as works of art and geographic curiosities dates to a much earlier era. We tend to think of coin collecting as an activity which requires fastidious cataloguing and analysis. That view is distinctly modem and even the Renaissance Humanists would scarcely have understood its principles or motivation. In earlier times, coins were simply collected for their intrigue and beauty.
Archaeological finds at Gordian, in central Turkey, and at Vitry in Switzerland, as well as an accidental hoard find in Afghanistan have brought to light some fascinating accumulations of coinage that could hardly be called anything but purposeful collections. In all three of these cases, groups of coins were found where no two pieces were of the same type. Most, in fact, were from very widely separated areas and periods with absolutely no logical connection.
Some tend to imagine that the ancients themselves knew little about the coins circulating around them. How we can credit the genius of their designs and fail to credit the connoisseurship of their patrons is a mystery. Even a superficial examination of coin motifs from widely separated areas should serve to convince the skeptical that artists shared their knowledge and patrons appreciated merit wherever they found it Aristotle demonstrated a keen awareness of coinage from foreign lands as he explained the purpose of the god Ammon and silphion on the coins of Kyrene. the peculiar denominations of Syracusan issues. and a variety of numismatic weight correlations.
There are several references by ancient authors which indicate an interest in the collecting or accumulating of coins and gems, especially from distant lands. Julius Caesar and Augustus were among those noted as having a fondness for such things.
One could easily dedicate a lifetime simply to studying the history of collecting coins. It is a subject that, like a good mystery, leads one deeper and deeper into the matrix of the unknown. Why would the grave of an Angle chieftain yield a pendant bearing a coin of Augustus? Why would a 6th century Merovingian necklace display seven different gold coins from the reigns of Honorius through Justin I? Why would a 10th century illuminated manuscript be bordered with illustrations of ancient coins?
We may not have definite answers to these questions, but we can surmise that the feeling we get when holding a coin from antiquity is a feeling that others before us have enjoyed as much as ourselves.
We will be at the ANA convention in Pittsburgh and hope to see some of you there. Until then keep the faith and keep sending those letters sharing with us your point of view!