The Strange Case of the Missing Coins

Sylloge Nummorum Graecorum The Collection of the American Numismatic Society: Part 2—Lucania

Society, American Numismatic, 38 plates pp., $25.00

The Catalogue of the Collection of Ancient and Later Coins

Sotheby’s, $8.00

The publication of a complete illustrated record of a section of the Greek coin collection in the American Numismatic Society coincides with the disposal of the coins of the Metropolitan Museum by public auction. In the cloak and dagger reports on the museum’s purchase of the Euphronios vase, the press has almost completely neglected the dispersal of this other part of the museum’s collection, which in two public auctions achieved the amazing total of $3.7 million. In a foreword to the sale catalogues listed above, the president of the Metropolitan, Mr. Dillon, has written:

The Trustees of the Metropolitan Museum of Art have authorized the sale of 6,664 coins no longer required for exhibition or study purposes, with a view to better serving the interests of art and numismatics by making the coins available to a wider audience.

Someone, presumably the director, Mr. Hoving, or the curator of Greek and Roman art, Professor von Bothmer, persuaded the trustees that to split a collection into a thousand fragments better serves the interests of art, and, even more surprisingly, that their “millions of visitors each year” are not a sufficiently “wide audience.” It is extraordinary that curators appointed to take care of a collection could ever have put forward such sophistry; but having done so, they have done irreparable harm in giving the semblance of respectability to any curator the world over who may care to follow their example.

We need not be surprised that the trustees have never studied ancient coins. But the director and curators should be aware that almost every piece in the collection was struck by a different pair of dies, and that each die was hand carved by a skilled engraver. There is no better training for a student of the history of art than to look closely at a row of coins of the same types, even struck at approximately the same time, but from dies worked by different artists. In no other field do artists thus vie with each other in creating the very same design: in no other field can the nuances of style be so easily appreciated.

In addition, each coin illustrates aspects of political, economic, and social history, which makes coins an unparalleled source of information on the ancient world. Coins tell us the names and order of succession of the rulers. Coins tell us the weight and monetary standards, and the trade relationships of ancient cities, of which practically nothing is known from literary sources. They tell us the official propaganda of many ancient governments which cannot be deduced from any other source. Coins show us more than 800 different buildings as they stood in ancient times. On coins we can see acts of religious ritual being performed, together with details of the weird and awesome sacred statues which formed the focal point of ancient worship. All such material has an essential place in any picture of the Greek and Roman civilizations, and it is this that …

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