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 the Metropolitan provides through its exhibition galleries.
Between 1874 and 1908 the Metropolitan acquired nearly 12,000 coins, medals, and tokens, mainly by gift. The American Numismatic Society had already been founded in 1858, and it was to become a collection of international magnitude. Fortunately the two institutions decided in 1909 not to act in rivalry over future acquisitions, and, in an action that was widely admired by scholars throughout the world, they even joined the two collections physically by placing a large number of coins on loan at the ANS. The Metropolitan resolved:
To confine itself to the development of its collections of coins and medals which have a value as works of art or as illustrations of the history of fine arts.
This resolution was not intended to “bring the serious collecting of coins by the Museum to a halt,” or, indeed, to lead to the sale of the collection. But such was its result, partly because of the lack of expertise among the museum staff in this particular department, partly to avoid rivalry with the ANS, and partly, no doubt, because funds for acquisitions were stretched in other directions. In 1971, the resolution was modified so that departments should retain only the “coins they desired of artistic or historic value.” And so the sordid business began—Greek and Roman coins, the collection of an American institution, were sold by a British firm, Sotheby’s, in Switzerland!
How much expertise can there be in a department which does not consider one of the two known coins of the usurper Saturninus (circa AD 280) to be of “artistic or historic value”? The person who paid 210,000 Swiss francs ($70,000) for it did not do so because it was made of gold, or because it was a variety of mere numismatic interest (unrecorded coins of historic interest can still be bought for $50). He did so because it is a stunning example of later third century portraiture, of a man of whom no other type of portrait is known, illustrating a revolt against the Roman empire which did not last for more than a few weeks, and for which the two coins are the only surviving certain evidence. In short, because it is an artistic and historic masterpiece.
The museum is said to have retained 2,200 coins, and if their artistic and historic interest approaches that of the Saturninus coin, then they should be published, at once. However, of the 900 coins in the John Ward Collection, published in England before its acquisition by the Metropolitan, the 45 pieces which do not appear in the sale catalogues, and thus presumably have been retained, form as dull and as uninspired a selection as could possibly have been conceived. Two comments should be made on the 1971 resolution: 1) The staff of the Metropolitan were not sufficiently imaginative to be able to use their coins as part of their artistic and historic exhibition of the ancient world; 2) The proviso “as long as the coins are of minimal commercial value,” though not stated, appears to have been adopted by keepers of departments in choosing which coins to keep.
It is disgraceful that the director and curators of such an institution should conceive of disposing of the treasures in their care in this manner. Professor George Le Rider, director of the Cabinet des Medailles et Antiques in Paris, has written: “I am profoundly shocked at what has happened to the Greek and Roman coins which constituted a magnificent series; I am sincerely sorry that they have been dispersed.” If one bears in mind that many of the coins were on loan elsewhere, and that the museum never intended to build up a coin collection, the decision to dispose of the coins is understandable—understandable, that is, if they were offered to the ANS, for example. But to put the coins into auction under public gaze, with no further effort to record them for posterity or keep the collection intact—that is irresponsible.
The American Numismatic Society has played its role in this with dignity. While most of the coins of the two auctions were housed at the Metropolitan, the majority of the 6,664 coins which the trustees decided to sell were kept at the society’s building on 156th Street. After the decision of the Metropolitan’s trustees the employees of the ANS had to search out and remove from trays coins which had been on deposit there for as long as fifty years. As a result, the curators had to abandon their own research for a pointless and soul-destroying exercise imposed upon them from outside. In recognition of attributing, housing, and caring for these pieces, the trustees of the Metropolitan presented the ANS with $33,000 worth of coins, half the value of the single Saturninus coin. At least this donation has meant that the ANS could keep a number of numismatically interesting pieces.
The Metropolitan recently announced that the coins which were to have formed a third auction sale will now be sold for $150,000 (somewhat under their full commercial value) to the ANS. It is no secret that before this decision was taken leading scholars in Europe and America protested that the third sale would only compound the damage already done. Every New Yorker, indeed every American interested in the history of the ancient world, should want to help the ANS raise the formidable sum that is required. While the coins of the first two sales were mainly of gold and silver, and thus merited lavish illustration, the 5,000 or more remaining pieces are mainly of bronze. No auctioneer would list them separately, let alone illustrate them; and thus if the third sale had taken place, all this evidence for political history and for the history of art, so patiently gathered at the end of the last century, would have been dispersed in a thousand collections, unrecorded.
This underlines the difference of approach in the publications which form the subject of this review. The ANS plans to publish the entire Greek collection in the series Sylloge Nummorum Graecorum, illustrating and describing in detail every piece. The Metropolitan Museum relied on Sotheby’s to produce its catalogues; and the result was a rather amateur and pretentious production. Such phrases as “It is interesting to note that the reverse legend is engraved on the die of the earlier issue” are as strange to those who understand the jargon as to those who don’t. Sotheby’s should have brought more expertise to bear on their texts and should certainly change their photographer and printer, who combined to make a most unworthy record of the collections which have been dispersed.
The question of the Euphronios vase only indirectly concerns the sale of the coins. But I would emphasize that if the vase had been found in Italy, the Italian government would have had only itself to blame for not being offered it. It is sad but true that the stricter a country’s antiquities laws in limiting private collecting, the more illegal digging takes place, the more dealers in antiquities are encouraged to export their wares, and the less is actually obtained by the museums of the country concerned. At the present time, it is unthinkable that a dealer in Turkey, Greece, or Egypt, for example, who was offered a hoard of coins, should take them to the authorities so that they could be recorded and choice pieces bought for the nation. Under the current system the whole lot would be confiscated.
The result is that in dribs and drabs, and by underground routes, the coins come to the freer markets of Northern Europe and America. The country of origin obtains practically nothing. If the police get close, a selection of less interesting coins is left conveniently for them to find. If they get too close, the whole hoard is melted down; and whatever happens, scholarship is the loser in the failure of anyone competent to record the finds as they are made. Such hoards—and hundreds are found each year—are the lifeblood of numismatics, each one providing information on the circulation and chronology of the coins which it contains.
UNESCO, with the best intentions, has encouraged museums throughout the world to refrain from buying objects which may be suspected to have been smuggled out of the country where they were found. As far as coins are concerned this is also an injunction to have nothing to do with dealers, and thus to stop recording hoards that come onto the market. If this were to happen, scholarship would lose even more than it does at present. The sale of the Metropolitan coins in Switzerland must have shown to all the insatiable demand for coins of the ancient world, not by public institutions, but by private individuals. UNESCO cannot hope therefore to stem in this way the flow of coins and antiquities out of these countries.
The bureaucratic system, which has now built up suspicion among the authorities, collectors, and dealers, is directly responsible for new hoards being whisked out of the country. At the same time, a public collection in such countries has become one for which even the most noted scholar has to be vetted by some government department, and which local curators have no power to show. UNESCO should encourage the authorities of these countries to reassess the purpose of their museums toward serving the public interest. Only with a fair relationship with dealers and collectors can they hope to achieve a situation in which the state is offered material that by right should find a place in a national collection.
A collection should not be a haphazard conglomeration of objects, but should be amassed with a particular aim in view. A private collector with limited means may build a specialist collection which after only moderate expenditure may be of considerable value to scholars who share the same speciality. The Metropolitan Museum, as a museum of national proportions, caters to the specialist, to the artist, and to the historian; and its coin collection had thus grown long enough to be of considerable importance, even though its growth was stopped in 1909. The enthusiastic remarks of Sotheby’s cataloguers are sufficient witness to the artistic merit of the coins, and because so many had been collected in one place, the collection as a whole covered a wide spectrum of artistic and historic interest—from the early Greek world of the sixth century BC through the fourth century AD, a thousand years of artistic development, spanning two civilizations. Each piece that has been sold to a private collector has subtracted a vital part of the whole picture.
Yet the artistic interest, since many of the coins already sold by Sotheby’s can be paralleled at the ANS and at museums in Europe, is in a wider sense less important than the interests of specialized historical scholarship. For it is not only future curators at the Metropolitan and visitors to the museum who are the losers. If the section now being bought by the ANS had been sold publicly, unique objects, the sole pieces of evidence for historical details of the Greek, Roman, and Islamic civilizations, would have been scattered to the corners of the earth. International scholarship would have been the loser. The ANS is faced with the tremendous task of buying these pieces; but at least we can be sure that they will remain there in perpetuo, and will be used regularly by scholars throughout the world for the benefit of our interpretation of the ancient world.
Professor Dietrich von Bothmer has written in the introduction to the first sale catalogue:
It should not be forgotten that the Roman coins gave birth to the art of the medallion, and it was Roman coins and medals that played so important a part in the rediscovery of classical antiquity that goes under the name of the Renaissance.
These and all the other coins in the catalogues that throw so much light on the art and history of Greek and Roman civilizations have been consciously thrown away by the present curators of the Metropolitan Museum in preference for a single vase, by a single artist, with a scene which, although extremely interesting, adds remarkably little to the history of art, and nothing to the history of the people.
(This was written before the Metropolitan Museum’s “Report on Art Transactions” was released in late June; but from accounts that have reached me in London, as this issue goes to press, there is nothing in the Report that changes the substance of this review.)
July 19, 1973