The History Of Collecting Coins And Antiquities [Gibbons Stamp Monthly, April 2009]
Brett Hammond of TimeLine Originals continues his informative series with a brief look at The History Of Collecting Coins And Antiquities

A couple of years ago a group of archaeologists excavating a tomb in China’s Shaanxi province came upon an assortment of grave goods including statues depicting servants, livestock and poultry, together with sixty ceramic utensils. The finds were typical for a tomb of the Yuan Dynasty (AD 1271-1368) and they caused little surprise. However, a further search at the very heart of the burial brought to light a collection of one hundred and fifty coins including pieces from the Tang, Song and Jin dynasties which spanned the years AD 618 - 1234. The conclusion reached was that the owner of the tomb had been a coin collector in life and had chosen to take his collection to the grave.

More than a thousand years earlier, and long before coins began to circulate, Ancient Egyptian pharaohs often consigned favourite possessions to the afterlife. One, whose collection now resides in the British Museum, chose the impressions of one hundred and eighty six papyrus seals. He had them placed alongside the most valuable treasures in his tomb to signify how much they meant to him.

If we move forward to the Roman era we can cite both archaeological and written evidence to show that collecting coins and antiquities had by that time taken a firm hold. Most emperors collected works of art, jewellery and other precious objects from among the booty seized as their legions conquered foreign lands. Further down the social scale, finds from modern excavations on villa sites across the Roman world have yielded Neolithic flints, fossils, Greek coins and pre-Roman pottery, all discovered in contexts that suggest they were among the prized possessions of the families who owned them.

The Roman statesman and orator, Marcus Tullius Cicero, (106 - 43 BC) wrote of his plans to start a collection of antiquities that he would enjoy when he retired from affairs of state. In some of his letters he badgered and cajoled friends to keep on the lookout for items he might add to his collection: “In the name of our friendship, Atticus, suffer nothing to escape you of whatever you find curious and rare” ... and ... “Your discovery is admirable. This statue seems to have been made purposely for my cabinet.”

Inevitably the wars, turmoils and upheavals that ravaged Europe as the Roman Empire disintegrated must have focused minds more on survival than on collecting. Nevertheless a few records from the early Middle Ages confirm that monarchs and church leaders kept the acquisitive flame alight. In England, for example, the Bishop of Winchester, Henry de Blois, made a pilgrimage to Rome in AD 1149 and returned a year later, not only with the obligatory crop of leaden pilgrim’s badges, but with a fine collection of antique statues. And at about the same time in France the Abbot of St Denis exhibited what might be described as the world’s first museum, consisting of cabinets filled with Byzantine and Merovingian jewellery, ceramics and golden ornaments.

Those glowing sparks of enthusiasm for collecting burst into the flames of what we now call the Renaissance in the 15th century when the world gasped in admiration at the cabinets of curiosity displayed by the Medici family in Italy. Lorenzo de Medici ( Lorenzo the Magnificent; AD 1449 - 1492 ) dedicated himself especially to collecting small objects from the past - coins, vases, intaglio gems, etc. To build his collection Lorenzo developed contacts that spanned Italy, France, and the eastern Mediterranean. And he was enthusiastic in studying, classifying and displaying his collection; indeed some of his methods influenced later collectors and even public museums down to quite recent times.

Probably encouraged by the Medicis, Italian writers soon began to publish books giving guidance on how to acquire, study and display cabinets of curiosity. Coin collecting also gained impetus at this time with the publication of the first books to illustrate Roman coins with obverses and reverses, and with legends and types explained. Several were available in Italian by the 1550’s, though the earliest English language books on ancient coins date from as late as the early 1700’s. (By happy coincidence, and thanks to Google, one such volume, Del Tesoro Britannico, with sections in Italian and English, is among the rare books available for free on-line reading at http://books.google.com/books?id=9FUGAAAAQAAJ&pg=PP7 )

Although the British waited until the 18th and 19th centuries to lead Europe as its most enthusiastic collectors of coins and antiquities, we rapidly made up for our earlier tardiness in terms of quality and quantity. The notion of travel for the sake of curiosity and learning pervaded the British nobility and upper middle-class at that time. Broadening the mind and gaining some knowledge of the history and culture of countries beyond our shores developed into the firm belief that foreign travel completed the education of an English gentleman. The Grand Tour, taking in Italy, Greece and (funds permitting) even Egypt became de rigueur . Many thousands of young men, and later a smattering of women, made the journeys, returning home with souvenirs in the form of ancient coins and antiquities to fill their collecting cabinets and to exhibit as marks of social status.

Literally hundreds of thousands of coins and artefacts filled those cabinets. Inevitably, with the passage of time, and the demise of large homes, and the changing fortunes of the genty and middle class, many old cabinets and collections have changed hands during the past three centuries. It is the individual pieces from those old accumulations that provide today’s dealers with much of their stock, and their customers with some of the finest pieces in their present-day collections. The overwhelming majority of those coins and antiquities were legally acquired according to the laws of the day; as such they can perfectly legally be sold and bought today.

Finally, let me mention one famous private collector from the days of The Grand Tour to whom we all owe grateful thanks. Sir Hans Sloane acquired more than 80,000 items during his travels and dealings. They included rare books, mineral specimens, plants, stuffed animals, as well as chests of coins and artefacts. He died in 1753 when the British Government agreed to buy his huge collection and to put it on public display in a building we now call the British Museum.


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