Collecting coins

Syrakus, Dekadrachm

We have reason to believe that coin collecting is almost as old as coinage itself. Ever since the invention of coins as means to ease the exchange of services and goods and to store surpluses in the course of the 7th century BC these precious objects have been hoarded. Almost from the beginning a great deal of artistic and craftmans effort was invested in their production and the composition of many hoards as well as the introduction of artists signatures especially on Sicilian coins of the late 5th century BC point to the fact, that coins soon became appreciated not alone for their intrinsic monetary value alone but as aesthetic objects in their own right.

We have, however, next to no direct report about coin collecting and coin collectors before the age of the European Renaissance except for a small note in the Chronographeia of the Byzantine scholar Michael Psellos (1018-1078), by which we learn that the empress Theodora, the daughter of Basilius II. Bulgaroctonus, was an ardent collector of ancient gold coins, especially of Persian darics, and had heavy bronze coffers made for the storage of this collection. For a long time this remains the only mention of coin collecting in our literary sources. But the frequent use of ancient coins in jewelry and for the decoration of important religious artifacts such as reliquaries or ornate book covers, prove the continued appreciation of ancient coins as miniature works of art during the entire Middle Ages. Finally the rediscovery of Classical Culture at the Age of Renaissance brought about a new and systematic interest in coins and coinage as a historical source. Prominent scholars like Francesco Petrarca started to use coins to complement their knowledge of classical history derived from the study of manuscripts. So ancient coins became an object of study and were collected for their historical as well as their aesthetical value. From the middle of the 15th century on we know of written inventories of large numismatic collections, usually in the hands of important princely families such as the Medici or the Habsburg. One of the first smaller collectors in Germany, that we definitely know of, is the Prussian Bishop Stephan of Kulm, who reigned between 1480 and 1495. The contemporary Preussische Chronik of Simon Grunau (1470-1531) mocks the ardent collector, who strived to own coins of every country, for this strange desire and attributes his whim to his increasing senility! But soon thereafter more and more princes and cities all over Europe began to form numismatic collections, first of their own coinage but later also of foreign and ancient coins. When Hubert Goltzius, one of the first scientific numismatists in Germany, traveled through Western Europe between 1556 and 1560, he already listed almost 950 numismatic cabinets, more than 200 of these within Germany.

At the same time the collection and study of coins became one of the central activities of the fast developing field of classical studies. From the earliest times until far into the 19th century almost every printed book on ancient history and related topics is illustrated by plates depicting classical coins. This enhanced the general popularity of coin-collecting to a remarkable extent.

For several centuries, however, the actual collecting remained a predominantly princely or civic privilege rather than a bourgeois activity. Large and famous collections were for example formed by Queen Christina of Sweden or by Elisabeth Charlotte of the Palatinate, wife of the Duke of Orleans and sister in law of Louis XIV. But the rise of the middle classes in the late 18th and early 19th century lead to a truly remarkable expansion of private collecting. More and more civilians, scholars and amateurs alike, started their own coin-collections. In the early years of the 18th century the first popular coin magazines were published in Germany. The most famous of those publications was called Köhlers Münzbelustigungen. It was published between 1729 and 1750 at Nürnberg and aimed at an already large and constantly growing readership. At the same time professional numismatic trade took off. One of the first specialized dealers in collectors coins and medals was the Banker Meier Amschel Rothschild of Frankfurt. The subsequent growth of the Rothschild Bank to one of the leading private institutes in Europe was at least partly due to the great passion of its client Count Wilhelm of Hanau, who inherited the electorate of Hassia in 1785, for his collection of coins and medals, mainly provided by the Rothschilds.

In the course of the 19th century coin collecting grew to a favorite pastime of wider sections of the society. Many leading intellectuals as for example Goethe or Winckelmann were coin collectors. As a consequence public and private coin collectors forged an extremely successful alliance, that was for the common good. With the active help of private collectors many of the public coin cabinets, that we know today, were by means of donation or legacy founded or substantially enlarged. 1843 the curators of the local coin cabinets and several private collectors founded the first Numismatic Society in Germany at Berlin. Thanks to academic circles of the kind numismatic study and research experienced an unprecedented boom and many central works of reference, that are still in use today, were compiled during that period. At the same time coin traders and numismatic auction houses flourished all over Europe, and the city of Frankfurt became the heart and capital of professional European numismatics, - a position, that was kept until World War II. (see our firm history).

Frankfurt, Taler

Today the private collecting of coins and medals is widespread among people of all countries and from all walks of life, although the everyday use of coinage seems to be retrogressive. The possible criteria for building a collection are as manifold as coinage itself. Classical Greek and Roman coins, bracteates and gothic gold coins of medieval Europe, Renaissance and Baroque medals, are mainly appreciated for their aesthetic value. They are collected as examples for the art of a certain period. In this respect the coin collector is a subspecies of the art collector and his point of view is that of a connoisseur. But coins can also be collected under a more systematic, historical aspect. Here the collector assembles coins as documents for the history of a given period or place. From the earliest times coins have not only been used as means of payment but also to convey all kinds of political information from stately symbols and rulers portraits to the documentation of concrete political issues such as peace and war, change of government, building- or other projects and so on and so forth. At times coins are even the most important if not the only available source of information about certain facts, events and developments of the past. Under that aspect the collector becomes a historian and is frequently led far beyond his immediate interest in the coins while examining his collection. And last not least there is still the local or regional aspect, under which the collector assembles coins and medals of a certain country or a certain town, usually but not necessarily his home, or a more general geographical interest, that has already been guiding the early collector Stephan of Kulm. Collecting coins is an entertaining and highly educational pastime that looks back on a long and noble tradition. Historical coins and medals are always an immediate document of their place and time of origin. As such they are a constant source of instruction and pleasure for the scholar as well as for the collector. And they are among the few or often enough the only objects of that quality, that are still available (and affordable) for private ownership.