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Summer Blog 7: History of Coin Collecting

This is a shortened, and sanitised, version of a talk delivered to The Worthing Coin Club, 9.9.21


Collecting can be traced back to Mesopotamia in the Third Millennium BC. The collectors were royalty and their top elites; their collections covered a range of topics. From these facts we can make two observations. Firstly, collecting is within human DNA, its part of our nature, and therefore it is likely to go back to the very beginning of human life when our earliest ancestors picked up a pretty pebble and took it back to decorate their cave. Secondly, as with almost every human activity outside of work, it began with Royalty and an aristocratic elite and gradually filtered down through society until today anyone can become a collector.


All early collectors collected a number of different things, from gems to coins to books and so forth. Today it is interesting to observe that most collectors are also generalists, although they may have a main collecting interest. In the past, from the Renaissance to the early 19th century, such diverse collections were often stored together and the phrase 'cabinet of curiosities' came into use in the 17th century to describe them. 'Cabinet' in this sense meant not a small piece of furniture but a whole room. In 1671 the diarist John Evelyn wrote of Thomas Browne's house, 'His whole house and garden is a paradise and Cabinet of Rarities and that of the best collection, amongst medals, books, plants, natural things'.


Coin collecting itself is said to date back to the first Roman Emperor, Augustus, when Suetonius informs us that he gave as gifts at the Festival of Saturnalia (from which many of our own Christmas customs derive) old coins of the Kings of Rome. Whether he was a genuine collector as we know it today is more difficult to resolve. Yet certainly during the medieval period coins were collected by kings and aristocrats.


It was, however, at the start of The European Renaissance in the 14th century that coin collecting in a modern sense took off in Italy. The Renaissance, with its emphasis on the societies and culture of Ancient Rome and Greece, encouraged Italians to begin collecting coins from these two ancient civilisations. One of the earliest collectors we know of was the writer, Petrarch. Along with the collecting of coins came books giving detailed numismatic information. Perhaps the first such book, published in 1514, was 'De Asse et Partibus Eius'. This book told the coin history of the Roman 'AS' coin and its five sub divisions.


In the 15th century coin collecting had spread across Europe and into the new middle class, with both money and time to spend on their collections. Pope Paul II (1417-1571) was said to have had a collection of Greek and Roman coins that amounted to a hundred gold and a thousand individual items. His collection was later purchased by Lorenzo de Medici.


In England, Bishop Cuthbert Tunstall of Durham (1474-1559) was one of the earliest Englishmen to make a coin collection. He was also lucky enough as Bishop to put his initials on coins of Henry VIII minted in Durham. Not many coin collectors, outside of monarchs, can claim to have been able to mint their own coins. Prince Henry of Wales, eldest son of King James I, bought 30,000 coins from the Dutch Jewish collector and civil servant, Abraham Gorlaeus. Coin collecting bridged religious divides, national divides, and most importantly perhaps class divides, as it still does. At Cambridge the Vice Chancellor Andrew Perne (1519-1589) made a substantial coin collection which he bequeathed to his university. Later when the Fitzwilliam Museum was established the collection was moved there, where it can still be visited today. Yet it was lucky to survive the depredations of Cromwell's troops in the university city in 1643, when it is recorded that, with his approval, his soldiers went on a looting spree and theft of coin collections was specifically referred to.


In the 18th century auctions of coins became quite the done thing. In 1742 the 2nd Earl of Oxford's collection was auctioned off after his death. Soon collections going to auction were divided up into lots thus enabling collectors with more limited means to purchase perhaps a single coin for their own collection.


The final event which turned coin collecting into a potential 'hobby' for everyone came with The Industrial Revolution in the 19th century. In Britain books about coins, and their values in the market, began to appear from mid century onwards in considerable numbers.


So who today collects coins? One answer that has been given is 'An insane person who pays money for older pieces of money'. How cynical can one be? For those of us who collect, it is the thrill of the chase, the excitement at finding that elusive missing coin from our collection, the organising of our collection, and our gradually expanding knowledge about the coins we own or would like to own. As has been said, though, by a coin collector themselves, 'I was normal three coins ago!'. I leave you to be the judge of that.



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