The Importance of Numismatics

15 juli 2013 Harold Cook Nederlandse geschiedenis en cultuur

Exploring the KB’s collection of the papers of Gisbert Cuper was a wonderful experience. He introduced me to many topics, including the history of numismatics.

It was immediately obvious that he took a keen interest in coins, since many letters to him contain lists of them, drawings of them--sometimes pinned to the text or margin--analyses of the meaning of the symbols and inscriptions on them, and promises to purchase and send coins and medals. In his generation, coins were not only collected for their intrinsic value but also for their importance in re-dating ancient chronologies and reinterpreting ancient life from the kinds of images stamped on the front (obverse) and back (reverse). Cuper’s collection was clearly related to his studies of antique human history.

Pages from Cuper's coin catalogue. Shelfmark: KW 72 H 28

Pages from Cuper's coin catalogue. Shelfmark: KW 72 H 28

Cuper's coins

As I first began to wonder about the place of numismatics in the study of classical antiquity, a colleague at NIAS suggested the work of someone else from the University of Nijmegen, Olivier Hekster, so I turned to his Romeinse keizers (2009). Indeed, it was a fine example of how important coins remain for ancient history. For instance, he depicted a coin from the reign of Caligula, which on the reverse side had images of his three sisters (Drusilla, Agrippina, and Julia Livilla), showing from this that Caligula granted his family unusually high status in the eyes of the public. That clicked. A history of Rome based on coins published by Joachim Oudaans in 1664, with several later editions, Roomsche Mogentheid, also gave this coin prominence. Checking Cuper’s catalogue also listed it. This kind of evidence has been important for over 300 years, and still is. It is even the subject of a YouTube video.

Unfortunately, we cannot be sure of the extent of Cuper’s collection, but it was clearly very large. His coin catalogue is shelf number KW 72 H 28: a large quarto notebook of over 217 gilt-edged folios, bound in parchment. But it is incomplete, since it only lists his classical coins, and we know he collected coins from other places and eras, too. Headings for the initial entries were made on the right-hand page, but sometimes further insertions were made on the facing page. It begins with gold coins organized by civilization: Greece, Carthage, and then early Roman coins. These are followed by large silver Greek coins, small silver Greek coins, bronze or copper (aereus) Greek coins, and Greek coins from other rulers, people, or cities. Then come Roman gold coins listed alphabetically according to the name of the emperor (with a few incerti at the end), followed by Roman silver coins again listed in order of the emperors, from Julius Caesar to Jovius and Julius Valerius Majorianus in the fifth century. The section intended for Roman coins in bronze or copper has headings like the ones for the silver coins, in chronological order according to the name of the emperor, but many headings have no entires. Six further Greek coins come in a list at the end. Working with such lists, Cuper could compose his little book, Historia trium Gordianorum (1697), which established, against the opinion of a French savant, that there had been only three Roman emperors named Giordianus, not four.

Cuper's Historia trium Gordianorum, Deventer 1697
Cuper's Historia trium Gordianorum, Deventer 1697

Shelfmark: KW 498 G 30

Page from Cuper's Historia trium Gordianorum, Deventer 1697
Page from Cuper's Historia trium Gordianorum, Deventer 1697

Shelfmark: KW 498 G 30

Poster announcing the auction of Cuper's coins. Shelfmark: KW 72 C 32 bijlage
Poster announcing the auction of Cuper's coins.

Shelfmark: KW 72 C 32 bijlage

Auction

At Cuper’s death, his collection was sold. A poster advertising the Amsterdam auction is extant (KW 72 C 32, bijlage), and a list remains of 137 lots sold at auction for a total amount of f. 8943 4s (KW 72 C 32, A1), which probably refers to his coin collection, since the auction of his books and objets d’art is accounted for elsewhere. (But see Jan van der Waals, “Met boek en plaat …” in De Wereld Binnen Handbereik: Nederlandse Kunst- En Rariteitenverzamelingen, 1585-1735 [Zwolle: Wannders Uitgevers/Amsterdams Historisch Museum, 1992, p. 215, which reports that the sale brought in only 3000 gilders.] Cuper also collected medals, and some of the lots may have been groups of them. Altogether, his collection of coins and medals was probably not as large as what still remains in Teyler's Museum, but it must have been impressive. For him, however, it was like a library: part of the necessary working equipment for any serious study of antiquity.