Money, museums and legal history

While following these days the news on the actions of the European Union to help the economy of Cyprus by taxing the savings of those who had hoped that they had found a safe haven I could not helping trying to see these events in a historical perspective. Was this the first action of its kind? How typical was the role of banks and the banking system in the Mediterranean world? How to find information about the history of money since Classical Antiquity? Numismatics is the historical discipline that traces the history of both coins and paper money, monetary objects and medals, the history of mints and much more. By sheer luck I had been alerted earlier this month about a very useful Italian blog post with a summary guide by Lucia Travaini to important numismatic websites. With one exception money museums are not present in her brief guide. Remembering the difficulties and surprises last year in creating a sensible webpage on museums and legal history I decided to create space for money museums, and to write about the way to reach this goal. Looking for Cyprus and Cypriote coinage offers a chance to test the quality of the information I found.

Numismatics as a historical auxiliary science has not the same attraction for historians as for example palaeography, the science dealing with old scripts and handwriting. Of course being able to read old handwritten texts is most useful, but not looking at coins is excluding arbitrarily material objects with their own history, impact and significance. Unfamiliarity and downright depreciation explain part of the minor position often allotted to this discipline. Numismatics has been looked upon unfairly as a hobby-horse for people with only antiquarian interest, something suitable for connoisseurs and collectors, or as at best a small branch of art history. In fact the uses of auxiliary disciplines are multiple. A first practical distinction is that historians do not receive the same training in numismatics as they get – or are expected to get – in fields such as palaeography, diplomatics, heraldry, epigraphy and sigillography. For periods in which written records are not as abundantly present as for contemporary or Early Modern history the importance of sciences dealing with objects and artefacts gain importance. Epigraphy and numismatics tend to be less distant for historians dealing with Classical Antiquity.

Tracing the history of money

Logo website Lucia Travaini

It is not possible to sketch in just one post a concise history of money, even when you restrict yourself to numismatics. The pocket online guide of Lucia Travaini will serve as a starting point. At her website is more space to introduce her scholarly qualities. By the way, the Bibliostoria blog of the Biblioteca di Scienze della Storia of the Università degli Studi di Milano where Travaini published her guide gives you excellent information on new and less recent online resources for historians.

The first resources mentioned by Travaini are image databases. McSearch, the Medieval and Modern Coins Search Engine, brings you quickly to literally hundreds of images of Cypriote coins sold at auctions. At you find similar information, with, however, for Cyprus less results. Wildwinds is a more ambitious site where the origin and present value of coins can be assessed. This site points also to other online collections and to the Digital Library Numis, on which I will comment later.

Travaini puts a number of numismatic societies in a second section of her guide. For the American Numismatic Society she mentions the online bibliography of numismatic literature, but the ANS offers more digital resources, including a selection of links to mints worldwide, a list of money museums, and lists of numismatic societies, virtual collections, online search tools, discussion groups and periodicals, information which in my opinion makes this website a portal for numismatic studies. International cooperation between money museums is represented by ICOMON, the International Committee of Money and Banking Museums, an initiative of the ICOM federation of museums worldwide. Some ICOM committees offer an overview or even a database of relevant museums, but ICOMON has not yet created any substantial list on its website. At present the board of ICOMON is led by a Dutch chairman, Christel Schollaardt of the Geldmuseum in Utrecht, and by Elena Zapti from Cyprus as its secretary.

The building of the Rijksmunt, the Dutch Mint, and the Geldmuseum, Utrecht

The building of the Dutch Mint (Rijksmunt) and the Geldmuseum, Utrecht

So far Travaini’s guide brings us quickly to the most relevant institutions and resources. The section with online catalogues of specialized institutions is disappointing, with only the catalogue of the Museo Bottacin in Padova. Are online catalogues of money museums indeed rare to find? When writing this post I could not access the library catalogue of the Dutch Geldmuseum in my own home town Utrecht. Instead of complaining about this unfortunate situation I should redeem it somewhat by pointing out that the Geldmuseum founded the International Network of Numismatic Libraries (INNL). At its website the INNL gives a substantial list of numismatic libraries and their library catalogues all over the world. For Italy the Civica Biblioteca Archeologica e Numismatica at Milan (!) is listed, with a library catalogue which is integrated into the central catalogue of specialized city libraries. As for the Museo Bottacin in Padova this is a department of a larger museum. In Italy and elsewhere many museums have a numismatic department. The website Musei Numismatici Italiani lists fourteen museum departments and independent museums in Italy. It seems useful to include here at least the Museo della Zecca in Rome and its online database, and the database Iuno Moneta at the Portale Numismatico dello Stato.

Online numismatic collections are the subject of the next section in Travaini’s guide, but here her definition of collezioni online is not clear. Both the links to the Museo Civico Archeologico, Bologna, and Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C.,, do bring you only to webpages concerning collections, but not to collection databases such as those of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, and Princeton University; the link given by Travaini, however, is not to the database of Princeton, but only to the webpage of its numismatic collection. Both at Bologna and Dumbarton Oaks there is no online database for coins and medals.

Perhaps it is wise to say at this point that whatever faults or omissions the guide of Lucia Travaini may have, it certainly brings you to many important and reliable resources. It is courageous to present any guide in a nutshell, and here weaknesses in some sections have to be seen in the light of the other sections. I would not have thought about listing links to websites concerning coin findings. Travaini points to the Swiss website Coin Findings which has four URL’s depending on the language you want to read, English, French, German or Italian, and to the Corpus of Early Medieval Coin Finds, 410-1180 for the British Isles of the Fitzwilliam Museum.

In the last section of her guide Travaini lists a small number of thematic portals and bibliographies. Here the bibliographic website of Hendrik Mäkeler (Myntkabinett, Uppsala) concerning both ancient and medieval coins offers even more than just a fine bibliography which can be accessed in English, Swedish and German, but an exhaustive portal with links on any subject ranging from individual scholars, money museums and collection databases to the coin trade. is a portal created by the Swiss scholar Benedikt Zäch. It incorporates the webpages of the International Numismatic Council with good information about current events. One of Zäch’s special subjects is coin findings. This Swiss portal owes its existence certainly also to the vicinity of the Münzkabinett Winterthur. The last portal Travaini mentions is the Digital Library NUMIS which in a very efficient way present a collection of (mainly links to) digitized publications.

Approaching coins from Cyprus and money museums

By now you may wonder about two questions. Will I look here at the monetary history of Cyprus at all? How do I proceed with creating my own list of museums concerning the history of coins, medals and paper money? Before answering these questions I want to point out a weakness in just looking at specialized institutions for monetary history. Coins and medals have been collected in great quantities by some of the world’s largest museums. In particular the links listed by the American Numismatic Society and by Hendrik Mäkeler contain these collections, but in a list on the English Wikipedia the information is supplemented with the number of coins which makes clear these institutions form a class of its own. Moreover, in these collections you will find in particular ancient coins from the Mediterranean. If you want to find early coins from Cyprus you are wise not to forget to look in their collections.

Thus it might be surprising to know that the Smithsonian Institution has more than 1,600,000 coins and medals in the holdings of the National Museum of American History, Washington, D.C. The Hermitage in St. Petersburg follows with more than a million objects. The Department of Coins and Medals of the British Museum, too, is home to more than one million coins and medals. I cannot help noticing the absence of an online catalogue or objects database on its very useful website, nor do the Smithsonian Institution and the Hermitage. The collection with some 600,000 coins of the American Numismatic Society in New York can be searched online using the MANTIS database. The Münzkabinett of the Kunsthistorisches Museum (KHM) in Vienna does not present an online catalogue of its own holdings – more than 700,000 objects – on its website, but it is home to a number of specialized catalogues for ancient coins and medals such as the Sylloge Nummorum Parthicorum. However, one can find some images of coins easily by tuning the image database of the KHM. The Wikipedia list mentions the Département des Monnaies, médailles et antiques of the Bibliothèque nationale de France. I guessed the Louvre would have a numismatic collection, too, but this is not the case.

Tetrobolos, Cyprus, 4tgh century BC - Dewing Collection

A silver tetrobolos from Cyprus with the head of Aphrodite, circa 351-332 BC – Arthur S. Dewing Collection, Dewing 2534 – image Art and Archaeological Artifact Browser, Perseus Digital Library

For the sake of compactness I will not discuss here all collections in this handy list at the Wikipedia, and go to the Numismatic Museum of Athens (NMA). It is a relief to view this very well-organized website with a splendid array of (mainly external) web resources. For looking at ancient coins from Cyprus you will benefit from the Sylloge Nummorum Graecorum, a project of the British Academy. The section on numismatics of the bibliography in the Bibliotheca Classica Selecta, a project at the Université de Liège, is not to be missed. The NMA provides a link to the website Digital Historia Nummorum of Ed Snible with a fine section on Cypriote coins, even though it relies on rather old literature. Some of these works are still valuable. In the Digital Library NUMIS I found among publications from this century also a digitized version of a book-length article by Jan Pieter Six, ‘Du classement des séries cypriotes’, Revue Numismatique, 2e série, 1 (1875) 249-374. In fact this article builds heavily on the collections of the large general museums in Europe, and apart from the collection at Winterthur much less on the collections of specialized independent institutions. A last link adduced by the NMA is the Art and Archaeology Artifact browser of the Perseus Digital Library, the well-known project of Tufts University, where you can look for coins from ancient Greece. Among the large collections of major European cultural institutions I would like to mention the numismatic collection of the Bode-Museum, now part of the Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin-Preussischer Kulturbesitz. You can find its coins and medals both in the online catalogue of the Münzkabinett, and also among the images at SMB-Digital.

In the last paragraph I finally presented some online information about ancient Greek coins with a focus on coins from Cyprus. I have not become overnight a specialist on ancient coinage nor a scholar focusing on economic history, but it is possible to find quickly some reliable roads to the materials and issues you face when dealing with these subjects. Incidentally the NMA cooperated with the British Museum for the Presveis exhibition on the history of European monetary unions before the euro. The links presented and discussed here amount to building materials for a more substantial answer to the initial question about the history of money on Cyprus. With regard to the second question, the creation of a sensible list of money museums, it seems you have to combine information from several resources in order to create a new – and preferably commented – list of money and banking museums. I would like to include links to online catalogues and survey projects, too. As for now the museums list provided by the American Numismatic Society, at the INNL website and by Hendrik Mäkeler present us together a fairly reliable overview of major and minor institutions in the field of numismatic collections.

An obstacle for creating a new list is the very low number of museums I detected so far featuring the history of banking. No doubt some money museums do deal with this subject, but few museums focusing more exclusively on banking, banks and their history have surfaced on the websites I visited for this long post. Banks and their history fully merit a new post on my blog, and the crisis of the Cypriote banks is just one example that needs further exploration. I scarcely need to admit it was hard to find a place for legal history in this first post on money and museums. Until that post arrives here you might already profit from the rich links collection on banking history provided by Roy Davies of the University of Exeter.

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