Numismatics Abroad and at Home
The Salem Register (2/24/1851)
[The Salem Register. February 24, 1851]
From the Vermont Journal.
Numismatics Abroad and at Home.
Coins and Medals in Prague and Jena- Cabinet in Salem, Mass.- Mr. Stickney- Green Mouniain Coinage- Gleanings from Gibbon- Hotel des Monnaies at Paris.
When a boy, I read Addison's Dialogues on Ancient Medals, and have ever since felt a penchant for Numismatics. While travelling in Europe, some years ago, I was not a little amused by the oddities and diversities of the current coin. In the north of Germany I saw copper hellers as small as California dollars, and in the south of Italy was much afraid of a cinque gran piece, as large as five copper cents, which I had given as a gratuity to the custode of Virgil's tomb, and which he threatened to throw at me because I refused him silver. The coat of arms on a Prussian dollar I found so complicated that it might serve for a text-book on heraldry. Nor could I fail to mark the beauty of the German florin.
On few subjects were more questions asked me than concerning American coins, and the few I chanced to carry with me were curiously inspected, would have commanded a high premium, and formed, in more than one instance, acceptable keepsakes.
On the ramparts of Prague, in Bohemia, a stripling, perceiving me to be a stranger, introduced himself to me, and stated that, having from childhood been engaged in collecting a cabinet of coins, he hoped he could procure for me, by paying for it, something in his line from my country. A certain retailer in dry goods, with whom I became acquainted at a citizen's club in Jena, invited me to call on him next day, and see his Munze Samlung, or numismatical treasures. On accepting this invitation, I was surprised to see several thousand specimens ranged in chronological or geographical order, and filling a room.
Till recently, I despaired of beholding a similar cabinet on this side of the Atlantic; supposing my countrymen, at least the business men, one and all, to look at dollars only in a utilitarian point of view. But what I did not hope for I have seen. A few weeks ago I made acquaintance with Mr Matthew A. Stickney, of Salem, Mass., and was permitted to revel amid his numismatical treasures, which, to my astonishment, surpass those of my friend in Jena.- This gentleman, by occupation a grocer, and without more education than he could get in a common school, alone, unaided, nay, ridiculed by the unappreciating masses- has been a magnet, attracting to himself, from the ends of the earth, and from the ends of time, a treasure of which any museum or college in the country might be proud. All the more worthy is he of honor. Future historians, students of art, costume, customs, and archaeology in all its branches, will pilgrim to this mine, wherever it shall be-
Whither, as to a fountain, myriad stars, Repairing in their golden urns, draw light.
To my mind, there is something noble in the disinterestedness, zeal, perseverance and singleness of purpose which Mr. Stickney has exhibited. Dress, equipage, journies, high living, architectural display, are nothing to him. Well may he be parsimonious as to these things- though I know not that he is- that he may be prodigal in a less selfish and ostentatious, but a more permanently useful, indulgence.
I should not omit to mention that, in addition to coins and medals, Mr. Stickney has gathered a library of all the standard works in Christendom relating to numismatics. His gold pieces- or silver specimens, ipsa raritate rarior, that would sell for fifty times their intrinsic value- years ago had become so valuable that he procured a salamander safe for their security against fire and thieves. As burglaries have of late alarmingly increased, he has deposited his jewels, that would most excite cupidity, in the vault of a neighboring bank.
Every Green Mountain Boy would be interested in at least four coins in Mr. Stickney's collection, namely: the copper coinage of Vermont before it was admitted into the Union. The earliest bears the date of 1785. It bears a representation of mountains with the sun rising behind them, and a plough in the foreground. It is inscribed, Vermont's respublica Slella quarla decima. Some critic probably found fault with the Latinity, for the coin of the next year, 1786, shows the word Vermont's superseded by Vermontensium. The coin dated 1787 in inscribed, Inde et libe.; and bears a female figure, seated, holding a flower in one hand and a spear in the other. The coin of 1788 shows a bust, mailed and laureled, with the inscription, Vermon auclori, meaning, I suppose, by the authority of Vermont.
I subjoin a few gleanings from Gibbon's monumental work, attesting what a harvest of knowledge may be reaped from numismatics regarding ancient art, dates, titles, events, physiognomy, prevalent ideas, or tendencies, dress, badges, and usages of every kind, especially where written letters are most defective. The first figures in each reference denote the chapter, and the second the note in, or near which, if in the text, the allusion to medals occurs.
The oldest and most authentic model of Gothic architecture in existence, is a representation of the palace of Theodoric the Ostrogoth, at Verona, which may still be seen on a coin of about A.D. 500- (39, 70 note)
Although Anteninus Pius had two sons, he preferred the welfare of Rome to the interest of his family; yet, but for medals, we should be ignorant of this fact. (3, 26, 2 note)
Nothing but medals preserve the memory of victory over the Germans, gained by the eldest son of Constantine, (14, 98 note,) or the time when Gallienus was taken as a colleague by the emperor Valerian, (10, 66 note.) Aided by medals, Spanheim traced, step by step, the gradual transition by which Roman magistrates changed their titles from republican to imperial, (13, 97 note.) In the same way historians have been enabled to ascertain the true titles of many famous personages. 18:95.
Medals are the only source of information regarding the titles of at least one of the Caesars, (14, 109 note.) The suspicious testimony of the apostle Julian, when he ridicules the finical address of his uncle Constantine, is confirmed by the authority of medals, (18, 6 note.) The strange and unconnected fact that Hannibalianus was distinguished by the title of KING, could scarcely be admitted on the authority of contemporary writers, so odious was that title to the Romans, were not their testimony fortified by imperial medals, (18, 31 note.)
There is still extant a medal of the emperor Constantius where the standard of the labarum- bearing the mysterious monogram, at once expressive of the figure of the cross, and the initial letters of the name of Christ- is accompanied with these memorable words, "BY THIS SIGN THOU SHALT CONQUER" (20, 38 note). On the medals of Aurelian, four elephants drawing his triumphal car indicate his oriental victories. A great variety of coins still extant display the state and opulence of Carausius, a Roman general in Britain, who rebelling against his master, maintained independent sovereignty for seven years throughout all that island (13, 28 note) and hence figures in history as the British emperor.
Ducange labors to prove the title of Sullan to have been used in the ancient kingdom of Persia. His proofs would not be sneered at by Gibbon as mere shadows, could he prove the antiquity of a single medal (57, 4 note).
The hieroglyphics on the medals found by the Russians on the Irtish and Yenisce rivers, when deciphered, will reveal much that lies hid regarding ancient Siberia, (42, 36 notes). On a certain curious medal we may still see a Roman election, the ballot box- the narrow bridge along which voters came to the polls in single file- a man distributing voters, &c, (44, 28 note). On a coin of A.D. 772, we see the face of Pope Hadrian, and read the inscription, Hadrianus Papa, while the word CONOB, on the reverse, is interpreted to signify that the bishop of Constantinople was then considered second to the bishop of Rome, (49, 46 note). Some Carlovingian medals struck at Rome led Le Blanc to write an elaborate, though partial dissertation on the authority of the race of Charlemagne at Rome, both as patricians and emperors (49, 61 note).- Broken links regarding the relation of the Roman prefect to the German emperor are supplied by medals (49, 136 notes).
On the whole, so numerous and important are the contributions of medals to our knowledge of the past,- especially the civilized past- that Gibbon observes, 'A series of the Augustan history from medals and inscriptions has been more than once planned, and is still much wanted.' (10, 76 note). In view of the particulars already mentioned, and considering that 70,000 antique medals have been collected by Gibbon's time, we cannot wonder at his reckoning in medallic history a desideratum.- Now a days such a history it yet more to be desiderated, inasmuch as no year perhaps has passed since Gibbon wrote, in which an unexpected discovery of antique coins has not been made. Who has not seen many items like the following which I extract from one of the latest papers?
'Three hundred silver Roman medals have been found in an urn, at Nisores, in France. Some of them are very rare, at least of those saved, for a silver-smith unfortunately got possession of half the number and melted them up.'
It was once my good fortune to pay a flying visit to the Hotel des Monnaies, the unrivalled national collection of coins at Paris. It is a saloon larger than any New England church, adorned with twenty Corinthian columns supporting a gallery, and filled with glass casus that display an almost unbroken series of French coins for the last thirteen centuries, besides the medals struck on various public occasions,- as well as the present and past coinage of almost every country in the civilized world;- square Mexican or Aztec pieces, lozenge-shaped Cologne dollars, Turkish gold of singular purity, a medal of Charlemagne, and Spanish pieces of still greater antiquity. Louis XVI is said to have expended half a million dollars in improving this repository.- The gold pieces, each of ten Louis d'ors, are superb; and yet are less imposing than some medals that celebrate the triumphs of Napoleons. It is related that an artist who had forfeited his life, had it granted him in reward for his striking the medal of Cardinal Richelieu with matchless excellence.
It was mortifying to my patriotic pride to observe that, at the time of my visit (1843) there were few coins of the United States in this collection, and those few among the earliest or least creditable of the issues from our mint. The specimens I saw were discolored, worn, tarnished, seldom with any, or any legible, statement of their value. One dated 1807, of gold, was said to be two dollars in value. I trust that, at this time, the cases of this saloon are less scantily supplied with Yankee representatives, from cents to eagles and Washingtons.
The taste for Numismatics is no doubt an appetite that grows by what it feeds on. An hour with Mr. Stickney led me to style old coins the autographs of the ancients, and to say in Carlyle's language slightly varied, How beautiful to look thereby into the far off time, to behold an actual section cut out of the distant past, brought safe into the present and set down before your eyes. Doubly beautiful is it in a new country, whose antiquities are of yesterday.