Friday, December 11, 2009

Differing Perceptions of Italy's Premier Coin Display

During my own CPAC presentation on behalf of two numismatic trade associations, I questioned the Italian State's commitment to the study, preservation and display of the ancient coins in its care. See

Now, as reported by archaeological blogger, David Gill, AIA Vice-President Sebastian Heath has taken issue with this view. See

Specifically, Dr. Heath, states,

Another voice heard at the CPAC meeting was that of ancient coin collectors and dealers. Like many AIA members, one of the areas in which I’ve published scholarly articles is ancient numismatics so the protection of coins is of great interest to me. Archaeologists are members of the numismatic community, and it is important that our voice is heard. Speaking for coin dealers, Peter Tompa, who represented both the International Association of Professional Numismatists and the Professional Numismatists Guild and who has also released a summary of his written submission, suggested that Italian museums are not good stewards of their numismatic collections and that Italian archaeologists do a poor job publishing excavated coins. My experience suggests that neither is the case. The Palazzo Massimo in Rome has a superb numismatic display that features excavated material, including hoard finds, to trace the rise and use of coinage from the Republican period onwards. The website reports the discovery of coins and often places them in context by discussing the sites on which they were found. Unfortunately, the current MoU does not include coins as a protected category. If Italy does request that coins be included in a future agreement, it is likely that the AIA would support such a move.

Dr. Heath's view, in turn, has prompted some comment. In particular, a collector [who would prefer to remain anonymous], had this to say in response about Italy's premier coin display:

I disagree with the word "superb". Italians are awful stewards.... I too have seen the collection of coins in the Palazzo Massimo Alle Terme. It is dusty, fingerstained, with magnifying glasses on most Roman coins that are alinged poorly, and with at least one Domitian aureus that had fallen to the bottom of the display. It is an afterthought, at best. I asked a curator (at least someone in a suit with a badge) about the collection, and he, in perfect English told me that he didn't know anything about coins. When I asked who the numismatist was at the Massimo, he didn't have a clue. One of the Nero pieces was clearly Lugdunum (with the globe at the neck of the bust), and was listed as being "from Rome"...of course, possible, but not minted there. [My Wife] and I chatted with a curator about the excellent mosaics. She was very pleasant and knowledgeable. Two days later we chanced to meet her and her boyfriend at the Nero Domus Aureus; I told her I was surprised that the coins at the Massimo were not well presented...her response: "what coins?"

I also have viewed the display myself some years back. I thought it was excellent in concept (particularly in contrast to the few, scattered displays of worn and corroded coins one often sees in regional museums). At the same time, however, I was very disappointed to also observe the effects of neglect-- particularly the broken lighting and magnifying devices. I would also note the "Fasti online" Dr. Heath describes does include coins, but fails to describe them in much detail.

Overall, while I appreciate Dr. Heath's points, I simply don't think they take into account the "situation on the ground" in Italy as a whole. The Palazzo Massimo is Italy's premier coin display. Yet, even it shows the signs of neglect. "Fastionline" may mention coins, but it is no substitute for thorough publication.

Few coins are displayed at Italian museums. Many museum collections are not published at all or are published only in part. The same deplorable situation exists at archaeological sites. Italian sites have been under professional excavation for a century, but publications of site finds are few and for many sites, years of excavation work has failed to produce any publications at all.

One also wonders about the storage conditions for coins. Mario Resca, Italy's new "Museum Czar," has spoken forthrightly about the serious underfunding facing the Italian cultural institutions. Italy is a very wealthy "G8" country. Yet, it does not even fund its major cultural sites adequately. What then of its funding for the coins in State Collections?


Wayne G. Sayles said...


Since anecdotal accounts seem to be acceptable in the realm of forming opinions, if not in scholarly debate, I'll relate one of my own that is absolutely true. In the 1980s, I visited the Archaeological Museum in Naples and was kindly received by one of the staff. After marveling at the mosaics and the statuary in the main salon, I explained my interest in ancient coins and was taken to a basement store room where the products of local excavations were stored. Literally thousands of pounds of coins were stored in buckets on the floor of this very damp room with no organization of any sort. Just bucket after bucket of coins. Most of the bronze coins were badly infested with bronze disease. It was a sad and shocking experience. About ten years later, I ran into a coin dealer from California who had just returned from Naples and had visited the same museum. Remarkably, he too found a staff member willing (if not proud) to show the coins - the same coins it appears - except that by then most of the bronze coins were merely green dust. The museum could probably not be faulted, since they work on a limited budget and the coins just kept accumulating until they had nowhere to go with them. This was, after all, the repository for most of the artifacts from Pompeii and Herculaneum. Can you imagine trying to store all of the portable remains from two ancient cities, and a huge surrounding area, in one building? The archaeologists could not be faulted, because they were merely doing their job and retrieving what nature and history had left in their path. The loss of this resource and all the good that it could have done lies squarely on the shoulders of the nationalist ideology that locked it forever in that basement. But, in fairness, I shouldn't pick on Naples. Some other time, I'll tell you about the coins in the archaeological museum in Istanbul or the Tardani dies at the Museo del Terme, or the rape of Side by the Turkish Ministry of Tourism, or ....



Cultural Property Observer said...

Thank you Wayne. It would be interesting to hear about other displays and the conditions behind the scenes at other museums and/or archaeological sites.

Nathan Elkins links us to his blog about the Palazzo Massimo in "Looting Matters." See

That blog reminds us:

"Most of the coins in the cases at the Palazzo Massimo come from the private collection of Francesco Gnecchi, a numismatic scholar from the late 19th and early 20th century, but other displays include excavated hoards and finds as does its larger inventory which cannot be displayed at once. Some 60,000 - 70,000 ancient coins from the Rome, which were recovered during the risorgimento, await publication by the numismatists at Frankfurt. Some finds from the Tiber River have already been published."

So, the Museum has benefited from the generosity of a collector to make its display possible, but 19th c. ancient coin site finds from Rome still have not been published?

Imagine that.....