The Numismatic Bibliomania Society



The E-Sylum: Volume 17, Number 22, May 25, 2014, Article 26


On May 23, 2014, CoinWeek published a great article by Mike Markowitz with the provocative title, "Why Museums Hate Ancient Coins". Here's an excerpt, but be sure to read the complete version online. -Editor

Gold solidus of Julian As collectors of ancient coins, one of the most Frequently Asked Questions we encounter is “Don’t these things belong in museums?” The answer, sometimes with a patient sigh, sometimes with a snort of derision, is an emphatic, “No!”

The Dirty Little Secret is that museums hate ancient coins. Or, to put it more accurately, most museum curators and officials would be happy not to have to deal with them.

Coins are usually two-sided. This means unless a museum owns two good examples of the same type, only one side is going to be visible, unless coins are mounted in front of a mirror or between sheets of glass in cases accessible from both sides. Another solution preferred by some curators is to provide high-resolution photographs of both sides alongside the coin.

Museums hate coins because coins are usually small. This makes them hard for visitors to see.

One might object that the Hope Diamond is also small – weighing nine grams (45.52 carats) and about 25mm wide. But crowds throng to view it at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum every day.

The diamond comes with a dramatic story about being “cursed,” and an estimated value of $200-$250 million; few coins can claim that kind of star power.

Which brings us to a third reason. If they’re valuable or made of precious metal, coins are a security headache for museums. In 2007, the American Numismatic Association Money Museum suffered the theft of 300 historically significant coins with a total value of nearly a million dollars. It was an inside job. Some have been recovered; some are still missing. Recently, when members of the Washington Ancient Numismatic Society visited the Smithsonian American History Museum to view a selection of rare ancients, we had an armed guard–as well as a curator–accompany us.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has what is probably the greatest collection of Etruscan artifacts outside of Italy: ceramics, carved gems and spectacular jewelry, weapons and armor, a complete bronze chariot… but not a single Etruscan coin on display.

This brings us to the crux of the matter. Compared to the spectacular crowd-pleasing artifacts that museums crave, ancient coins are unexciting.

I know these are heretical words for any coin geek to write. One of the greatest thrills of my life was actually holding a gold diobol of Athens – a coin made of gold stripped from the statues on the Acropolis when Athens faced financial ruin in 407/406 BCE (less than a dozen examples are known).

But a viewer unfamiliar with the history and the context might easily gaze upon such a treasure without a flicker of interest or delight.

All good points, and I think they apply to coins in general, not just ancient ones. When I first set out to make exhibits for coin shows, I actually stayed away from coins, opting instead for paper money and numismatic literature, which are larger and much easier to see with the naked eye. But online exhibits are a horse of another color. Online, coin images can be majestic - large, detailed, and colorful, even better than the naked eye. I remember being astounded by some of my own coins and medals when I first viewed electronic images of them. What a good exhibit of numismatic material needs are good, large images of the coins on display. -Editor

To read the complete article, see: Why Museums Hate Ancient Coins (

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Wayne Homren, Editor

NBS ( Web

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