Collecting like a curator: Using items as visual resources

Colonial America column from the March 28, 2014, issue of Coin World
By , Special to Coin World
Published : 04/10/14
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For most numismatists, collecting goals are about the same — complete a predefined collection with the finest coins that are acquirable. It’s a pattern that is inculcated in every Whitman folder-filling kid, and reflected in everyone who has ever scanned a price guide to determine the best grade they can afford.

Colonial specialists are no different. While quality may be defined in different ways, with strike and planchet quality taking the place of luster and technical grade, most Colonial coin collectors try to buy the nicest coins they can get while working toward a completable goal, whether it be a variety collection or a type set or a Professional Coin Grading Service Set Registry set.

Curators and the museums they represent just plain collect differently. Coins, medals, and paper money are objects that help tell a story, and what collectors call “grade” is not necessarily a paramount museum consideration. Completeness is defined not with a checklist, but with an overall view of the era and the stories that need to be told.

While everyone loves pretty coins and medals, curators often prefer an example that shows clear designs but looks like it belongs in the era it’s from. In other words, they want an old object that looks old. A beautiful Mint State Washington Funeral medal very nicely depicts the designs of the medal, but a holed and worn piece that was clearly displayed and enjoyed by a mourner of George Washington tells a richer and more interpretable story. A sheet of Colonial paper currency may tell the story of printers in the Colonial era well, but a note with inked notations, contemporary repairs, and a handmade pin holding it all together tells a host more stories about the history of that note and its era.

While well-worn coins, medals, and paper money may look nice in certain exhibits and collections, curators also use their Colonial numismatic items as a visual resource library of the 17th and 18th centuries. Think of the coins and medals of this era as a form of historic clip art. All sorts of allegorical images, everyday objects and historical personages are depicted on the items we collect. Those depictions are often what makes a numismatic item useful to a museum, and they allow a curator to interpret its designs without really interpreting the object itself.

Even for a noncurator, it’s perhaps easier to enjoy the art and history of numismatic items of the Colonial era with this sort of collecting ethic in mind.

While most collectors enjoy collecting sets, it is often far more satisfying to collect stories and historical vignettes that coins represent than to collect the coins themselves.

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