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Kevin Goldberg

Old World, New Ideas

Kevin Goldberg

Kevin D. Goldberg began collecting European coins as a Middle School student in suburban Philadelphia. Three decades later, he still collects European coins, but now in suburban Atlanta, where he teaches in the Department of History & Philosophy at Kennesaw State University. He earned his Ph.D. in European History from the University of California, Los Angeles, and was a postdoctoral fellow in the International Humanities at Brown University, 2011-2013. Kevin has been planning on expanding his collection beyond Europe for the past decade, but is only now getting around to it.   

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Archive for 'May 2015'

    Small Change(s)

    May 29, 2015 8:53 AM by Kevin Goldberg

    In a Voices article dated April 16, 2015, I offered five “excuses” why I collect coins. The post generated several email responses that prompted me to think more about what I like and what I don’t like about our hobby. Let’s face it, numismatics is fantastic, but it’s not perfect.

    What follows are three things about coin collecting that I wish I could affect.

    “Chinese” counterfeits: Read carefully. Counterfeits are the scourge of our hobby. There is no contesting that. But I do contest the way we (I mean “we” literally, as I include myself) lazily conflate all modern counterfeits into the abstract label, “Chinese.” At least two complications arise. First, honest Chinese dealers and collectors—there are a great many—are dually mistrusted within the hobby. The repercussions of this are tragic down to the most human level, and this has a direct effect on the overall health of numismatics. Second, modern counterfeiters in Europe, the United States, and elsewhere receive a free pass whenever we glibly scream “Chinese” without really knowing the financial and physical sources of fakes. Despite being so knowledgeable about historical injustices, we tend to overlook our own biases.

    The lack of women in numismatics: Yes, there are some women, including some very high-profile women at Coin World, but women are grossly outnumbered by their male counterparts on the bourse floor. I understand that our hobby has historically been a male pursuit. We can’t change the past, but we can certainly address the future. The hobby must recognize and respond to shifting family dynamics. Fathers today spend more time with their daughters than previous generations, but few of these fathers bring their girls to coin shows. I don’t, because I fear that the lack of women collectors in the room would drive my daughters even further away. Many organizations, from local coin clubs all the way up to the ANA, have begun to address this gender imbalance, but we still have much work to do. Efforts to address the “greying” of the numismatic demographic should go hand-in-hand with efforts to promote the hobby among girls.

    Points: I understand that third-party graders (TPGs) are an indispensable, if still somewhat controversial, reality in our hobby. Points are an enterprising part of what TPGs do, but they should be subordinate to the more imperative task of authentication. As has already occurred in wine collecting, where quality is determined by several (all subjective) 100-point scales, TPG point systems have begun to replace traditional connoisseurship in numismatics and have further tilted the hobby towards money, rather than passion. I suspect that many among us are actually collectors of plastic tombs and “top-pop” trophies, with only a former or tertiary interest in coins. The problem is not that people collect points—really, I don’t begrudge that at all—but rather that any attempt to objectivize and then monetize what is so recognizably subjective will continue to foment speculation, distrust, and malfeasance. My wish is not to remove TPGs from the hobby, but only that raw coin collectors still be able to find the coins they desire at prices they can afford.

    Affecting these three things would, I think, improve our hobby considerably. The first two are more important than the third for the long-term health of numismatics. The third has already changed the way we talk about and actually collect coins, but it’s not a poison pill as long as we retain the choice not to play the points game.

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    Straight Bourbon

    May 22, 2015 8:42 AM by Kevin Goldberg

    No, no, not that Bourbon. The other Bourbon. The House of Bourbon; the family that ruled France — nay, Europe — for centuries. Sorry to disappoint. But while the Bourbon crest once lorded over the continent, the triple fleur-de-lis and the busts of Bourbon monarchs hardly register with collectors today.

    There are several reasons for this disinterest in the coins of the ancien régime, or France before the Revolution. The fact that France was never a major source of migration to the New World (outside of a few pockets, most notably Eastern Canada) is certainly one reason. But so, unfortunately, is the notorious complexity of its mint mark and privy (engraver) mark taxonomy. Dozens of mint locations and worn privy marks have frustrated many would-be collectors. In addition, French dealers — unlike their Anglo-friendly German, Dutch, and Scandinavian counterparts — have not traditionally targeted American collectors. This, I think, is beginning to change.      

    It is not an exaggeration to call the Bourbons Europe’s most significant family of the past millennium. Bourbon monarchs, including Henry IV, Louis XIII, Louis XIV, and Louis XV, fashioned the royal culture of absolutism and solidified the very position of the king as a legitimate power vis-à-vis the Estates General, the rigid hierarchy of clergymen (First Estate), noblemen (Second Estate), and the heterogeneous “Third Estate,” a motley mixture of urban and rural Frenchmen without title. This entrenched system in which birth mattered more than merit is the picture (for many modern commentators) of inequality and inefficiency. The struggles for power within French society were legislated through representatives of each of the three estates. The history of French coinage is no exception.

    The three estates convened in 1576 in order to combat the perceived Huguenot threat. Of nearly equal importance were questions of monetary policy, minting strategies and locations, and currency (de-) valuations. French money would be changed forever as a result. Henry III (the last Valois king) was determined that the Écu be the pièce de résistance of French coinage (much like the Thaler across the Rhine). In1577, on the heels of the meeting of the estates, new legislation put limits on the circulation of foreign coinage and encouraged the minting of small denominations in an effort to better serve the multitudes.  

    Under the Bourbons, the ubiquitous silver Écu (meaning“shield”) greased French commerce. The Bourbons also used the Écu—manufactured at royal mints—to drive out the coinage of their noble and ecclesiastical competitors. The House of Bourbon established profitable mints all across their territory in an effort to undermine baronial and church resistance. There were upwards of 30 Bourbon minting facilities in the 17th-century alone, from the coast of Bretagne to the mountains near Bayonne, from the Moselle to  the Mediterranean. Thus, the intricacy of French numismatics had for the Bourbons a very pragmatic purpose. Control of the Écu meant control of the Estates General. Control of the Estates General meant control in France.

    The House of Bourbon would maintain power in France until the cataclysm of the 1790s delivered it a standing-eight count. A few decades later, the Bourbons would be knocked out by the sweeping winds of 19th-century change. The once-ubiquitous Écu disappeared along with its benefactor. In its place, the new French Franc would continue to galvanize European commerce.

    For those looking for a challenge, the Bourbon Écu offers a chance at a historically unique and powerful collection.

    Marx in Middletown, CT

    May 15, 2015 9:17 AM by Kevin Goldberg

    This week I had the pleasure of spending three days on the beautiful campus of Wesleyan University in Middletown, CT. Discussions with students ranged from 17th century conceptions of freedom to 21st century ideas of race. The occasion was strictly business, but we coin enthusiasts always find a way to link our passion to work. One thought that occurred to me was that many of the individuals who we were discussing—Cromwell, Kant, Napoleon III, etc.—have been depicted on various numismedia, including coins of course.  

    In fact, history might be the very backbone of our hobby, particularly when considering the faces, symbols, and objects that adorn the coins that we collect. Whether it’s the bust of a monarch, a scripture from the Koran, or perhaps a metaphorical symbol of liberty, coin designs reflect the societal, cultural, and political beliefs of a given society. Much of the dialogue this week focused on the 19th century, particularly industrialization and the creation of political-party systems in England, France, Germany, and Russia. It is no wonder, then, that Karl Marx (1818-1883) was on the tip of every tongue.

    While Marx remains a controversial figure, we cannot deny the fact that he was a respected theoretician of money. In his 1844

    Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts , Marx famously parsed verses from Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens to shed light on the divine nature of coins. From Shakespeare:

    “…This yellow slave [gold coin]
    Will knit and break religions, bless the accursed;
    Make the hoar leprosy adored, place thieves
    And give them title, knee and approbation
    With senators on the bench: This is it
    That makes the wappen’d widow wed again;…”

    Reading Shakespeare, Marx calls money a “visible divinity,” responsible for the “transformation of all human and natural properties into their contraries, the universal confounding and distorting of things: impossibilities are soldered together by it.” In other words, with a coin in hand, we can do things that are otherwise beyond our reach. The coin is the bridge between desire and its satisfaction; hence its divine nature.

    Despite Marx’s enormous place in history—not to mention his infatuation with money—his likeness has only rarely been depicted on coins. The centennial of his death in 1983, however, saw the issuance of several commemoratives. Not surprisingly, these coins were mostly issued by the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies, including East Germany and Czechoslovakia.

    The Soviet Union minted 2 million commemoratives featuring Marx’s statuesque bust on the obverse and the hammer and sickle on the reverse. These coins, struck from a copper-nickel-zinc alloy, are readily available in the $10-$20 range. The East German 20 Mark commemorative, also made from a non-precious alloy, features the face of Marx on the obverse and a quote from his 1845 Theses on Feuerbach on the reverse (“Philosophers have only interpreted the world…the point, however, is to change it”). The East German coin is slightly scarcer than the Soviet issue, and will generally cost a few dollars more. The former Czechoslovakia issued a non-circulating silver commemorative of Marx in 1983. With only 80,000 struck, this may be the most challenging of the group to find, though it certainly appears—still inexpensively—every now and again.

    Maybe the most surprising of the 1983 commemoratives comes from a country that one could hardly call Marxist; West Germany, or the former Federal Republic of Germany (FRG). Marx’s German birth does not in itself explain the decision of the FRG to mint the commemorative. Rather, the West Germans appreciated the enormity of Marx’s legacy, even in a liberal-capitalist tradition similar to that of the United States. Though in no way a scarce coin (it costs under $10 in UNC), the West German commemorative may be the most honorific.

    Who says business trips can’t be fun?

    La Dolce Vita, 1859

    May 7, 2015 2:59 PM by Kevin Goldberg

    Although I frequently imagine Italian vistas, I often lack the fortitude—despite being a historian of Europe—to ponder Italian history, notorious for its unexpected twists and bewildering turns. In the classroom I usually dodge the knotty subject of Italian unification in particular, choosing instead to let students indulge the notion that Italy is the miraculous creation of a power not of this world; after all, one doesn’t have to be that spiritual to see the hand of God in a place this beautiful.

    But literary and numismatic happenstance has given me the nerve to rethink my fear of Italian history. Umberto Eco’s recent novel, The Prague Cemetary, offers a semi-factual account of the multidimensional process of Italian unification that humanizes the mythological names of Cavour, Mazzini, and Garibaldi. Eco captured my imagination in a way that historians have not. Even more germane to my sudden bravado is the revitalization of a dormant specialization in my collection; the Italian states. This pleasant surprise I owe to a dealer at April’s Georgia Numismatic Association Coin Show from whom I purchased a fabulous 1859 Naples & Sicily 10 Tornesi (a 31 gram copper Goliath!).

    Unifying Italy (Risorgimento in Italian) required the consolidation of historically distinct Italian states into a single Italian nation, generally thought of as completed in 1861, though loose strands were still being threaded together throughout the remainder of the decade. Unlike the comparatively straightforward unification of Germany a few years later (a process that Chancellor Otto von Bismarck matter-of-factly described as the outcome of “blood and iron”), Italian unification seemed to require forked tongues and fairy dust. Deteriorating monarchs, foreign usurpers, uncompromising Communists and compromising Liberals, landless peasants and landed nobles, and of course the Pope; these were just some of the actors sharing the stage in this riveting, real-life drama.

    As is so often the case, coinage—and money more generally—was a crucial part of this drama, and the coins from this tumultuous period remain a critically important aide in understanding the events. I imagine my 10 Tornesi in the pocket of a soldier during the infamous“Expedition of the Thousand,” a heroic excursion of rag-tag adventurers who defeated Bourbon and Neapolitan regiments in Sicily and on the southern half of the Italian peninsula. From our vantage point as collectors, we know that 1859 was the last year that the monarchy of Naples & Sicily issued its own coinage. Thereafter—following a brief interlude under the rule of the Turin-based Kingdom of Sardinia—Naples & Sicily was compelled to join the monetary union of the newly-created Kingdom of Italy, a constitutional monarchy that issued its first coins in 1861.

    Italian states coinage reflects the grand European theater of the 18th and 19th centuries. The incessant meddling of the Austro-Hungarian Empire gave rise to numerous occupational and provisional issues on all parts of the peninsula. The French Revolution’s reorganization of the European map around 1800 reshuffled Italian coinage too. The newly-created yet short-lived Cisalpine, Cispadine, Neapolitan, and Piedmont Republics all produced limited (and today, highly desirable) coinage.Napoleon’s coronation as Italian Emperor in 1805 led to ten years of coins bearing the bust of this most feared man in Europe. The upheaval of 1848, when Liberals, Socialists, and Nationalists all took their grievances to the streets of Europe’s industrializing cities, also reformed Italian coinage, including in Venice, where The Republic of San Marco struck several revolutionary issues. And of course, the drama of unification in the 1850s and 1860s would, region-by-region, erase the centuries-long history of Italian states coinage and simultaneously usher in the age of Italy, and Italian coins…not a bad result at all.