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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 'June 2015'

    Another side of Saint-Gaudens

    June 27, 2015 8:30 AM by Kevin Goldberg
    In looking through a list of the 50 most influential pieces of art and architecture in American history, I was surprised to see a numismatic name; Augustus Saint-Gaudens. Saint-Gaudens, celebrated by most of us here as the designer of the famed double eagle and Indian head gold coins, was also an accomplished sculptor.

    Although his name will forever be linked to numismatics, Saint-Gaudens’s best-known creation is his Memorial to Robert Gould Shaw and the Massachusetts Fifty-Fourth Regiment, a bronze relief sculpture located at the Boston Common.

    Robert Gould Shaw was born into a family of white abolitionists in Massachusetts. Following some time in New York and Europe, Shaw returned to Boston to attend Harvard University from 1856-1859. Two years later, he entered the service of the Union army. In 1862, Shaw—with the encouragement of his abolitionist father—took command of the newly formed all-black Massachusetts 54th regiment.

    Shaw was a hero on and off the battlefield. He insisted that his men boycott service until Congress paid black soldiers equal to their white counterparts. On another occasion, he refused orders to indiscriminately fire upon the citizens of Darien, Georgia, as he desired not “to be made the instrument of the Lord’s vengeance.” Colonel Shaw’s leadership of the Massachusetts Fifty-Fourth came to an abrupt expiration on July 18th, 1863, as Shaw took a barrage of bullets to the chest while spearheading a charge against Fort Wagner in South Carolina.

    Unveiled in 1897, Saint-Gaudens’s 14’x11’ memorial honors Shaw’s bravery and sacrifice at a time when these deeds were most foreboding. An inscription on the relief reads OMNIA RELINQVIT / SERVARE REMPVBLICAM ("He left behind everything to save the Republic").

    Among the accomplishments of this particular artwork is the realist (non-derogatory) depiction of African-American soldiers, a true-to-life artistic style that was in too short supply in 19th-century America.

    Augustus Saint-Gaudens was a prolific artist. His sculptures, statues, and busts are found across the United States and Europe. While the day may never come when you or I can own a Saint-Gaudens numismatic piece, we can and should revel in his profound public art.  


    No Summertime Slumber in Mexico

    June 19, 2015 1:22 PM by Kevin Goldberg

    Last week, William T. Gibbs penned a column about collecting in the summertime; usually a period when the hobby switches on autopilot and glides insouciantly into the fall. Gibbs suggested, however, that summertime need not require the abandoning of the hobby, and he evoked the destinations of Washington D.C., Philadelphia, and Colorado Springs, all legitimate cities of interest for the numismatist.

    Coincidentally, Gibbs posted his column while I was enjoying my summer vacation, in Mexico. Perhaps because I did not intentionally seek out numismatic sites, I was surprised by the frequency with which I chanced upon coin-related matter.

    Mexico, with its colorful coins and bills, offers collectors a unique numismatic experience because—at least in Mexico City and the popular beach destinations—merchants and vendors trade in multiple national currencies. American and Canadian dollars are accepted (and often preferred) by hotels and restaurants. Euros float freely at the highest-end boutiques, and Japanese, Chinese, and Russian money change hands regularly at select outlets. Like a border zone in an overstretched empire, Mexico is a place where several currencies collide.

    Beyond the cacophony of honking horns, the shattered sidewalks, and the dusty air, Mexico City is home to several world-class museums, and the fervor with which Mexicans embrace these museums is equally spectacular. At the stunning Chapultepec Castle—the only residence in North America used to house a sovereign (Emperor Maximilian I)—I watched crowds scrutinize historical exhibits spanning the time between the late colonial period and the revolution of the early 20th century. On display were coins and die molds from Maximilian I’s short reign (1864-1867). I waited patiently, but could only catch a brief glimpse, as others were as intent as I to see them.   

    While I might anticipate finding coins in a history museum, I was flabbergasted to see a numismatic exhibit in the lobby of my hotel! The Hotel Geneve, located in the Zona Rosa, plays the grand dame in a neighborhood that has seen better days. In its turn-of-the-century lobby, surrounded by floor-to-ceiling bookcases and under the din of an ethereal art nouveau glass mosaic, there are cases filled with artifacts detailing the hotel’s 100 year existence. Among the handful of exhibits is a beautiful display of Monedas y Medallas, with examples from the time of the Battle of Puebla (1862), the centennial of the start of the Mexican War of Independence from Spain (1810/1910), and the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920). If U.S. history is marked by relative stability and seamless transitions, then Mexican history is its psychotic counterpart; a place of European-styled political chaos on North American soil. Coins and medals both represent and recount this turmoil.  

    Most surprising of all—and most difficult to explain—is the proliferation of coin and medal kiosks in the historic center of Mexico City. Amidst the buzz of the Zócalo—the sensational (and searing hot!) main square—dozens of stores lure passers-by with advertisements for coins and medals. While some of these shops offer only sightseer tokens and the like, there are enough numismatically driven businesses in this tightly packed area to keep any of us occupied for an afternoon. It’s hard to imagine the scene; envision coin shops lining Bourbon Street, Michigan Avenue, or the 3rd Street Promenade. Increasingly relegated to the dustbin in U.S. cities, coin shops occupy some of the most trafficked space in Mexico’s capital. It’s worth pondering why this is the case.

    This unexpected numismatically enriching summer vacation was enough to carry me through June. Come July, the real F.U.N. begins with the revival of the coin show circuit.

    Modern Ancients

    June 12, 2015 9:47 AM by Kevin Goldberg

    In my World History courses, I harp on how the past—or at least our evolving understanding of it—constantly reshapes the present. I give my students two examples of how this functions in a negative sense; Egypt and Greece. Modern Egyptian and Greek history are so weighted down by the mythologies of their extraordinary pasts that we struggle to fathom each’s modern existence without contextualizing each into the ancients. Today’s national governments cater to tourism and foreign money as much as the plight of ordinary citizens, a phenomenon on display in the Greek currency crisis and the recent “Arab Spring” that blossomed in Cairo.     

    This is particularly troublesome because Egypt and Greece have as significant a history of the past 200 years as anywhere else. Egypt since 1800 is a tale of canalization, colonial entanglement, and balancing historic attachments to Islam and Christianity. Egypt was a key player in Cold War politics because of its pivotal location in both the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern worlds. Modern Greece also emerged in a cultural border area; torn between Ottoman and European powers in the 19th century. But no matter how vital, these modern stories must wait patiently behind their ancient counterparts. 

    Of course, Egyptian and Greek coin designs borrow heavily from their ancient mythologies. Although in Egypt this trend did not take off until after World War II, Greek coin designers had begun to experiment a bit earlier by blending ancient narratives with modern politics. A favorite of many collectors is the 1910-11 1 Drachma (5g, .8350 Ag, .1342 ASW). This common two-year type features the bust of the aged King George on the obverse and a stylized depiction of Thetis, bearing the shield of Achilles, on the reverse. This odd pairing demands an explanation.   

    George was born into the royal Danish family in 1845. Looking to secure Great Britain as an ally, the Greek people courted the Danish prince (Denmark and Great Britain were strategic maritime partners) to be “King of the Hellenes,” a title that George accepted in 1863. In exchange for satisfying British demands (i.e., by not selecting a rival prince), the British transferred the Ionian Islands into Greek possession. Before his assassination in 1913, George’s 50-year reign experienced tremendous highs and miserable lows, with numerous territorial gains and losses, though his most enduring contribution may have been his instilling of confidence in the Greek people during these formative years of the constitutional monarchy.

    The 1910-11 Drachma’s reverse is one of the most beautiful of the early twentieth century, in part because of the rounded high points of the design. The choice to depict the myth of Thetis, goddess of the sea and heroine of Homer’s Iliad, is no coincidence. According to Paris Papamichos Chronakis, Lecturer of Modern Greek History at the University of Illinois at Chicago, “the scene depicted [on the coin] can be viewed as symbolic of national regeneration and an affirmation of the eventual triumph of Greece.” With their nationalist ambitions stifled in the 1897 war against the Ottoman Turks (remember, Troy, scene of the action in the Iliad, is located in Turkey), the Greeks rallied, symbolically, behind Achilles’s shield in their attempt to wrest the island of Crete from the Turks. Papamichos Chronakis also points out that the employment of ancient mythology—in this case the militaristic story of Thetis—is perfectly in line with the rebuilding of the army and the modernizing agenda following the Goudi Revolt of 1909.

    Ancient symbols matter in Greece more than anywhere else. The wonderful Drachmas of 1910 and 1911 are but a small piece of this 3,000- year history. The governments under King George fully understood the importance of coinage in narrating and legitimizing their vision of the past and present.  

    Confession of a German States addict

    June 5, 2015 6:30 PM by Kevin Goldberg

    A recent purchase brought to light a tricky matter within what is arguably the most complex area of European numismatics, the German States. At about the size of a dime, a simple 1766 1/48 Thaler from Münster seems harmless enough, but cataloguing the coin requires careful attention. Münster, a Westphalian town of about 300,000 people today, had three coin-issuing entities in the 18th century; the town’s bishop (bishopric coinage), the commercial leadership (city coinage), and the ecclesiastic-minded nobility (cathedral coinage). As Coin World’s Jeff Starck alluded to in a 2014 article, Münster’s history is marked by violent internal divisions. It is no wonder then that this small state had three separate issuers of coins in the 1700s, all of whom fought for physical and financial control of the town’s trade.

    Before going any further, it may be useful to solve a terminological riddle. “German States” is misleading. The patchwork Holy Roman Empire—the loosely organized governing body for most of Central Europe for about 1,000 years—did not have a centralized monetary policy, which is what allowed for the proliferation of German States coinage. Münster, one among the many bishoprics in the Empire, was never a state in the way that we understand the term today. In fact, the hundreds of territories that we reflexively call “states” were not really states at all. Instead, they were free cities, dukedoms, knightdoms, principalities, abbeys, bishoprics, etc., that constituted the complex system of rule in the Holy Roman Empire. Several of these states, including Münster, played host to petty contests for power between local, regional, and continental elites, both ecclesiastic and secular. The Münster 1766 1/48 Thaler (a bishopric issue, by the way) was struck in this environment of contested rule.

    Münster was not alone as a contested state. Other states—again, this is a misleading term—including Augsburg, Cologne, Hildesheim, Lübeck, and Osnabrück, all had at least two sources of coinage in the 18th century. To be sure, states with multiple sources of coinage are the exception rather than the rule. Nevertheless, it is historically enlightening to explore why these few states had multiple sources of circulating coinage. This is a difficult question to answer succinctly.

    Most multi-issuer states had a historically strong commercial class alongside traditional ecclesiastic and noble structures. In the north-German state of Lübeck, Hanseatic merchants wielded more power from the 12th-17th centuries than did the bishops; both the bishopric and the merchant elites struck coins. The bishopric issues display the bust or insignia of a princely ruler while the free city issues display the double-headed eagle of the Holy Roman Empire (from whom the “free city” status was usually granted) and the city’s coat of arms. Cologne on the Rhine, another extremely powerful trading city, had (like Münster) three separate coin-issuing entities in the 18th century. In fact, the merchant class was so powerful in Cologne that the ecclesiastic elites, who were no slouches themselves, were barred from entering the city and were forced to reside in nearby Bonn and/or Brühl. Thus, the coins of the Archbishopric of Cologne did not necessarily circulate freely in the city of Cologne at all. The profits from minting coins were often used to wage the bitter struggle between commerce and church. 

    I am aware of how this nuance can signify chaotic confusion for collectors. However, I can’t stress enough that the complexities of German States coins are actually a blessing in disguise. For me, there is an added layer of depth to the German States that no other collecting area offers. While I’m excited about my Münster coin now, it won’t be long before I’m wooed by a new coin from another small “state.”

    For more on German States coins, see my article in the January 2015 newsletter of the Metropolitan Coin Club of Atlanta.