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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 'September 2015'

    Kids' Coins

    September 14, 2015 12:48 PM by Kevin Goldberg

    Very few traits of pre-democratic regimes so radically differ from today’s governments as hereditary claims to rule. Before the winds of democratic change swept through Europe and its overseas empires, governing was almost always a family affair. Strict rules determining succession gave rise to myriad dilemmas, with murderous disputes between family members and incestuous relations often providing the fix. One of the more curious resolutions to succession problems was the placing of a child on the royal throne.

    Child monarchs were found in all parts of the world. King Tutankhamen of ancient Egypt, who ascended to the throne at age 9, and Puyi, who was less than 5 years of age when he ruled the early twentieth-century Qing dynasty, are just two well-known examples. King Louis XIV of France, the famous “Sun King,” took over Europe’s most important throne before the ripe age of 6. Though always the exception rather than the rule, child monarchs were a recurring feature in global politics before democracy replaced heredity as the preferred method of selecting a ruler.

    Coins document this history in a way that can only be described as…well…cute.

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    King Alfonso XIII of Spain was installed on the throne at birth because his father, Alfonso XII, had passed away the year before. Although his first 16 years of “rule” necessitated the regency of his mother, Maria Christina of Austria, Alfonso XIII would sit atop Spain’s throne until 1941, when he abdicated in favor of his son, Juan.

    Silver and gold coinage, beginning with the 1888 5 Pesetas (25g, .9000 Ag, .7234 ASW), bear the portrait of the adorable infant king. Facing left, the portrait is “bare,” meaning without robe or military insignia. In 1893 and 1894, 50 Centimos, Peseta, 2 Pesetas, and 5 Pesetas coins were struck with the adolescent king’s bust, still facing left, but now with a fine head of curly hair. Two other regency types (1896-1902, 1903-1905) were struck with the bust of the child king. Only the fourth type portrays the king, approaching his 16th birthday, wearing his military attire.

    The same decade, the 1890s, saw the ascension of another child monarch, Queen Wilhelmina I of the Netherlands. Like Alfonso XIII, Wilhelmina’s reign would continue into the 1940s, though her legacy is far more politically sound and stamped with courage compared to that of the young Spanish king. Wilhelmina (though not without some accusations of Nazi sympathy) would be the face of Dutch resistance against German occupation in World War II. She spoke (in fluent English) before the U.S. Congress in 1942, where she linked the shared histories of the Netherlands and the United States in an effort to seal an ongoing, democratic alliance. For her courage in Europe, the United States awarded Wilhelmina a WWII Victory Medal.

    Only one type from Wilhelmina’s regency period exists, which may explain its high collectability. From 1892-1898, the Netherlands issued denominations of 10 cents, 25 cents, 1 Gulden (100 cents), and a gold 10 Gulden, all with the facing-left bust of the young queen. Unlike later types with an older queen donning the royal crown, Wilhelmina appears somehow commoner-like in this regency-period bust, with a peasant’s face and the grimy, dirty blondish hair of a working-class youth. It is a startling type for this reason alone.

    There are yet still other coins with the cherub faces of child monarchs. It is curious to see, as with both cases here, the aging of the monarch over long stretches of time. Many specialists in British coins have this in mind when collecting the over 60-years’ worth of “Vicky” (Queen Victoria) portraits. But while we can still appreciate these lovable faces, we should all be thankful that the age of the child monarch has come and gone.        

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    The Royal African Company and the Morality of Numismatics

    September 7, 2015 11:48 AM by Kevin Goldberg

    The question seems to come up frequently; does the act of collecting politically tainted coins necessarily taint the collector? Occasional flare-ups over the morality of trading Nazi coins or dealing in the coinage of “unfriendly” states like Cuba does add an element of political consciousness into the hobby, but is there anything sinister about it?

    While preparing a lecture on the African slave trade this past week, I came across a reference to the Royal African Company (RAC), a London-based mercantile monopoly that bought and sold captive Africans in the decades before and after 1700. I immediately recalled reading a fine article about a year ago by Greg Reynolds about English coinage with the provenance mark of the Royal African Company, and was driven to dig deeper into the operations of the English tradesmen. The deeper I dug, the heavier my heart became.

    Gold, the raison d’être of the RAC, was soon complemented by the trade in slaves, fueled in large part by the increasing demand for labor in the Caribbean and the American colony of Virginia. Although the RAC’s monopoly on slaves would soon be erased by the entrance of free market ideals on all shores of the Atlantic (and the ensuing explosion of the slave trade), the horror of its legacy is as visible as the letters R-A-C branded across the chests of its captives.

    Thankfully, little remains of the Royal African Company other than the highly prized coins manufactured from its mined gold. Several issues from the Royal Mint of England in the period 1688-1722 bear the “elephant and castle” (or sometimes just the elephant), the provenance mark of the RAC. Elephants are found on shillings, half-crowns, crowns, and gold guineas. Collectors of English coins jump at the opportunity to acquire RAC-marked examples, though the high demand and rarity of such coins warrant a high premium.

    Collectors of English (or, after the 1707 union with Scotland, British) coinage are blessed with an array of nuance beyond the traditional scope of ruler, denomination, and condition. One such nuance is the provenance mark, of which the elephant of the Royal African Company belongs. Other provenance marks include “Lima” for silver captured from the Spanish during the naval wars of the 1740s, and “SSC,” designating silver supplied from the infamous South Sea Company. The nuances of British coins offer spectacular thrills for those willing to engage, rather than run from, such complexities.   

    Collectors of provenance marks must face the question about the morality of RAC coins. The almost-four centuries that separate us from the actions of the Royal African Company have deadened the screams of its victims, but does our collecting of these coins justify the actions of the RAC or somehow further assail those whose lives were robbed? No matter how we independently answer this question, perhaps we all share the obligation to be aware of the blood underfoot the elephant.       

    Is this the most beautiful coin of the 20th century?

    September 1, 2015 10:32 AM by Kevin Goldberg

    It’s a misleading question. Simply by asking it, I’m already suggesting the answer. And really, is such a question even measurable? Of course not, but please allow me to explain.

    Coins have long been used for nationalistic purposes, either to project the identity of a nation to the outside world or to brand a sense of unity among insiders around a common symbol; for example, the Brandenburg Gate, an image of Charlemagne, the Magna Carta, etc. These coins often feel more like tourist tokens than authentic pieces of a nation’s identity.

    The 1914 2 Kroner (15g, .8000 Ag,.3858 ASW) from Norway, on the other hand, captures its time and place beautifully. Minted to commemorate the Centennial of the Norwegian Constitution, the sparse reverse features an older woman, alone in traditional dress, gazing longingly above the placid sea. The royal crest on the obverse is surrounded by an almost-complete circle of spruce trees, ubiquitous in Norway’s dense, sacred forests. The coin is an ideal evocation of early-20th century Norway, when Nordic mythology and a burgeoning civilization collided in the spectacular western fjords and on the damp streets of its fledgling capital city, Kristiania (today Oslo). 

    Norwegian literature, from the late-nineteenth century naturalist dramas of Henrik Ibsen to today’s New York Times bestsellers by Karl Ove Knausgaard, is suggestive of an otherworldly nature, somehow European, but with a rugged, de-populated landscape somehow so unlike Europe. The world-weary protagonist in Knut Hamsun’s Hunger as well as the unforgettable face in Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream seem to share the same combination of solitude and angst of the alone, yet not lonely woman on the 2 Kroner.

    1914 matters, too. While Norway was celebrating its constitutional centennial, the rest of Europe was bumbling into the deadliest war the world would until then know. By 1918, about 18 million would perish. The woman’s gaze on the coin reminds us of the fortunate distance between Norway and the guns of war while also alerting us to the great danger then, in 1914, looming on the horizon.

    Is this the most beautiful coin of the twentieth century? It’s not a question of appearance. Yet, I can’t think of another coin that captures its issuing-country’s atmosphere and culture so profoundly. The majestic yet empty imagery of the landscape and the brooding interior underneath the modest exterior of the people described or painted into Norwegian culture is the same as that featured on the coin.    

    Yes, this is the most beautiful coin of the 20th century.