Old World, New Ideas
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.
No Summertime Slumber in Mexico
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.