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