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.
Marx in Middletown, CT
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?