Wednesday, 13 October 2010

The Matter of a "Hobby of Kings"

"Let's Not Make Coin Collecting the "Hobby of Kings" Once More" says Peter Tompa, its what he said at the CPAC meeting on 12th October. Leaving aside the question of why restricting ancient artefact imports from Greece to those with export licences would make any kind of collecting only available to "kings" rather than responsible collectors, I am puzzled by the reference to royalty. Back in England when was a kid, it was stamp collecting that I was told was the "hobby of kings" - and so in England it was, the Royal Stamp Collection created by Queen victoria's children and continued famously and assiduously by the "Old King", George V was rightly celebrated. Googling the phrase shows I was not mistaken. But yes, coin collecting too is frequently called in the Internet "the hobby of kings" too. But when you look more closely something else emerges, the most frequent users of the phrase are recent US coin dealers (not necessarily of ancient dugups). It is obviously a selling-point: "it was once the hobby of kings, but due to Acme coin exchange you too can enjoy it at a reasonable cost... call us now". The part of the metal detector and the emptying of archaeological sites is seldom mentioned as the reason why these coins are now within everybody's reach -despite a vastly expanded market. A good parallel seems the activities of art dealers like Duveen who persuaded the financial elite of the New World that they could emulate their social betters in the old families of Europe through the creation of collections of Old Masters - and they bought it (and them).

So how true is it that coin collecting was one of the attributes of monarchy in the past? Well, the USA never had a king, so Americans really can only imagine what they did. Yes, indeed, while there were rulers who seem to have collected nothing, both kings and queens, dukes and duchesses, counts and viscounts collected coins in the past. What the pro-collecting propaganda tends not to admit is that this was most frequently as part of a wider collecting trend. I'd like to see the ACCG compile a list of monarchs that collected ONLY coins (and while they are at it, only ancient coins). Many monarchs and members of the elite, in Europe in particular (but also beyond, King Faisal for example) indeed had coin cabinets, but only as part of more extensive art collecting activities, which would include intaglios and other gems and in almost all cases galleries full of oil paintings and suchlike (Old Master drawings, graphic art). Some had classical sculptures and vases and other exotic items. Let us not forget exotic animals and plants in the gardens outside.

But actually at the time of the formation of the United States and for many years afterwards, the main collectors of dugup ancient coins in Europe (for of course they are not to be found in the soil of the US) were not the "kings". The collecting was mainly in the hands of an educated elite, certainly, but the clergy and landowners. Over here in eastern Europe (Prussia especially), teachers played an important role. They tended to obtain these items from the people who worked the land, farmhands and navvies (though landowners sometimes organized excavations on their property). But I guess "hobby of schoolteachers" does not quite have the same cachet for the US buyer.

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