Thursday, 14 April 2016

Coins From the Front?

"Picek" coin on sale
There have been an interesting series of sales of coins from Crete which have been exciting the interest of several Greek newspapers. They've been appearing on auction sites recently, Roma Numismatics sold three pieces for over £70,000 some days ago and Kunker had a small offering of these in their March sale. Now a whole bunch is being sold by Nomos [ Nomos 12, lots 73 etc  Cretan Coins From the Brünn Collection, the property of Dr. Ludek Vostal]. The story behind some of them is intriguing:

The Cretan coins that appear in this and the following lots all once belonged to a Czech collector named A. Picek. He was born shortly before the beginning of the 20th century, and was mustered into the Austro-Hungarian army soon after World War I broke out. He ended up being stationed on the Italian front, which was the scene of an almost endless series of terrible battles that took place in mountainous terrain. Along the Isonzo, the Austrian army continually repulsed attacks by the Italians, inflicting massive casualties (though suffering considerably itself). At some point, probably around the time of the Austrian victory at Caporetto in November 1917, the young soldier Picek saved the life of an Italian civilian, a banker; in return, this unknown Italian gave his savior two bags of old coins (!). One contained copper pieces and the other silver. This led Picek into a life of collecting coins and paper money. In 1970, when the present owner, Dr. Ludek Vostal, was a young collector, he met Picek, then in his 80s; now Dr. Vostal is proud to acknowledge his debt to a man he considered to be his mentor. In 1975 Picek sold him a small collection of ancient Cretan coins, which came from one of those sacks that he had received over fifty years earlier Dr. Vostal promised to keep the group intact as long as he continued to collect coins; now that his interests lie solely in paper money, he has decided to let these coins go to new owners. Where that nameless Italian got these coins is unknown, but when he got them has to be prior to 1914: they must be remnants from one of those many 19th century Cretan hoards the only traces of which lie within Svoronos' famous work on the ancient coinage of Crete.
There, altruistic young Czech "saves life of enemy soldier" and gives some coins a firm provenance. Now, if A, Picek was Vostal's "mentor", why did the latter apparently not know his first name? How likely is that story?  Basically, if I was a soldier (formerly a banker) taking part in tough mountain fighting, I wonder if "two bags of ancient coins, one corroded copper" is actually what I'd be lugging around on the front line when my army was on the retreat? Why did he take his coin collection to the front line anyway? Perhaps though the coins were stolen from a house the unit had looted just before it was attacked by Picek's unit. I think we are supposed to infer that, since Vostal "lost interest" in these coins in favour of paper money, that even if we are not inclined to believe the war experience story, he had indeed acquired them a long time ago. This is one of those stories that has a lot of ' corroborative detail, intended to give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative', but without providing a single fact that is verifiable.

Group photo
I am just a bit puzzled by this photo, is this one of Mr Vostal's own shots? Look at the state of that Euro, it has not been on any battlefield, but it shows what a new coin looks like if it has been rattling about loose in a bag with others. Why do none of the earth-dug (corroded and thus more fragile) "Picek" coins look anything like this if that is really where they came from?

Can Nomos and Roma produce Mr Picek's war-record from the military archives?

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