Coins in unexpected places, 2: sale of the century

The Department of Coins & Medals in the Fitzwilliam Museum has the largest collection of numismatic auction catalogues and fixed-price lists in the world, something of which Professor Ted Buttrey, who maintains it, is justly proud. We partly amass this by exchanges of duplicates with other institutions, but also we get them sent from the houses themselves, not least because we sometimes bid for things for the collection, though this often entails raising money from elsewhere because the actual departmental budget for purchases is very small. Such a catalogue recently arrived from the Alde auction house in France, advertising the sale of the collection of one Bernard Chwartz, of whom I never before heard. And, oh, man.

Supposed denier of Charles Martel, Marseilles, probably 737X43

Supposed denier of Charles Martel, Marseilles, probably 737X43

I don’t think we’ll be able to get this, be our medieval collection never so unrivalled. This little piece of rather crude silver is commanding a starting price of 10,000 Euros, because it is claimed to be a coin of Charles Martel, the grandfather of Charlemagne after whom the Carolingian line is actually named. There are almost no coins known in the names of the Mayors of the Palace, that being the office that the Carolingians held under the Merovingian Kings of the Franks who descended from Clovis, before Pepin III took over in 751. (There may be two coins of the Carolingian rival Ebroin.) The kings issued coins but informally, in a way, in as much as the names on them were moneyer and mint, not the kings.1 But if any of the Mayors did issue coins, it would probably be Charles Martel, in as much as he ruled for some time without an actual king, and so a certain amount of aggrandising is probably to be expected. There are also apparently coins attributed to him known from Provence, so the Marseilles attribution that Pierre Crinon has here made makes sense.2 All the same, whether this is really what Alde are claiming it is, and Chwartz presumably thought it was, I’m not at all sure. It’s as with the mancus of King Cœnwulf of Mercia the other year, there’s just so little to compare it with that there’s no way to be sure till more turn up. It’s not all that’s of note in this collection, though: there are also two coins of Pepin III after his elevation, which are rare as hen’s teeth, a huge variety of Merovingian stuff including many old gold tremisses struck in the names of the Byzantine emperors, a little Lombard material, several bits of really early Charlemagne, a portrait coin of Lothar I from Aachen (which is astonishingly rare), coins also of all other Carolingian successors of Louis the Pious in the west including Louis the German but also the very last ones, some non-Carolingians too like Odo and Raoul, quite a lot of later French ‘feudal’ stuff and a Frisian imitation of a solidus of Louis the Pious, which I show below just to get some gold on the page. But there’s an awful lot more, and it’s all in lovely condition. (It’s also largely Southern French mints, which is interesting to me.) If Philip Grierson were still alive, he’d be down the front of this auction in person, trying to fill gaps in our collection with all the saved money he still had.

Frisian imitation of a gold solidus of Louis the Pious, probably 830X50

Frisian imitation of a gold solidus of Louis the Pious, probably 830X50

Less spectacular are two pieces that have come up in the most recent catalogue from the Barcelona auction house of Aureo, but again, if Philip were still alive, I’d be hounding him to buy them for us. A while ago I wrote a paper observing that, though we have none of the coinage of late-tenth-century Barcelona, it’s possible to say quite a lot about what it was like and how it was managed from the charters. This is the most numismatic thing I have ever written, and I think it’s sustainable and interesting, and it currently awaits a final revision before publication at the end of the year.3 It may be just as well it’s awaiting, because obviously the one thing that could really distress my argument is someone actually finding some of the relevant coin. This hasn’t happened, thankfully, but what has come up for sale are two pieces of the Barcelona mint from, probably, fifty or sixty years earlier.

Two deniers of the ninth- or tenth-century Barcelona mint for sale from Aureo, Barcelona

Two deniers of the ninth- or tenth-century Barcelona mint for sale from Aureo, Barcelona

They are at least of known types, though the cataloguer for Aureo has chosen to ignore this in pursuit of making their ancestry more glorious.4 So the 1,600 Euro price for the diner of Ramon Borrell is probably unjustified, as we know what his coins looked like and this isn’t it. What really tickles me is how Aureo cite an authority for this and then admit that their authority says it’s something else. Is this really likely to work? They’re rare even as what they really are though—there’s about forty of these coins known, in three types, of which the Museum has one and these are the other two, dammit—and I certainly couldn’t tell you for sure that none of them were Borrell II’s. All the same, this is not the problem. The problem is that they cite, in their attribution of these coins, a brand-new article on the tenth-century coinage of Barcelona that I haven’t read.5 This is going to have to change very quickly, but although the Department and Cambridge UL are both subscribed to the relevant journal we haven’t received 2007′s issue yet, let alone 2008′s. Happily for me, at least, I see that one of the other contributors is an old contact, so I can probably get onto this fairly quickly. But, dammit, this is why we have subscriptions, and of course now it may be that what I want to say is no longer viable… I shall be slightly on tenterhooks till I find out.


1. The book I automatically check for this sort of thing, Philip Grierson & Mark A. S. Blackburn, Medieval European Coinage, with a catalogue of the coins in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, 1: the Early Middle Ages (Cambridge 1986), where see pp. 138-49, is a bit old now, but I’m pretty sure that if this had been modified I’d have heard about it in the classes my boss gives in the room where I work

2. Grierson & Blackburn, Medieval European Coinage 1, pp. 146-49. The catalogue cites, instead, Maurice Prou, Catalogue des monnaies mérovingiennes de la Bibliothèque nationale (Paris 1892), nos 119-21, probably because there are illustrations there whereas we don’t have any.

3. Jonathan Jarrett, “Currency change in pre-millennial Catalonia: coinage, counts and economic” in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 169 (London 2009), subject to this all coming out right…

4 Until a few days ago I’d have said the latest work on these coins, which Aureo have ignored, was Xavier Sanahuja Anguera, “La Moneda de Barcelona al segle X segons les troballes Espanya-1 i Espanya-2 (925)” in Acta Numismàtica Vol. 36 (Barcelona 2006), pp. 79-113, which also gives a corpus, but, read on…

5. Miquel Crusafont i Sabater, “La Moneda barcelonina del segle X: altres novetats comtals”, ibid. 38 (2008), pp. 91-121.

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3 responses to “Coins in unexpected places, 2: sale of the century

  1. I remember this amazing sale last year.
    Some suggestions : it is not “Pierre Chinon” but “Pierre Crinon”; the price was in euros, not in “francs” (I wish it was!); the subtitle of MEC1 is “the Early Middle Ages”, not “Earlier”.

    • All quite correct, and now corrected, thankyou. I’m particularly embarrassed about the third one as I work within relatively easy grasp of four copies of the book and had actually checked it for the page reference…

  2. Pingback: Name in print IV « A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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