Tag Archives: crimefighting

In memoriam Ted Buttrey (1929-2018)

2017-2018 has been a rough transition, like 2010-2011’s second instalment but with the deaths closer to me this time. I would have liked the last post but one to be enough for one winter but the toll has continued to ring and ring hard. I already failed to mention Professor Peter Spufford, whom I didn’t know well but should have recorded here after he died on 18 November 2017; I can’t point to a good obituary just yet but there must be one coming, probably indeed in the upcoming Numismatic Chronicle. I likewise would have wished to say something about John Casey, whom I only met a couple of times but was fun both to read and to talk to. But I cannot fail to mention Professor Theodore Vern Buttrey, Junior, because he was one of my favourite people in Cambridge and while his death, on 9 January, was not unexpected as he’d been fighting prostate cancer, more or less in secrecy (I found out last October) for some time, and also he was eighty-nine, still his praises must be sung because he was a fantastic guy. Also, he would be terribly embarrassed by my saying as much on the web, and so if I’m to commit such a sin at all, I must do it so thoroughly that he would feel obliged to step up to the role of his own personality. So Ted, this is your stage.

Professor Ted Buttrey in a seminar in Vienna

“Seriously, you’re gonna do this?” Ted, I am gonna; I owe you no less.

I’m not sure Ted was ever off a stage, if he was where people could see him; he actually did act, indeed one of the first conversations we had where I realised what an strong character he was was when he came into the Department of Coins and Medals announcing that he had been selected as one of the extras for Elizabeth: The Golden Age, which was then filming in Ely. He had thought it best to lie about his age so as not to risk crossing their insurance thresholds, and accordingly, apparently, his legs can be seen in one scene and his top half in another, amid a crowd of bearded Spanish grandees tutting in the background of Philip II’s court. I don’t know how many septuaganarians would do that; by the time I left the Department, however, I knew that Ted was one of them. He also quoted Shakespeare rather a lot, with great and stagey disappointment in the younger generation if it wasn’t recognised, but was as likely to throw out bits of Sophocles, on whom he wrote what is as far as I know his last book; with numismatists it’s always possible there’s another draft that someone is going to finish off, and while I don’t know of one he was always trying to get something else finished before it was too late, so I bet there’s at least one.1 He will also probably still have shipments of numismatic sale catalogues, of which he had amassed the world’s largest collection at the Fitzwilliam, inbound, which is going to be a touch day for the crew who remain there when they arrive, emotionally as well as physically. I remember celebrating the 35,000th catalogue’s accession and the Department’s new mobile shelving with an afternoon of tea, cake, Latin acclamations and sung rounds, accompanied by one of my colleagues on “the Giant Wurlitzer”, a very small Casio keyboard that she discreetly played behind a bookshelf so as not to dispel the illusion. Ted had, of course, written all the words himself, including apologies from the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Queen and the Chancellor of the University none of whom, sadly, were able to be present, and I hope I still have the Order of Ceremonies somewhere. Again, who else would do such a thing, and do it over mobile shelving and auction catalogues?

Professor Ted Buttrey with a cartload of numismatic sale catalogues in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

None but Ted! Here pictured with a fresh shipment and a very fake smile in the Grierson Room of the Department

But as the fact that a great numismatist’s last book would be on Classical drama should tell you, Ted was more than a numismatist, and indeed he sometimes described himself as a philologist first and foremost, and this was probably fair if you just take it etymologically (as of course such a person would), in as much he really loved words. It was from Ted I learnt to play Boggle, and while I got to the point where he didn’t often beat me, the real point of the game was not who won but the lengthy arguments over whether the particular combination of letters he’d found on the grid was in fact a real word or not; we haggled for long enough over ‘sawdusts’ that another then-member of the department subsequently got me a mug made with the word on it. To his delight, because my father had been (indeed, when I started there, still was) much of an age with him and had had an American wife, I knew quite a lot of Ted’s backdated Americana references, like Pogo, another huge sink of wordplay for the player with words, and could spar back at him with them. Lunches in the Department were made the more splendid for Ted appearing dramatically in the doorway with a Boggle set and proclaiming, “The hour cometh, and now is!” There was less Boggle after I left and still less after the mug-making colleague did, so I very much hope there’s someone willing to play wherever Ted’s spirit now roams.

Jonathan Jarrett, Ted Buttrey and Vladimir Nastich in the McClean Room, Coins & Medals, Fitzwilliam Museum

Myself, Professor Ted Buttrey and Professor Vladimir Nastich in the McClean Room, Coins & Medals; my beard is more sensible now

What else should be said of Ted? There are many stories to tell, most of which maybe don’t belong here like when I made his life dramatically easier at a stroke by showing him the double-click; Ted had determinedly learnt computers as an early adopter and then carried on using that computer in retirement from 1991 to about 2003, with no-one to tell him about some of the major changes his post-2003 machine embodied. But one cannot speak of Ted as a whole without also including his role as a fraud-busting detective. Not only did he catch two coin thieves at the Department during his tenure as Keeper, one of whom he quite deliberately set up with an opportunity he couldn’t miss, but, much more famously, exposed a traffic in early Mexican and American gold bars which he held to be fakes, including pointing a finger at the traffickers; they then sued him for libel, but the suit was dismissed and since no legal verdict was reached against Ted’s accused either I’ll leave it there, but it made the papers.2 Such was the man.

Cover of Buttrey and Hubbard, Guidebook of Mexican Coins

Cover of Buttrey and Hubbard, Guidebook of Mexican Coins

Obviously I have to mention his scholarship, as well, and it would be too seductively easy to pick out stuff like his work on Domitian’s rhinoceros, on spintriae (careful with that link, probably NSFW unless your work is Roman numismatics or history) or his three excellent and finely-written articles decrying attempts to put numbers on the production of ancient coins which I have praised here before, in general the quirky, funny or destructive (though always scholarly), if only because it would be so hard to pick a small number of the more important publications like the coins from the excavations at Sardis, with the late Ian Carradice the new standard catalogue of the coins of the Flavian emperors, or what is still the go-to book on Mexican coins though his first book of all…3 I mean, there is loads. The American Numismatic Society’s library catalogue contains 116 items under his name and they must be selling him short. Though, weirdly, as he told me once, he’d never actually found a coin in context himself, there were very few coins about which he didn’t know something; though I discovered later that it was not original to him, he was not wrong once to say, “I am a numismatist, and nothing numismatic is foreign to me.”4 And he will be missed for that, and for the work he might still have completed if he’d lived on further, but I don’t often cross with his actual fields of interest, and I personally will miss the Boggle, the elevated drama of his conversation, and the endless fund of stories he could tell—he had crossed the Atlantic by sea more than once, for example—and the fact that when next I go to the Fitzwilliam there will no-one with whom to “savage the reluctant scone” as I would have if Ted were still there. Ladies and gentlemen, I invite you to applaud; the show must end for us all but few of us will deserve reviews as glowing as Ted’s should be.

(I live in hope of being able finally to deliver the new shape of the blog that I have now repeatedly promised. But seriously, people just need to stop dying…5)


1. I actually can’t find any trace of the Sophocles book now that I look, so it may be that it is still in press and it actually will be his last book. I’m fairly sure he told me it had gone off to a press…

2. Of course, it’s a mark against the guy that he would say ‘who’ where he meant ‘whom’. In the words of Doc Owl from Pogo which Ted would sometimes quote, “Whom? Moom?”

3. T. V. Buttrey, “Domitian, the Rhinoceros, and the Date of Martial’s Liber De Spectaculis” in Journal of Roman Studies Vol. 97 (London 2007), pp. 101-112, online here; idem, “The Spintriae as a Historical Source” in The Numismatic Chronicle 7th Series Vol. 13 (London 1973), pp. 52-63; idem, “Calculating Ancient Coin Production: facts and fantasies”, ibid. Vol. 153 (1993), pp. 335–351; idem, “Calcuating Ancient Coin Production, II: why it cannot be done”, ibid. Vol. 154 (1994), pp. 341–352; S. E. Buttrey and T. V. Buttrey, “Calculating Ancient Coin Production, Again’ in American Journal of Numismatics Vol. 9 (Washington DC 1997), pp. 113–135; T. V. Buttrey, A. Johnston, K. M. Mackenzie & M. L. Bates, Greek, Roman and Islamic Coins from Sardis (Cambridge MA 1982); T. V. Buttrey and I. A. Carradice, The Roman Imperial Coinage, vol. 2 part 1 (revised edition): From AD 69 to AD 96 – Vespasian to Domitian (London 2007); T. V. Buttrey and Clyde Hubbard, Guidebook of Mexican Coins, 1822 to Date, 6th edn. ed. by Thomas Michael (Fort Collins CO 1992).

4. An earlier instance somewhere in P. J. Casey (him again) and Richard reece (edd.), Coins and the Archaeologist, 2nd edn (London 1988), but drat it, I haven’t written down where, sorry.

5. The 2010 post I mentioned was also weighed down by the death of many important musicians, at least important to me, and sadly this is no different. Not only have I taken this long to find out about the death of Walter Becker, bassist-and-more of Steely Dan, in September, but “Fast” Eddie Clarke, once of Motörhead of course, also didn’t make it through this killing winter. The classic line-up of Motörhead is now hopefully reunited, though if so Lemmy will have some serious retractions to make… Anyway, it needs to stop now please, this has just been too many figures of renown to lose in a month.

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