One of the more amusing fellows on the museum scene is William Metcalf, Benjamin Lee Dansky Curator of Coins and Medallions at the Yale University Art Gallery, whom I recently saw speak under the auspices of the New York Numismatics Club.
The Yale collection is the largest university coin collection in North America and, for many years, one of the most neglected. Founded in 1837 with a legendary New England Threepence, which has since been adjudged a fake, the collection resided for 175 years in what Metcalf characterized as "a dark closet" in the quiet tower of Sterling Memorial Library at Yale.
"Many of the coins were simply laid out on the library shelves," Metcalf averred, "so it was no surprise that an inventory done in the 1930s accounted for only 40 percent of the coins in Yale's records." Yale also had a priceless collection of gold American coins that was stolen in 1964 and never recovered. "The only clue," Metcalf remarked, "was the legendary Brasher Doubloon, which was part of the gold coin collection, though technically not an American coin, and mailed to a post office box after the robbery. Yale President A. Bartlett Giamatti subsequently sold it."
In spite of such recklessness, the Yale collection has fructified with the gifts of some dedicated benefactors over the years, including E.T. Newell, Yale 1907, whose stash of ancient Greek coins numbered 120,000, and Yale professor Alfred Bellinger, best friend of the critic Edmund Wilson, who presided over excavation at Dura Europos in Syria on the eastern edge of the Roman Empire, a major font of the extensive Roman coinage at Yale.
When asked the obligatory question about repatriation, Metcalf replied, "I like to quote my friend Jim Cuno to the effect that you can never really tell who owns anything." Yale's renewed interest in its numismatica was sparked by the 1998 show "I, Claudia: Women in Ancient Rome," a much-noted exhibition at the Yale University Art Gallery, during which, Metcalf commented, "the Art Gallery found it more difficult to borrow ancient coins from the Yale Library than from any other of its lenders."
Metcalf arrived in 2002 to correct this dysfunction: "When I arrived at Yale, I found a collection that I had known of and never used, a collection in which everything had been thrown in a closet." Metcalf immediately wooed some major collectors, such as Benjamin Lee Dansky, who donated his coins to Yale rather than UC Berkeley under Metcalf's suasion. A jewel of this bequest is a coin depicting the Roman Emperor Septimus Severus from A.D. 206. As the Emperor was a North African, the god Ashmun, an African and Eastern god of health is depicted on the reverse.
A special peculiarity of the Yale collection is its 10,000 items of Confederate paper money and scrip, including a bill depicting slaves toiling in the fields above the financial assurance "secure in the confidence of suffering humanity.” When asked which coins he wished to add to the Yale horde, Metcalf gleamed, "We are weak in Renaissance medals. Because of a freeze on building funds in the Yale budget due to the economic downturn, plans to move the coin collection into a special wing of the Yale University Art Gallery are on hold. In the meantime, you can peruse 14,300 coins on the Gallery's website.
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).