Not Your Ordinary Pocket Money: A New Gallery Features Money and Medals
The Circus Maximus, the stadium where Romans gathered in their tens of thousands to watch chariot races and other spectacles, had lap counters shaped like dolphins. These dolphins are visible on the sestertius of Trajan, an ancient coin celebrating the restoration of the great arena by Emperor Trajan in 103 AD.
One of the finest known examples of the sestertius is displayed in the new Bela Lyon Pratt Gallery of Numismatics at Yale University Art Gallery.
Named for Bela Lyon Pratt, a famous Yale-trained sculptor and medalist, the first floor space is specially designed to showcase numismatics – coins, tokens, medals and paper money. Its 16 cases contain around 260 of the museum’s smaller objects, including the remarkable sestertius of Trajan.
One side of the ancient coin features a profile bust of Trajan, who ruled the Roman Empire from AD 98 to 117. On the reverse, the Circus Maximus, which no longer exists, is rendered in fine detail. Close examination reveals the entrance arches on either side of the stadium stand – the stadium seating 150,000 spectators after Trajan’s renovation – topped with quadriga, or chariots drawn by four horses abreast. The Arch of Titus, a separate structure that still stands southeast of the Roman Forum, overlooks the scene. The metae, or turning poles, mark opposite sides of the racecourse. An obelisk rises between the metae. The dolphins appear next to the obelisk.
“You can see almost every feature of the building,” said Benjamin Hellings, associate curator of numismatics at Jackson-Tomasko. “Can you imagine the effort it took to engrave all those details?”
The museum’s numismatic collection is made up of more than 120,000 objects, making it by far the largest and most diverse assemblage of any American university. The collection spans the ancient world through modern times, including pieces from around the world.
Previously, objects from the collection were displayed in display cases located outside the collection study room and adjoining the museum’s ancient art gallery. But the high ceilings and abundant natural light made it difficult to concentrate on the small coins and medals on display, Hellings said.
The gallery’s new exhibit occupies a small room adjacent to the museum’s central elevator hall and close to the study room. The display cases are well lit but the room is otherwise dark.
“The goal was to create an intimate space,” Hellings said. “We leaned into the close quarters here and played with the lighting to produce this intimate feeling where visitors can feel comfortable pondering objects for a little while.”
Label text is concise – usually just one sentence explaining the meaning of an object. QR codes under each display case allow visitors to access additional information on the museum’s website regarding the exhibits.
To the right of the entrance to the room, showcases presenting old coins, the highlight of the collection, form an aisle, taking the visitor on a chronological journey through the evolution of coins. It begins with a case displaying a variety of ancient monetary traditions. A small knife from the State of Qi in ancient China, which dates from between 567 and 221 BC. J.-C., bears an inscription identifying it as “legal currency”. On the other side of the case is a cuneiform tablet the size of a visiting card dating from around 1700 BC. is a register that records the amount of beer consumed by 21 laborers over a period of five days in Babylon, according to the label text.
A box containing ancient Greek coins contains two examples from Clarentza, southern Greece, which feature profile busts of Athena, the goddess of wisdom. The oldest piece, circa 450 BC. AD, depicts the goddess in the classical style with an elaborate headdress. The final coin, dated between 86 and 82 BC, depicts Athena in the so-called New Style. She wears an ornate helmet, marking her status as a war goddess. A coin from Knossos on the island of Crete depicts the labyrinth that housed the Minotaur, which was allegedly located in the city.
“All of these pieces have a story behind them, often derived from mythology,” Hellings said.
Other display cases in the opening aisle contain examples from the era of Alexander the Great, the Roman world and after the fall of Rome. The corridor ends with a showcase of ancient treasures where the sestertius of Trajan is displayed. In the same setting, the visitor will encounter, among other marvels, the stater of Caria, dated between 399 and 300 BC. J.-C., which bears the oldest known map in the world.
The exhibition moves from Antiquity to North America during the 16e at 20e centuries with examples of the New England shilling, threepence oak, $20 gold double eagle, and other American items.
Not all exhibits will fit in a wallet or purse. The silver Naseby Cup, created in 1839 to commemorate the Battle of Naseby in the English Civil War, shines from its display case. Seventy-two coins, counters and medals from the English Civil War period are embedded in the cup, which was commissioned by John and Mary Frances Fitzgerald, Lord and Lady of Naseby Manor.
“I think it’s one of the most fascinating exhibits on display,” Hellings said. “It’s an ostentatious and spectacular display of the wealth of an English mansion combined with unique and rare pieces.”
There are cases devoted to the production of coins and their use in international trade and commerce from the 8e century until the 19e century. A box dedicated to medals includes a medal from 1804 commemorating Napoleon’s conquest of Upper Egypt. The design borrows crocodile imagery from a coin minted in 28-27 BC. to celebrate Octavian’s successful Egyptian campaign, an event that set the stage for the ambitious former triumvir to become Caesar Augustus, the first Roman emperor. This coin, the denarius of Octavian, is included in the box on the Roman world.
The new gallery offers visitors an insight into Yale-related numismatics. The Nobel Prize for Literature medal awarded in 1936 to the playwright Eugene O’Neill, whose archives are at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, is displayed in a singularly dedicated showcase.
The final section of the gallery discusses the development, production and art of paper money. A case highlighting ancient coinage includes a Swedish 4 daler from 1755 which was known as a “monetary plate” and made of raw copper foil. Its weight prompted Sweden to become the first European country to issue paper money.
Visitors can follow the intricate and lengthy design process behind the creation of artist Alonzo Foringer’s $100 banknote for the Canadian Bank of Commerce, which is widely considered a masterpiece of banknote design of bank. The exhibit features Foringer’s initial sketch – submitted in July 1916 – a series of revisions and the final design, which was approved in March 1925.
“The bank manager wanted more tasteful art notes, and the Bank of Canada was willing to pay for it and continued to insist on redesigns until they were satisfied,” Hellings said. “It took an incredibly long time to get there.”
The Foringer $100 bill has been in circulation for about a decade. Its story ends with a cancellation order, issued in October 1935.
At the end of the 19e century, apprentices at the American Bank Note Company assembled a huge collage of banknotes, stamps, stock certificates, municipal bonds, and other valuable documents produced by the company. Encased in a gold frame, the collage once decorated the company’s headquarters and was used to attract potential customers, Hellings said. Today, the collage offers gallery visitors a visual feast of currency from around the world.
“You could spend an hour watching everything on there,” Hellings said. “Each of these materials probably took months to design.”