Not your ordinary pocket change: new gallery showcases money and medals
The Circus Maximus, the stadium where Romans gathered by the tens of thousands to watch chariot races and other spectacles, had lap counters shaped like dolphins. Those dolphins are visible on the sestertius of Trajan, an ancient coin celebrating the Emperor Trajan’s restoration of the grand arena in A.D. 103.
One of the finest known examples of the sestertius is on view in the new Bela Lyon Pratt Gallery of Numismatics at the Yale University Art Gallery.
Named for Bela Lyon Pratt, a noted Yale-educated sculptor and medalist, the first-floor space is specially designed to showcase numismatics — coins, tokens, medals, and paper money. Its 16 display cases contain about 260 of the museum’s smallest 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 A.D. 98 to 117. On the reverse, the Circus Maximus, which no longer exists, is rendered in precise detail. A close look reveals the entrance arches on either side of the stadium’s grandstand — the stadium seated 150,000 spectators after Trajan’s renovation — topped by quadrigae, or chariots drawn by four horses abreast. The Arch of Titus, a separate structure that still stands to the southeast of the Roman Forum, overlooks the scene. The metae, or turning posts, mark opposite sides of the racecourse. An obelisk rises between the metae. The dolphins appear beside the obelisk.
“You can see nearly every feature of the building,” said Benjamin Hellings, the Jackson-Tomasko Associate Curator of Numismatics. “Can you imagine the effort it took to engrave all of that detail?”
The museum’s numismatics collection is composed of more than 120,000 objects, making it by far the largest and most diverse such assemblage housed at any American university. The collection spans the ancient world through modern times, including pieces from across the globe.
In years past, objects from the collection have been displayed in cases located outside the collection’s study room and adjoining the museum’s gallery of ancient art. But the high ceilings and abundant natural light made it difficult to focus on the small coins and medals on view, Hellings said.
The new gallery exhibit occupies a small room adjacent to the museum’s central elevator lobby and near the study room. The display cases are brightly 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 that intimate feeling where visitors can feel comfortable pondering the objects for a little while.”
The label text is concise — usually just a sentence explaining an object’s significance. QR codes below each case allow visitors to access additional information from the museum’s website about the items on view.
Cases displaying ancient coins, a strength of the collection, form an alley to the right of the room’s entrance, taking visitors on a chronological journey into the development of money. It starts with a case displaying a variety of early money traditions. A small knife from the State of Qi in ancient China, which dates between 567 and 221 B.C., bears an inscription identifying it as “legal money.” On the other side of the case, a cuneiform tablet the size of a business card dating to about 1,700 B.C. is a ledger that records the amount of beer that 21 laborers consumed over a five-day period in Babylonia, according to the label text.
A case featuring coins from ancient Greece contains two examples from Clarentza, in southern Greece, that feature profile busts of Athena, the goddess of wisdom. The older coin, circa 450 B.C., depicts the goddess in the classical style with an elaborate headdress. The later coin, dated between 86 and 82 B.C., renders 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 held the Minotaur, which was purportedly located in the city.
“All of these coins have a story behind them, often derived from mythology,” Hellings said.
Other cases in the opening alley contain examples from the Age of Alexander the Great, the Roman World, and after the fall of Rome. The corridor ends with a case of ancient treasures where the sestertius of Trajan is displayed. In the same case, visitors will encounter, among other marvels, the stater from Caria, dated between 399 and 300 B.C., which bears the world’s earliest known map.
The exhibit moves from antiquity to North America during the 16th to 20th centuries with examples of the New England shilling, the oak tree three pence, the gold $20 double eagle, and other American objects.
Not all the objects on view fit into a wallet or coin purse. The silver Naseby Cup, created in 1839 to commemorate the Battle of Naseby during the English Civil War, gleams from its display case. Seventy-two coins, counters, and medals from the period of the English Civil War are integrated into the cup, which was commissioned by John and Mary Frances Fitzgerald, the Lord and Lady of Naseby Manor.
“I think it’s one of the most fascinating objects on display,” Hellings, said. “It is an ostentatious and spectacular display of wealth from an English manor combined with unique and rare coins.”
There are cases devoted to the production of coins and their use in international trade and commerce from the 8th century through the 19th century. A case devoted to medals includes an 1804 medal commemorating Napoleon’s conquest of upper Egypt. The design borrows crocodile imagery from a coin struck in 28 to 27 B.C. 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. That coin, the denarius of Octavian, is included in the case on the Roman World.
The new gallery offers visitors a glimpse of numismatics related to Yale. The Nobel Prize Medal for Literature presented in 1936 to playwright Eugene O’Neill, whose archives are at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, is displayed in a singularly dedicated display case.
The gallery’s final section addresses the development, production, and artistry of paper money. A case highlighting early currency includes a Swedish 4 daler from 1755 that was known as “plate money” and composed of a sheet of raw copper. Its weight prompted Sweden to become the first European country to issue paper money.
Visitors can follow the intricate and protracted design process behind the creation of artist Alonzo Foringer’s $100 bank note for the Canadian Bank of Commerce, which is widely considered a masterpiece of bank-note design. The display presents Foringer’s initial sketch — submitted in July 1916 — a raft of revisions, and the final design, which was approved in March 1925.
“The bank director wanted more tasteful art notes, and the Bank of Canada was willing to pay for that and kept insisting on redesigns until it was satisfied,” Hellings said. “It took an incredibly long time to get there.”
Foringer’s $100 note circulated for about a decade. Its story ends with a cancellation order, issued in October 1935.
In the late-19th century, apprentices at the American Bank Note Company assembled a massive collage of bank notes, stamps, stock certificates, municipal bonds, and other documents of value that the company produced. Encased in a gilded frame, the collage once decorated the company’s corporate office and was used to entice potential clients, Hellings said. Today, the collage provides visitors to the gallery a visual feast of currency from all over the world.
“You could spend an hour looking at everything presented there,” Hellings said. “Each of those materials likely took months to design.”