The Incentive to Gather Coins

Coin collecting dates as far back as coins themselves (that is, some time around the late seventh century BCE). The classical authors Pliny and Plutarch, for example, make reference to famous art collections that probably included special coins renowned for their artistic qualities and signed by well-known artists.

Syracusan decadrachms bearing
the signature of Kimon,
c. 405-400 BCE
Syracusan decadrachms bearing
the signature of Euaenetos,
c. 400-390 BCE

Interestingly, Pliny even refers to the value of forged coins in his writings: "spurious methods are objects of study, and a sample of a forged denarius (Roman silver coin) is carefully examined and the adulterated coin bought for more than genuine ones." In this instance, the forged coin is regarded as more valuable than the original. Thus already in antiquity, collectors appear to have been motivated to seek out the exotic and bizarre, just like today.

The Renaissance of Ancient Coins

From the decline of the Roman Empire until the Middle Ages, however, ancient coins usually remained shrouded in darkness. It was not until the fourteenth century, when one aspect after another of Antiquity began to be explored, that ancient coins received serious attention from scholars and collectors alike. One of the most brilliant minds of the early Renaissance, the great Francesco Petrarca (1304-1374) of Florence, is said to have traveled frequently to Rome to buy ancient coins depicting Roman emperors. He later presented some of these gold and silver coins to Emperor Charles IV, as a way of encouraging him to follow in the footsteps of the great Roman rulers.

Between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries, enthusiasm for coin collecting increased, and it was during this period that the foundations of some of the most famous collections were laid. Collecting ancient coins became a passion with princes and popes, noblemen and humanists.

Louis XIV, Coin Collector Par Excellence

The most renowned collector of ancient coins was without a doubt the French king Louis XIV (1638-1715), known as the "Sun King." Louis, who regarded himself as a patron of the arts, appointed several advisors to acquire entire collections of ancient cameos, engraved gems, and coins on his behalf.

Jean Varin showing a medal to young Louis XIV
in a painting by François Lemaire

French missionaries and ambassadors in Italy, Greece, and the Orient were expressly instructed by the king to look out for ancient coins. The coins collected by Louis XIV form the nucleus of the present-day Cabinet des Médailles at the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris - one of the largest coin collections in the world.



Coins of the "Sun King"