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Coins and Medals
The collection of coins and medals at the Gallery, at roughly 100,000 pieces, is by far the largest and most diverse held by any American university. It is displayed, in part, in a dedicated exhibition gallery and housed in the Bela Lyon Pratt Study Room for Coins and Medals.
About Coins and Medals
The Gallery’s collection of coins and medals is among the University’s oldest, dating to the early years of the 19th century. By 1863 the holdings numbered some 3,000 items; two decades later the Greek and Roman portions alone totaled over 3,200. Formerly known as the Yale Numismatic Collection, jurisdiction over it passed from the University Library to the Yale University Art Gallery in 2001. The collection now comprises approximately 100,000 pieces and is by far the largest assemblage at any American university.
The collection provides the basis not only for formal instruction in numismatics but also for expanding the horizons of historians, art historians, archaeologists, and the general public. Its great strength remains Greco-Roman, including examples of the earliest coinage of western Asia Minor, the supreme artistic achievements of Syracuse and southern Italy, and masterpieces of Hellenistic and Roman portraiture. Silver coinage from the Roman Republic has been systematically acquired, and the collection of imperial coins is comprehensive; it has been augmented in recent years by the purchase of the collection of Professor Peter R. and Leonore Franke (over 4,100 pieces of Greek cities and the provinces) and the acquisition of roughly the first half of the collection of Ben Lee Damsky (about 900 pieces), which has enhanced the Gallery’s imperial holdings. The strengths of the collection include fine examples from the English and German traditions, a broad selection of Renaissance medals, and the coins from Dura-Europos, which complement the Gallery’s other holdings from this important Yale excavation in the 1930s. For the modern period the most important single bequest was C. W. Betts’s collection of medals pertaining to the American Revolution, which was the basis of a scholarly study from 1894 that remains in use today. The collection also includes paper money, with many thousands of Confederate notes selected to represent virtually every issue of the Civil War period, as well as a superb run of Connecticut coppers from the 18th century.
The permanent-collection galleries include representative examples from many of these traditions. The coin room and gallery were made possible by a gift from a descendant of Bela Lyon Pratt, the Connecticut medalist and sculptor who studied at Yale, and one display case is devoted to his designs. Others treat ancient coinage by theme (nature, portraiture, architecture, women); a final case shows Tudor coinage from 16th- and early 17th-century England. The centerpiece of the installation is the Gallery’s marble portrait of the Roman emperor Caligula, with an example of the coinage that makes possible his identification. Taken together this represents the most extensive installation of coins and medals ever at Yale. The display is on view adjacent to the Bela Lyon Pratt Study Room for Coins and Medals, where visitors may make an appointment to see almost any coin in the collection.
Note from the Curator
For the first time the Department of Coins and Medals has an exhibition space devoted to its holdings, which has permitted a more ambitious presentation of its riches than has ever been possible. This space is introduced by an area devoted to the works of Bela Lyon Pratt, after whom the gallery is named. Pratt played second fiddle in his lifetime to Augustus Saint-Gaudens, and although he is the creator of Yale’s most iconic piece of sculpture, the bronze statue of Nathan Hale on the University’s Old Campus, he is still not widely known today. But Pratt had a highly successful career as a sculptor and medalist, and he is one of a relatively few non-mint employees to have designed American coins (the quarter eagles and half eagles from 1908 to 1932). Examples of these are on display in the new gallery alongside works by sculptors of the time and beneath a large plaque by his student Richard Henry Recchia showing Pratt at work.
Meet the Curator
Benjamin Dieter R. Hellings
Benjamin Dieter R. Hellings, the Ben Lee Damsky Assistant Curator of Numismatics, joined the Gallery in late September 2016. He holds an M.Phil. from the University of Oxford, where he successfully defended his doctoral thesis in late November 2016. His research focuses on coin find patterns and the use of Roman coinage in northern Europe from ca. 50 B.C. to A.D. 410. Part of his dissertation research appears in the 2016 Numismatic Chronicle, in an article titled “The Denarii of Septimius Severus and the Mobility of Roman Coin: The Case of Roman Germany.” He is especially interested in the pre-Roman world of Temperate Europe, Roman coinage and the economy, and the use of numismatic “big data” for research and teaching.
Bellinger, Alfred R. The Coins. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1949.
Bellinger, Alfred R. “The Numismatic Evidence from Dura.” Berytus 8 (1943): 61–71.
Bellinger, Alfred R. “The Syrian Tetradrachms of Caracalla and Macrinus.” American Numismatic Society Numismatic Studies 3 (1940).
Metcalf, William E. “The Ben Lee Damsky Collection.” Yale University Art Gallery Bulletin (2008): 95–105.
Metcalf, William E. “Hadrianic Novelties.” Yale University Art Gallery Bulletin (2011): 42–47.