Museums USA

Boston MFA treats coins as miniature works of art

Museum focuses on aesthetic quality of ancient coins and links to other art forms

The Dekadrachm (Demareteion) of Syracuse with quadriga, about 465 BC, is the most famous Greek coin in the MFA's collection

Coins, it could be argued, are the smallest but most widespread form of art, found in almost everyone’s pocket. Later this month, the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), Boston, will become the first major US museum to open a gallery dedicated to ancient coins, placing an emphasis on them as miniature works of art.

“The MFA isn’t merely giving coins the same level of attention as vases, sculpture,” says Richard Grossman, the consulting curator for numismatics at the MFA, who is working on the installation of around 500 coins in the new galleries, which are due to open on 25 September. “What the MFA’s gallery shows is how ancient coins can be works of art in their own right, and how coinage is interconnected with artworks in other media and through time. To that end, the new gallery does more than display a selection of beautiful coins; it points to meaningful visual relationships between coins and other objects — vases, sculpture, metalwork, gems, and even works on paper.”

The MFA has one of the largest collections of Greek and Roman coins in the world, with around 7,500 pieces, that as well as being beautiful objects of sculptural quality, also document the cultural and political history of those ancient empires. Highlights including a Dekadrachm (Demareteion) of Syracuse with quadriga, about 465 BC, a Tetradrachm of Amphipolis with head of Apollo, 390-70 BC, and a Denarius with head of M. Junius Brutus, 43-42 BC, issued by Brutus after the assassination of Julius Caesar. “The idea to put together a coin gallery grew out of discussions about how we could make these treasures most accessible to the visiting public. What the MFA’s gallery tries to show is how ancient coins are works of art in miniature and also documents of Classical history and culture,” Grossman says.

The gallery installation is planned as a permanent display, and there will be iPads and a computer kiosk to allow visitors to examine the coins in further detail. “Coins are difficult to exhibit for a couple of reasons—in particular, their small size and two-sided format. Several cases in the gallery have movable magnifying glasses so that visitors can really see the details. Some cases are also supported by iPads, which will allow visitors to zoom in, to see both sides of the coin, and to learn a little more about the cultural context of the coins on display.” Grossman says. There are no plans for temporary or special exhibitions, but the gallery will include other works from the periods, including sculpture, ceramics, and metalwork.

At the same time, the museum is opening new galleries for its 11,500-strong collection of gems and jewellery from the ancient Mediterranean, the largest in the US. More than 200 objects will go on view, including the MFA’s famous Cameo with the Wedding of Cupid and Psyche once owned by the Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens and then by the Duke of Marlborough.

The Denarius with head of M. Junius Brutus, 43-42 BC, was issued by Brutus after the assassination of Julius Caesar and warns of death to tyrants on its obverse side with a cap of liberty flanked by two daggers
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21 Sep 12
14:54 CET


Actually, coins were the first art that I collected at age 6. I would buy Indian head [back then, cowboys and Indians were a topic of play and TV shows] and eagel pennies. I liked them because of the detailed engraving on them, and I would always look for the ones that still had good detail in the engraving. Glad to see that museums are recognizing them for what they really are...after all, artists are commissioned to make them.

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