Legend has it that Alexandrian-born Victor A. Adda purchased his first coin as a teen, with his first earnings. Whether that genesis story is fact or fiction, by his death at 80 in 1965, the Egyptian Jew’s now legendary collection eventually encompassed over 1,000 coins, mostly Roman, spanning from Julius Caesar to Romulus Augustulus.
During the heady days of 1920s Egyptian archaeological campaigns, his coins were often brushed off and acquired straight from the source. Later, he also enlarged and improved his collection through private sales and auctions. Upon his death, it was left to his four daughters. Now, a substantial 75 gold coins from it have a new permanent home in Jerusalem’s Israel Museum.
According to daughter Giovanna Adda Coen, whose donation more than doubled the total number of gold Roman coins in the Jewish state, her father’s collection was “so well known and admired by experts that the king of Italy himself, Victor Emmanuel III, a great coin collector, expressed the desire to see it during his exile in Alexandria and was received by my father at our home.”
Now this fit-for-a-king collection can be seen by the general public in the Israel Museum’s exhibit “Faces of Power,” temporarily on view in the Archaeology Wing.
The exhibit contains the portraits of 40 Roman emperors — and three usurpers — as well as the likenesses of 13 women who were members of the imperial family.
“These coins enable us to tell the story of the Roman gold currency for a period of more than 300 years, from the end of the first century BCE to the beginning of the fourth century CE,” writes Dr. Haim Gitler, the Tamar and Teddy Kollek chief curator of Archaeology and curator of Numismatics, in an impressive book of scholarly essays which accompanies the exhibit.
In a private tour at the museum earlier this month, Gitler shared with The Times of Israel some of the challenges in exhibiting objects of such great significance yet small size.
Wearing a black shirt and Pompeii red trousers that matched the color scheme of the exhibit, Gitler explained that ahead of the exhibit he needed to overcome some “curator problems” and find a narrative link between the 75 coins, which are collectively insured for $7.5 million.
The first link was the gold material used for the coins. Like today, in the Roman era gold was considered rare and only used in the elite classes.
For comparison’s purposes, Gitler explained that one gold aureus was worth 25 silver denarius. During the siege on Masada, a Roman legionnaire was annually paid some 225 silver coins. The purchasing power of those coins shifted as the price of the commodities fluctuated, but the ratio of gold to silver coinage remained fixed.
The second link in the collection was the appearance of portraits on at least one of the sides. An essay by Dr. Matti Fischer explains the linkage between the “divine” gold material and the evolution of coin portraiture from depicting gods to emperors. “On coins we can sense these tendencies professing an existence that claims eternity both within the historical sphere and after death,” writes Fischer.
The third link is even more diverse than the coins’ portraiture: the plethora of “propaganda” — slogans or images which appeared on the “tail” side of the coin.
Gitler joked that these were the “bumper stickers” of the Roman era as the best way to spread information was on a coin, which went from hand to hand.
To emphasize the three-layered links between the 75 exhibited coins, Gitler’s team constructed a circular room which can also be viewed on three levels. The coins themselves are exhibited in groupings in vertical glass vitrines, above which are blowups of selected coins. Encircling the entire room are Latin, English and Hebrew words that depict the coins’ verso slogans.
The coins themselves are grouped both chronologically and thematically, with titles such as “Forever Young,” “The Senator,” “The Philosopher,” and “Usurpers” which carry forth the room’s narrative.
The room is very light on text and there aren’t descriptions of each coin next to the vitrines. Instead, there are two multimedia stations that offer 3D pictures of 36 coins, along with background information in Hebrew and English.
Supplementary material can be found in the exhibit’s hefty full-color book, which includes essays from 16 international scholars and dozens of illustrations.
After spending an hour in conversation with Gitler, what is most impressive in this dazzling display — well worth a visit — is the desire of Adda’s daughter to memorialize her father’s passion for coins for the edification of future generations.
Instead of putting the collection up on the auction block to be sold piecemeal, now, in partnership with the Israel Museum, she is able to share a major portion of it with the world. And that altruism, it could be said, is worth far more than these coins’ weight in gold.