Collectors of ancient coins soon learn to see themselves, not as owners, but temporary custodians of their beloved miniature works of ancient art. As with all antiquities, when a coin is unearthed a new chapter of its history begins and this modern tale can often be as enthralling as any ancient one. Coins specifically, can make their way through an impressive gallery of caretakers, every step enriching their history and narrative to a modern collector; many a time I have inspected the tag accompanying an ancient coin in the British Museum study rooms to read “from the collection of George III” or “Charles Townley”.
More than ever, a secure, interesting and long term provenance adds huge appeal to the collector. Even a common coin in average condition is elevated in every aspect by a confirmed modern history. Furthermore, thanks to the incredible size of many world renowned collections, it’s perfectly possible for a part of them to find their way to the palm of the most humble collector.
This week I became the custodian of such a coin; it’s not rare or even in amazing condition but I know it will find a prized place in my collection. The denarius of Trajan began its modern life in the collection of the Adams family, the prominent Massachusetts political family that of course gave us the 2nd and 6th Presidents of the United States, John Adams (1735-1826) and John Quincy Adams (1767-1848).
The Adams’ coin collection was auctioned by Stacks in March 1971 and like many of the pieces, my coin passed into the hands of Professor John A. Sawhill (1892-1976), a veteran of World War I and teacher of Latin, Greek and German at the James Madison University.
Upon his death in 1976, the Sawhill collection was bequeathed to the James Madison University who then auctioned it, again through Stacks in March 1979.
The coin then passed into the hands of Elvira Clain-Stefanelli, long-time curator of the National Numismatics Collection at the Smithsonian. Here is an extract from the 2001 obituary of Mrs Clain-Stefanelli:
“Elvira Eliza Olinescu was an author, curator, critic and, above all, a survivor. Born in Bucharest, Romania, at the beginning of World War I, she and her family were forced to flee their village to avoid invading troops. At the end of the war, she returned home to the disputed territory between Austria and Romania. She would later earn a master’s degree in history from the University of Cernauti in Romania.
In 1939 she married Vladimir Clain-Stefanelli, a postgraduate student in Rome, who specialized in ancient coins. The couple were researching coins in Germany in 1942 when Vladimir was arrested by the Gestapo because his passport had been stolen and “used by an enemy of the state.” He was sent to the Buchenwald concentration camp where he remained “a guest” until the end of World War II. Although pregnant, Elvira chose to join her husband in the camp. She later was released so their child would not be born in prison; however, after experiencing the bombings in Berlin, she returned to the camp, thinking it safer. She didn’t realize Buchenwald, the site of a V-2 rocket factory, was a target for Allied bombings.”
Starting a new life in America in 1951, the Clain-Stefanellis’ expertise in the field led to them becoming curators of the Smithsonian collection in 1956. They aggressively expanded the holdings of the collection from 60,000 to over 900,000 pieces, securing donations from many benefactors, turning the Smithsonian’s numismatic cabinet into a world class collection. After her husband’s death in 1982, Elvira became executive director, continuing her work developing the collection and going on to win many awards in the field of numismatics. Surely a life worthy of a more official biography?
After her death in 2001, the personal collection of the Clain-Stefanellis was dispersed to be enjoyed and studied by collectors around the world and pieces continue to fill lots at auctions. This is coin collecting is at its most satisfying: holding an already ancient work of art in your hand, now lustrously toned from many decades in the coin cabinet of heroically dedicated historians like the Adams’, Professor Sawhill and the Clain-Stefanellis.