In what to some ancient coin collectors might seem like a dramatic change of tack, archaeo-blogger Paul Barford has revealed that private collections can bear intellectual fruits and enrich the understanding of other disciplines, including archaeology. The revelation is offered by Barford in a recent internet blog post where he refers to the James Theselius Collection (JTC) of Islamic coins being sold at the WGS Store. Barford bemoans the fact that this sale will "split up" the collection. He expresses the hopefully sincere concern that such an important collection should be properly studied. One might forgive Mr. Barford, who has no measurable background in numismatics, for failing to realize that this is precisely what did happen over the twenty or more years that JTC was formed. Many of these coins were studied carefully by a host of scholars who contributed to the data compiled in the two volumes of Turkoman Figural Bronze Coins and Their Iconography by William F. Spengler and myself. Those academics are acknowledged in the study and come from a wide variety of disciplines. Among them were:
Dr. Venetia Porter, Joe Cribb and Rachel Ward (British Museum);
Dr. Michael Bates (then curator of Islamic Coins at the American Numismatic Society);
Mrs. Helen Mitchell Brown (former Curator of Oriental Coins at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford);
Dr. Luke Treadwell (successor to Mrs. Brown at Oxford);
Dr. Mark Blackburn (Keeper of Coins, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge);
Dr. Herman Simon (Statliche Museen, Berlin);
Dr. Lutz Ilisch (Tübingen University);
Dr. Gilles Hennequin (Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris);
Dr. Ismail Gunay Paksoy (Chief Numismatist, Istanbul Arkeoloji Muze, Istanbul);
Mrs. Shennur Aydin (Yapi ve Kredi Bankasi museum, Istanbul);
Dr. Mando Oeconomides (National Numismatic Museum, Athens);
Dr. C.E. Bosworth (Professor of Arabic Studies, Manchester University);
Professor Muhammad Umar Memon (UW-Madison);
Dr. Nezihi Aykut (Istanbul University);
Dr. Michael Molnar (Dept. of Physics and Astronomy, Rutgers University).
The distinguished list shared above is not simply a laundry list of incidental contacts nor dropped names. The authors were warmly received in person by every one of these numismatic scholars at their institutions and often for several days of intensive study and collaboration. Read the list and think about that—yes, a lot of travel. The hosts contributed a wealth of information that greatly enriched the Spengler/Sayles study now recognized worldwide as the most authoritative work existing on the coinage of Artuqids and Zengids in the Jazira. Among the final readers of the manuscript version was Stephen Album, senior fellow at Worcester College, Oxford and arguably the most knowledgable person alive when it comes to Islamic coins.
A host of independent scholars, ancient coin collectors and notable
professional numismatists also contributed to the interactive scholarship
that was spurred by many of the very coins now in the JTC sale. In
fact, many of the coins now being offered came from the Spengler and
collections of the 1990s—purchased by Reverend Theselius either through public auction or private
offerings. Some of the coins from the S/S collections purchased at that
other collectors ultimately rejoined old friends in the JTC a decade or more later.
Lest one might think we ignored archaeologists in this research, Bill Spengler and I actually visited the Archaeological Museum in Istanbul twice. Although the numismatic collection was closed to the public, we were granted a special visit. Mr. Spengler and I were told by our host, Dr. Paksoy, that the coin room had at that time been closed for about 20 years. Very few visitors were admitted and to his knowledge we were the first Americans ever granted that privilege. The sights within were spectacular, to say the least. We also met with archaeologists at regional museums in Antalya, Malatya, Adana and Antakya in Turkey. We corresponded with several others over the years. Archaeologists Michael and Nethery Fuller collaborated with us and published, as an Appendix in Vol. II, a 20-page illustrated report of coins found during their excavations at Tell Tuneinir, Syria. Mr. Spengler assisted onsite at that excavation at least one season as numismatic specialist and corresponded with the Fullers over a much longer period.
In 1992, during the study of these coins and the writing of Turkoman I and II, Bill Spengler and I were invited to speak at the 25th Anniversary Symposium of the Turkish Numismatic Society in Istanbul. Some of the ground-breaking research that we presented was based on rare specimens that are now part of the Theselius collection. A follow-up invitation to present papers at the 40th Anniversary Symposium came too late for Bill Spengler (d. 2005), but I was honored and delighted to expand on our earlier presentations with an update of research on coins of the Turkomans. At least two of the coins discussed in this paper were from the JTC.
The JTC was formed literally as Turkoman I and II were written. The diligent and insightful searching of world markets by Reverend Theselius, who worked hand-in-hand with the authors as the work progressed, contributed greatly to making the Turkoman study remarkably complete. Additions to the now 20-year-old publication have been miniscule in number.
So, to return to the concern of Mr. Barford. Where would our knowledge and understanding of medieval Islamic coinage from the Jazira be today without the interest of collectors like Jim Theselius? Without independent scholars willing to dedicate literally years to a quest for which there is no stipend, no travel expense, no endowed chair and no academic recognition, research would be right where it was a century ago. The sale of JTC will inspire a whole cadré of new and highly energized minds ready to probe the remaining mysteries of this enigmatic and challenging series of coins. We should hope that the spirit of Jim Theselius is embedded in each and every one of the coins from his collection and that its dispersal is not a dismembering but the beginning of an epidemic. I'm quite sure Mr. Barford must agree that an epidemic of interest in scholarship is a good thing.