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Carl Subak – A Century of Roman Coin Collecting

Carl Subak – A Century of Roman Coin Collecting
Carl Subak around the time of his 100th birthday. Image: Susan Subak.

By Susan Subak …..

While coins and the hobby itself are often passed down through the generations, few people can claim almost a century of collecting.

Carl Subak, who passed away on February 6 at the age of 103, dated his first Roman coin to his fifth birthday and continued collecting into his 10th decade of life. His first finds did not come from a hobby shop but from the fertile soils of a stretch of land northeast of Vienna in Austria where he spent some of his early summers. His family lived in a villa near what is now the archaeological site and open-air museum of Carnuntum, also known as “Rome on the Danube”. His parents oversaw the crop and livestock production for the landowner, Graf Traun, and silver coins and other artifacts were raked to the surface during the spring plowing. From time to time, Carl was invited to choose a coin from a cup containing coins that the workers had unearthed.

The Roman city had spanned the centuries from the reign of Tiberius (50 CE) to the end of Valentinian (374) when the city was nearly destroyed but thoroughly abandoned. Today the site’s holdings include some 40,000 coins. In its heyday, the city’s population had surpassed 50,000 residents and it had seen its share of leaders including the brief reign of Regalianus, the usurper emperor who had minted his own currency at Carnuntum. An imposing arch called the Heidentor (“Heathen’s Gate”) continues to rise over the site, as it did more than 1,650 years earlier. The region’s classic, storied past was commemorated on a 20 euro coin issued in 2011.

Carl Subak’s parents underneath the Roman Gate of Carnuntum (circa 1913). Marianne Subak is holding the reins, Ernest Subak is standing with the light colored hat. Image: Susan Subak.

When the Subak family moved to a different farming operation, Carl kept his small collection but turned his attention to stamps, a hobby he shared with his own father. In the late 1930s, Carl joined Vienna’s venerable stamp collecting club where he was one of only two teenage members–the other being Hans Holzer, who became a prolific author of books on the paranormal and the inspiration for the film Ghostbusters. Carl and Hans, however, had little time to enjoy the stamp club after March 1938 when Nazi Germany annexed Austria. They both fled the country (separately) and eventually made their way to the United States. Arriving in 1939, Carl took on odd jobs and eventually joined the US army.

After two years as an army interpreter based in the American zone in Berlin, Carl joined his sister in Seattle and started an import-export business with his brother-in-law, Sidney Volinn. The business initially involved trading chinaware, but it dawned on Carl that there was a growing interest in coins and that, unlike ceramic plates, the coins did not break during transit. He also learned that he could convert his interest in stamps into a viable trade. He relocated to Chicago in 1949, after gaining a contract to supply stamp packets to a Chicago department store and set up an office above the Schubert Theatre in Chicago’s loop. Comfortable in the French language, as well as English and German, Carl was able to talk to customers who hailed from many European countries. His first important hire was Eve Kirshner, an able administrator and talented investor who remained with the firm for more than 30 years.

Roman coinage was Carl’s first interest in numismatics, and he continued to collect and trade in this area. He was particularly interested in Augustan coinage and eventually focused on collecting the diminutive quinarius, which held half the value of the denarius. This denomination has been described as enigmatic in that it was issued intermittently for five centuries but in low quantities. With a surface area half the size of an American penny, the user needed a well-fashioned coin pouch to hold it and solid fine motor skills to pick it up.

It is not clear why Carl was interested in this particular denomination, but since the coins have been found along the Danube including at the Carnuntum site, it may be that he was introduced to these coins at a very young age.

Carl found that he shared an interest in this denomination with Dr. Cathy King, a numismatic scholar based at the Heberden Coin Room at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum. Dr. King had a long-standing interest in Roman provincial coinage and agreed to write a book about quinarii, using Carl’s collection as a primary resource. The book, Roman Quinarii from the Republic to Diocletian and the Tetrarchy, was published in 2007 by Ashmolean Museum Publications. With its detailed maps of all known quinarii hordes, the book put to rest any simple explanation of the geographical and temporal extent of these coins. The coin finds have been sparse but widely distributed beginning in 211 BCE and continuing intermittently to 305 CE. The greatest number of quinarii have been found not in Italy or Gaul but in present-day Luxembourg and along the Rhine River, coinciding with key military campaigns in the region. While the theory that quinarii were inflicted on subjugated people seems to hold some merit, the numismatic scholar David Whigg has pointed out that the quinarii bore a physical resemblance to the small Iron Age silver coins already in use among Germanic tribes and it may have been popular with the Rhineland elites.

Although Carl formally retired in the early 1980s, he continued to be active in the field for another 35 years, making the daily weekday commute on the El from his home in Oak Park – until his late 90s, when he pared down his visits to the office to one day per week. Carl undertook other collaborations with the Ashmolean Museum, including a program he initiated in 1991 to support numismatists from Eastern Europe to undertake some months of study at the Ashmolean. The original program, also with contributions from Chicago numismatists Ed Milas and Harlan Berk, ran for more than a decade and it was revived in 2018 as the Heberden Coin Room East European Fellowship, which continues today.

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