In Bank Leu Auction 25 of ancient coins, which took place on 23 April 1980, one of the coins, lot 305, was an incredible Sestertius of Hadrian with a reverse of the Exercitus Britannicus. In many ways this is the most important and evocative Roman coin relating to Britain in existence. It was estimated at CHF 20,000 but sold to the English collector, Geoffrey Cope, for CHF 75,000 after a sale room battle with Tradart.
No provenance was given for this coin in the catalogue, but it is known to have been consigned by M. Ratto, the head of a famous firm in Milan, and the story was that it came from an old Italian collection that had long been in Lugano (as so many Italian collections are). In any case, the coin had the “feel” of one that had been in a collection for a long time; it certainly was not a recent find.
This coin is Mr. Cope’s favorite Roman coin. He showed it on his numismatic web site (http://www.petitioncrown.com) and in time the British Museum’s coin department asked him if he would mind loaning it for display; he was, of course, very pleased to do so, and facilitated the production of 100’000 postcard’s for the BM showing the coin and some related items. The coin became a very popular exhibit, especially among English visitors, since for the British it was so closely bound up with their past and with the story of Hadrian’s Wall (for foreign visitors it showed how the Roman Imperial mint honored the Roman forces in Britain and emphasized what an integral part this northern province was in the Roman world). Thus, over the years this ancient coin was seen and enjoyed by an enormous number of people.
Unfortunately, in 2012, regulations concerning artifacts and ancient coins that did not have a provenance dating back to before 1970 came into force and the authorities of the British Museum informed Mr. Cope that the coin could not be displayed any longer. This was because the traceable provenance only went back to 1980 – although the coin’s appearance clearly showed that it had to have been above ground and in a collection for a considerable time before then.
In 2013 negotiations began for the Hadrian Exercitus Britannicus to go on display again in another prestigious museum in the UK. The coin’s obvious importance as an illustration of British history made its display a must.
However, this story has just taken a dramatic and remarkable new turn. While checking through one of the early auction catalogues in the Nomos library in Zurich, the young scholar Y. Gunzenreiner, who is now working at Nomos under Dr. Alan Walker and had recently photographed and studied the coin, was astonished to discover a much earlier provenance for this splendid sestertius.
It was in the sale of the very distinguished collection of Roman coins owned by the late Professor Prospero Sarti, which was held by G. Sangiorgi in Rome on 7 May 1906, where it appeared as lot 428 and its reverse was illustrated on pl. VII. Thus, the Hadrian Exercitus Britannicus now has a provable pedigree going back at least to the second half of the 19th century (Sarti died in 1904).
In addition, it is clear from the photographic plate in the Sarti catalogue that the coin had various incrustations on the reverse that were subsequently very carefully removed. They certainly were no longer there when the coin appeared publicly for the next time in 1980.
LEFT: Bank Leu Auction 25 Lot 305 purchased by Geoffrey Cope in 1980 RIGHT: Lot 428 from the G. Sangiorgi Rome Auction on May 7 1906 from the Professor Prospero Sarti Collection
Not only does this discovery restore some of the coin’s history, but it also shows how dubious it is to assume that a coin without a known provenance prior to 1970 is ipso facto a recent find. The fact is that there is no truly universal photograph file we can turn to for all the coins that have appeared in illustrated commercial publications (auctions, fixed price lists, etc.) since the 1880s; thus, coins, like this one, which do in fact have clear provenances are deprived of them through lack of information when they reappear generations later (Bank Leu had a very good photofile for provenance research, but the Sarti sale was not included – and the catalogue was not in their library).
In addition, prior to the advent of cheaper means of photography, especially after the 1960s, very large numbers of coins commonly were sold without illustration (for example when the great Strozzi collection was sold in Rome by Sangiorgi in 1907 only a little more than 10% of the coins in the catalogue were on the plates). The implications this has for the current debate over provenance should be clear.
It is especially important to note that despite the great importance of this coin its provenance remained unknown for a generation after its sale in 1980, even though it had appeared in an illustrated auction catalogue produced by a major firm (and in the 1980s such catalogues were still being sent out free of charge to scholars and institutions all over the world); how many other coins of lesser importance that are now on the market have equally long collection histories, but ones that have been lost in the mists of time?