HomeAncient CoinsPig Money: Authentic Artifacts or Numismatic Nonsense?

Pig Money: Authentic Artifacts or Numismatic Nonsense?

By John Thomassen for the American Numismatic Society (ANS) ……
 

Figure 1. Pig money. ANS 1982.49.1
Figure 1. Pig money. ANS 1982.49.1.

As Collections Manager at the American Numismatic Society (ANS), I have been fortunate enough to poke my head into practically every nook and cranny of the vault at the behest of academics, researchers, and members to locate an object for photography, confirm an object’s weight or other details, and so on. Consequently, I often come across trays of objects that I have never seen or heard of before, and occasionally I stumble upon something that causes me to furrow my brow and (quietly) exclaim: What the heck are these things?

One such occasion happened well over a year ago when I found a single tray in the Medals and Decorations department simply labeled “Pig Money”. I turned over several of the objects (some of which were as thick and heavy as Roman aes grave; others as small and thin as a medieval denier or penny) and examined them. Some of the objects indeed had pigs (or, at the very least, pig-like animals) depicted on them–some featured lone animals, others had several pigs, and still others portrayed a sow and multiple piglets–and yet some had no pigs or pig-like animals at all. Most of the objects looked vaguely ‘ancient’ but they differed in that some objects seemed to have legitimate, old patinas coupled with an archaic style, whereas others were almost cartoonish in nature, as if someone had asked a child to design an ancient coin. I resolved to figure out what these objects were but did not think to look into them again until I was notified that I had committed to writing this week’s Pocket Change blog post – a perfect opportunity to dive into the strange world of pigs.

Figure 2. Pig money. ANS 1981.38.5.
Figure 2. Pig money. ANS 1981.38.5.

When I pulled out the tray to examine them again in anticipation of writing this post, ANS Assistant Librarian Jared Goldfarb happened to be nearby. When I explained what my task was, he mentioned that colleague and Newman Numismatic Portal (NNP) Digital Scribe Lara Jacobs had recently scanned some ANS archives that mentioned (and I will forgo using quotes from here on out) pig money. What luck! The archived material pertained to a series of letters between attorney Wilfred B. Feiga and ANS Curator Howland Wood on the subject of “Ancient Hebrew coins” per the envelope the letters were contained in.

The first letter from Feiga dated August 15, 1921 was actually directed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (MoMA), wherein he asked for the name of the “most reliable authority on ancient Hebrew coins … in New York City or elsewhere” as Feiga was representing one Joseph Rosenthal of Worcester, Massachusetts, “a gentleman who has inherited [a Hebrew coin] which is believed by the best authorities at our disposal thus far to date back to about 3,000 B.C.” which was discovered “while digging in one of the mountains of Palestine.” Feiga goes on to note that “It may be worth many thousands of dollars, and of immeasurable value to the scientific world.”

Figure 3. Pig money. ANS 0000.10.41.
Figure 3. Pig money. ANS 0000.10.41.

Upon receiving this letter, MoMA presumably told Feiga to contact the American Numismatic Society. Their reply is not included with the other letters.

Feiga then sends a new letter addressed to the ANS dated August 17 in which he encloses a newspaper clipping from the August 9, 1921 edition of the Worcester Gazette “which explains itself” (unfortunately, this clipping is also absent from our archives) and indicates that Rosenthal “is willing to sell the coin in question if the proper arrangements can be made.” Feiga then states that, based on the oral history of the object as given by his client, “I am personally of the opinion that it may be of unusual interest, and of considerable value.”

Figure 4. Pig money. ANS 0000.10.42.
Figure 4. Pig money. ANS 0000.10.42.

Howland Wood’s response to this initial letter to the ANS dated August 19 is polite and his answer straightforward. Wood states that “According to the picture in the enclosed newspaper clipping, the piece you mention is a fake pure and simple. This is made by casting and no coins of that period were made thus; they were struck. As near as we can find out, some busybody about one hundred years ago made a great many different kinds of pieces with pigs on the back of them and planted them around… Greece, Italy and the Levant. They have been turning up ever since, to the bother of numismatists. Many of these, in one form or another, are brought to this Museum each year. We lately received one from Hamadan, Persia.” Wood then provides the “best reference” on such pieces, which is the “Journal Internationale d’Archaeologie Numismatique, Athens, Vol. VIII, 1905.”

Figure 5. Pig money. ANS 0000.10.43.
Figure 5. Pig money. ANS 0000.10.43.
Figure 6. Pig money. ANS 0000.10.44.
Figure 6. Pig money. ANS 0000.10.44.

I’ll pause here to note a few things.

The first is that Wood makes it known to Feiga that “[t]hese pieces have been written up several times” but only gives one reference. If there are any other contemporary sources mentioning these objects, I would love to see them; I have yet to find any.

The second is that it is clear that these objects have been known since at least 1905 (the publication date of the given reference) but it is interesting to read that Wood claims they were created roughly a century prior and were not recent fabrications. Whether this is hyperbole on his part or rooted in fact I do not know, but it is interesting nonetheless.

Lastly, I am equally delighted and dismayed that numismatists over 100 years ago were forced to contend with the same kind of unsolicited message as Wood does here, that of the “I am positive I have something very rare and very valuable, can you please confirm my bias” persuasion – but more on that below.

Figure 7. Pig money. ANS 0000.10.36.
Figure 7. Pig money. ANS 0000.10.36.

Feiga responds to Wood the very next day in a letter dated August 20, and it is clear that he is anxious for more information, especially since Wood’s answer does not align with the opinion of Feiga’s client.

“I have received … with great interest your letter … It seems to me a very important matter and I do not wish to drop it until I have gone into it much more thoroughly” he writes, asking “Have you any way of knowing in what language the letters appearing on [it] are written. The most learned Rabbi in Jerusalem, now dead, told Mr. Rosenthal’s father that the script is ancient Hebrew, not the kind of Hebrew that was written in the time of Christ.” Here we learn that it was Rosenthal’s father who found the object in “the mountains of Palestine” as before we only knew that he inherited it. “Mr. Rosenthal assures me in all earnestness that the British Museum at Cairo offered his father one thousand pounds for the coin thirteen years ago … I wish you would let me know what kind of a coin you believe this is or what it was made in imitation of, if you believe it is an imitation. Is it Assyrian, Babylonian, Chaldean, Turkish, Arabic, Armenian, Persian or any other class.” Feiga then ends his letter by asking for the “names and addresses of a few people in the United States who might be able also to give me a valuable opinion on the question.”

Figure 8. Pig money. ANS 0000.10.59.
Figure 8. Pig money. ANS 0000.10.59.
Figure 9. Pig money. ANS 0000.10.45.
Figure 9. Pig money. ANS 0000.10.45.

It is quite evident from Feiga’s second letter that he does not like the first answer he received, both by imploring Wood to “let me know what kind of a coin you believe this is” as if Wood did not already plainly state what the pig money was in his initial response, and then by asking for additional names and addresses in order to get what amounts to a second opinion on the matter.

Figure 10. Pig money. ANS 0000.10.63.
Figure 10. Pig money. ANS 0000.10.63.

Thankfully, Wood’s final response dated August 26 is wonderfully sharp and apparently par for the course for Wood, as I’ve been told that he could be quite scathing and sardonic at times, albeit in the most professional way possible.

To start, Wood admits that “I have absolutely no doubt that Mr. Rosenthal and his father were both sincere in the belief that their coin is genuine as I have … become acquainted with others having coins similar to this, who have had them … so long that they are convinced that there is nothing wrong with their pieces.” He then confirms that “the lettering on your coin is old Hebrew” but that “there is nothing to prevent using old Hebrew letters on anything made in … modern times.” Regarding the museum at Cairo, Wood has some choice words, stating “I … take with a grain of salt the offer of a thousand pounds at the museum of Cairo; I never knew they ever had a thousand pounds to offer! Also, if my memory serves they never had anyone at the Cairo museum with much knowledge of coins.” Ouch!

Figure 11. Pig money. ANS 0000.10.61.
Figure 11. Pig money. ANS 0000.10.61.
Figure 12. Pig money. ANS 0000.10.62.
Figure 12. Pig money. ANS 0000.10.62.

Wood reiterates that “Your piece in question is an imitation of no coin. It, and the series to which it belongs, is the pure fiction of someone’s brain” and then proceeds to explain that most of the ancient cultures rattled off by Feiga did not use coined money, and that it was invented by the Greeks much later in history. Finally, Wood gives not one but four other individuals that Feiga can write to (dealer Henry Chapman, Dr. T.L. Comparette at the United States Mint, Dr. George F. Hill at the British Museum, and dealer Wayte Raymond) but that “under no circumstances do I care to have you use my name as all of these people would be incensed with me for referring such a matter to them.” If that is not the most biting closer to a numismatic letter, I don’t know what is!

Figure 13. Pig money. ANS 1978.139.1.
Figure 13. Pig money. ANS 1978.139.1.

By now the reader is probably wondering if the present author has lost the plot, as I have yet to actually write much about the pig money objects in the Society’s collection.

Dear reader, I would like to–and I plan to–but there is so much more to explore here, including looking in-depth at the reference cited by Wood, plus the few other articles and sources I have come across while researching this topic. As the title of this post might suggest, there is the possibility that these objects were created with real intent and were not mere tomfoolery or worse, made to sell to unsuspecting tourists. However, we will need to investigate those leads in a follow-up blog post or perhaps a feature in the ANS Magazine.

Until then, I will end this post with a few more examples, and a note that not all of the objects on the tray ought to fall under the category of pigs (I have also seen them called Balkan pigs). Five of the objects are clearly cast copies of aes grave of Hatria, Picenum in Italy (see ANS 0000.10.30, ANS 0000.10.31, ANS 0000.10.32, ANS 1944.7.1, and ANS 1944.82.1) and others appear to be archaistic imitations, either with or without animals, but no pigs (see ANS 0000.10.34, ANS 0000.10.35, ANS 0000.10.37, ANS 0000.10.38, ANS 0000.10.39, ANS 0000.10.40, ANS 0000.10.46, ANS 0000.10.47, ANS 0000.10.57, ANS 0000.10.58, ANS 0000.10.60, ANS 1937.84.1, and 1993.141.26).

Figure 14. Pig money. ANS 0000.10.33.
Figure 14. Pig money. ANS 0000.10.33.

The remaining objects have pigs (or approximations of such) and thus safely earn their moniker. Of these, all are unique types represented by just one example on the tray, save for a group of nine with a king facing right on the obverse and a partially-garbled Greek legend–likely a corruption of BAΣIΛEΩΣ and presumably followed by the name of said king–and a sow and piglets on the reverse, either with or without a shepherd figure at their right (see ANS 0000.10.48, ANS 0000.10.49, ANS 0000.10.50, ANS 0000.10.51, ANS 0000.10.52, ANS 0000.10.53, ANS 0000.10.54, ANS 0000.10.55, and ANS 0000.10.56). As the legend found on these objects is not consistent across the board, if an enterprising reader believes they know what the name of this king is supposed to be, I am all ears. There are legends on some of the other objects featured here, and I am also happy to receive transcriptions and/or translations with respect to those.

Until then, please ‘pig out’ on the information and images supplied here, and do get in touch if you have anything to share regarding these strange objects.

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Medieval Money at the Morgan Library - David Yoon ANS

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American Numismatic Society
American Numismatic Societyhttps://numismatics.org
The American Numismatic Society (ANS), organized in 1858 and incorporated in 1865 in New York State, operates as a research museum and is recognized as a publicly supported organization. "The mission of The American Numismatic Society is to be the preeminent national institution advancing the study and appreciation of coins, medals and related objects of all cultures as historical and artistic documents, by maintaining the foremost numismatic collection and library, by supporting scholarly research and publications, and by sponsoring educational and interpretive programs for diverse audiences."

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