Published March 12, 2015
Find a $20 bill and it could make your day. Find priceless, 2,500-year-old gold and silver Greek and Roman coins, and you’ve made the discovery of a lifetime.
That’s what happened to UB faculty member Philip Kiernan, who heard a rumor from a UB alumnus in 2010 that the UB Libraries housed the rare coins. Three years later, Kiernan, an assistant professor of classics, channeled his inner Indiana Jones and journeyed to the depths of the UB archives to find them.
The collection, he was shocked to learn, was real: 40 silver Greek coins, three gold Greek coins and a dozen gold Roman coins — one from each era of the first 12 Roman emperors, from Julius Caesar to Domitian. They range in date from the fifth century B.C. to the late first century A.D.
Not your usual find.
“I must have been the first person to touch them in almost 40 years,” says Kiernan, who brought in two experts to verify the coins’ authenticity last semester and is now developing a graduate course to examine the items’ history.
It’s the first time the coins will be extensively studied, and Kiernan and his class will publish their findings.
Within the collection is a “remarkably rare” coin of Roman emperor Otho, who reigned for a mere three months. The Greek coins were struck by some of the most powerful city-states and rulers of the ancient world, such as Athens, Corinth and Alexander the Great.
The coins were donated in 1935 to the UB Libraries Special Collections by Thomas B. Lockwood as part of a larger collection of rare books. However, it wasn’t until Kiernan examined them out of curiosity that the currency’s rarity and value were realized.
Kiernan focuses much of his research on ancient currency and antiquities, and the experts he brought in to examine the coins were numismatists — people who collect or study currency.
The coins are one of the many treasures stored in the UB Libraries, which also hold original works by James Joyce, Dylan Thomas and William Shakespeare.
“Libraries are becoming museums,” says Michael Basinski, curator of the UB Libraries Special Collections. “Everything is going digital, but we remain tied to the physical objects.”
Lockwood’s collection includes more than 3,000 books, medallions and additional coins from early America and England. Other notable items include a medallion of Napoleon Bonaparte and 36 British gold coins, including one of Queen Elizabeth I.
Lockwood, an avid reader and collector of rare and special books, purchased the items to supplement his personal collection. Accruing relics and art was common practice among affluent men in the early 20th century.
“For book collectors, owning such extraordinary objects connects them to the history that’s recorded in their books,” says Kiernan. “They could read about the Emperor Augustus and then examine a coin with his image.”
Most of the coins are in excellent condition, despite remaining in their original 80-plus-year-old casing. A few of the silver coins require conservation treatment. The collection’s casing also will be improved.
The UB Libraries will open the collection of coins to members of the campus and local communities pursuing relevant research.
I'm curious to know the ballpark value of these lost coins.
Great story, good find Phil. Nice to see and hear this on local news and radio, and nationally as well. It would be nice to see this material on display.