The University at Buffalo Library is known internationally for its special collection of original writings by James Joyce and first-edition works by hundreds of renowned poets, playwrights and authors, some dating as far back as 1452.
But tucked among the millions of pages of text, university staff recently discovered a cache of rare coins that go back even farther – all the way to the Greek empire of the fifth century B.C.
The 40 silver Greek coins, featuring images of gods and rulers, were located inside a small gray box on a metal shelf of a vaulted room where the university’s most prized possessions are kept. Also inside were three gold Greek coins and a dozen gold Roman coins.
The university has owned the coins since 1935, when they were donated by benefactor Thomas B. Lockwood along with a collection of rare books. The coins were stowed away and largely forgotten. But Philip Kiernan, a UB assistant professor of classics and expert on ancient coins, plans to build a new graduate course in antiquities largely around study of the coins.
“This is the kind of collection you expect to find in a much older European university. Or a middle-sized European museum might have it,” said Kiernan.
Most of the coins are in exquisite condition and would have major collectors salivating at the chance to own them. Ancient coins can be highly sought after in the collectibles world, fetching tens of thousands of dollars, but Kiernan said he did not know the market value of UB’s collection.
“My job as an archaeologist is to appreciate their historical value and their historical value is absolutely priceless,” he said.
Kiernan first heard about the possibility of UB’s owning ancient coins after he was hired in 2010. Eventually, he got in touch with Michael Basinski, curator of the special collections, who knew exactly where to look. Basinski remembered another UB faculty member using the coins for research or teaching many years ago.
Kiernan, a former antiquities museum curator, didn’t get his hopes up, given the worldwide proliferation of coin reproductions. “I went along expecting to see a bunch of replicas,” he said.
He was stunned by what Basinski showed him on the fourth floor of Capen Hall, home of the special collections.
The collection not only was authentic, it was “quite spectacular,” said Kiernan, who had two other experts verify the coins.
Lockwood, who was part of Buffalo’s wealthy elite during the city’s golden age, likely purchased the coins at auction in 1925.
The silver Greek coins, known as tetradrachm, come in a variety of sizes and weights. The smaller golden Roman coins, known as aurei, came from each era of the first twelve Roman emperors, from Julius Caesar to Domitian. There’s also a large gold Greek coin with an image of the Egyptian Queen Arsinoe.
The gold coins were of high value during Greek and Roman times and were not widely used, which would explain their being in such pristine condition, said Kiernan.
“They weren’t really circulated. They were hoarded. Gold coins like that were made for storing your wealth,” he said. “It wasn’t spending money.”
The silver coins, which show more wear and tear, had wider circulation.
One of the most interesting coins is a gold Roman aureus that features the image of Otho, who reigned as emperor for just three months in A.D. 69.
“He didn’t have a lot of time to strike coins, so it’s an exceptionally rare coin as it is,” said Kiernan. On top of that, though, the coin has an obvious error on its flipside, which features a personification of Securitas, the Roman goddess of security.
Typically, Securitas was portrayed holding a wreath in her right hand and a scepter in her left. But on this coin, she holds a cornucopia instead of the scepter, an indication the maker erred in the die used to stamp the coin.
“It makes the coin all the more unusual,” said Kiernan.
The coins, which currently are contained in wood and glass cases, will be separated into individual plastic containers that will allow students to work closely with them.
Being able to see and hold actual antiquities brings the subject alive for students in a way that other forms of study simply don’t allow, said Kiernan.
“They will learn more about the past through physical things,” he said. Kiernan hopes to write a book about the coins with the help of the student research into their origins.
Basinski said Kiernan will be the first person to use the coins in such a meaningful way.
“This a great opportunity for UB students to have access to a sophisticated and dynamic and rare resource,” he said.