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Heads or Tails?

The Tales and Portable Art of Coins
Amanda Mikolic, CMA Curatorial Assistant
February 25, 2022
Two Guinea Piece: George III (obverse); Shield of Arms (reverse), 1773. John Sigismund Tanner (British, 1705–1775). 1969.210
Mr. Raymond Henry Norweb and Mrs. Emery May Holden Norweb, September 1923. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

“I was not a little bit afraid of Emery May,” former CMA director Sherman E. Lee (1958–1983) said of the formidable Emery May Holden Norweb (1895–1984), the first and only woman to serve as president of the Board of Trustees at the Cleveland Museum of Art. Norweb first joined the board in 1949 and led it from 1962 until 1971, when she retired and became an honorary life trustee. By then, Lee’s fear had turned to great respect and friendship. One need only walk through the museum’s doors to see Norweb’s legacy. She was insistent on hiring the daring and controversial architect Marcel Breuer to construct the Breuer Wing, which still welcomes guests, and many of the hundreds of objects she and her husband donated are on view in the galleries, including textiles, drawings, paintings, and sculptures from Asia, Europe, and the Pre-Columbian and Islamic worlds.

However, one side of Norweb’s life as a collector does not often receive attention from the art world: her passion for numismatics, or the study of coins. Known as the grand dame of the coin world (and for driving a devilishly hard bargain), Norweb was also the first woman chairperson — appointed in 1969 — of the American Numismatic Society in New York City. Fortunately for the CMA, she educated the recalcitrant Sherman E. Lee on the aesthetic quality of English gold coins, and some of her great collection now rests with the museum.

Emery May Holden Norweb (1895–1984), age 13, 1909. From The Norweb Collection: An American Legacy, by Michael Hodder and Q. David Bower, 1987.

Her father and grandfather, Liberty Emery Holden (1833–1913) and Albert Fairchild Holden (1866–1913), were also coin collectors and passed their interest on to her. At age 10, Norweb received a United States half-cent as a gift and two years later, in 1908, she made her first coin purchases from the Scott Stamp & Coin Company for the sum of $3.25 (today, about $95.00), which represented her allowance for two weeks. From this early beginning she put together an incredibly fine coin cabinet; it contained a staggering 25,000 examples from the United States and around the world.

Although Cleveland received only a small portion of these vast holdings (84 coins in total), those that entered the collection were chosen specifically for their artistic interest. Others important for their numismatic qualities went to the American Numismatic Society and the Smithsonian Institution. Like other coin enthusiasts in her family, Mrs. Norweb considered herself to be only a caretaker of coins eventually destined to be donated to public institutions or sold in the hope that others would enjoy, study, and share their own collections. “I have loved coins for decades and was allowed by the good lord to work on them longer than I had a right to expect,” she said shortly before her death in 1984.

Display of The Norweb Collection at the entrance to the Armor Court, 1963, Cleveland Museum of Art Archives.

The museum’s Norweb collection, first exhibited as a loan in 1963, comprises a series of gold English coins that spans two millennia — 50 BC to AD 1953 — with chronological gaps. The most considerable gaps are between 700 and the 1200s, when silver and copper rather than gold were used in coin manufacturing. Even so, the collection represents a vast amount of history depicted in metal. Considered portable art, the designs of coins were carefully chosen by those in power and conveyed messages that could be carried far and wide. With every new issue of coins there is a story.

Let’s dive into the stories of the CMA’s Norweb coin collection.

Ring Money, c. 100–50 BC. England, Ancient Britain, (1000s). Gold; 1.8 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, The Norweb Collection, 1969.142.

Bronze, copper, or gold coinage known as ring money after its shape was used in different areas of the ancient world to allow people to wear their wealth strung much like a necklace.

Stater: Plain (obverse); Horse (reverse), c. 57–45 BC. England, Ancient Britain. Gold; 1.7 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, The Norweb Collection, 1969.145.

In 57 BC Julius Caesar (100–44 BC) wrote of the Gauls, who resisted his rule and fled to England. These refugees brought coins with them and also struck, or pressed an image into a blank metal disc — a term descended from the days when the dies were struck with hammers to deform the metal into the image of the dies — new ones. In this example, the figure of a horse, standard on earlier coinage, is visible, but through continual imitation, it has become almost abstract in form. The clarity and sharpness of the design are the result of high-quality minting techniques.

Crown of the Double Rose: Crowned Double Rose (obverse); Crowned Royal Arms (reverse), 1526–33. England, Henry VIII (1509–1547). Gold; 2.5 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, The Norweb Collection, 1969.172.

Henry VIII was the only English king to place the initials of his queens alongside his own on coinage. Thus, the letters H and K in the center of this coin stand for Henry and his first wife, Katharine of Aragon. The marriage ended in divorce in 1533, so this coin must date to between 1526 and 1533.

Sovereign: James I (obverse); Crowned Shield (reverse), 1603–4, 1603–4, 1603–4. England, James I (1603–1625). Gold; 3.8 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, The Norweb Collection, 1969.188.

The arms of Scotland were introduced on coinage during the reign of James I (b. 1566–d. 1625), who brought about the union of the throne of England and Scotland. Interestingly, the fleur-de-lis, a French design, still makes an appearance, though the English lost their last French possession, Calais, during the earlier reign of Philip and Mary (1554–1558).

Unite: Charles I (obverse); Crowned Shield (reverse), 1625. England, Charles I (1625–1649). Gold; 3.4 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, The Norweb Collection, 1969.192.

The bust on this coin represents Charles I (1600–1649); known for his interest in fashion, he sports the popular Van Dyke style beard and wears a large, lace-edged collar in addition to a crown. These were some of the last coins to be struck by hand; a more efficient mechanical process would soon take over. Coins produced by this new technology would be harder to counterfeit.

Unite: Charles I (obverse); Crowned Shield (reverse), 1630–1631. England, Charles I (1625–1649). Gold; 3.2 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, The Norweb Collection, 1969.193.

This example is the result of the new mechanical process. Such coins, more uniform in size and shape than previous issues, are known as milled money. The screw press had previously been introduced in France as early as 1506 but did not take hold in England at first. Mint workers thought it threatened their livelihoods and resisted it. It would take until 1695 for hammered coins to cease in England. The first screw presses were operated by hand and later adapted to work with waterpower.

Triple Unite or Three Pound Piece: Charles I (obverse); Declaration on Scroll (reverse), 1643. England, Charles I (1625–1649). Gold; 4.6 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, The Norweb Collection, 1969.195.

Measuring nearly two inches in diameter, this coin represents the largest, heaviest gold issue to be struck in England. It was made from local gold that Charles I borrowed from the colleges of Oxford and his supporters, promising that he would repay them, since the English Civil War had claimed most of his resources. Used as propaganda, one side shows Charles I with a sword and olive branch; on the other is a Latin inscription of his declaration of 1642, a promise to protect Protestantism, the laws of England, and the liberty of parliament.

Broad: Oliver Cromwell Lord Protector (obverse); Crowned Shield of Arms (reverse), 1656. Dies by Thomas Simon (British). Gold; 2.9 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, The Norweb Collection, 1969.197.

Charles I would not win this war and with his defeat the kingship was briefly abolished. The new coins struck did not feature a king or queen but instead Oliver Cromwell, the English general who led armies against Charles I. He was named Lord Protector of England and was in power until his death in 1658. He is shown on one side crowned with a laurel wreath. On the other is a Latin inscription which can be translated as “Peace is sought by war.”

Two Guinea Piece: George III (obverse); Shield of Arms (reverse), 1773. Design by John Sigismund Tanner (British, 1705–1775). Gold; 3.2 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, The Norweb Collection, 1969.210.

King George III (1738–1820) implemented the latest steam technology at his new mint, allowing for more intricate and complicated designs. Here he is shown with long tendrils of hair partly tied back with a ribbon, while the remaining spill over his shoulders. The reverse shows his coat of arms. During the year this coin was minted, 1773, colonists in Boston raided three British ships, throwing several hundred chests of tea into the harbor. Shortly afterwards, in 1776, the American colonies declared their independence.

Two Pound Piece: George IV (obverse); St. George and the Dragon (reverse), 1823. Jean Baptiste Merlen (French, 1769–1850). Gold; 4.5 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, The Norweb Collection, 1969.214.

The Italian engraver Benedetto Pistrucci (1784–1855) was invited to work at the royal mint during the reign of George III after he created an impressive cameo depicting St. George and the dragon. His subsequent design, with minor variations, continued to be used for over a century with other monarchs, including, George IV, George V, George VI, Edward VII, and Victoria. However, when the king asked Pistrucci to create his portrait for the reverse, George III was so disgusted by the result that he demanded Pistrucci copy a bust by another artist. Pistrucci refused, as he believed it was beneath his dignity to copy another’s work. Another engraver, J.B. Merlen, was hired for the job.

Five Pound Piece: Victoria (obverse); St. George and the Dragon (reverse), 1887. Joseph Boehm (British, 1834–1890). Gold; 3.7 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, The Norweb Collection, 1969.219.

1887 was the 50th anniversary of the reign of Queen Victoria (1819–1901) and was known as the Golden Jubilee. This coin, minted in that year, was therefore known as the “Jubilee Head”. The design is by Sir Joseph Boehm, R.A., a sculptor who frequently worked for the royal family. Victoria’s portrait caused a minor storm since it was said that the tiny crown made the queen look comical. Although the queen was said not to have liked the design, she did in fact wear a small crown of this type when she began to find the full-size crown too heavy.

The artistic value of coins is often overlooked, but the challenges and limitations of their small formats required the skill of talented artisans. Those employed at the Royal Mint came from far and wide, and their designs reflect the history of England. Emery May Norweb once said:

It is a great temptation to continue with the stories of love and hate, war and peace which influenced the coinage, but there is neither time nor space. If this brief introduction stimulates anyone to reading history as reflected in coins, they will have sleepless nights and stimulating thoughts.

Find these coins in the Collection Online along with 196 others when searching the keyword “coins.” What do you like to collect?