NUMISMATIC REMINISCENCES OF THE LAST SIXTY YEARS
By a Coin Dealer
The following paper, the script of a talk given by Leonard Forrer to the Society on 28 April
1 Although in its nature it is 1948, was brought to my attention by Mr. Peter Woodhead.
non-scholarly and Forrer’s interests were primarily classical, it gives a view of the numismatic scene in the early days of the Society which we both felt would be of interest to our members today and would be a fitting contribution to this Centenary Volume of the Journal. I have lightly edited and corrected Forrer’s original words and added explanatory footnotes where I thought they would be appropriate and of relevance to students and collectors of British coins.
Leonard Forrer was born at Winterthur in Switzerland in 1869. Enjoying very indifferent
health and with a short expectation of life he came to England in 1887, joining Messrs.
Spink and Son two years later. By the time he retired in 1952 he had been associated with
the firm for sixty-three years and was very much the doyen of European professional
numismatists. For generations of students and collectors Forrer was the admired grand
old man of Spinks. He died aged eighty-four on 17 November 1953.
Considering his full-time business responsibilities Forrer’s scholarly output – very much in
2 He the continental mode - was remarkable both in its scale and its breadth of learning.took most pride in his four-volume catalogue of Sir Hermann Weber’s Greek collections, a
model of its kind, which he completed in 1929. Even in his last years he was intimately
Coinage of the Roman Republic that involved in the editing and production of Sydenham’s
3 For British numismatists he will be best known for his monumental appeared in 1952.
1 I am grateful to Dr. Nicholas Mayhew and the Ashmolean Museum for permission to publish Forrer’s typescript (Heberden Coin Room: PUB Fol. Ai For).
2 Forrer was elected an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Numismatic Society in 1939 and awarded that Society’s Medal in 1944. He was elected an Honorary Member of the British Numismatic Society in
3 L. Forrer, The Weber Collection: Greek Coins (4 in 3 vols. [text], 3 vols. [illus.], London 1922-29); E.
A. Sydenham, The Coinage of the Roman Republic (ed. L. Forrer and C. A. Hersh, London 1952).
, the eighth volume of which appeared in 1930 and Biographical Dictionary of Medallists
4. All which, although it may be faulted in detail, is still an indispensable mine of informationthis done, of course, in tandem with the production of innumerable auction catalogues and,
Numismatic Circular which he not only edited but for which he compiled for sixty years, the
. most of the coin lists and wrote many of the articles
Humphrey Sutherland in his obituary of Forrer described him as ‘the tranquil possessor of qualities of gentleness, kindness, courtesy, and personal modesty… a man who could as
5 These aspects of his character are well little reproach others as be himself reproached’.
brought out in his all too brief reminiscences. To an audience today they are perhaps over reticent and even for 1948 one might have wished him to have been a little more forthright and more fully to have captured the personalities of the likes of P. W. P. Carlyon-Britton, Montagu and Murdoch but this would not have been in his nature.
D. W. D.
My kind friends in this Society and especially our honoured President, Messrs. Winstanley and Whitton have suggested that I should give a short talk this evening on my numismatic
6reminiscences of the last sixty years. I will endeavour to comply with their wishes, but
warn you that I shall not be able to tell you much that you do not already know, especially since I have to confine my remarks to my experiences in this country alone.
4 Leonard Forrer, Biographical Dictionary of Medallists, Coin, Gem, and Seal Engravers (8 vols.,
London 1902-30), first published serially in the Numismatic Circular from May 1898. A revised and
expanded edition of volume I was published in 1907.
5 BNJ XXVII (1952-1954), p. 226.
6 The Society’s President at the time of the meeting was Christopher Blunt (1904-1987), while Edgar
Winstanley (1892-1977) and Cuthbert Whitton (d. 1950) were, respectively, Secretary and Director. All three were JohnSanford Saltus medallists of the Society.
7, who during the last War frequently called at King A young American Air Force officer
Street in quest of Roman Republican coins, generally enquired before coming up to the office, whether the ‘old guy’ was in – meaning your humble servant, of course! Now, I do
not know at what age an American ‘guy’ is considered to be old, but as a Swiss ‘guy’, I
8only feel a little over middle age, although my two sons , whom many of you know, are
both between 50 and 60, and I happen to be a great-grandfather. I thank God for my long life and the retention of my faculties. This by way of introduction.
Sixty years ago, this country was somewhat different from what it is now. Great Britain was the unchallenged first nation of the world. Britannia ruled the waves – and still does,
whatever some Americans or Russians may think. The Rt. Hon. W. S. Churchill agrees with this, as he kindly told me in a letter written in answer to one setting out my own views on the subject. The British flag was supreme over four continents. British subjects numbered 400 millions and she owned one-third of the surface of the globe. Queen Victoria, the mother and grandmother of most of the royalties of Europe, had just been
9proclaimed Empress of India. The word of her statesmen was law. Even the great
Bismarck had to acknowledge England’s supremacy. Disraeli, Gladstone, Lord Salisbury, were men of unchallenged authority, Income Tax was at 10d. in the ?. And no capital levy!
Everyone was carrying golden sovereigns in his purse! It is true that the working classes
10were not so well off as in our days, but are they more contented now?
Such was this Country when I first landed on these shores early in 1887. England was the eldorado for a young Swiss, leaving the land of liberty to settle down in the then traditional home of freedom.
7 This was Charles Hersh (1923-1999), the distinguished scholar-collector whom Forrer introduced to the Roman Republican series and who collaborated with the latter over the editing of the first edition of Sydenham’s The Coinage of the Roman Republic.
8 The dealers Leonard Steyning Forrer (1895-1968) and Rudolph Forrer (1896-1974).
9 This had, in fact, taken place some eleven years earlier on 1 January 1877.
10 The assertive sentiments expressed in this paragraph are a not untypical reflection of the mind-set of many of Forrer’s generation brought up in the increasingly uncertain England of the last years of the nineteenth century.
After a stage at Broadstairs, Oxford and London, I joined on 7 May 1888 the coin business
11, whose wife of Messrs. Spink & Son, at the invitation of the late Mr. Samuel M. Spink was Swiss and a friend of my mother’s. My studies at Neufchatel and Zurich in classical and modern languages, history and archaeology had prepared me for the career I was to follow.
Although the firm of Spink & Son was established as early as 1772, and their name appears as buyers at coin sales in the early nineteenth century, the coin business was in its infancy when I joined and the coin stock was confined to a few cabinets of English coins and a display in the window of the shop at Gracechurch Street. However, it was the intention of the two brothers, Samuel M. Spink and Charles F. Spink, to develop the numismatic branch and, when they engaged me, they had already in their employ the late Charles Winter, who specialized in war medals, and W. C. Weight who, however, left very
12soon and settled on his own account at Brighton.
I immediately began to study Greek and Roman coins, deriving my first knowledge from such standard works as Head’s Historia Numorum, Babelon’s Monnaies Consulaires, and
13Cohen’s Monnaies Imperiales. The British Museum’s galleries, being open until 10 pm ,
gave me a rare opportunity to learn the types of classic coins from the collection of electrotypes then on exhibition and it was not long before I became acquainted with the
11 Samuel Marshall Spink (1856-1947) – always known within the firm as ‘Mr. Sam’ – was the driving
force behind the development of the coin and medal side of Spink and Son that issued its first coin list in 1885 with prices ranging from 6d. to ?1.
12 Spink & Son now traces its origins at least to 1666 and to one John Spink, a London goldsmith. Samuel Marshall Spink moved the business from 2 Gracechurch Street to 17 Piccadilly in 1899 and to 5-7 King Street, St. James’s in 1927 where it remained until its transfer to 69 Southampton Row in 2000. Charles Winter (1861-1933), a John Sanford Saltus medallist of the Society (1932), had, at the time of his death, been manager of Spink’s medal department for forty-eight years and had also
managed the firm’s medal-making factory for a considerable period. William Charles Weight (1859- 1923) later (c. 1911-12) moved his business to Letchworth. His stock was dispersed in three Glendining sales in July, September and October 1923.
13 Forrer’s memory was playing him tricks here; at this time the Museum was never open to the public later than 8 p.m. (and in the summer only). Evening opening was abandoned in 1898 because of the small attendances.
Keeper, Mr. Reginald Stuart Poole, the learned Mr. Barclay V. Head, to whom Greek numismatics owes so much and who was always ready to help one, Mr. Percy Gardner, Mr. Herbert A. Grueber and Mr. Warwick Wroth. These heads of the Department of Coins and Medals were succeeded by Sir George F. Hill, Dr. E. S. G. Robinson, Dr. John Allan, Mr. Harold Mattingly and Dr. John Walker, who have always shown me as much indulgence and invariable kindness and to all of whom I acknowledge my deep gratitude;
14 they are far above praise.
Messrs. Spink, having acquired in 1889 a fine collection of Roman and Byzantine gold coins, I compiled my first private catalogue of that series in that same year. In order to attract Continental clients and to cover my deficiency in English, I did it in French! My first visit abroad to attend an auction sale was in Paris, 1890, at the Photiades Pasha Sale, where I went entrusted with commissions from Sir Hermann Weber, Mr. Montagu and Dr.
14 For an appreciation of some of these scholars see their obituaries (where appropriate) in the
Proceedings of the British Academy; D. M. Wilson, The British Museum (London 2002), passim; J.
Walker, ‘The early history of the Department of Coins and Medals’, The British Museum Quarterly,
XVII, pp. 76-80; and G. F. Hill, ‘An Autobiographical Fragment’, The Medal, 12 (1988), pp. 37-48. At
this time – and until 1911 - Herbert Appold Grueber (1846-1927; Keeper of Coins 1906-12), strictly a Roman specialist, was the only British Museum staff member responsible for British coins. His relationship with P. W. P. Carlyon Briton was a fraught one, he never joined the British Numismatic Society or addressed any of its meetings (in common with his Museum colleagues) and was thought to evince little interest in the medieval and modern series. Hill (op. cit., p. 39) described him as ‘a painstaking plodder, with a certain facility for reading Oriental coins – with how much accuracy was
always doubtful’. This was not altogether fair; within its prescribed limits, the second volume of the British Museum Catalogue of Anglo-Saxon Coins, which he completed with Charles Francis Keary in
1893, remained a standard reference until the Anglo-Saxon numismatic renaissance of the mid-twentieth century while Grueber’s Handbook of the Coins of Great Britain and Ireland in the British
(1899) was not superseded as a general overview of British coinage until his successor Museum
George Cyril Brooke’s English Coins appeared in 1931 (and for Scottish and Irish coins not for at
least another twenty and thirty years after that). His edition (with A. W. Franks and W. S. W. Vaux) of Hawkins’ Medallic Illustrations of the History of Great Britain and Ireland to the death of George II
(text 1885 and plates 1904-11) continues to be an essential enchiridion.
Wroth (who died in 1911 aged 53) and Mattingly (1884-1964) were never Keepers of the department.
15, a school-fellow of my father’s from whom I learned a F. Imhoof-Blumer of Winterthur
good deal. In December 1892, Spink & Son’s monthly Numismatic Circular, of which I was
co-founder and editor, first appeared. It ran for 47 years and was only interrupted in 1940 by the Second World War, to be replaced by the Numismatic Circular List