Monday, May 30, 2011

The Elephant Medallion: Alexander's Answer to a Mutinous Mood?

Alexander the Great and the Mystery of the Elephant Medallion
By Frank L. Holt
University of California Press, 2003, Paperbound

If you happen to be looking for a numismatic subject in which to get absolutely lost and totally bogged down, coinage related to Alexander the Great will probably do.

According to an article on this particular book in the journal of American Numismatic Society, on the order of 40 new books appear each year featuring the Macedonian conqueror. Though certainly only a few of those relate directly to coinage, they all have bearing.

No great knowledge of ancient history is required to enjoy a trip through this book. For those who have not delved to any depth into the life and times of Alexander, Holt provides a brief biography before moving to specifics relating to the medallion, including details of the greatest battle of a career consisting of battle upon battle.

At the same time the book offers insight into ancient coinage and modern study of that field, snapshots which may stimulate the reader to further exploration.

Should that happen, there will be no shortage of reading material. The coinage aspect alone fills quite a number of books. It wasn’t only that Alexander carried a mobile mint in his military entourage, producing tons of coins in the process of promoting himself to a god. The field also includes rulers since who have joined in, as have various others hoping to benefit by association, or out of admiration.

So, while Holt argues convincingly that the medallions were issued by Alexander, there is also expert opinion they were done after his death by a ruler wishing to identify with the great one.

The medals in question depict a cavalryman with a lance apparently attacking two figures mounted on an elephant. All the “w’s” come into play: who, what, when, where and why?

Quite a few experts have weighed in from various perspectives. Holt, professor of history at the University of Houston, is an authority, possibly the authority, on Alexander’s forays into Bactria and India. Bactria today would include parts of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan.

In modern times the medal first came to public attention in 1887 with two articles published in numismatic journals. The first example to surface was thought to have come from the Oxus treasure, a huge ancient hoard of gold and silver artifacts found by locals along the Oxus River at the border of present-day Afghanistan and Tajikistan. (Culturally the artifacts would be termed Iranian but that opens up a new area of discussion which would lead us astray of the matter at hand).

Other examples of the medallion have since turned up, some being suspect. The popularity of any coinage related to Alexander makes it probable that among the new finds are fakes and copies.

Because many of Alexander’s coins were produced “on the run” they are the forgers’ dream -- there is no standard of weight, image quality or particular metal composition to judge them by.

The primary question surrounding the elephant medallions, though, concerns the event they depict. Conclusions have layered up with each new round of scholarship over the years.

Various clues led to Holt’s reasonable certainty that the depiction is of a battle between Alexander and the Rajah Porus, ruler of portions of what is now Punjab. This was one of the most fierce of Alexander’s many battles on his long journey to the edge of the known world, taking place in 326 BCE.

Though victorious, Alexander’s troops had by that time been on the road for many years under arduous conditions, engaging time and again in gory hand-to-hand combat, suffering travails of travel and supply, further and further from home. The monsoon-season battle with Porus took place some 3,000 miles away from where Alexander’s campaign began.

Historians depict a situation ripe for mutiny. Things had to have been very bad because Alexander allowed no second chances when it came to even suspicion of disloyalty.

Holt concludes that the medallions were issued as a morale booster. Nonetheless, the mood of the troops is said to have brought on Alexander’s turn-about.

Not long afterward he was dead, at the age of 32.

Ancient coin expert and prolific author Oliver Hoover, writing in the ANS magazine, proposes that the medallions depict not the Porus battle but a more general situation. He supposes the images represent Alexander’s military approach versus that of his adversaries, men on horseback opposing men on elephants (war elephants being termed “the panzers of antiquity,” in Holt’s words).

While among those disagreeing with Holt on this and some other conclusions, Hoover terms the book “one of the most entertaining works of scholarship that this reviewer has read in several years.”

That seemed a recommendation worth passing on. For my part, I would say Holt’s very readable book will likely inspire one to monitor further scholarship in regard to the elephant medallions. And, of course, to learn more about the great Alexander, who, as biographer Robin Lane Fox put it, “did not believe in impossibility…”

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Is It Legit, or Is It a "Gee"?

Heads I Win
(Australia’s Most Audacious Coin Forger)
by Jeffrey Watson, Don Thomas and Jack Bennett
Angus & Robertson Publishers, 1986, hardbound

The charming and brilliant thief and forger David Gee had the advantage over many of his victims and legal adversaries. He was an expert and in some instances, the expert. His knowledge and other talents were the making of a forger who, with some ease, fooled the best and brightest in his field in the 1960s and early 70s.

Gee’s unconventional path to acquiring or re-creating the finest examples of early Australian coinage, with emphasis on gold, was hewed out in part by his charm and in part by his knack for making “a mockery of the security systems in some of Australia’s most prestigious museums and libraries.”

That is the assessment of the authors, two journalists and Don Thomas, detective chief inspector of the Commonwealth Police at the time of Gee’s escapades. Thomas may have played cat to Gee’s mouse but if so would have been one very frustrated and hungry cat before the game played out.

Evidence provided in the book details a fairly astonishing career, but, like Thomas’s investigation, this account seems a cautious effort. One has to wonder, beyond pillaging rare and valuable coins from the Royal Australian Mint and the world class and priceless Dixon Collection of the State Library of New South Wales, what other monumental crimes did Gee accomplish in his heyday? Only Gee could tell us for certain and, among his many talents, he was certainly a liar extraordinaire.

(I recently saw a note concerning the auction of a rare 1930 Australian penny. These were at first thought to exist only as proofs, I believe, and then later it was found that a very few, probably not many more that 50, had slipped into circulation…somehow. At any rate, the commentator mentioned Gee created a die for the 1930 penny that has never been found).

As to his two known targets:

The State Library of New South Wales houses the incredible coin collection of Sir William Dixon, a man possessed of the extreme wealth necessary to acquire the rarest coins and medals – as well as the dies and equipment necessary to produce more of those rarities. Access to the collection is restricted but that proved little barrier for coin expert Robert Low. And, yes, “Low” was among the 70 or so aliases of our clever friend Gee.

The other target was the Royal Mint where Gee became great friends with Director James Miller Henderson. With Henderson’s approval, Gee was able to bypass security routines to spend time among the Mint’s unique and priceless collection of rarities. It wasn’t always necessary for Gee to steal; his friend Henderson simply gave him certain quite rare coins as mementos. Henderson, it should be noted, operated as though he owned the national mint, and had many powerful friends in and out of government who supported or turned a blind eye to his autocratic behavior.

What was the secret of Gee’s knack for making friends among the high and mighty? Well, his expertise was no hindrance. And he threw fabulous parties. Another possible factor was his connection to the porn industry, where his screenings of top imported triple-X films attracted a well-to-do audience.

Gee’s downfall came as a result of the determined efforts of detective Thomas and his assistants. Thomas seems to have plowed ahead with his investigation even when lacking the support or encouragement of higher ups. Thomas tracked Gee’s thefts and forgeries not only in Australia but in the U.S., Great Britain and Ireland as well.

The 50 charges brought against Gee were only those where Thomas felt he had an ironclad case. Nonetheless, prosecutors reduced those to fourteen. Following a trial involving some 90 witnesses and 1200 exhibits, a jury found Gee guilty on ten of the counts. During breaks in the trial, Gee and Thomas had many amicable chats.

Sentenced to seven years, Gee served three. During that time he became great friends with the prison superintendent and was often granted leave to go shopping or to attend classes outside the prison.

Gee’s forgeries are still sold now and then as genuine, according to knowledgeable observers of the coin market. It may be some comfort to purchasers, should their error be revealed, to know his forgeries are themselves sought-after collectibles bringing high prices today.

(By the way, I had quite a time tracking down a copy of this book, I wish you better luck).

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Who Was Henry Morgan? Perhaps Now We Know

The Mystery of Henry Morgan
(A Numismatic Detective Story)
by Andrew Wager
Barkham’s Press, 2007, paperbound

Henry Morgan stands vilified by numismatists for his “evil work.” Deservedly so? Was there in fact any such person to hang accusations upon? Andrew Wager takes us back to the early 1800s in England on a quest for the truth.

At the time, with a poor harvest, silver was going to the continent to buy grain to feed British troops fighting Napoleon. The lack of coin of the realm prompted merchants and bankers to issue their own coin or tokens. These were not imitations of crown money as that would have been a hanging offense, as some offenders learned.

The issuance of legitimate tokens redeemable for merchandise or precious metal invited counterfeiters and other fakers. At least one purveyor of legitimate tokens, Henry Morgan or so-called, seems to have worked both sides of that street. He seems to have produced quality work and also “junk” – poor quality imitations of legitimate tokens.

Morgan was denounced in a newspaper advertisement for “infamous deception.” His accusers were the backers of the genuine tokens he supposedly imitated. His tactic, apparently, was to produce legitimate tokens on order and then to make similar though not exact copies, changing a few words or letters, and in some cases dropping all but the design. In an age of limited literacy, of course, the image might be the primary identifier for many who accepted the tokens.

The book’s first four chapter explain in great detail what was going on in the token market at the time. One really needs to have a thirst for details on the subject to pay close attention, I suppose. It is in Chapter 5 that we begin to see the value of Wager’s expertise in the field of genealogy as just the ticket for tracking this Morgan fellow.

In London at the time there were, as might well be imagined, a great many people by the name Henry Morgan. But rather than rely on Google with its 300,000 possibly relevant offerings, Wager turned to census, birth, death, marriage and other records for clues. Rewards were not immediate as he waded through candle-makers, cooks, hosiers and so on.

In the end the case against the suspect does come down to the old Scots verdict, “not proven.” But one is fairly convinced that Wager gets his man. And the author is the first to admit to remaining questions.

What is proven beyond doubt is that the genealogical researcher has much to offer regarding the investigation of numismatic mysteries where relevant records may exist.