The Yale Art Gallery’s collection of over 120,000 rare coins, banknotes, and medals is the largest and most impressive of its kind, but the “Yale Connect” collection of (practically) 120,000 student organizations never so much as mentioned the field of numismatics. Last year, with this in mind, I set out to create a venue that could facilitate access to the gallery’s treasures and the fascinating hobby behind them: a Yale numismatics club. 

Two weeks later, I dropped the thought — not because I lost interest, but because the club was already in the works. My discovery arrived after an email exchange with the Yale University Art Gallery Numismatic Curator, Dr. Benjamin Hellings, who, upon learning about my interest in Ancient Greek and early American coins, connected me with Quentin Bertrand (TB ’24), an avid collector of French coinage. Quentin had just unveiled the Yale Undergraduate Numismatics Association (YUNA) with hopes that aligned with my own. As he recalled in a conversation earlier this week: 

“I wanted to create a club capable of bringing together numismatists, artists, collectors, and those with no exposure to coins: to give them a space to learn and explore all that Yale’s often forgotten numismatics collection has to offer.”

Now in its second year of existence, YUNA’s open meetings feature hands-on viewing sessions of gallery highlights. Members have the opportunity to hold and learn about a range of numismatic items, from two-thousand-year-old coins, to sunken treasure, to never-issued experimental paper money. Since each meeting explores completely new objects and themes –– driven by the diverse interests of our members –– YUNA has inspired me to expand the scope of my collection beyond 19th-century American coins. This year, we will further encourage members to broaden and share their interests through the addition of guest speaker events and informal presentations. 

As someone who learned to read by poring over a price guide for rare coins, I couldn’t be more enthusiastic about the growth and future of the group. Numismatics has almost always been a part of my life, developing from an outlet for curiosity into a social and professional pillar; it has catalyzed friendships, complimented my education, and opened doors. YUNA has the potential to share that broader view of numismatics, breaking down the misconception that coin collecting is a solitary and unexciting hobby for elementary schoolers and the elderly (… those stereotypes should be reserved for stamp collecting… ). The club offers members a rare opportunity to collectively appreciate complex artifacts with compelling histories. 

Given the multidisciplinary nature of the field, that appreciation is easy to come by. Money exists at the intersection of art, history, psychology, politics, and economics. Coins and banknotes are inescapable advertisements, personal and national status symbols, and time capsules. Alongside many other uses, these powerful objects have long been implemented to propagandize and restructure communities. A beautifully designed coin inspires misguided faith in a monarchy; while a banknote with the bold inscription “To Counterfeit Is Death” commands fear and compliance. Through these perspectives, the study of numismatics reveals the hidden motivations of authority. Through a different lens, numismatics can paint a picture of a society’s class structure, technological advancement, or moral values. 

Member Daevan Mangalmurti (TB ’24) emphasized the multidisciplinary nature of numismatics as he discussed the ways YUNA re-contextualized and strengthened a childhood passion of his:

“Growing up, I remember coming home from summer camp to catalog coins at our dinner table … I lost a lot of that as life grew busier, but YUNA has reinvigorated my childhood love of coins and provided a space where I can comfortably engage with numismatics and refine my interests. Returning to the hobby now, I have a much greater appreciation for the role currency has played as an object of beauty, an instrument of state power, and as a commodity in itself.”

The creation of YUNA coincides with a number of compelling developments for the ancient hobby, both on and beyond campus.

Just this year, through an effort led by Dr. Hellings, the Yale University Art Gallery opened a permanent exhibition space for numismatic objects. Beginning in 1700 BCE, the exhibit reviews the history of money across its 16 display cases and offers visitors a far more representative glimpse into the University’s collection than was possible via past displays. 

The numismatic industry has also seen explosive growth in recent years. Rarities outside of museum collections are fetching record prices at auction, with a recent sale of American coins at Heritage Auctions totaling nearly $68 million just last month. Part of this growth can be attributed to the professional certification and grading of coins, a practice that has become an industry standard and helped to make numismatic items far more attractive investments. The industry has also been helped along by easy access to online identification and evaluation tools. Thanks to these high-profile sales and lowered barriers to entry, a new generation of collectors has begun to recognize the culture and study that underlies the hobby.

As YUNA continues to grow and develop alongside the global population of new enthusiasts, we look forward to diversifying our member base beyond those with a pre-existing connection to numismatics. I envision club meetings filled with physics majors, art lovers, and history buffs –– people whose collections may have never expanded beyond a jar of quarters. Everyone has something to contribute to the field.

To learn more about the numismatics club, please email noah.savolainen@yale.edu

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