A visit to the Zurich Coin Cabinet

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von Ursula Kampmann
translated by Annika Backe

August 18, 2016 – To begin with, let’s solve a problem probably only very few have faced so far. What is the name of the museum that hosts the Zurich Coin Cabinet? It used to be known as the SLM, hence the Schweizerisches Landesmuseum. This term is no longer valid. The Schweizerisches Landesmuseum was a child of the 19th century. It was founded on the basis of the Swiss Federal Act of June 27, 1890. Back then, it was considered to be a kind of compensation for Zurich, for the disappointment of having been preempted by Bern as Swiss capital. 

The National Museum Zurich: an ensemble of old and new. View from the Neumühlequai in January. © Roman Keller.

Located in a building which imitates a castle of medieval times, the Landesmuseum became the most visited museum of Switzerland, and it continues to be even though it has lost some of its status. This is a result of the Swiss Federal Act on Museums and Collections that came into effect in 2010. It reduced the Schweizerisches Landesmuseum to National Museum Zurich, and placed it under the umbrella group of the Swiss National Museum, which is also responsible for another five institutions, including the Chateau de Prangins at Lake Geneva, the Swiss Customs Museum at Gandria, and the Forum Swiss History Schwyz. To complete this confusing picture, the Swiss National Museum is headquartered in the Landesmuseum (National Museum) Zurich. Perfectly clear, this is a very simple construct that is easily understandable to everyone. The list of staff members modestly spans only seven pages. 

Christian Weiss in his office. Photo: UK.

To prevent you from spending too much time brooding about how to contact in numismatic matters, we would like to introduce the Coin Cabinet to you today, including its new head, Dr designatus Christian Weiss. He took office as successor of Hortensia von Roten on July 1, 2016. 

Christian Weiss arrived at numismatics after some detours. The archaeological excavation on Monte Iato near Palermo needed a new numismatist to investigate the coin finds, and Sicily was so tempting that Christian Weiss accepted the coins. Once there, he was surprised to see how exciting numismatics can be. And so, after his return, he did internships at coin cabinets on a regular basis, for example at Basel, St. Gallen, and Winterthur. Furthermore, Christian Weiss became Coin Finds Numismatist for the IFS, the Cantonal Archaeological Service Solothurn, and the Archaeological Service of Bern. He has started to teach students, with 50% P/T at Bern University and occasional teaching assignments at Zurich University. As early as 2016, he has defended his PhD thesis on the medieval coin finds and weights of Monte Iato. It is planned to be published in the first half of 2017. 

A rare view into a coin cabinet’s most holy place. Photo: UK.

Christian Weiss is in charge of roughly 100,000 objects, among them, amounting to about 30,000 objects, presumably the world’s largest collection of Swiss coins. He can act on his legal mandate, requiring him to systematically collect coins from the whole of Switzerland. He also looks after an impressive collection of Celtic coins that was published by Karel Castelin in 1976. 

A drawer filled with Roman bronze coins. Photo: UK.

Not to omit the currency notes, securities, debit cards, coining dies, et cetera. What is more, with its almost 80,000 objects the National Museum Zurich owns one of Europe’s biggest collections of seals. The most important part of the stock of the Zurich National Museum is a depot of the Zurich Central Library, containing 23,000 coins from all corners of the world and all historical eras. Adding to this are a collection of Roman coins from the Rheinau Abbey, the coin finds of the canton of Zurich, and other specialized collections. 

As an illustration of the numismatic treasures hidden in the National Museum Zurich, we have chosen for you three special rarities. 

Merovingians. Triens of mintmaster Gratus, 600-650. Photo: Swiss National Museum.

Struck by mintmaster Gratus in the days of Dagobert I, this Merovingian triens is extremely rare. Dagobert I is considered to be the last truly reigning ruler of the Merovingian dynasty. 

League of God’s House. Taler arond 1560/65. Photo: Swiss National Museum.

One of the icons of Swiss numismatics is this marvelous taler of the League of God’s House dating from 1560/65. It was stuck from dies cut by Jakob Stampfer in Zurich. 

St. Gallen. Taler 1564. Photo: Swiss National Museum.

Jakob Stampfer was also the one who created this taler of the city of St. Gallen. The only known specimen of this taler was acquired by the Coin Cabinet in a Hess Auction in 1983. 

Until recently the Coin Cabinet was located in the Collections’ Center Affoltern am Albis, roughly half an hour’s drive away from Zurich city center. Under the rebuilding of the Zurich National Museum, it has now been relocated to the city center again. It is now located in the main building. 

An equal treasure: the library. Photo: UK.

By the way, Christian Weiss can rely on an excellent library that leaves only very little to be desired, particularly in regards to Swiss numismatics. In case of substantiated research projects, this library is open to the general public. 

Bibliophilic raritities. Photo: UK.

The library not only contains modern monographs and periodicals but numerous standard numismatic reference works,… 

View inside Eckhel’s Doctrina numorum veterum. Photo: UK.

… like Eckhel’s Doctrina numorum veterum from 1792.

View inside the guestbook of the Zurich Coin Cabinet. Photo: UK.

It always pays off, therefore, to visit the Coin Cabinet, and enter one’s name into the guestbook. 

Only little information is available on the website of the Swiss National Museum

145 numismatic objects are currently accessible in the online database of the Swiss National Museum.

It was still Hortensia von Roten who, in a contribution written in German, introduced the Coin Cabinet on the website of the Swiss Numismatic Society.

If you have a numismatic concern and would like to visit the Zurich Coin Cabinet, you may write Christian Weiss an e-mail.