Farewell celebration for Hortensia von Roten

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by Ursula Kampmann
translated by Sylvia Karges

July 28, 2016 – At the Swiss National Museum an era comes to an end. Hortensia von Roten, longtime head of the biggest Swiss coin and medal collection world wide, goes into a well-earned (and probably very active) retirement. On July 13, 2016, she elegantly celebrated her retirement at the Zurich Zunfthaus zur Meisen.

Hortensia von Roten holding a speech at her farewell celebration. Photo: UK.

For more than a quarter of a century, Hortensia von Roten managed the coin collection of the Swiss National Museum and was responsible for the biggest collection of Swiss strikings world wide. But Hortensia von Roten was more than just a curator of a coin cabinet: She has deeply influenced the numismatic world domestically and internationally.

Hortensia von Roten at the farewell celebration. Photo: UK.

Born in the Canton of Valais as the daughter of a famous feminist and a Swiss politician, Hortensia von Roten’s life was anything but ordinary. She went to school in Basel and in Bury St. Edmunds in Britain. After her Matura (high school diploma) she decided to study Civil Engineering at ETH Zurich, after which she studied History, English Literature, and Art History. At a time when it was still far from normal, she went to Spain, Edinburgh, and London during her studies to deepen her knowledge at Sotheby’s and the Victoria & Albert Museum. While studying she also contributed to the national fond project “Inventory of Coin Finds” under the leadership of Prof Geiger.

Just how diverse Hortensia von Roten’s knowledge and interests are is probably best shown by her licentiate thesis (Master’s thesis) with which she concluded her studies in 1989: It was not dedicated to a numismatic topic, but to the work of Caribbean poet V. S. Naipaul, who, more than a decade later, was to received the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Three generations of curators at the Zurich Coin Cabinet (from l. to r.): Hortensia von Roten, Christian Weiss, Hans-Ueli Geiger. Photo: UK.

When Hans-Ueli Geiger decided to devote more time to scholarship, Hortensia von Roten shared his position for numismatics at the Swiss National Museum. It’s called job-sharing and, at the time, was a new concept and unknown phenomenon at this dignified institution.

In 1993 Hortensia von Roten increased her workload at the Swiss National Museum to 100%. To truly appreciate this decision one must know that in 1992, she gave birth to her daughter Alienore.

Hortensia von Roten has overseen and supervised numerous exhibitions – and not only in her narrow field of expertise. She has issued important publications, for example about the treasure find of Ried-Brig, about the Celtic coins of the Peter Werhahn Collection, about Renaissance and Baroque coins, and, last but not least, the coin finds from the city church of Winterthur. Finally, between 1993 and 1996 Hortensia von Roten was President of the Swiss Association for Coin Finds (SAF).

Between Swiss and international numismatics: In Taormina, Swiss colleagues and colleagues from the Islamic world gather around Hortensia von Roten’s table. Photo: UK.

More important though than her scholarly work is her way of being able to motivate people to work together. Since 1992 she has been the chairwoman of the “Freie Vereinigung Zürcher Numismatiker“, which is more like an informal discussion group than the ordinary coin club. It was founded by numismatic giants Friedrich Imhoof-Blumer and Dr Felix Burckhardt in 1914. “Zurich“ members are scholars, collectors and dealers, who peacefully sit together just as they do at the Swiss Numismatic Society, of which Hortensia von Roten has been President since 2002.

In this position she repeatedly spoke in favor of collectors, especially prior and during the first years after the enactment of the Swiss Cultural Property Transfer Act. Those who were personally present at the sessions of the Federal Office of Culture (FOC), as the author writing these lines was, can only admire Hortensia for her enthusiasm and eloquence with which she made the representatives of the FOC understand the concerns of the small and big collectors. Even a civil servant was made to understand.

Hortensia von Roten reads CoinsWeekly, too. Photo: BS.

In general, Hortensia von Roten’s collegiality cannot be overemphasized. Not in every town it would have been possible for a newly founded MoneyMuseum, focusing on innovative transmission technology in regards to numismatics, to have its own exhibition in the venerable Swiss National Museum and its branch, the Bärengasse Museum. Hortensia von Roten was decisively involved in this collaboration.

Museum work is very important to Hortensia von Roten. In fact, it is of such importance, that she also invests a big part of her personal time in ICOMON; the International Committee for Money and Banking Museums, of which she was President from 2004 to 2010.

And for the sake of completeness and to show the diversity of her involvements: She is – as a proud owner of a residential tower in the Canton of Valais – board member of Domus Antiqua Helvetica, which is an association of owners of historic residential buildings in Switzerland.

It was long overdue that Hortensia von Roten received the Otto Paul Wenger Award in 2008, which represents the highest award in Swiss numismatics. During her farewell celebration one could experience first hand how much respect she enjoys among her colleagues.

The benefit of our field is the fact that no numismatist simply retires being a numismatist. And that is why I am looking forward to many more exciting conversations with Hortensia von Roten – somewhere in the numismatic world.

Her successor as Curator of the Coin Cabinet at the Swiss National Museum will be Dr designatus Christian Weiss.