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Michael Braunlin

Oral History interview with Michael Braunlin undertaken on May 20, 2015, by James Carder in the Dumbarton Oaks seals and coins seminar room. Michael Braunlin is a classicist and numismatist and is a senior library associate at the University of Cincinnati’s Classics Library. For over twenty-eight years Mike was the curator of the Charles Fleischmann Byzantine coin collection which has recently been partly given and promised to Dumbarton Oaks.

JC: I’m James Carder and today is May 20th, 2015, and I am in the coins and seals seminar room at Dumbarton Oaks to interview Michael Braunlin. Mike is a senior library associate at the University of Cincinnati’s Classics Library. Moreover, he was the curator of the Charles Fleischmann Byzantine coin collection which has recently been partly given and promised to Dumbarton Oaks. So again, Mike, thanks for chatting with me about your interest in Byzantine coins and the Fleischmann collection. Can you tell us a little bit first how you got interested in numismatics?

MB: How I got interested in numismatics. Well, my — can you — am I coming through okay?

JC: Mm hmm, I think so.

MB: My — well, I don’t know whether I should go back to my childhood or to my later life, but as a child, I was very interested in Roman and Greek history. And I collected Indian Head pennies. And I walked into a coin shop one day and saw an ancient coin for sale for, I think it was twenty-five cents, thirty-five cents, and I was blown away by it. So, I bought it. I had the coin for about ten years before I ever knew what it was. So, I started collecting Roman coins, primarily Roman, as a young person. That was back in the 1960s. When I entered college, then, I majored in Latin and Greek. That was my training. And when I went to graduate school, I sort of refined it further by working in late Latin philology, late Latin literature. That’s what I did as a graduate student. And so I picked up the collecting bug again, which I’d left while I was in my undergraduate days, and I began concentrating more on the Late Roman Empire. That was where my intellectual curiosity was anyway, in terms of my graduate studies. And so, I began looking more at issues of the Late Roman Empire, which then of course led to the Byzantine Empire. So, that’s about me. That’s how I got involved in collecting and studying the coins. My involvement with the Fleischmann collection — well, at this point, should we talk about how his collection started, or —?

JC: Sure. That’d be great. Because the Fleishmann collection has just been — is it in part or in total given to Dumbarton Oaks?

MB: Well, it’s physically all here. It’s — there are — I forget the percentage. There’s the foundation — the Fleishmann Foundation, which now owns the material — is giving it in a period, yearly intervals. I don’t know when the next yearly interval will come, but I — you know, say, a third of it? I don’t know if — again, this is off the top of my head, and I don’t recall if I’m accurate. But a portion of it has been already deeded and is now property of D.O. The remainder of the coins then will be then duly deeded over as the foundation needs to do so for their financial reasons and so forth.

JC: Right.

MB: So, the coins are here, and part of them are owned currently by D.O. And in time, everything will legally pass title to D.O.

JC: Right. And what, roughly — what’s the number of coins?

MB: Oh, you shouldn’t have asked me that. [Laughter] The number of coins — fourteen —

JC: — That we can probably find out.

MB: — You can find out. Roughly, I think, fourteen hundred, and around two hundred seals, I think.

JC: Wow. A very significant number.

MB: But I urge you to check that figure.

JC: Sure. And do you have a sense how that — those fourteen hundred coins or two hundred seals complements the existing Dumbarton Oaks seal and coin collection?

MB: Well, from what I’ve looked at while I’ve been here, I see in some places — well, of course the D.O. holdings are magnificent, and I’m in awe, frankly, and very humbled by what I’ve been permitted to look at while I’m here. I want to say that up front. And thank you, everyone, for letting me do it. I want to say that too. The Fleischmann collection has coins that are a good fit for the D.O. collection, and that — for example, the copper coins of the emperor Constantine IV, who reigned in the mid-seventh century. Mr. Fleischmann was able to buy in a group the private collection of a Chicago dealer, Harlan Berk, who had collected and specialized in his own collection of Constantine IV copper coins. And Harlan sold it to Mr. Fleischmann some years ago in block. So, Mr. Fleischmann’s collection of these Constantine IV period copper coins is a very strong collection, also not only in term of numbers of specimens, but quality: very high grade; as good as you can get for these. And I looked at some of the D.O. specimens, and because these coins are generally rarer, D.O. doesn’t have that many. So, this is going to be an area that will really enrich D.O.’s holdings — these coins of this mid-seventh century ruler, Constantine IV. I mean that’s one example. Mr. Fleischmann had an interest in the — not so much the gold coins, although he had — his collection has many examples of wonderful representative gold coins from the beginning of the Byzantine Empire through the end of it, during the mid-fourteenth century, when gold ceased to be issued. He’s got wonderful examples of all the types, but his main interest was not so much in the gold, because frankly, it’s available. Anybody who has the finances can acquire — you know, if you gave me a large sum of money and said, “Build me a Byzantine gold collection,” in a couple of months, there could be a pretty impressive coin collection already formed. Mr. Fleischmann was interested more in the copper coins and in the silver, which are even scarcer than the gold and the copper. And Mr. Fleischmann was interested in the copper coins because they were what the everyday person had access to. So, he had strong interests and commitment to building up the copper and the silver collections of his collection. And again, he chose where he could find the very best quality. So, in many cases, some of the coins in the Fleischmann collection are perhaps — I can think of one particularly rare example — is the finest we know about. So, there’s going to be a lot of enrichment in the D.O. trays by those types of coins. In the silver issues of the early seventh century, there is a class of silver coins which we term ceremonial in nature. They’re very rare. They exist for nearly all the range of emperors of that period, but in many cases, examples are only known by a population of one or two. I mean, they’re individually very rare coins. And we were looking specifically for those when they would come up on the market. So — And D.O. already has some wonderful examples. I’ve been privileged to see some of them, but the Fleischmann coins of this ceremonial nature, I think, are going to be a good fit also in your trays there.

JC: Great. Do you know how Mr. Fleischmann became interested in collecting Byzantine coins?

MB: Yeah. Yeah. As a college student, he was very interested in archaeology. And he went to the American School of Classical Studies in Athens. This would have been back about 1950, ’51, thereabouts, something like that. And if I remember, he was telling me this — and this is again all from memory, which is not always the strongest thing anymore — well, he was at the American School. He took a boat to Turkey, to Istanbul. And if I remember correctly, he missed his return passage. He was stuck in the city for a week or two longer than he’d intended. So, he began to wander around in the Grand Bazaar — the souk, I think it’s called — and he began buying Byzantine coins. That’s how he started in acquiring the examples in Turkey itself, in Istanbul. When he came back to Cincinnati and finished his education, and then began working with the family business, he then continued to collect, look for and collect Byzantine coins. At that time, he was looking for everything from the period of Constantine the Great down through the Byzantine period, so roughly 330 A.D. down to the end of the Byzantine Empire in the fifteenth century. When I was called in — and I was called in to help him with the collection because he really didn’t quite know where to go with it, what to do, what further to develop it and so forth. And I work at the University of Cincinnati Classics Library. Our library deals with Ancient Greece and Rome and Byzantium; that’s what I do. And so the art museum in Cincinnati, of which Mr. Fleischmann was a benefactor, patron — the art museum contacted my department, trying to see if they had anybody there who knew anything about coins. Therefore, I was contacted.

JC: Right.

MB: I met Mr. Fleischman, and we hit it off. We became good friends. And so we formed an association that lasted, well, twenty-five years at least, maybe a little bit longer, up until his death several years ago. And once I began working with him, with the collection, we talked about limiting and, rather than continuing to buy coins of the Roman fourth century, which in some ways is a prelude to the Byzantine coinage — we decided that, if you look at the emperor Anastasius I, reigning 491–518 I think. That’s where numismatically there’s a clear break with Roman traditions, and a beginning with this new Byzantine tradition of, particularly, bronze coins, which were totally reorganized. And so, for a numismatist, the reign of Anastasius is a convenient point at saying, “Byzantine coins start here,” which artificially were Roman coins to the users, of course. But so, we decided to stop collecting Roman fourth century coins, and he gave those away to the museum in Cincinnati, and we then began to just look at Anastasius and following down to the end of the Empire. So, that’s how his collecting developed. He bought from dealers. There were — in the 1950s, there was a dealer based in Cincinnati, a fellow named Saul Kaplan, who went to a lot of the European auctions and evidently had quite a stock of coins, because I know that Mr. Fleischmann bought a lot of coins from Saul Kaplan in Cincinnati. Once I got involved in the collection then we began dealing with other dealers, both in this country and overseas through auctions and that sort of thing. So, that’s how the collection continued to grow. What else can I tell you?

JC: Did he catalogue his collection?

MB: He catalogued them on — and I probably can’t find any examples here right now. He catalogued them on index cards, little index cards. And he was using — he wasn’t using the most up-to-date references, like the Dumbarton Oaks catalogue, which I’m pointing to right now. He didn't have access to these resources. He was using Sabatier from the nineteenth century, he was using the British Museum catalogue from 198— I don’t recall when it was published. So, he was using older catalogues, and he did a very good job, very meticulous, paying attention to the inscriptions, to the details of the coin and recording them. All that I did, basically, was start putting it back, in those days, on a word processor, and then later on, when technology changed, then into a database, which is what I’m flipping through right here. And then I used the more scholarly — well, the more recent, the more current — publications to do the bibliographic — not the bibliographic citation, but you know, to catalogue them up to standards so that we had the Dumbarton Oaks references, we had the Bibliothèque nationale in France references. We had all the citations comparanda for the coins.

JC: Great. Did he collect any other Byzantine objects or was it just coins that he was interested in?

MB: Just coins. The last few years of his life, he bought, for reasons unknown to me, a little ivory, a little piece about, oh, three to four inches tall. And very little — I don’t know that much can be said about it, and I don’t — now I’m forgetting. I don’t think that passed to D.O. I think that was retained by the family for something. I think he thought about maybe putting it into a piece of jewelry for his wife or something. But that's the only Byzantine object that he, to my knowledge, acquired. He had several icons, post Byzantine icons, that hung in the family home.

JC: So, he was truly a coin collector.

MB: He was a truly — he had other collections that he collected. I mean, he was a very astute collector of miniature paintings, eighteenth-, nineteenth-century miniature paintings, U.S. and western European, primarily. And he spent probably more time, frankly, of his own in cataloguing his painting collection than he did his coins. But as far as coins go, Byzantine was what — and I don’t know why he chose Byzantine, as opposed to Greek or Roman. I think it’s what he had access to when he was in that market so many years ago.

JC: That layover of one week in Istanbul changed him.

MB: Right. Exactly.

JC: Because if he was in Greece, in Athens, you would just suppose he might have become interested in Greek coinage.

MB: Right. And I know over the years, because I’ve seen from records of his, that I knew that he had acquired Greek coins. I never really talked with him about them. I didn’t have the coins in front of me, but I would see, say, an old invoice for three or four Greek coins from a particular dealer. Knowing of his love of jewelry for his wife — he was often buying jewelry for his wife and his daughters — I wouldn’t be surprised that he may have put some of these into pendants and the like, to wear. But — and in fact, from some of the invoices that I saw, he bought some spectacular Greek coins. What he did with them, I don’t know.

JC: Because in the late fifties, sixties, it was very popular to set Greek gold coins into jewelry.

MB: Yeah.

JC: A number of jewelers in Athens specialized in that.

MB: Yeah. Right.

JC: Well this has been great. Can you think of anything else that —?

MB: Well, what I would like to just go on record is saying, is that Mr. Fleischmann’s — he was always known to his friends as Skip or Skipper. But in all my years, I never got past the ‘mister’ — we were dear friends. I loved him like a brother, really, an older brother. But I always called him mister. Mr. Fleischmann. Mr. Fleischmann’s goal in collecting these coins was not to have a private little museum that he could gloat over. That didn’t interest him at all. He was very committed to education, strongly committed to education. And he realized that these little objects were a tangible link to the past, and he also recognized that a lot could be learned from them and through them. And that was his goal, to not just have these little treasures to put in his cabinet that only he or I would look at. But his goal was to do it to further research and scholarship and education in general. That was his goal, his purpose. That’s why he did it. And that’s why he decided that they would go well here in this place.

JC: Great.

MB: So, I just want to say that, in closing it, he was a very generous man. He was a very good man. I miss him a great deal. And he would be very happy, however, to see what’s going on here. And I think his coins have found a good home that is in concordance with his wishes.

JC: Great. Well of course we’re thrilled to have them, and as you know, we’re committed to putting all of the coinage online, much in the way that the seals are now online, so that the scholarship on them can be more easily accessible to anyone that has computer access. Adding fourteen hundred coins to the project will probably —

MB: Time consuming.

JC: [Laughter] — take us a little more time than not, but some day, it will happen.

MB: Yeah.

JC: Well Mike, thank you very much for this interview. I really appreciate you taking time out. I know you don’t have much time left here.

MB: You’re very welcome. I’m glad, and I’m — I just want to again go on record saying that I’m grateful to everybody at D.O. for their generosity, kindness to me, friendship that I’ve always felt when I’ve been here. It’s a pleasure to come here, and I’m grateful for having been given the opportunity to do so.

JC: Good. Thanks again.

MB: You’re welcome.