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History of the Collection and of the Unpublished Accessions

By Cécile Morrisson, July 15, 2019

The Dumbarton Oaks coin collection is known worldwide for its extensive and comprehensive six-volume catalogue. Many of these volumes are still the primary reference for their respective periods. The catalogue has been instrumental in building the reputation of the institution. The Dumbarton Oaks coin catalogue (hereafter DOC) includes both the Whittemore collection (2,887 coins)Transferred to DO to enable its cataloguing by Bellinger and Grierson, it has now in great part returned to the Harvard Art Museums. Dumbarton Oaks still houses the Torbalı hoard of Nicaean silver coins and a number of eleventh-century gold coins. and the Dumbarton Oaks collection (ca. 12,000 coins). Thomas Whittemore (1871–1950) left behind no information on his sources, but he must have assembled his collection mainly on the Istanbul market during his work there. First he was  involved in the relief of Russian refugees after the First World War, and later, thanks to the support of Kemal Ataturk, he worked on the restoration of the Hagia Sophia mosaics from 1936 until his death, and on the Chora monastery (Kariye Çami).For more information, see,, and

The Dumbarton Oaks coins are a “collection of collections” built upon a nucleus of 150 coins given to the Blisses by their friend G. Howland Shaw (1893–1965), a diplomat active in the Middle East, and the 1948 purchase of the collection of Hayford Peirce (1883–1946). In 1926 Peirce had published with Royall Tyler (1884–1953)—one of the Blisses’ closest friends—a remarkable book on Byzantine artH. Peirce and R. Tyler, Byzantine Art (London and New York, 1926). that spurred public interest and led to the organization of one of the first Byzantine exhibitions in Paris (1931).More information on this can be found in Bliss-Tyler Correspondence, edited by James N. Carder and Robert S. Nelson, especially the historical introductions “Washington, D.C., and Stockholm (1920–1927)” and “Argentina, Budapest, and Paris (1928–1933).” In preparing this book, Peirce assembled some four thousand coins from the American and European markets that represented the whole development of Byzantine coinage. His art historical perspective and access to Byzantine coins at affordable prices account for the characteristic fine state of preservation of most of his specimens.Many of the excellent specimens from Peirce’s collection are featured in the Dumbarton Oaks online exhibition The Byzantine Emperors on Coins,

The mid-1950s marked a decisive turning point in the history of the collection. John Thacher (1904–1982), the first director of Dumbarton Oaks, invited the British medievalist and collector Philip Grierson (1910–2006) to visit the collection while he was a Visiting Scholar at the American Numismatic Society in 1953. Grierson returned to Dumbarton Oaks the following year to advise the distinguished numismatist and Yale University Professor of Latin Alfred R. Bellinger (1892–1972). The two debated how best to use the Whittemore and Dumbarton Oaks collections for scholarly purposes. It was decided to build up the latter as rapidly as possible into a world-class coin collection and to catalogue the two as a single unit. Grierson was appointed Advisor for Byzantine Numismatics, a position he held through June 1998, and charged with expanding the collection before undertaking its publication.See Philip Grierson’s unpublished memoir, available online at

Grierson and Bellinger, among others Staff photograph, 1965. Back row, left to right: Julia Cardoza, Julia Warner, and Mrs. Alfred Bellinger. Seated, left to right: Philip Grierson and Alfred Bellinger. Seated on the ground: Julian Hartzell. Archives, AR.PH.Misc.181, Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection.

Over the next decade, three collections were bought en bloc, including some five hundred from Grierson’s own collection.At this point, Grierson ceased collecting Byzantine coins and instead concentrated on medieval Western series. Over the course of his life, he assembled and bequeathed to the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, United Kingdom, more than fifteen thousand coins. That collection is the basis for the acclaimed publication Medieval European Coinage. Five volumes have been published to date, with more in progress. Though limited in number, Grierson’s Byzantine collection is particularly strong in the gold issues of the fifth century and those of the Carthage mint he had identified and studied in articles in The Numismatic Chronicle (1950).P. Grierson, “Dated Solidi of Maurice, Phocas and Heraclius,” The Numismatic Chronicle and Journal of the Royal Numismatic Society, 6th ser., 10, no. 37/38 (1950): 48–70, and “The Consular Coinage of ‘Heraclius’ and the Revolt against Phocas of 608–610,” 71–93; “The Tablettes Albertini and the Value of the Solidus in the Fifth and Sixth Centuries AD, Journal of Roman Studies, 49 (1959): 73–80.

The second major purchase was the immense collection of the Italian diplomat Tommaso Bertelè (1892–1971)—more than 10,000 coins in total. Bertelè had been posted to Istanbul from 1923 through 1925. He was advised to concentrate his collecting on the Byzantine series by the great German numismatist Kurt Regling, who was then helping the Istanbul Archaeological Museum reorganize its coin cabinet. In 1937 Bertelè was appointed consul in Sarajevo. From there he continued to buy Byzantine coins, but now from markets in Macedonia (Prilep, Skopje, and surroundings).This explains why fourteenth-century issues from the mint of Thessalonica are more abundant in his series than those from Constantinople. He was also buying constantly on the European market. The strength of Bertelè’s collection (labeled as “Swiss collection” in the first three volumes of DOC) is its unique assemblage of late Byzantine coins, virtually unrepresented in other major museum collections since this generally poorly struck and badly preserved coins were usually despised by nineteenth- and early twentieth-century curators, let alone collectors.

The third major purchase of Grierson’s tenure was the collection of Austrian collector “Captain” Leo Schindler (1885–1957) in 1960 which amounted to more than 2,000 coins, mainly copper. Schindler’s assemblage was valuable for its coverage of sixth- and seventh-century copper coins arranged by mints, years, and officinae in the tradition of the Austrian school.Later applied successfully by Wolfgang Hahn in his three-volume Moneta Imperii Byzantini and subsequently in their English revised versions MIBE and MIBEC (see bibliography).

After the publication of the first two volumes of DOC (1966, 1968), Grierson continued buying copper coins of the sixth to early eighth centuries of types, dates, or even officinae still missing in the published series. He also intervened in a few major sales, securing for DO a few rarities like a unique semissis of Herakleios (BZC.1977.36) from the Zurich sale of Michael D. O Hara’s collection and a Sicilian tremissis of Philippikos (BZC.1971.35). But his main focus was to buy as much as possible for the volumes that were still to come (vol. 3 [717–1081], published in 1973; and vols. 4 [1081–1261] and 5 [1258–1453], published in 1999). Intent on their writing, he almost ceased buying altogether in the late 1980s.

When Philip Grierson retired from Dumbarton Oaks in 1998 after 44 years of service as advisor for Byzantine numismatics, Angeliki Laiou, director of Dumbarton Oaks from 1989 to 1998, encouraged further collecting so that the collection would not become fossilized. It was agreed that I, as his successor (until 2018), should endeavor to maintain the status of the collection as the best in the world. Thus Dumbarton Oaks, alone among the great collections of Byzantine coins, pursued an active policy of acquisitions at a time when no other great public collections (London, Paris, Saint Petersburg, Birmingham) had either the means or the will to enlarge their Byzantine series. However, due to its rich holdings, very few known coin types are entirely missing, and the appearance of new and unpublished types is extremely rare. In this search one must also be wary of  forgeries that are produced precisely to satisfy the demand from wealthy collectors, a trend that has dramatically increased over the last two decades. Grierson himself acknowledged that he had mistakenly bought several fakes of Western coins for his own collection, forgeries that he had not spotted originally.P. Grierson and M. Blackburn, Medieval European Coinage, vol. 1, The Early Middle Ages (5th–10th Centuries) (Cambridge, 2007). There are a few coins that I acquired for Dumbarton Oaks in good faith, but now inspire serious doubts, including a miliarense of Justin I from Thessalonike (BZC.2013.029); a solidus of Justinian I from Rome (BZC.2015.009); and a basilikon of John V and VI from a provincial mint (BZC.1998.1).

Over these twenty years of continuous accessioning, special attention was then given, depending on the market offer, to gold coins from provincial mints of the sixth to ninth centuries (like BZC.2016.30, the second known specimen of a Justin II tremissis from a Spanish mint), to rare early Byzantine silver coins (mostly ceremonial, from Maurice’s first specimen of light siliqua [BZC.1966.9] to Constans II’s miliarense [BZC.2014.004]), and to many new coins of all metals from the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries.  

Dumbarton Oaks was able to make important purchases at several auctions of renowned Byzantine collections (see list of collectors, dealers, and donors), buying pedigreed and prestigious coins. For example, we acquired the third known specimen of Matthew Kantakouzenos (BZC.2006.17) at the “Despot” [Protonotarios] sale 2006 LHS 97, Zurich, where many coins came from the Millas collection sold in Zurich at Leu 10, 29 May 1974. We also secured the rare silver trikephala of the joint reign of Michael VIII and Andronikos II (BZC.2006.11 and BZC.2009.10) from the Protonotarios collection. In 2015 we acquired from Michael D. O’Hara’s Nachlass two virtually unpublished anepigraphic silver coins, identified as Constantine IV and Justinian II from their portraits (BZC.2015.043 and BZC.2015.044), that complete the pattern of Byzantine issues in Sardinia,Morton and Eden, London, auction no. 75, 2 July 2015. See C. Morrisson, “L’argent d’une île: Nouvelles siliques de Justinien II en Sardaigne,” in Suadente nummo: Studi in onore di Giovanni Gorini, ed. M. Asolati, Br. Callegher, and A. Saccocci (Padova, 2016), 337–42. while the Munich Sternberg 35th sale in October 2000 produced an extremely rare follis of Herakleios with the mint mark “Jerusalem” (BZC.2001.5).

Both the Whittemore and the Dumbarton Oaks collections are distinguished from other museum collections of Byzantine coins because they include several hoards preserved in their entirety or at least in significant proportion. The Whittemore collection includes the Aydin hoard, the Attic hoard, the Torbalı hoard,P. Grierson, “Two Byzantine Coin Hoards of the Seventh and Eighth Centuries at Dumbarton Oaks,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers 19 (1965): 207–28; and A. R. Bellinger, “A Hoard of Silver Coins of the Empire of Nicaea,” in ANS Centennial Publication of the American Numismatic Institute, ed. H. Ingholt [New York, 1958], 73–81). while Dumbarton Oaks acquired two large hoards in the purchase of the Bertelè collection: 120 hyperpyra of Andronikos II from the “Istanbul A hoard”DOC 5.1:14 and 5.2: text to plate 15. and silver coins from the “Istanbul B hoard” and other “Istanbul hoards” of doubtful origin and composition.DOC 5.1:18–19. In 2007 Dumbarton Oaks was fortunate to acquire from Simon Bendall the whole Longuet “Salonica hoard” of fourteenth-century copper stamena and assaria, including several types of John V and Anna of Savoy made in Thessalonike and previously unrepresented in the collection (BZC.2007.6.1–73).H. Longuet, “Une trouvaille de monnaies des Paléologues,” Revue belge de Numismatique 106 (1960): 244–66; S. Bendall, “Longuet’s Salonica Hoard Re-Examined,” American Numismatic Society Museum Notes 29 (1984): 143–57; and J. Shea, “Longuet’s ‘Salonica Hoard’ and the Mint of Thessalonike in the Mid-Fourteenth Century,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers 69 (2015): 297–330. Although he could have made more money by selling the hoard piecemeal, Bendall sold it to Dumbarton Oaks as a whole so that that the find could remain intact for further study.

More recently, several hyperpyra of the last decade before the cessation of gold issues by the Byzantine Empire were bought on the London market from the 1996 parcel and from the much larger 2005 “Bulgarian Hoard” (BZC 2004.05–12).See S. Bendall, “A Note on the Palaeologan Hyperpyra, AD 1320–1325,” Numismatic Circular 113 (2005): 5–10; idem, “A Note on the Hyperpyra of John V and VI (1347–1354),” Numismatic Circular 112 (2004): 297–99.

The focus of acquisitions was enlarged as to include peripheral imitative coinages like the heavy seventh-century folles in the name of Justin II and successors through Heraclius, that Pottier had identified as issues from Northern Syria under Persian rule (610–630). There were no such coins in the collection, the only two recorded in DOC being Whittemore coins that had been returned to the Harvard Art Museums, and it was a fortunate opportunity that a close friend of Pottier, Dr. Lemaire, agreed to part with his substantial batch of these series, which makes Dumbarton Oaks now the most representative collection for the seriesH. Pottier, Le monnayage de la Syrie sous l’occupation perse (610–630) (Paris, 2004). In his catalogue, Lemaire’s specimens are labeled “RL.” after the Brussels Cabinet, which has acquired the whole collection of Byzantine coppers of Pottier. These early seventh-century folles struck under Persian rule show that there was no gap, as previously believed, between the local Byzantine issues of the Antioch mint and the later flurry of imitative “Arab-Byzantine” issues of the 650s–690s destined to meet the needs of the still active exchanges in Syria and Palestine in the early Umayyad period. The small series of Arab-Byzantine copper coins were published by Clive Foss in 2008.C. Foss, Arab-Byzantine Coins: An Introduction, with a Catalogue of the Dumbarton Oaks Collection (Washington, DC, 2008). Only the few accessions made in this field after this publication will be found in the present online catalogue, pending the online publication of the entire Dumbarton Oaks coin collection.

Weight Two-pound weight belonging to Megas, Count of Sacred Largesses. Byzantine Collection, Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection.

Some other accessions have brought previously unconsidered dimensions to the collection: tesserae, such as two “poor tokens” destined for imperial charitable distributions from the Zacos or the Bendall collections (BZC.2004.39, BZC.2013.06) or possible lead patterns for nomismataConstantine VII (BZC.2009.06); Michael VII Doukas (BZC.2013.033). and weights. The latter acquisitions aim to illustrate the variety of measures used for commodities and the monetary weights used to check circulating coins, whose stamp, fineness, and weight were the three criteria of acceptability.See S. Bendall, Byzantine Weights: An Introduction (London, 1996); C. Entwistle, “Byzantine Weights,” in Economic History of Byzantium: From the Seventh through the Fifteenth Century, ed. A. E. Laiou (Washington, DC, 2002), 2:611–14; C. Morrisson, ed., Trade and Markets in Byzantium (Washington, DC, 2008), in which especially B. Pitarakis, “Daily Life at the Marketplace in Late Antiquity and Byzantium,” 399–426, with references to earlier literature. Simon Bendall’s weights that had been published in his 1996 Byzantine Weights booklet entered the collection in 2006 (BZC.2006.49, BZC.2006.78, BZC.2006.127, and BZC.2006.179). A unique two-pound weight with the bust of Tiberios II or Maurice and a Greek inscription on the edge (ἐπὶ Μεγάλου τοῦ ἐνδοξοτάτου κόμητος τῶν θείων λαργιτιώνων, under Megas the most glorious Count of Sacred Largesses) (BZC.2013.01) was acquired from the Lemaire collection in 2013This weight was briefly presented in the Dumbarton Oaks newsletter, and, in 2017, three specimens with the nineteenth-century Italian pedigree of the Museo Kircheriano were bought at the 421.1 Peus auction (BZC 2017.023–24 and BZC.2017.027). Today one will find here only a few exagia, destined to check circulating solidi, or fractions thereof, on scales. It is planned in the future to put online the descriptions of the circa 150 monetary and commercial weights, which include all the representative degrees from one or several pounds weights to the tiniest fraction. These were assembled by Pottier for his research on the original weight of the Roman and Byzantine libra that was the pinpoint of the whole metrological system for the whole duration of the empire.H. Pottier, “Nouvelle approche de la livre byzantine du Ve au VIIe siècle,” Revue belge de numismatique 150 (2004): 51–133.

With the unfailing support and commitment of the successive directors of Dumbarton Oaks (John Thacher, 1946–1969; Angeliki Laiou 1989–1998; Edward Keenan, 1998–2007; and Jan Ziolkowski, 2007–) and a few donors (including Giovanni Bertelè, Genova Bistrakapka, Philip Grierson, John Casey’s executors, Cécile Morrisson, Marcus Philipps, Andy Singer), more than 900 coins have entered the Dumbarton Oaks collection over the last twenty-nine years. These accessions were chosen precisely to inaugurate the online coin catalogue of Dumbarton Oaks because they were not yet available to the public. In the future it is planned to add entries for new accessions and to digitize the material of the five printed volumes of DOC and Foss’s Arab-Byzantine Coins.

We hope that the reader will find the data assembled here a useful tool for enlarging his vision of the many facets of a millennium of Byzantine coins and related objects, completing with state of the art updated references the riches of information available in the printed catalogue volumes. If anything is proven wrong In spite of our efforts, we will welcome constructive dialogue with the users. Numismatists have always formed a lively community. To all of them and those who would like to join, as well as to the founders of Dumbarton Oaks coin collection, and most particularly to Angeliki Laiou and Philip Grierson, this work is dedicated.


Many thanks to Gudrun Bühl, Michael Sohn, John Hanson (who, among other chores entered the Ostrogothic series on the basis of the provisory inventory created by Ermanno Arslan in November 2000), Jonathan Shea, Kathy Sparkes, Lain Wilson, Joel Kalvesmaki (for the Athena Ruby font), Joe Mills (for his excellent high-resolution photographs), museum registrars Marta Zlotnick and Joni Joseph, and summer interns who translated Philip Grierson’s and Cécile Morrisson’s handwritten cards into online entries: Colleen O’Leary (2014), Alexandra Walsh (2015), and Madeleine (Maddy) Stern (2016).