My father was a philatelist. He collected stamps, maintained a weekly philatelic column on a Sunday newspaper, presented a radio programme on stamps on Radio Malta and served on the Post Office’s Stamp Design Advisory Board for a long period spanning the 1970s and 1980s.
Try as he did to enthuse me with his hobby and passion, it never really took off with me. Yes, I do have a Malta stamp collection which I stopped growing with the last of the pre-Euro denominated stamps but from childhood, my real passion and interest was in coins.
It was a very crude interest for a very long time, basically consisting of keeping all sorts of foreign coins that I could lay my hands on: coins from friends or acquaintances who travelled, low denomination coins childishly exchanged with pen friends, the odd coin my father got me from a ship being repaired at Malta Drydocks or from an uncle who worked as a tiller at the bank and occasionally found a foreign coin which had been furtively slipped in with local coins in shopkeepers’ deposit bags.
Then there were the handful of coins in my mother’s jewellery box: three or four silver crowns from Queen Victoria’s reign received as a wedding gift and the Holy Grail itself, a de Rohan 20 Scudi coin in a plastic pouch which my father had inherited and which I was occasionally allowed to see close-up without ever getting it out of its protective cover. (For the curious, the silver crowns are gone, sold long ago to some jeweller in exchange for some contemporary trinket but the 20 scudi still survives, having pride of place as the root of my collection.)
These were the early days and they extended right up to my late 40s: hoarding any foreign coin, the occasional banknote and Maltese coins which were withdrawn to be replaced by new issues. But it was not really a collection. Rather it was more of small hoards of coin filled plastic bags strewn around drawers, desks and shelves.
The question I am often asked is, why the fascination with coins? The answer is complexly simple. Coins are the stuff of human exchanges, transactions, interactions. They are some of the most transient of objects ever created by humanity: precious but so willingly exchanged. They are the tools which transitioned primitive barter to complex trade, acting as a universal medium of value to enable the exchange of unrelated goods and services. They are one of the cornerstones of human civilization, on par with the taming of fire, the wheel and agriculture.
Coins have also helped to further fuel my curiosity about foreign lands: strange, exotic places, past and present, inhabited by different peoples, speaking different languages, wearing strange clothes, eating different foods and worshipping different deities. Coins transition the boundaries between rich and poor, the great and the mundane, the rulers and the ruled. Different metals and values imply different user cohorts: high denomination gold and silver for the rich, ruling classes, humbler bronzes and coppers for the nameless masses.
I have never seen the collection of coins from a strictly investment perspective: something that one purchases as a bargain with a view to reselling at a profit after appreciation. Rather, it is inherently an expression of curiosity and of bringing together a group of coins from different times to build a collection of numismatic artefacts as a tangible link to a past long gone.
Until around eight years ago, collecting coins in an organized manner was very far from my mind. Prior to that I was busy with a huge number of hobbies: travelling, photography, gastronomy and buying a variety of interesting things which have aroused my interest since childhood: old maps and prints, Melitensia books, fossils and minerals. I also got engaged in propagating indigenous Maltese trees and plants to donate to voluntary organisations engaged in re-greening Malta. A bit of everything!
Then I bought my first coin from Ebay, a humble Garzes Picciolo and a collection was born. Ebay proved useful in the beginning and still churns up the occasional surprise. Eight years ago, coin prices were far more affordable and there were few bidders if any for the more common coins. Also, there were more “buy it now” opportunities than actual calls for bids. During this period, I was going for bronzes: a variety of Knights of Malta, Melita Roman coins and, based on a personal fascination with the Norman/Swabian/Angevin period, different base metal coins from that tumultuous period in Malta’s history.
What I today call a collection was until then more of a jumble of coins in a wooden box which I would regularly spill onto a table and observe, delicately handle and line up in some sort of chronological order. After that it was back to the box! The number of coins was modest, a few dozens at best.
In 2018 I inherited the de Rohan 20 Scudi and my interest in numismatics took an upward curve. I discovered websites grouping respected sellers and started doing more research. Given that my love for coins is linked to historical episodes from the periods they come from, I also started to brush up my history. This eventually led to the birth of the idea of starting a long-term collection consisting of the entire timeline of Maltese history, from the earliest Phoenician and Carthaginian coins to the present, spanning around 28 centuries of Maltese history.
Besides the obvious texts and sites, I also started discovering numismatic sites and publications. Resources which showed me that collecting coins was not something to be done in haste, at random or cheaply. I started reading the works of Emmanuel Azzopardi, John Gatt, Monsignor Coleiro, Joseph Sammut and other eminent local numismatists. Combining this with historical tomes by the likes of Anthony Bonanno, Godfrey Wettinger, Anthony Luttrell, Charles Dalli and the huge corpus of publications about the Knights’, the French and the British periods. This helped build a picture of linking coins to history to help me understand the twenty-five century long time line I was attempting to painstakingly construct.
Enter the Malta Numismatic Society and its Facebook presence. Algorithmic providence led me to the Society’s page and suddenly my world opened up to a bottomless pit of knowledge, experience, enthusiasm and willingness to give advice. From a lone wolf prowling in the darkness of inexperience, I was now able to follow, learn, read, widen my perspectives, and most importantly, ask for advice which was professionally, enthusiastically and speedily given.
As the months passed, my collection continued to grow and I tested the water of submitting small posts on the MNS page. My entries were simple, devoid of any professional evaluation of the coin concerned from the strictly numismatic perspective, but rich in what I can do best: linking a coin with some historical anecdote, particularly from Malta’s millenary history. The feedback I received was positive, the comments encouraging. The high points were when there was some sort of acknowledgement from one of the contemporary doyens of Maltese numismatics: a like from Emmanuel Azzopardi or John Gatt, or even better, a positive comment! The encouragement from numismatists the level of Colin Formosa, Simon Sullivan and others too numerous to mention. To be treated seriously by people who are years ahead of you is the tonic which makes you progress.
Three years ago, I received a message from Emmanuel Azzopardi. Contact me it said. Surely a mistake I thought. Then a second message. And then I did. I made my way to the great man’s house and sat down to some tea and cake (a practice which was to become a fixture of all our subsequent meetings until our very last encounter in October 2022). His demeanor was friendly albeit daunting for a shy amateur who was feeling like trying to walk in shoes six sizes too big. He explained to me why he had sent for me. I am not young anymore, he said. Discovering younger newcomers was important for the continuation of numismatic interest in Malta. He told me how he loved my entries on the MNS Facebook page and enquired about my collection. He also offered guidance to help me build my collection and eventually presented me with a hand-written plan listing all the coins I needed to obtain: a list which I treasure to this day.
His advice was also clear on many fronts, a set of commandments which still continue to guide me. Look at the collection as a long-term process so do not rush. Do not sacrifice quality to save a few Euros. It is better to wait for a more expensive, better-quality coin than rush to buy the cheaper one you can afford today. Do not try to go all over the place but focus on building the collection in an organized manner. Based on this advice, Emmanuel then proceeded to help me slowly source the coins in the list he prepared for me, either directly from other contacts of his or by patiently bidding on my behalf in the more professional auctions. It was in these auctions that his sense of responsibility came to the fore: advising me on what budget to set, on what coins to bid for and what to have the courage to move away from. The strong gravitational pull of a coin you really want is not easy to escape from, as all numismatists know, but in the period he guided me, never did he once condone reckless or unaffordable behaviour, rather acting as the sobering agent to tone down uncalled for enthusiasm! His passing has not only deprived me of a friend and an expert but of our regular monthly meetings in which he imparted more and more knowledge to me with every minute we spent together. I feel very empty with his absence, but his spirit continues to prevail over my actions as I continue to develop my collection and I look forward to the publication of his final work which will be his final legacy after a lifetime of knowledge, experience and dedication.
In recent years I have also established contact with John Gatt, the World authority on the Knights of Malta’s impressive numismatic output. John is also one of those people who finds the time to talk with newcomers, giving detailed answers to questions he must have heard hundreds of times before. His amazing book and the live-update website accompanying it, his continued efforts at photographing different collectors’ coins and placing them in a database is leading to the biggest ever body of knowledge on the Knights’ coins. I met the gentleman in Malta during his most recent visit, and once again, I was left open-mouthed by his genuine, welcoming, humble down-to-earth approach when dealing with an amateur who stands no higher than his ankle.
The collection continues to grow. The initial accelerated approach to obtaining as many coins as possible is gradually making way to a more sober, thoughtful approach of acquiring higher value coins in a less frequent manner. Here MNS membership also proves beneficial. Through MNS I have slowly built a small network of trusted friends from whom I buy the occasional coin in the knowledge that it is genuine and fairly priced. Honest advice is also constantly forthcoming. The danger of counterfeits remains high and forgers are quick to follow demand trends to be guided for what types of coins to release on the unsuspecting, uninformed buyer.
There remain areas which need to be developed in parallel to building a collection: cataloguing, photographing, measuring and weighing. Presentation is also an art in itself: a challenge which seeks to enhance coin visibility, maximise coin protection and achieve a fair balance between security and enjoyment. These are areas in which MNS could definitely assist the growing number of members and collectors.
In conclusion, the established collector also knows that building a collection it is not only about acquiring but also about shedding coins: coins which are excess to requirements, coins which help raise funds for a superior purchase, coins which lie idle in a reserve collection and doomed to a hidden existence. I have yet to reach that stage which I consider to be a mark of reaching adulthood as a collector. Collecting should not be about hoarding everything that comes your way, but about managing what you have in a manner that keeps the collection in the best way possible.
Coins are, by their very nature, transient objects. They are created specifically for the purpose of exchange and circulation. Most do not last much beyond the period in which they are minted, but the few that do represent a precious link to the past which has found its way to the individual collector. Their transient nature does not stop with the current collection they find themselves in; doubtless the time will come when, like Tolkien’s Ring of Power, they move to a new owner. It is in this spirit that we should respect them and preserve them for they will definitely outlive us and move on to please future generations of collectors in the years to come.
by Leslie Vella
Chief Officer Strategic Planning and Deputy CEO at the Malta Tourism Authority.
A veteran and stalwart with a wealth of knowledge and experience in tourism, as well as a Numismatist