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From the Este Collection – Provenanced to 1538


Vitellius. AD 69. AV Aureus (18mm, 7.39 g, 6h). Tarraco mint. Struck circa January-June. RIC I 35; Calicó 576 (this coin illustrated); Biaggi 284 (this coin); BMCRE 91 var. (lacking palm frond); BN 12 var. (same); Hunter 51; Mazzini –. Warm red tone, with a deeply toned silver Este countermark behind bust, edges lightly rounded from historical mounting (as was fashionable in the 16th century for display purposes, and is often evident on coins with this pedigree). VF. Extremely rare and with a remarkable pedigree.

From the Kagan Collection of Roman Coins. Exhibited at the Grolier Club, New York, 2001 (Cunnally, John., Kagan, Jonathan & Scher, Stephen. Numismatics in the Age of Grolier: An Exhibition at the Grolier Club. New York, 2001. Pp. 26-27). Ex Numismatic Fine Arts XXXIII (3 May 1994), lot 448; Numismatic Fine Arts XXX (8 December 1992), lot 226; Nelson Bunker Hunt Collection (Part II, Sotheby’s, 21 June 1990), lot 695; Leo Biaggi de Blasys Collection (Purchased en bloc by Bank Leu, Zurich, 1978), no 284; Henry Platt-Hall Collection (Part II, Glendining & Co., 16 November 1950), lot 1142; Geheimrat von Kaufman Collection (Hamburger 89, 27 May 1929), lot 839; Este Collection, (Calcagnini, Celio. Aureorum numismatum Illustrissimi Herculis Secundi, Ducis Ferrariae Quarti, elenchus. Ferrara, 1538) .

For many centuries, numismatists and scholars have debated the attribution of the distinctive eagle collector’s mark, found on the obverse of a small number of predominantly Greek and Roman coins. Attribution has been generally divided between two Italian noble families - the Gonzaga family, rulers of Mantua, a city which proclaims itself as the birthplace of Virgil, and the Este family, a ruling family from the city of Ferrara in northern Italy who could trace their ancestry back to the 10th century.

It was under Alfonso d’Este, Duke of Ferrara (1476–1534) that the original Este collection was formed in the early 16th century. Over the next hundred years, the collection was added to as well as divided and partially dispersed in order to raise funds when the family found themselves in financial difficulties or required funding for military or political campaigns. At various points, parts of the original collection found their way, via various intermediaries, into the hands of other noble families, including, perhaps unknowingly, the Gonzaga family. However, with scant records of the exact transactions which took place, tracing a continual and exact line of ownership for individual items is tremendously difficult. As such, one question which has remained a source of debate is at which point these coins acquired the now famous countermark, or aquilleta, and to which family it corresponds.

What we do know is that of the 12,000–15,000 coins which at one time constituted the collection in its entirety, only around 1,500 were chosen to bear the eagle countermark. Ezechiel Spanheim in his 1717 work Dissertationes de praestantia et usu numismatum antiquorum, first asserted that the mark belonged to the Gonzaga family. However, less than fifteen years later in his 1731 Verona Illustrata, the renowned polymath Scippione Maffei attributed it to the Este family, as did Eckhel in a brief allusion to the countermark in his 1779 work, Catalogus musei Caesarei Vindobonensis. The debate has rumbled on since but today, the general consensus is that both Maffei and Eckhel were correct and that this small enigmatic eagle does in fact represent the mark of the Este family.

With that in mind it is all the more remarkable that the earliest record of the Este collection is the manuscript catalogue compiled between 1538–41 by the Italian humanist and diplomat Celio Calcagnini (1479–1541), who, previously under the employ of Cardinal Ippolito d’Este, brother of Alfonso, had dedicated himself to classical studies upon the Cardinal’s death in 1520. His catalogue, Aureorum numismatum Illustrissimi Herculis Secundi, Ducis Ferrariae Quarti, elenchus, provides a list of just over 760 gold coins held in the Este collection at the time. Included therein is one single gold coin of Vitellius, with Victory on the reverse; “Victoris stans alata, vestibus ad genua undantibus, orbem dextra tenet. In ambitu VICTORIA AVGSTI.” With no other coins issued by Vitellius present in the collection at this time, and no aurei with this reverse type, it is clear that this coin is the same Vitellius aureus catalogued by Calcagnini in his manuscript catalogue, and at some point, accorded the distinction of the Este family countermark.

Sadly, exactly when and under what circumstances the coin was separated from the Este collection is unknown, as is its location for almost the next four hundred years. We do know, that the next time it appeared in the public domain was in the sale of notable German art collector and Privy Councillor, Richard von Kaufmann (1849–1908), whose collection was sold posthumously in Hamburger Auction 89, in May 1929. Subsequent to that, the coin found its way into the collection of English collector Henry Platt-Hall, whose sale of Roman coins in 1950 was, according to the British Museum, “one of the last great collections of Roman coins in this country”. From there it was acquired by Swiss sugar magnate and businessman Leo Biaggi de Blasys, whose remarkable and unrivalled collection of Roman gold coins needs no further commentary. Since that time, the coin has resided in the United States, first in the collection of Nelson Bunker Hunt, whose coins were sold through the now famous series of Sotheby’s catalogues in the 1990’s, before going through two further Numismatic Fine Arts sales in 1992 and 1994, and finally, featuring in the ‘Numismatics in the Age of Grolier’ exhibition at the Grolier Club in 2001.

Today, there are only 159 aurei bearing the silver eagle of the Este family known, and of those, only four in private hands – three Republican issues, and this Vitellius aureus, the sole aureus of Vitellius in the original Este collection, and now the only Roman Imperial aureus available in private hands to bear the noble countermark of one of the first, great ancestral collections of ancient coins, and to have a provenance which can be traced directly back to the Este family’s original collection of 1538. The earliest indisputable provenance in existence for any ancient coin, providing a direct link to one of the most powerful families in Italy, at the very height of the Italian high renaissance.