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NMSTU Researcher Publishes Museum Collection of Coins Stolen by Nazis during WWII

A truly sensational event entered the history of scientific discoveries made by NMSTU researchers. NMSTU’s professor Mikhail Abramzon has published a unique collection of Bosporan coins that was stolen from the Kerch Museum by the Nazis during World War Two. The collection was published in the book “Ancient Coins. Pre-war Collection Granted to the Federal Republic of Germany”.

This volume features the first publication of a collection of 488 Bosporan coins that were sent to the Eastern Crimea Museum of History and Culture from Germany in 2010. Allegedly, the collection makes a part of the numismatic collection of the Pushkin Kerch Museum of History and Archeology that went missing during World War Two. The collection comprises some rare and unpublished coins, including 10 golden and almost 60 silver coins, a great selection of Bosporan silver from 500–100  BC, as well as gold from the Italic cities of Metaponto and Taranto, early silver from Akragan in Sicily and copper from Arad in Phoenicia.

- Professor Abramzon, how did it happen that the coins were found in Germany?

- This detective story dates back to July 2008 when a letter arrived from the artefact monitoring service of Germany to the Kerch Museum saying that the German police were in possession of 488 Bosporan coins and that that collection was similar to the one that had been stored at the Kerch Museum of Antiquities before 1941. It made the German experts think about the coin collection that had disappeared from the museum during the Great Patriotic War. This is how they described the situation in which they discovered the collection. In December 2006 on the highway near Alsfeld the Hessen police seized a collection of ancient coins which was illegally offered for sale at one of the numismatic auctions in Germany.

2008–2010 saw an exchange of correspondence with the German authorities about the future of the collection. One of the key questions was if it had anything to do with the coin collection that went missing from the Kerch Museum during the war. After a long period of negotiations the Hessen authorities decided that the collection was to be returned to Crimea.

- What do they know about how the collection was stolen?

-  There had been enough time to only evacuate a few valuable artefacts from the Kerch Museum before Crimea was occupied by the Nazis. In August 1943 and in June 1944, following the order of the German headquarters, the most valuable items were sent to Simferopol and from there to Germany. The numismatic collection stood out among the most valuable pre-war collections of the Kerch Museum. In late 1943 and early 1944 the Soviet troops conducted an offensive operation in Crimea which helped liberate the peninsula from the Nazi intruders. We know that the museum’s director cooperated with the invaders and that he left Crimea in a German plane carrying the coin collection and other museum items with him. Nothing was heard about the collection for some time.

- How did they manage to get the collection back to where it came from?

- Restitution of items that were taken away during the Great Patriotic War is a difficult and delicate issue. Its resolution requires effort, strenuous work and preliminary agreement between the two parties. That’s why the fact that the collection of Bosporan coins returned to Russia is an extraordinary development which only became possible thanks to the goodwill of our German partners.

The collection was stored at the Frankfurt University, where it was studied by numismatists Hans-Christoph Noeske and Dirk Bakendorf. They were to identify the coins and determine what famous treasures or museum collections they could possibly belong to. They were the first experts to establish that the coins could have belonged to the pre-war collection of the Kerch Museum of Antiquities.

The German officials supported the experts’ conclusion. In the spring of 2010 the collection of 488 ancient coins was handed over to the Institute of Archeology of the Ukrainian National Academy of Sciences to be returned to the Kerch Museum and Heritage Site. After Crimea was reunited with Russia this unique collection of Bosporan coins became available for publication promoting the studies and heritage of the ancient Bosporan Kingdom.

- Could you tell us about the book itself? What does it cover?

- I co-authored this book with my colleague, deputy director of the Kerch Museum Natalia Bykovskaya. Our work consisted of two parts – historical and scientific. Natalia looked at the history of this collection, she dealt with the archives. Thus, we were the first to publish official documents, museum reports, reports of damage caused to the museum, photographs, memos of the German authorities. And my job was to come up with a comprehensive scientific description of the coins. Bosporan coins dominate the collection, they include coins issued in the cities of Panticapaeum, Phanagoria, Gorgippia, as well as coins that belonged to the Bosporan kings of the Roman period. This is an absolutely amazing, unique collection. The original museum collection comprised about 3,000 coins. Germans selected and took the most valuable items.

The historical value of this numismatic collection can hardly be overestimated. Professor and DSc Mikhail Abramzon, who is the director of the Institute of Historical Anthropology and Philology at NMSTU, a principal numismatist in the Phanagoric expedition of the Institute of Archeology of the Russian Academy of Sciences, one of the leading Russian experts in ancient numismatics, has made a significant contribution to the ancient studies. He published more than 20 monographs and catalogues on ancient numismatics. Some of them are of global importance. Thus, the auction experts refer to Abramzon’s and Frolova’s catalogues to identify coins of the ancient city of Olbia that go for sale at the global auction events organized by Classical Numismatic Group, such as Triton, theNewYorksale and others.

The new volume continues the series of publications on the ancient coins from the numismatic collection of the Eastern Crimea Museum of History and Culture, which is in possessionof one of the world’s largest collections of Bosporan coins (around 14,000 items). Mikhail Abramzon is also the key author of the two volumes published previously. 

Svetlana Konstantinova, Information Policy Office at NMSTU

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