Coins of the Roman Empire in the British Museum (Comparison With Photos)

Discussion in 'Ancient Coins' started by Aethelred, Jan 25, 2017.

  1. Aethelred

    Aethelred The Old Dead King Supporter

    As I stated in a previous thread on a different topic, I received a big heavy package in the mail today. I was happy to open it and find the 2005 Spink and Son edition of the BMC.


    The 2005 Spink edition is bound in red cloth with gold spine lettering and is limited to only 350 copies (plus an additional 5 copies bound in leather). In the original editions and reprints volumes IV and V were each divided into two books, but both volumes are now contained in a single book. They were printed by Cambridge University Press who devised a method of reproducing the plates that they claim make them "as good as the originals).


    Vol. I by Harold Mattingly
    Originally Published 1923
    British Museum Press reprint 1965
    Spink & Son reprint 2005

    Vol. II by Harold Mattingly
    Originally Published 1930
    British Museum Press reprint 1966
    Spink & Son reprint 2005

    Vol. III by Harold Mattingly
    Originally Published 1936
    British Museum Press reprint 1966
    Spink & Son reprint 2005

    Vol. IV by Harold Mattingly
    Originally Published 1940
    British Museum Press reprint 1968 and 1976
    Spink & Son reprint 2005

    Vol. V by Harold Mattingly
    with the Second Edition being prepared by R.A.G. Carson and Philip Hill
    Originally Published 1950
    British Museum Press Second Edition 1975
    Spink & Son reprint 2005

    Vol. VI by R.A.G. Carson
    Originally Published 1962
    British Museum Press reprint 1976
    Spink & Son reprint 2005

    Harold Mattingly died in 1964 and as a result work on the BMC came to an end and it is highly likely that this set will never be completed after the passage of so much time. There is no coverage of coins minted after AD 238, so if you collect later Roman coins this set will be of little interest to you.


    About a week ago I started a discussion on the merits of the 1960s reprints vs. the 2005 reprints. In that thread no one stepped forward with experience using both sets, so I was not able to decide which set was superior. I am going to offer my opinion here and to share a few photos from each set in the hopes that it might prove useful to someone considering one or more volumes of BMC in the future.


    I am going to be using the 1965 and 2005 editions of Volume I to make my comparisons. The first thing you will notice from the photo above is that the earlier British Museum reprint is about a half inch thicker than the Spink reprint. The 2005 is bound in a cloth cover that feels superior in quality to the older book, but unlike the older ones the 2005 is issued without dustjakets. Both editions have sewn bindings, but again the 2005 seems to be constructed better, which since it is printed and bound by Cambridge University Press is no suprise.

    Inside of the British Museum reprint of 1965

    Inside of the Spink & Son reprint of 2005

    I am no expert on paper, but I think the 2005 has a slight edge in the quality of paper used. It feels more substantial to the touch and appears a little brighter, but on the latter point age may be a factor.

    However, when you examine the quality and sharpness of the print (and I did under a 5x loupe) it is better in the older 1965 edition. It should be noted that both are photographically reproduced and where there was a flaw in the original edition, the same flaw will appear in BOTH reprints. However, the printing is sharper and more bold in the earlier edition.

    Issues of paper and print are minor to most collectors when compared to the numerous plates that are the backbone of the BMC catalog.

    Plate 17 from the British Museum reprint of 1965

    Plate 17 from the Spink & Son reprint of 2005

    In selecting the plates to photograph I tried to pick one that showed the 1965 edition to it's full advantage. Plate 17 looks very good in the 1965, but a close examination of my two (admittedly poor) photos above will show that even in this case where I tried to find a great looking plate in the older edition, that the newer edition is better. In the case of other plates (and how I wish I had photographed Plate 32 where the difference is striking) there is far more difference in favor of the 2005 edition.

    I think that any edition of the BMC catalog is well worth owning for the exhaustive coverage of Roman coinage from 31 BC to AD 238 and for the wealth of historical information that it contains. However, if presented with a choice between the British Museum reprints or the Spink reprints, I believe that the Spink reprints are a better choice for your money and will prove to be more pleasant to use and own.
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  3. dougsmit

    dougsmit Member Supporter

    Thank you. Do you know what was changed in volume V that caused it to be labelled differently? Were coins added? Numbers changed? Organized differently?
    Aethelred likes this.
  4. Carthago

    Carthago Does this look infected to you?

    I've always been of the impression that the plates in the earlier printings of most numismatic references are superior to new ones. Definitely not the case here. Thanks for sharing that.
    Roman Collector and Aethelred like this.
  5. David Atherton

    David Atherton Flavian Fanatic

    Thank you for posting this side by side comparison. I have the BM reprints from the 60's and have always wondered whether or not the Spink reprints would be worth the investment. It appears that they are!
    Aethelred likes this.
  6. Aethelred

    Aethelred The Old Dead King Supporter

    Hello Doug, thank you for looking at my thread answer asking a question, I was afraid I would take all the time to take these photos and research this topic and nobody would look or care.

    Volume V is the only one in the series that was updated in a second edition. This was done in 1975 by Carson and Hill and is the reason for the different imprinting on the spine of that volume.

    In addition, according to the publisher Spink, the order of some of the wording in both IV and V were changed to accommodate the single book format of those volumes and to increase the clarity of the text.
    Curtisimo likes this.
  7. Mikey Zee

    Mikey Zee Delenda Est Carthago

    Thanks so much for sharing!!!

    I have always intended to add a quality reference library and you have given me a wonderful choice.
    Aethelred likes this.
  8. Brian Bucklan

    Brian Bucklan Well-Known Member

    Just out of curiosity, does the museum keep every coin they've acquired or do they occasionally sell off some of the lesser or double pieces? I've been to the British Museum and saw a small selection of ancients (some great pieces by the way) scattered about in a single room, but that was it. Some were identified, others were just in groups. Just seems a shame that most of these coins sit in dark drawers in the back of the museum only to be gawked at by curators and invited guests.
    Aethelred likes this.
  9. dougsmit

    dougsmit Member Supporter

    Thanks. A revision done in 1975 is still woefully inadequate for what has been learned about the Severans since then. If the 2005 edition included updates based on the work of the late Roger Bickford-Smith in the 90's, I'd have to have it.
    A point on the plates. There are many nice coins shown in the BMC and RIC plates. Since they were made, the British Museum collection has grown greatly. The 1975 edition plates show 52 coins of Septimius from Emesa. Martin and I have posted that many here on CT. The Barry Murphy resource has 120 Emesa denarii of Septimius well photographed.

    The image quality of the originals may have been state of the art when they were made but they are nothing compared to what we now expect from our top end auction houses. Copying old original collotypes of plaster casts does not match what we see today even if the copy loses nothing in the process. Rather than update for image quality, I would suggest visiting the online resources and seeing how many better examples you can find. Compare not only the image quality but see how many die duplicates and better specimens of the identical coins you can find.

    I would love to have a new BMCRE volume V including their current holdings and text detailing the latest scholarship but that is not going to happen. I bought volume V years ago and learned a lot from it. It is nice to know there is another reprint available if my old one turns to dust. I do not follow what is available online for the other periods covered by these books (eg Macrinus or Elagabalus) so I do not know if this same situation is general.

    Thanks again. I really wish more people would post more book reviews on CT. It is easy to find out what is in a book. Publisher tell us that. The question is how well they did it and why we should buy the book.
    Theodosius likes this.
  10. dougsmit

    dougsmit Member Supporter

    Museums are designed to show the most people what they want to see. The Smithsonian in Washington cut way back on what they show on coins but have a lot on pop-culture. This is as it should be. Millions want to see Fonzie's jacket from Happy Days; dozens want denarii.
    Volodya and Carthago like this.
  11. Carthago

    Carthago Does this look infected to you?

    This is the unfortunate truth. The National Museum on Rome has a nice collection on display in the basement and you can actually make an application to view anything in the BM collection in person if you wish. Same with the ANS in NY.
  12. Mat

    Mat Ancient Coincoholic

  13. Aethelred

    Aethelred The Old Dead King Supporter

    Interesting article Mat, the author make some points I have not thought of.
  14. Aethelred

    Aethelred The Old Dead King Supporter

    @dougsmit I do not own the old version of volume V so I do not have that to compare it to, my old set only went through volume IV. However, I will look at the introductory material in V tonight to see if any additional updates have been made since 1975.
  15. Ken Dorney

    Ken Dorney Yea, I'm Cool That Way...

    OK, so the questions (I hope) many might wish to ask is "where did you get the set, how much was it, and do they have additional sets available?".
  16. tibor

    tibor Well-Known Member

    Thank you for the write up. I plan on purchasing
    this set over the next year or two.
  17. Aethelred

    Aethelred The Old Dead King Supporter

    I purchased it off eBay from a collector (I think) in Florida. I do not believe he has any more and these were in perfect new condition. I literally do not think he ever looked inside them.

    As to the cost, it was so low that I am almost embarrassed to tell you. But I did pay his asking price of $349 for the set!

    I am going to sell my current 1960s editions of I-IV to recoup a bit of that, bt I couldn't pass that deal by.
  18. Brian Bucklan

    Brian Bucklan Well-Known Member

    Excellent article which became more interesting to me in that about ten or so years ago I bought a large group of ancients that had a tag from the Hispanic Society of America (based in New York) which is one of the mentioned museums that sold off their coins. Turned out to be a super lot with many scarce types. Not sure why they only sold them for an average of about $35 each although many were misidentified.
    Aethelred likes this.
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