History of the collection
The interest in old coins goes back a long way. For rulers, discoveries of buried treasures-insofar as these contained coins made of precious metals-represented a welcome increase in their supplies of gold and silver. Either the pieces were melted down for their metal, or they were admitted to the ruler’s hoard. It was from just such hoards that some of the later art collections first arose. This fact puts coin collections among the world’s oldest museum-related institutions. This also applies to the Vienna Coin Cabinet, which arose from the Habsburg collection, which had been continuously maintained and expanded.
The oldest extant inventory was established around 1547/50 under Ferdinand I (1503-1564). The coins listed by Leopold Heyperger, the emperor’s treasurer, are almost all of ancient Roman origin.
Archduke Ferdinand II (1529-1595), son of the emperor, ruler of Tirol, and likewise an enthusiastic collector of art objects, had his own coin collection. The cabinets in which he stored his coins still exist today: they are kept in the Vienna Coin Cabinet and at Ambras Castle.
Emperor Rudolf II (1552-1612), who made his imperial seat of Prague into a cultural centre, likewise expanded the holdings of the Habsburg coin collection and distinguished himself above all as a patron of the medallist’s art.
But it was only a century after Rudolf’s death that the Imperial Coin Cabinet was to truly awaken and come into its own. Emperor Charles VI (1685-1740) appointed the Swedish academic Carl Gustav Heraeus as Inspector of Medals and Antiquities in 1712. Heraeus was assigned the task of combining Ferdinand’s collection from the Court Library, the Treasury of Archduke Leopold Wilhelm housed at the Stallburg, and the Coin Collection of Ambras Castle in order to establish a unified imperial cabinet at a single location.
Emperor Francis I Stephen of Lorraine (1708-1765), husband of Maria Theresia (1717-1780), added a new dimension to the imperial coin collecting policy. He placed his main emphasis on coinage that was modern at the time. The year 1748 is one of the highpoints in the history of the Numismatic Collection in Vienna. At the time, Francis I Stephen of Lorraine ordered that the Numophylacium Carolino-Austriacum and the Numophylacium imperatoris Francisci I be combined. The overall inventory prepared for this occasion listed nearly 50,000 items, including 21,000 ancient coins.
In the year 1774, the secularized Jesuit priest Joseph Hilarius Eckhel was appointed head of the Coin Cabinet, and this man was to become an important figure for ancient numismatics in general: His system of categorizing coins according to geographic and chronological criteria, known as the “Eckhelsche Ordnung,” is still in use today.
Furthermore, Eckhel's ten-volume Doctrina nummorum veterum achieved worldwide fame and admiration for the Imperial Cabinet for the first time. During the 19th century, the findings of other historical disciplines were to further transform the field of numismatics. Purely descriptive numismatics was joined by an interest in the history of money as such, a fact which also lead to the expansion of collecting activities. Today, the Coin Cabinet contains far more than just coins, including other instruments as well such as paper money and paper securities, tax stamps, tokens and tickets, seals and seal stamps, coin scales and weights, orders, medals of honour and historic coin and medal minting stamps. In this, the Coin Cabinet has also become a collection point for documents that represent money in all its forms and functions.
Upon the opening of the newly established Kunsthistorisches Museum on Vienna’s Ring Road in 1891, the various imperial collections-which up to then had been housed in various buildings-were finally brought together in one place. The “Cabinet of Coins and Antiquities” was initially kept in rooms on the first floor before being moved to the second floor in 1899. Since 1900, the Coin Cabinet has existed separately from the Antiquity Collection as a collection in its own right.