Exhibit of alumna’s donated ancient art showing at Wriston

Ray Feller

Ottilia Buerger bought her first coin in 1958. A Lawrence magna cum laude graduate with a major in Latin from 1938, she always had an interest in the classics. When she saw a Roman denarius in Gimbel’s Department Store of Milwaukee, she thought that it would be neat to buy for its near $5.00 price. At this point, she thought it was simply an interesting token to have considering her interest in Latin culture.Now, 44 years later, this coin that was bought on a whim is part of what was to become Buerger’s world-class collection. At her death in Dec. of 2001, Buerger had accumulated 344 fine pieces. ‘

After her first coin, Buerger bought several more at Gimbel’s. It wasn’t until she had seen the collection of ancient coins at the Smithsonian and read the catalogue of J. Pierpont Morgan’s collection that she decided to really begin collecting. Her original goal was to acquire a gold coin from each legitimate ancient Roman emperor. When this ambition started to look like it wasn’t quite difficult enough, she extended it to seeking out Byzantine and Greek pieces as well. All of her passion remained a clear extension from her original love of the classics.

When Gimbel’s ceased to be enough to satisfy Buerger’s taste for numismatics, she moved on to reputable sources such as Edward Gans, Seaby’s and Spink & Son of London, Coin Galleries of New York, Bank Leu of Zurich, Munzen and Medaillen of Basel, and Harlan Berk of Chicago. Throughout, she was careful to find only the highest quality pieces, ever concerned with finding the best examples she could.

Buerger began donating her pieces to Lawrence on Jan. 21, 1991. She presented an initial collection of 291 pieces, and said: “Now I am returning to my alma mater what she has so richly endowed me with—a love of truth and beauty beyond price. I give to the generations of her students my baubles, my children, these true eye-witnesses of history, that they may enrich their lives as they have mine, with that love of beauty beyond compare.”

From the start, one of the main goals for Buerger was to let her collection help teach students. Multiple courses have been led by art professor Carol Lawton in which students have conducted research and helped to create a comprehensive knowledge of all the examples of ancient and Byzantine coins Buerger accumulated.

Frank Lewis, Wriston curator, explained that “Ottilia loved Lawrence, remembered it fondly. It was clearly an experience she valued.” After school, Buerger taught briefly around Wisconsin, but quickly returned to her hometown of Mayville to care for her mother. Lewis shared how she had always very fondly valued her liberal arts education and decided that donating her collection would be a good way to give to the school.

Not only did Buerger donate a coin collection, but she donated one of the finest ancient collections there is. “She had a lot of patience, a good eye, and wanted the best possible examples available,” said Lewis.

Buerger definitely succeeded in finding high quality. Her collection was evaluated by a representative of the American Numismatic Association, who said that overall the quality of her collection was extremely high, both in representation and quality. The ANA website even lists Buerger’s collection in its set of links for information about ancient and Byzantine coins.

Since the initial gift in 1991, Buerger continued to collect and to donate her acquisitions. In 1995, the research of Lawton and her students was published in a catalog entitled Bearers of Meaning: The Ottilia Buerger Collection of Ancient and Byzantine Coins at Lawrence University. In it are articles by Lawton, Jere M. Wilkins, Daniel J. Taylor, and Michael T. Orr, covering the history of ancient time, how coins were made, and the images on coins. The catalogue then goes on to show pictures of all of the coins then in the collection, giving brief descriptions of the images and time periods for each example. The book is available at the library or online at www.lawrence.edu /dept/art/buerger/index.

Last spring, Buerger had donated 28 new coins. Originally, the plan for these coins was for them to be researched by a class and then to be turned into a small brochure that would accompany a large gallery exhibit. After her death, this exhibit has grown to also be an honor to her life, both her kindness to the school and her fine taste in coins.

The show is entitled “Portraits of Power” and focuses on portrait heads. It looks at the iconography of ancient and Byzantine coins, particularly soldiers, women, piety, victors, clothing/costume, Christianity, and other themes. It will be in Wriston from April 5 through May 19.


Nero—AV aureus, a.d. 64-65

The laureate head of Nero sits on the obverse of this coin. Known for his cruel and eccentric ways, Nero was hated. This coin was minted to honor his discovery of an assassination plot before it was too late. The fat appearance of his face was true to his real image, one which was supposed to be quite disgusting.

The presence of Jupiter on the reverse of the coin is a symbol of Jupiter sitting as guardian over Nero. He holds a thunderbolt in his right hand and a scepter in his left.


Leo VI and Constantine VII—AV solidus, a.d. 908-912.

On the obverse is a seated picture of Christ with a cross-nimbus behind his head. His throne has a lure for its back and his right hand is raised in blessing while his left hand holds a book. The Latin translates to: “Jesus Christ, King of those who rule.”

The reverse of this Byzantine coin has Leo VI and Constantine VII standing. Each is wearing loros and a crown with a cross on it. They are holding globus cruciger in their outer hands and are sharing a patriarchal cross in the center. The Latin translates to: “Leo and Constantine, Augusti of the Romans.”.

Macedon, Perseus — AR tetradrachm, 171-168 b.c.

Perseus, the last Macedonian king, is shown on the obverse of this coin. He is bearded, with some of his qualities believed to be his own actual distinctive features, such as his sloping forehead and prominent nose, with other aspects more representative of traditional Hellenistic coin portraits.

The reverse of this coin has an intricately detailed oak wreath surrounding an eagle, standing proud on a thunderbolt. This is a symbol of Zeus, who was a patron deity to Macedonian royalty. Considering the technology of the time, this coin especially shows how intricate engravings were in the time.

Athens, Attica (Greece) — AR tetradrachm, c. 450-440 b.c.

A smiling, archaistic Athena overpowers the obverse of this coin. As the patron goddess of her namesake, Athens, Athena represents wisdom and war. Here she is depicted wearing a helmet with laurel leaves.

Athena’s symbol, the wise owl, sits on the reverse of the coin. This owl came 75 years after owls began appearing on coins. Despite this large span of time, the fashioning of the owl was quite consistent in order to ease the acceptance of these coins in foreign markets. This owl comes from what is known as the High Classical period. The letters along the sign are the abbreviation for
Athens. In the background are olive leaves, a berry, and a waning moon.