History of the collection:
Coins and Medals


The Department of Coins and Medals is home to one of the world’s finest numismatic collections comprising coins, banknotes and related materials such as coin weights, tokens and money boxes. The department also holds an impressive collection of commemorative and art medals, as well as the most extensive numismatic library in the country.

The collection contains almost a million objects from all over the globe. The department’s aim is that its holdings may serve as a key reference for scholars and members of the public. The collections are brought to a wide audience through exhibitions, publications, a broad learning programme and through the department’s study room.


Coins and medals have been part of the British Museum collection since its earliest days - over 20,000 were included in the collections acquired in 1753 under the provisions of Sir Hans Sloane's will. Although not a coin specialist, Sloane acquired ready-made earlier collections which included Greek, Roman, British and Islamic coins. He also included coins that were, for him, contemporary, such as the emergency 'Gunmoney' issued in Ireland by James II during his attempt to regain the throne of England in 1689-90.

An even older collection, formed by the antiquary Sir Robert Cotton (1571-1631) and including several unique Anglo-Saxon coins, was also acquired by the Museum during the eighteenth century.
Formerly a part of the Department of Manuscripts (coins being classed at the time as metal manuscripts), the collection was first moved to the Department of Antiquities in 1807 before a separate Department of Coins and Medals was created in 1860.

During this time the principle of aiming for completeness in the National series was established under the keepership of Edward Hawkins. Once the collection had its own department, the number of purchases and bequests, including Queen Victoria’s gift of the Cuerdale Viking treasure, increased to cover many cultures and periods of history.

Collection and acquisition

The foundations of the department’s holdings were the collections of Hans Sloane and those of the antiquary Sir Robert Cotton (1571-1631). The latter’s collection was acquired by the Museum during the eighteenth century.

During the nineteenth century, a number of important bequests helped to expand the collections. These included the collection of Sarah Sophia Banks, given to the Museum by her brother Sir Joseph Banks in 1818, which incorporated newly issued coins from the recently formed United States of America. The collection of King George III, acquired in 1824, included many important coins and medals, and in 1841, the Cuerdale treasure was presented by Queen Victoria.

In recent years the old law of Treasure Trove and the new Treasure Act have made it possible for the Museum to acquire several important finds, often with the support of external organisations such as The Art Fund and the Heritage Lottery Fund, as well as the Museum Friends. These include the late Roman hoard from Hoxne in Suffolk, a hoard of Celtic gold staters and Roman jewellery from Alton in Hampshire and the Appledore hoard of 500 silver pennies from the eleventh century.

The purchase of intact collections is unusual, but does occasionally occue. In the last twenty years the Museum has been able to make two rare acquisitions of complete collections. One covers the whole history of Chinese coinage and was donated by the Reverend S Box, a missionary working in China from 1926 to 1952. The other one consists of around 1100 seventeenth century private tokens from the Norweb collection.

A number of significant single coins have also been purchased in recent years. These include the earliest known English farthing,  a unique aureus of Octavian, minted in 28 BC and showing the emperor in the act of restoring the constitution to the Roman people, a key moment in Rome’s history, and a unique coin of Coenwulf, one of only eight gold British coins known from the period AD 700-1250.

The collection of paper money now runs to around 50,000 specimens, 30,000 of which are on long-term loan from the Chartered Institute of Bankers. The notable acquisition in this series came in 1986, with the purchase of a collection of around 12,500 notes. This material included part of a collection put together during the 1930s by the Marquis of Bute, and incorporating the collection of George Pflumer which had been assembled around the turn of the century.

Further reading

Andrew Burnett, “The British Museum and Numismatics Past and Present”, in Barrie Cook (ed.), The British Museum and the Future of UK Numismatics. Proceedings of a conference held to mark the 150th anniversary of the British Museum’s Department of Coins and Medals, 2011 (BM RP 183, 2011), 2-10.

Thomas Hockenhull, ‘The British Museum and the Blitz: Coins and Medals in Wartime’, British Numismatic Journal, 82 (2012), 192-202.