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  • Writer's pictureAntonis Chaliakopoulos, MSc

A Brief History of the Numismatic Museum in Athens

What is the Numismatic Museum?

The Numismatic Museum in Athens is a museum of coinage with a collection of over 600,000 objects that are housed in the palace built for famed German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann.

C messier, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Numismatic Museum History

Athens’ Numismatic Museum is housed in one of the most beautiful and historic buildings in the city centre. This is the work of Ernst Ziller, a 19th-century German architect and one of the pioneers of the Neoclassical movement in Greece. Ziller's exuberant mix of classical and Renaissance elements ensured he was much in demand, and his buildings helped transform 19th-century Athens into a modern European metropolis.

However, the building did not start life as a museum. In fact, Ziller designed this harmonious structure for one of the most important intellectuals of the 19th century, a German businessman whose name became synonymous with Bronze Age Greece and the time of Homer: Heinrich Schliemann. Before his day, scholars and archaeologists were convinced that the Trojan War, as described in the epic poetry of Homer, was nothing but fiction.

Schliemann did not agree. He became obsessed with the Homeric epics – so much so that he sought to discover and excavate the lost city of Troy by himself. If successful, he would prove to everyone that his favourite epic, the Iliad, held a grain of truth in it. After a series of expeditions, the amateur enthusiast found evidence for the city’s existence and, in so doing, earned a reputation for himself as one of the most important archaeologists of his or any time. But he didn’t stop there. Soon after Troy was discovered, Schliemann came to Greece in search of Mycenae, home of Agamemnon, leader of the Greek army that campaigned against Troy. And he found it, including an exquisite gold funeral mask (now on show at the National Archaeological Museum) that one scholar called the ‘Mona Lisa of prehistory’. Schliemann had done it. In search of legends past, he had become a legend himself.

When he moved to Greece, Ziller designed for him this three-storey building, fittingly named the Iliou Melathron (or Palace of Troy). Inside you’ll find it decorated with mosaics and murals inspired by Schliemann’s excavations. In 1927, a few decades after the archaeologist’s death, his wife Sophia sold the house to the Greek state. Since then, the building has been repurposed a few times until, in the 1990s, the Numismatic Museum was housed in it. The museum's collection has a long history too, going back to its founding in 1838 when it belonged first to the National Library of Greece and then to the National Archaeological Museum. As the collection grew to more than 600,000 objects, it became evident that an independent home for it was needed.

The museum’s exhibits tell the story of coinage from its humblest beginnings in antiquity all the way to the present day, boasting one of the most comprehensive collections of ancient Greek, Hellenistic, Byzantine and Ottoman coins in the world. Other than being a historic house and numismatic museum, the building also contains one of the most beautiful and peaceful cafés in the centre of Athens, set in the museum’s idyllic sculpture garden.

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