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Famous Coin Collector:Dr.William Hunter


William Hunter 1718-1783

His coin collection forms the nucleus of Scotland oldest museum the Hunterian in Glasgow.


The core of the collection remains the Cabinet of Dr. William Hunter, probably the finest ever put together by a private individual. Hunter’s own account book shows that he began to collect coins about 1770 and over the next 13 years, until his death in 1783, he spent a fortune of over £22,000 in this endeavour. Given his commitments to medical matters and his wide collecting interests, he depended on the advice of a small group of eminent numismatic friends.

Generally Hunter bought complete collections with a view to integrating these into his own cabinet. However, he added only those coins which he did not possess already or which he possessed in poorer quality. Duplicates were sold at two major auctions. He purchased extensively in England and Italy; from fellow collectors or their heirs, at auction, from dealers, medallists and the Royal Mint. George III gave him the then unique gold coin struck during the siege of Athens in 296 B.C.

One of his biggest purchases took place in 1782 in Vienna when Hunter acquired the Hess collection whose chief glory was its Roman Imperial gold coins. There were approximately 700 of these which, when added to Hunter’s own, created an outstanding series of such coins. The price was £2,400.

Sometimes the account book mentions the purchase of individual coins which can still be pointed out in the collection. In 1780 Hunter paid £21 for a “Scotch David” which must refer to David II’s gold noble and the same year saw the purchase of “a Saxon Queen”, the penny of King Offa depicting his wife Cynethryth.

It was thus that Hunter built up his coin cabinet which was reputed to be second only to the French Royal Collection. His collections, bequeathed to Glasgow University, came to the city in 1807. They were brought by ship with a naval frigate as an escort except for the coins which were considered too important to risk at sea. These were transported by road escorted by six carefully chosen and armed men sent from Glasgow. The coins were housed in the specially built Hunterian Museum on the Old College site in the High Street but were not publicly displayed. Indeed at one time it required the presence of three professors each with a different key to open the coin cabinet.

In 1870 the University left its medieval site to move to the present edifice on Gilmorehill, overlooking Kelvingrove Park. The coins were stored for six years in the vaults of the Bank of Scotland until a new safe was ready to receive them. In 1884 the construction of the Bute Hall included a new coin room where the coins have remained ever since.

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