Starosselsky, Coins and the South Caucasus

Starosselsky Box 3
Box of ANS coin 1922.216.341

Last summer, I was at the American Numismatic Society as part of their graduate student Summer Seminar. One of the great parts about this experience was getting to spend time with coins from the ANS collection: for me, this meant lots of trays of coins from the Caucasus. In the trays, I kept seeing stamps reading “STAROSSELSKY” or “GEN. STARO” on the bottom of the coin boxes, like the one pictured here, of ANS coin 1922.216.342. At the ANS, the storage boxes are often a great source of information about the coin, recording bibliographic references and, as in the case of the “STAROSSELSKY” stamp, information about the coin’s previous owner.

I’d already heard Starosselsky’s name in passing. While working on a dissertation chapter about Azerbaijani-Russian relations, I’d read a wonderful book chapter by Stephanie Cronin, “Deserters, Converts, Cossacks and Revolutionaries: Russians in Iranian Military Service, 1800– 1920.” In it, she describes the critical role that a Vsevolod Starosselsky played in the Game of Empires and the last days of Qajar Iran– he was the commander of the anti-Bolshevik Iranian Cossack Brigade from 1918-1920, when he was pushed out by the British.

If the number of boxes stamped with his name were any indication, Starosselsky appeared to play an important part in the story of the ANS’s Islamic coin collection as well– and I wanted to find our more about this story.  With the help of the ANS’s head librarian David Hill, I was able to look through archival documentation about these coins, which provided a small window onto the fascinating world of Starosselsky and his coins. On the basis of this archive, I recently wrote an article for the ANS Magazine. It turns out that following Starosselsky’s expulsion from Iran, he emigrated to America and became a citrus rancher in California, eventually settling down to raise chickens with his wife. With the help of ANS curator Howland Wood, he sold his numismatic collection to raise funds for his agricultural endeavors.

Now, I’m in the process of preparing a presentation about Starosselsky’s collection, and I’ve been thinking more about Starosselsky. In particular, I’ve been thinking about his connections to the South Caucasus: his identity as the son of a Russian officer and a Georgian princess, and how this all may have shaped his collection. It’s difficult to know for sure. We only have a tiny part of his collection– about 1/4 of his (reported) 10,000 coins ended up in the ANS. The rest were dispersed to American museums and collectors. And in the archives, Starosselsky provides few glimpses into his collecting habits.

Nikanor Chernetsov, “View of Tbilisi,” 1832 (via Wikimedia)

But, we do know that Starosselsky spent nearly his whole life in the South Caucasus. It was a region that –thanks to Pushkin and Lermantov– occupied an important place in the imagination of 18th century Russia, as Russia’s mysterious and wild Orient. It was the fodder for generations of Russian writers and artists, like the Chernetsov brothers, one of whom painted the above romantic view of Tbilisi. But Starosselsky’s connection to the region was much more personal. He was born during the oil bomb in Baku, where his father was the Russian governor.  The elder Starosselsky was a liberal aristocrat, and a supporter of local intellegentsia in both Baku and Tbilisi. Through his mother, furthermore, Starosselsky would have grown up amongst the Georgian elite, in a tradition with strong historical roots. One clue about his own deep ties to Georgia comes from his decision to try his hand at Orange farming in California: the Black Sea coast of Georgia has long been known as Russia’s citrus basket.

In one letter, Starosselsky says that he began collecting coins in 1898. He had spent the early 1890’s in St. Petersburg, at the Page Corps training for a military career. It was probably in the museums and salons of that city that he was exposed the habit of numismatic collecting. Coins had long held an important place in Russian archaeological and historical work and were familiar in the countries museums, and collecting (in various forms) was popular amongst the Russian elite of the period– much as it was in Europe and America. And, the reach of numismatic interest in Russia went far beyond academic circles. For example, one of the more curious of the pre-Revolutionary Russian philosophers, Vasily Rozanov, was actually a numismatic collector who wrote about coins and money extensively in his philosophical work. So Starosselsky’s own collection should be considered within this climate.

Nevertheless, we understand little about what motivated him specifically to build his collection, or what approach he took to it (although its shear size suggests that he was ambitious). It is not clear, for example, that he was particularly interested in coins from any particular place, although it is tempting to see the preponderance of Caucasian coins as a sign of his own interest in the region. However, it is entirely possible that he simply collected what was available to him. We do, however, know how he felt about his coins. In one letter from the ANS archives he writes:

Starosselsky Letter
Letter, Starosselsky to Wood, Jan. 22, 1922. American Numismatic Society, Record Group 2: Curatorial, 1858-ongoing, Series 9: Howland Wood curator correspondence and other material, 1913–1937. Box 8, Starosselsky, V. D. 1921–1938.
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Ex-Russian Colonel Now a Hatcheryman Los Angeles Times, Dec 9, 1928

As I was working on the Starosselsky article, I was struck by the personal side of this story. The idea that Starosselsky had collected these coins for over 20 years, and then somehow transported them out of Iran as he fled with his family, only to sell them in his new homeland to finance his ailing citrus ranch and chicken farm.

Those stamps on the bottom of the ANS coin boxes are a traces of an epic 2oth century story– one tiny  point within a much larger history that tied the fate of the South Caucasus to political interests in Russia, England and America.  And it is not just the Starosselsky coins in the ANS– perhaps as many as 7500 of his pieces were sold to other museums and private collectors in the US and abroad, and they likely continue to circulate on the numismatic market to this day. This type of collection history is not a footnote to other types of numismatic scholarship. Instead, it tells a rich story all of its own, which sheds light not only on numismatic history, but also the cultural currents of our own modern era.

(A transliteration footnote: in Russian, Starosselsky’s name is Старосельский, and popular English spelling is Staroselsky. This was, however, not the form used by Starosselsky himself.)


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