The Collection of British and European Coins Formed by the Late Julian Birch

The Collection of British and European Coins Formed by the Late Julian Birch

Julian Birch (1945 - 2015)

Julian Birch was born in Wisbech on 28 January 1945. One of his abiding interests, medieval architecture, especially castles, developed as he toured the local area by bicycle and later in his mother’s car. A school friend remembers that he was already an avid collector of books and a hoarder of printed material, a habit which continued to the end of his life.

In spite of these existing interests, he chose to study Russian and Eastern European Studies at Birmingham University, a sign of his determination not to follow a conventional path. He had many tales to tell of one particular trip in a specially converted bus across Europe and through the Iron Curtain, dropping various students off until it reached Moscow, as well accounts of his various encounters with Soviet bureaucracy. He somehow managed to escape arrest but was occasionally expelled. He eventually became a lecturer at the University of Sheffield, encouraging students to see the reality behind the rhetoric of the Soviet Union. His particular interest was in communities who were considered minorities despite being in their ancestral lands, such as the Ossetians and Abkhazians.

Castles remained an abiding passion and we spent several weeks a year visiting remote sites in Britain to photograph lumps of earth in a field that had once been a mighty edifices, as well as spending hours trying to get shots without people in them in the more substantial remains of sites on the standard tourist trail. We toured Europe and the Middle East in search of castles, abbeys, churches and any other remains of the Middles Ages, visiting art galleries and museums in search of the art and artefacts of the period, as well as, of course, coins. He had a particular fondness for acquamanile, horse trappings and, somewhat out of period, Flemish winter scenes.

Julian was also a great traveller beyond the confines of Europe and the Mediterranean. His school friend remembers that Julian and his mother travelled abroad at a time when such travel was unusual but his mother still seems to have greeted Julian’s announcement that he was going to hitch to Timbuktu with unusual equanimity. He did get across the Sahara but missed Timbuktu. We travelled extensively in South and Central America, Central Asia, China and the Himalayas, including a trip to Tibet. Again, his interest was in the peoples who were labelled as minorities within their homelands and who had managed to preserve their costumes and customs. The extensive collection of hats he brought back, often the main way of distinguishing people from different villages or communities, ranged round the hall at home along with Tibetan dance masks, made quite an impact on guests. On one occasion he brought back a musical instrument from South America that looked remarkably like a sub-machine gun when wrapped up in brown paper along with a tarantula, fortunately stuffed in a glass case.

His interest in coins arose naturally from these varied pursuits. Long before the current challenges to the traditional teleological approach to history arose, he was fascinated by the many geopolitical entities which flourished and then disappeared, such as the duchy of Burgundy and by communities such as the Saxons in Siebenburgen, who survived for centuries within the mosaic of the Hapsburg Empire but were overwhelmed by the forces of nationalism in the 20th century. Coins are a tangible reminder of the significance of these communities, which are now often just seen as inconvenient footnotes in the history of modern states.

Julian’s death occurred on 12 February 2015, and his collection of coins, principally of the medieval period, are offered in the following 139 lots.

Julia Dagg