British Coins from the Collection of the late Richard Plant
Richard Plant (1928 - 2020)
The Reverend Richard J. Plant, who died peacefully at his home in Bawtry, South Yorkshire, on 2 August 2020, had a distinctive approach to writing
about coins which arose from a life-long quest to make them accessible to collectors who lacked his own classical education. His articles and books, typically illustrated by his own meticulous hand-drawn illustrations, aimed at making clear features difficult to discern on even the best photographs, brought coins to life. Neither as a collector or as a writer was he much interested in a coin’s monetary value; instead he focused on making connections to the history, myths, places, objects and people on them.
Plant was born in Wandsworth, London, on 6 July 1928, the son of a Scottish-Australian father and Welsh mother. His father, a civil engineer who had returned to London to join up in 1917 after several rejections by the Australian army because of his poor eyesight, went blind when Richard was very young. Richard won a scholarship to Emmanuel School in Clapham and was evacuated to Petersfield during the War. His first coin, acquired at the age of six, was a 1916 zinc issue from the German occupation of Belgium; he subsequently explored the Caledonian (Tower Bridge) and Portobello Road markets for coins. A keen student of Latin and Greek, he built his collection up by identifying coins for dealers on the Portobello road in London in exchange for a few coins. During National Service in 1946-8 with the Middle East Land Forces he was stationed in an anti-aircraft battery in what is now Libya, and once found a bronze of Valens in the sand by a latrine.
Following demobilization Plant read classics at Jesus College, Oxford, from which he graduated in 1952 (image at right), then trained for the Methodist ministry in Cambridge, where he added Hebrew and Semitic languages to his box of tricks. He subsequently served in a number of towns and cities around the UK.
His writing career began in 1965, with an article for Seaby’s Coin & Medal Bulletin on the coat of arms of Lorraine. But it was in 1973, with Arabic Coins and How to Read Them, that he really broke through. Encouraged by Peter Seaby, he wrote in spare moments during the working day and even sourced a printer in Manchester to typeset the volume; the writer of this obituary recalls holding a torch for him to draw by in the evenings during the three-day week of 1973. ‘Reading Arabic is fun,” the book starts. “Persevere long enough and a whole new world will open up.” For Plant it did: the book won him the Royal Numismatic Society’s Lhotka Memorial Prize in 1975. This was followed in 1979 by Greek Semitic Asiatic Coins and How to Read Them (reissued in 2013). Father always regarded this as his magnum opus, though he was perhaps unfortunate in his choice of publisher (Scorpion, run by the late Bruce Braun and Francis Rath), and the volume is not as well- known as it deserves to be. Like his first book, this was illustrated throughout by his trade-mark pen and ink drawings; similarly, the choice of subject matter was to an extent driven by his limited budget. In the 1970s, Arabic, Semitic and Asiatic coins tended to be cheaper to collect than English, or even classical Greek coins, and Plant often began writing about coins in his own collection.
On a clergy stipend, Plant only spent on coins what his royalties and identification fees earned him. His notebooks often recorded not only the type, metal, weight and condition of coins he had bought, but where he had acquired them and the price he paid. Frugality, patience, and skill in identifying coins meant he picked up bargains. In a long biographical piece on him for The Celator in 2010, Mark Fox quotes Father’s recollection of finding an unpromising bronze coin in a dealer’s box that, after a bit of cleaning, turned out to be a rare Judæan coin over-stamped X by the tenth Roman legion during the occupation that followed the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in AD 70. This was just the kind of thing that interested him; a small piece of history in the palm of his hand.
In 1979 Seaby published his Greek Coin Types and Their Identification, which took the unique approach to listing pages of line-drawn illustrations of human figures, gods, half-human mythological creatures, animals, birds and inanimate objects as a quick and easy way to identify them. (A Cambridge classics doctoral student told me that, armed with this guide, he had outperformed all-comers in identifying coins during a prestigious coin identification course at the British School in Athens). A similar approach was taken in his guides to Roman Base Metal Coins (2000) and Roman Silver Coins (2005), both of which proved popular and became standard tools for identification for collector and specialist alike. Once, seeking to buy a few Indian coins from a shop in Cochin, I saw my Father’s books behind the counter, and on producing proof of my identity to the sceptical dealer, negotiated a pleasing discount when I told him who the coins were for.
The last substantial book my Father wrote was A Numismatic Journey Through the Bible (2007), which originated as a series of illustrated talks for church groups. Other books exist about early Judæan coinage, or about the coins used in Judæa during the life of Jesus of Nazareth. Plant’s book dealt with all that, but also used coins from other periods and places that he could connect to biblical events and characters. His Coin Lexicon and Coin Classroom articles for Coin News in recent years proved to be an especially fruitful late vehicle for his interests. These allowed him to roam freely from ancient to modern, and from Western to Eastern coins, to explain words like Mæander and phalanx. Here, the full scope of his linguistic, historical and numismatic knowledge was harnessed to his quirky humour and imagination.
My Father always thought that clergy without a hobby tended to be over earnest and a bit too intense for their own good. Coin collecting and writing nearly always played second or third fiddle to his long and faithful Christian ministry, served in the West Midlands, London and Yorkshire, and to his family – wife Ann, sons Peter and Stephen and his five grandchildren. But his hobby kept him sane; through it he made friends around the world with whom he enjoyed emailed conversations, especially as his physical world contracted. His unconventional writing will be missed by many, as will his extensive knowledge, his winsome charm and his defining modesty.