Interview with Christian Weiss

Swissmint donates the complete collection of new coins minted in a given year to the Swiss National Museum. We would like to introduce you to Christian Weiss, Curator of Numismatics and Seals at the National Museum.

How did you come to numismatics and the National Museum?
After switching from biology to history and archaeology during my studies, as a student I was keen to take part in the University of Zurich’s educational excavation on Monte Iato near Palermo. The condition set by my professor at the time was that I had to study numismatics and accept the vacant post of numismatist for the dig. This requirement was definitely where my fascination for numismatics began. On Monte Iato, I realised how exciting numismatics is, and when I returned I attended all the courses on numismatics and also worked at the Winterthur coin cabinets during my studies.

After my studies, I started my dissertation and worked in several museums, such as the History
and Ethnology Museum in St Gallen and the Basel Historical Museum. I joined the Swiss Numismatic Society and the Swiss Group for the Study of Coin Finds. After my work at the Basel Historical Museum, I took up a permanent position as a numismatist at the Swiss Inventory of Coin Finds (SICF) and the Bern and Solothurn cantonal archaeological services at the end of 2011. I also still lecture at the University of Bern and, when required, at the University of Zurich.

In 2016, I defended my dissertation on the medieval coins and weights found on Monte Iato and applied to succeed my predecessor Hortensia von Roten as curator of the coin cabinets at the Swiss National Museum.


The Swiss National Museum has one of the largest coin collections in Switzerland. What is the role of numismatics here at the National Museum?
I would go so far as to say that this coin collection is the largest collection in Switzerland. Our task is to use objects to document the cultural history of Switzerland as best we can.

We document all of Switzerland’s coinage from the Celts to modern times, we collect objects that have a direct connection to Switzerland in line with our collection concept, we reconstruct history using coins – and of course other objects – and we train students in the specialised field of scientific numismatics. We also organise our own exhibitions and assist in the design of other exhibitions.

“I would even go so far as to say that the National Museum’s coin collection is the largest collection in Switzerland.”

Scientific numismatics? Could you define this term?
Colloquially, the collecting and trading of coins is also referred to as numismatics. I therefore like to speak of scientific numismatics in order to avoid any misunderstandings. We try to acquire and develop as much knowledge as possible based on the coins available to us. This can involve individual aspects such as monetary history, economic history or public history. We analyse what money meant for people, for those in power and for society. If we know which money was valid where, we can answer questions about trade relations, about how people interacted and the structures of the time.

For me, these things are more exciting than coin collecting itself. Yet, coin collecting is closely linked to scientific numismatics – we need enough objects that we can use for documentation. You could say that coin collecting is a basic requirement for scientific numismatics.


What does a curator of numismatics do?
At the National Museum, I am tasked with curating the numismatics and seals collection, determining what we want to add and what still needs to be researched. The idea is that we prepare and communicate the information that the objects in the collection can contribute to history. Digitalising our collection is also one of my tasks. I also organise exhibitions and support other departments with numismatic objects that can help to convey the subject of an exhibition. It is very exciting to interact with both academics and the general public. For both, we are the point of contact for questions about coins and monetary history. I support the Swiss National Museum’s library with its new acquisitions, to ensure that what is probably the best numismatic library in Switzerland remains as relevant in the future as it is today. I also advise museums that have a numismatic collection but no in-house numismatic department, and I am available to provide expertise to customs and prosecution authorities. For valuations, however, we have to refer to coin dealers, as the Swiss National Museum does not provide these.


“Personally, I find coins interesting that become fascinating through their history.”


How important are numismatic exhibits?
Numismatic objects are usually part of an overall exhibition. They are used when they help to illustrate the topic. Let me use two examples to demonstrate the role of numismatic exhibits:

– In the permanent exhibition on Swiss history, we have lined up one-franc pieces, one per year of minting. This exhibit symbolises the history of Switzerland and this coin. The Swiss franc represents the world’s longest continuous history of modern coin minting. Since its first minting, only the smallest adjustments have been made, otherwise the coin has remained unchanged. And of course this coin is a symbol of Switzerland and symbolises the nimbus of the strong Swiss franc.

– In the exhibition “La Suisse. C’est quoi?”, which opened as a permanent exhibition at the Château de Prangins in 2022, we included the “50 years of Swiss women’s right to vote” special coin minted by Swissmint in the exhibition shortly after it was issued. With this special coin, we were able to present the topic of women’s suffrage to visitors in a different form.


You regularly receive new coins from Swissmint. What other sources do you have to supplement your collection?
In addition to the coins from Swissmint, we receive donations and occasionally acquire objects that are offered to us for sale. In the case of both donations and acquisitions, we scrutinise the objects on offer very carefully. When it comes to donations, we check whether the objects fit into our collection concept and whether we already own them. It is not our aim to hoard as much as possible. If a donation does not help us to present Swiss cultural history in all its facets in the best possible way, it makes little sense either from our point of view or from that of the donor. We have a considerable duty of care when it comes to potential acquisitions. We not only check whether the objects fit into our collection, we also check whether the price is appropriate and whether their provenance is certain.

Are you a collector?
No, I’m not a collector. I collected Schweppes cans very briefly as a child, probably more to copy my brother, who collected cola cans back then. Personally, collecting for the sake of collecting does not interest me. I’m interested in how I can find out more about something and what it tells us. I just need to have access to the objects, but not own them personally. But just because I’m not a private collector doesn’t mean that I’m not fascinated by collecting: we also have collections at the Swiss National Museum that have been amassed by private individuals over the course of their lives before being donated to the museum. The coins from these collections not only reveal a lot about their own history – you can also learn a lot about the collector’s own thoughts from the coins.

Which Swiss coins do you like best?
Personally, I find coins interesting that become fascinating through their history. They can be unusual examples of minting or coins that can convey important historical information.

– Unusual examples of coin minting can result from technical innovations or political events, but also because they may have been minted using different materials or production processes. Specialists usually need some time before the usual level of quality can be achieved. I find the coins created in these interim stages very exciting.

– Coins that can convey important information about history are coins that at first glance often appear inconspicuous, sometimes even unattractive. However, with the knowledge that these coins can give us about history, such coins become fascinating, sometimes even unique.

Three Coins where Knowledge of History is key

Three Coins where Knowledge of History is key

Inv. M-6678
Merovingian Empire, Theodoric II (596–613),
tremissis, no year
(c. 600)

Mint: Vindonissa (Windisch)
Obverse: VINDONISSE FITVR; Bust with diadem facing right
Reverse: TVTA MONE[TA]R[I]VS; Cross on triangle, ball below
Other information: Ø 11.0 mm. 1,22 g. 330°. Gold, embossed. 

This tremissis proves that a regional centre with its own coinage still existed in Vindonissa around 600 AD. It is an important piece in the mosaic of the fragmentary history of early medieval rule in what is now Switzerland.


Inv. M-13456
Schwyz, canton. One-sided angster,
no year (1506–1529)

Mint: Bellinzona?
Obverse: S = V; bust of St Martin from the front
Other information: Ø 14.0 mm. 0.28 g. billon, embossed.

For a long time, Schwyz did not have its own coinage. During the joint rule of Bellinzona, Schwyz, together with Uri and Nidwalden, issued its first coins, which were initially minted collectively. Following opposition to the new coins from the Federal Diet in March 1506, Schwyz withdrew from the common coinage and minted coins in its own name. The unilaterally minted angster, on which only the S = M for St Martin was changed to S = V for Svit(ensis) (= Schwyz) compared to the previously jointly minted angsters, was most certainly intended for circulation north of the Alps. However, as Schwyz did not have its own mint there, these first coins of the canton of Schwyz were probably also minted in Bellinzona.

Inv. M-4233
Duchy of Swabia, court diet coinage, Emperor Conrad II (1027-1039), denarius, no year (1030–1034)

Mint: Zurich
Obverse: + CHVNRADVS IMPER; Salian crown
Reverse: + TVREGVM; Zurich palatine castle, southern aspect
Other information: Ø 19,9 mm. 0,63 g. 315°. Silver, embossed.

The reverse of the Emperor Conrad II denarius shows a secular building, which can probably be identified as the more recent palatine castle on the Lindenhof in Zurich. The denarius with crown and imposing edifice epitomises a display of power by the emperor in a place that had previously rebelled against the empire under Duke Ernst II.

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The coin cabinet

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