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Vlasto

Ravel, O.E., Descriptive Catalogue of the Collection of Tarentine Coins formed by M.P. Vlasto. (London, 1947, reprinted). 

The standard reference for coins of Taras (Tarentum), Calabria, Italy.  196 pages, 53 photographic plates.


Michel P. Vlasto (1874-1936

I will try to briefly outline some notes translated from an article I'm writing in Italian, on the biography of the greatest collector of Tarentine coins, whose name is still today, after almost a century, inextricably linked to the coinage of the ancient Greek polis of Magna Graecia, Taras. Unfortunately I have not been able to find many sources about the life of Vlasto. I gathered these notes using the preface from the famous Oscar E. Ravel's catalog on Vlasto collection, integrating with other information taken from the website of the National Museum of Athens, the site of the British Museum, a couple of reviews of exhibitions of pieces from his collection in Athens (in modern Greek, without google translate I would not have known where to start!), the wikipedia page on the Ralli Brothers and the chapter on Vlasto family from Chios, on the Golden Book of Mediterranean Nobility.
The pictures are taken from Ravel-Vlasto, from the website of the National Museum of Athens and the Corpus Vasorum Antiquorum. -

Michael P. Vlasto was born in Athens, February 1, 1874, he was the second son of Pantaleon Pandely Vlasto (Knight of the Order of the Redeemer) and Penelope Capari. After completing his studies in Marseille, the young Michel began working for the Ralli Brothers' firm, one of the most flourishing mercantile enterprises of the Victorian era. The Ralli family, also of Greek origin, was tied to Vlasto family by cross-recurring marriages since the early nineteenth century, as was common custom among the noble families of the time.

Michel worked in the early years in Liverpool, and was later transferred to Houston, Texas. From the USA he returned to Marseilles to work as manager of the French branch of the Ralli Company, a position he held until 1932, the year in which Michel, 50 years old, he left his job in Marseilles and settled in Athens, a city he had always considered the ideal place to spend the rest of his life. Unfortunately he had not much time to enjoy his Athens, as he died suddenly a few years later, in 1936. During the last years of his life he was among the founders of the "Association of Friends of the National Museum of Athens", to which he devoted much of his time and of which he was elected president from 1934 until 1936, the year of his death. The Association is currently still active.

In his life Michel Vlasto was a successful businessman, much appreciated by all. Ravel called him a "born artist", an excellent draftsman. His drawings were executed with great skill, and showed an understanding of Greek style rarely achieved by other professional draftsmen. His artistic sensibility made ​​him a true worshiper of Greek Art. Vlasto was fond of saying that, if he could, he would live in a museum as it was at home. He had a refined taste, Ravel argues that any piece attracted his attention was certainly to be judged a masterpiece. In fact Vlasto was not only a numismatic collector, as he put together an important collection of Greek art, consisting of approximately 760 objects, including sculptures, paintings, vases and other artifacts of exquisite workmanship.






At the time of his death the collection passed to his daughter Julia Penelope, wife of John Serpieri. During the tragic years the Nazi occupation the collection was hidden by Serpieri in the basement of his home in Athens, but the house was seized by the Germans, and the collection was taken into custody by the International Red Cross, and later returned to their rightful owners. On the death of Julia Penelope, in 1985, the collection was donated by Serpieri to the National Museum of Athens, finally respecting the final wishes expressed by Michel P. Vlasto before his death. The actual acquisition of the collection by the museum took place three years later, in 1988. Several of the pieces are now on display at the National Museum of Athens in the halls 60 and 61, with the name of “Vlastos-Serpieri Collection”. Many of the pieces have been lost in the vicissitudes of previous years, and some were probably sold by the same Serpieri, but today the collection of the Museum of Athens still contains 452 artifacts, from prehistoric times to the fourth century BC.

In the room 60 are displayed pieces from the Bronze Age, found in Egypt, Crete, Cyclades and Mycenaean Greece (showcase 1), Corinthian vases (showcase 2), the Beotia ( showcase 3) Attic ( showcase 5-8).

On the death of Michel P. Vlasto also remained unfinished a project of Corpus Vasorum Antiquorum, of which the museum displays some preparatory sketches drawn by Vlasto himself (showcase 9), along with other documents related to the personality of Michel and the formation of his collection.


Drawings of two black painted jugs (lekythoi, inv. no. SB 519 and 249, 510 - 490 BC) by Michael Vlastos (Room 61, Case 10, no. 3 and 20 respectively)



Room 61 displays artifacts from the Greek world of fifth and fourth centuries BC (showcase 10-17), and finally the last two showcases (18-19) display artifacts from the Spartan colony of Taras, consisting of vases, antefixes and pieces of jewellery.



The intense pleasure Michel felt while admiring a work of Greek Art was such strong as to make him say that he could not imagine a life without Art, and that there is no happiness without Beauty. His studio was a kind of temple, where Vlasto spent his hours surrounded by perfect examples of Greek Art. Apparently he was regardless of expenses in his passion for collecting. However, the greatest passion of Vlasto was undoubtedly the coinage of Taras, who represented his main area of research, both as a scholar and collector. Vlasto perfectly knew the history of the polis, having read every historical and literary sources concerning Taras. He put together a personal library of historical and archaeological topic including hundreds of volumes, which was donated after his death to the National Museum of Athens. We can consider the collector MP Vlasto as a model for what the Italian art historian Federico Zeri called the "atypical researcher": a man who prefers the direct relation with ancient objects, with materials and techniques, in other words the kind of collector who is not confined to accumulate objects only because obsessively attracted by their material value, but a man who is deeply interested in the history and meaning conveyed by those objects, by studying them and building a strong culture,  even so self-taught, a culture comparable to that of professionals historians or archaeologists.

In his preface Ravel adds some details concerning the numismatic knowledge of Vlasto, like he was almost a sort of mythological omniscient figure, quote: "He knew practically everything about Greek Numismatics. His memory was almost uncanny; he was a kind of living numismatic encyclopedia. The writer himself often went to him for information. He could tell at once, and without any hesitation where a coin was published and by whom, at which sale a similar coin was sold and by whom, and even name the price it fetched. If he did not know a coin, it was certain to be unpublished".

Ravel tells that knowledge of Vlasto about the coinage of Taras was unsurpassed, it seems that there was not a single coin from Taranto in public and private collections that he did not know. This knowledge emerges from several publications Vlasto  produced in his life: (Didrachmes inédites de ma collection, J.I.A.N. 1898; Monnaies rares ou inédites de Tarente, R.B.N. 1899; Les Monnaies de Bronze de Tarente, J.I.A.N. 1899; Les Monnaies d'Or de Tarente I p., J.I.A.N. 1899; Les Monnaies d'Or de Tarente II p., J.I.A.N. 1901; Choix de monnaies rares ou inédites de Tarente, R.N. 1904; Unpublished Coins of Tarentum, N.C. 1907; On a recent find of coins struck during the Hannibalic occupation of Tarentum, N.C. 1909; Taras Oikistes, Contribution to Tarentine Numismatic, N.N.&M. n.15 1922; Alexander Son of Neoptolemos, with the Carosino and Molossian finds, N.C. 1926; The Warren hoard of Tarentine Horsemen, N.c. 1930).

In scientific and numismatic Clubs  Vlasto was considered the greatest expert in the world on the coinage of Taras. In the last years of his life he was even invited by the Italian authorities to go to Taranto, to classify the collection of the Archaeological Museum. Vlasto was very honored by this invitation, as rarely in those years the Italian museums invited foreign scholars to compile their catalogs. Unfortunately, the sudden death made impossible the realization of this project, we can say that it was a huge loss for the world of Numismatics, if he had only lived a few years longer, probably today we would have a SNG Taranto signed by MP Vlasto!

The Taras collection by Vlasto was without a doubt the most extensive and comprehensive that has ever existed, so that the catalog compiled by Ravel can almost be considered a repertoire of types for the mint. There are many unique specimens or extreme rarity, but what is most surprising is the excellent state of preservation of most of the specimens. Vlasto confided to Ravel that he had bought for some types up to six specimens, finding each time a better one than the last, and yet for some types he was never completely satisfied. As stated by the son Pandely, Vlasto had expressed its intention to publish a catalog of his collection, but the sudden death would not let him. The catalog edited by Oscar Ravel was published in 1947, nine years after Michel's death, at the request of his son Pandely M. Vlasto, who in the same year sold the whole collection of his father, by Spink & Son. Ravel compiled the catalog according to the order in which Vlasto had kept its coins, using descriptions Vlasto had written by his own hand. A curiosity: Ravel, by his own admission, he compiled the entire catalog without taking direct view of the collection. Dr. W. Schwabacher sent him the casts of all the coins in the collection, and Ravel made copies produced by melting (we are talking about more than 1800 specimens!). So the coins photographed in the plates of Ravel's work are not the original coins, but the copies made by casting.
A final observation about coin collecting: it seems that Vlasto in his life he had collected not only Tarentine coins, in fact at the British Museum is stored a collection of bronze coins from Thessaly, from Vlasto's collection, sold to the British Museum in 1933, when Vlasto was in life.

To conclude I quote once again Oscar E. Ravel, who wrote in the preface to the catalog: "Any collector would be proud to have just one of them in His collection". I can not blame him, I think I was never so happy (from the point of view of collecting) as the time in which I could win this coin, not the rarest or the most beautiful in my collection, but certainly one that evokes in me much emotion, thinking to whom it belonged about a century ago (as long as it is not the cast copy by Ravel!



Calabria, Tarentum. Circa 272-240 BC. AR Nomos (19mm, 6.46 g, 10h). Warrior on horseback left / Phalanthos riding dolphin left, holding hippocamp and trident. Vlasto 930 (this coin); HN Italy 1044. VF, toned, some roughness. From the Ronald J. Hansen Collection. Ex Noble 70 (11 July 2002), lot 3088; ex M.P. Vlasto Collection.