THE ASIATIC SOCIETY WAS FOUNDED with the avowed object of conducting enquiry into the history and antiquities, arts, sciences and literature of Asia. The members started collecting materials to illustrate the investigation, and these objects, deposited with the Society, formed the nucleus of a museum, which was proposed to be formerly set up as early as 1796, but ultimately came into existence in 1814 "for the reception of all articles that might be sent to illustrate Oriental manners and history, or to elucidate the peculiarities of Art or Nature in the East." Among the objects collected, coins occupied an important place. James Prinsep has left an account of the collection of the early days. He was aware that the assemblage was, indeed, poor, the reason being that coins exhibited in the meetings of the Society and described in the transactions, were rarely donated. The names of the donors were not always recorded and the provenance was hardly mentioned. Prinsep further regretted that often the coins were carried to England and these seemed to get lost among a large number of antiquities accumulated in public and private cabinets of European collectors. However, sometimes, when the important specimens were described in detail in scholarly journals, their importance could be understood easily. H. H. Wilson also speaks of the coins which were in the possession of the Asiatic Society in its early days. In this connection, he has mentioned the principal collections made in India by Col. Willoughby, Seymour, Dr. R. Tytler, Col. Mackenzie and others. The majority of the specimens consisted of Muhammedan and Roman coins. But there were side by side, coins of Northern India and copper coins from the South. Most of these were sent out of India. However, the duplicate specimens of Mackenzie collection, which was the richest of the lot, came back to the Asiatic Society through the help of the Government of Bengal. These formed the core of the Society's collection which was subsequently enlarged by presentation and purchase. The Mackenzie collection referred to above is alleged to have contained fabricated specimens as well, which was prepared by Col. Mackenzie himself. The plate accompanying Wilson's article shows that the collection included issues of the Imperial Kushanas and the Guptas. In 1843, E.Roer, the then Librarian of the Society, published a catalogue of coins in its cabinet. It contained a large number of copper coins besides a few silver, of the Roman emperor Augustus and his successors, some Greek, Indo-Greek and lndo-Scythian species and coins of other varieties. Roer mentions that the lndo-Grecian, lndo-Scythian and Hindoo coins were very few, totalling only 116 and these were in a poor state of preservation. He rightly suggested that the collection should be enlarged. He also realised that these monetary issues were important sources for the political history of India, from the period of Asoka to the Muhammedan times. In 1844, comparatively valuable coins from the cabinet were stolen. Nevertheless, the description of Freeling published in 1857, indicates that the collection had been enriched over the years. It is interesting to note that at this time the collection contained a considerable number of Roman and Norweigian coins. However, there were many Indian coins as well, and these included punchmarked and cast copper coins, local coins of Ayodhya, silver and copper specimens of the lndo-Greeks and lndo-Parthians and gold coins of the Indo-Scythians, i.e., Kushanas. The cabinet was also rich in Gupta coins made of gold, silver and copper. Arracan coins presented an interesting series. The Muhammedan coins were rich with the issues of the Delhi Sultans, the Pathans of Bengal, the Mughals and the Ghaznavite Kings.
A remarkable addition was made in 1859 when the Society purchased a "magnificent and representative collection" of Col. Stacy for a sum of Rs. 4,000/- only. The total contained 101 gold, 1842 silver and 4384 copper pieces. It included coins struck by the Greek, lndo-Greek, Saka-Pahlava, Parthian, Kushana and Sassanian kings besides tribal coins of ancient India, Gupta coins, the coins of the Hindu kings of Ohind and Muhammedan coins of a large variety.
The collection of the Society continued to grow even after the addition of the Stacy collection, through gifts, purchases and presents of treasure trove finds from the Government of India. But the growth was on a modest scale. In 1883, Rajendralala Mitra noted that the collection was rich in Delhi Pathan and Bengal Pathan coins. It was also rich in later Bactrian, lndo-Scythian, Gupta and Hindu-Buddhist coins. But the collection was defective in provincial Muhammedan coinage and in ancient coinage of Saurashtra and Sassanian. Gold coins of the Romans found in Madras Presidency had their own importance. There were other coins as well of rare variety.
The most important and representative coins of the Society's cabinet were transferred to the Indian Museum when it was established under the Act XVII of 1866 of the Legislative Council. The richness of the coins transferred will be evident from Vincent Smith's, Nelson Wright's and John Allan's catalogues of coins in the Indian Museum. In these works the specimens received from the Society are recorded under the distinct mark of A.S.B. Even after the transfer to the Indian Museum the Asiatic Society has a sizeable number of coins. The pre-Muslim coins have been classified and the Muslim ones are under the process of classification.