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Octavian Iliescu (22 august 1919 – 24 iunie 2009) / Octavian Iliescu (22nd of August 1919 – 24th of June 2009)

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Excerpt Octavian Iliescu was born on the 22nd of August 1919, in Craiova (Romania), in the family of a magistrate. He was the first born of the three children of the family, being followed by a sister and a brother. He followed primary and secondary studies at Balş and Craiova, where he graduated with excellent results the National College (High School) "Charles I". Before WWII, as well as nowadays, this high-school is the most prestigious in the region of Oltenia or Lesser Wallachia (in South-Western Romania).
In 1938, he enrolled at the Faculty of Law of the University of Bucharest, which he graduated in 1942. Once completed the faculty, he was in the army for two years, until the autumn of 1944, following the officer’s school and, then, carrying out the service at various military units in the country.
Returning to civilian life, Octavian Iliescu decided to pursue a career as a lawyer, and to read for the Bar of Ilfov and Bucharest. This was one very short activity, being sawn off by the policy of the Romanian Communist Party. According to the practices of the time, in 1950 he was removed from the Bar Association under the pretext of "compression" surplus number of Jurists, who have become useless in a regime based on the open violation of any law, written or unwritten. For a while he was employed as an unskilled worker at the Sanitation Office in Bucharest, taking care of the maintenance of lakes of the municipality. Later, he was promoted as technician in the same department! Deprived of the opportunity to practice in the field of law, for which he was trained, Octavian Iliescu was forced to choose a new path in life, that of history.
The year 1951 will represent a turning point in his personal and professional life. Octavian Iliescu was employed as external collaborator, then promoted to 2nd assistant and, ultimately became researcher at the Institute of History of the People’s Republic of Romania in Bucharest. His election as a member of this prestigious institute staff was not only the consequence of a fortunate strike of fate. Already in the early 1950s, the young Octavian Iliescu was well known and recognized in the world of historians due to his contributions on ancient and early Romanian medieval numismatics. He was known not only for his expertise in the field of Romanian medieval numismatics, but also for his solid knowledge of history. At the Institute of History he would start an outstanding scholarly career which allowed the exploitation of his extensive knowledge not only of numismatics, but also of economic, social, cultural and political history as well as in the history of ideas. This would push him in the forefront of numismatics and made him known and appreciated both in the country and abroad.
From 1953 to 1954 he was employed by the Museum of the State Bank of the People’s Republic of Romania, and, after its demise in the hands of short minded and ignorant officials of the bank, at the Coin Room of the Romanian Academy Library (1954-1978). Here, until 1958, he collaborated with Prof. Constantin Moisil, whom he knew already from his student years. Octavian Iliescu was studying in the Coin Room already during his studentship and got access to collections. In addition, in the years 1942-1944, whenever he came to Bucharest, he attended the meetings of the Romanian Numismatic Society, delivering papers or taking part in debates.
For two decades, between 1959 and 1978, Octavian Iliescu was the Head of the Coin Room of the Romanian Academy, contributing to the enrichment of the collections; the organization and the scientific exploitation of numismatic treasures in that famous institution. His intense activity of publication, together with his competence and his friendly and generous character made him known and appreciated not only among archaeologists, historians or museum keepers from Romania, but also among foreign researchers. Famous numismatists, such as Tommaso Bertelè, David M. Metcalf, Philip Grierson, Cécile Morrisson, Todor Gerasimov, Sergije Dimitrijević, Karel Kastellin, Lajos Huszár, as well as historians like Geo Pistarino or Michel Balard, to mention just a few of those who maintained a frequent correspondence with Octavian Iliescu, were exchanging ideas and publications, in spite of the bureaucratic barriers of the "Iron Curtain" or visceral suspicions manifested by the communist regime against any kind of contact with "foreigners", including those coming from the “brotherly” states.
Octavian Iliescu spent the last years of his "institutional" career at the National Museum of Romania, where he contributed to its inauguration 1968-1971. He retired in 1982.
After 1990, he was re-employed as researcher at the Institute of History "Nicolae Iorga" of the Romanian Academy, same place where he started his career almost 40 years ago... For him, to work at the Institute of History once again was not only a great joy, but also a moral reparation for the humiliations and injustices he suffered after 1978.
Octavian Iliescu’s contacts with numismatics began early, at the age of nine years old, when he laid the foundations of a coin collection which he will enrich for the next seven decades. His interest in ancient coins brought him in contact with the well-known numismatists from Craiova of those times: Dr. Aurel Metzulescu, Constantin S. Nicolaescu-Plopşor, Luigi Gattorno, but also with the most important numismatists and coin collectors from Romania of those days: Prof. Constantin Moisil, Dr. George Severeanu, Corneliu Secăşeanu, Dr. Heinrich Bursztyn, Mrs. Mina Paucker, Octavian Luchian, Ilie Ţabrea, Irimia Dimian. Amongst them, Dr. Aurel Metzulescu, Constantin S. Nicolaescu-Plopşor were his first mentors who have influenced decisively his future career, and later, Constantin Moisil, whom Octavian Iliescu succeeded as the Head of the Coin Room in 1958.
From December 4, 1938, Octavian Iliescu became member of the Romanian Numismatic Society where he was active for 60 years, until 1998.
In December 2008, as a recognition of an exceptional professional life and his dedication to the Numismatic Society, Octavian Iliescu was proclaimed Honorary President of the Romanian Numismatic Society.
His first short contribution on numismatics was published in 1940, when he was only 19 years old. Since then he has published nearly 900 studies, articles, notes and reviews, as well as a few volumes.
Octavian Iliescu’s scientific interest has covered the entire spectrum of numismatics, from the early coinages (Greek, Dacian, Celtic, Roman and Byzantine) to the Romanian, Balkan and Western medieval ones, as well as Islamic, up to the modern and contemporary numismatics. At the same time, his research aim also to medals and related fields such as heraldics, sigillography, metrology and glyptics.
Without a doubt, his favourite field of research was that of Romanian medieval numismatics (Moldavia, Wallachia and Dobrudja). In this vast field of research, Octavian Iliescu continued, expanded and, especially, modernized the studies initiated about 140 years ago by Sturdza, Docan, Severeanu and Moisil. He updated them closer to the level achieved by European scholarly investigations of the 20th century. A quick glance at his bibliographical reference list is enough to understand how many novelties brought Octavian Iliescu to the research of monetary production and circulation in the provinces of present day Romania.
Octavian Iliescu has sought to unveil the general evolution of the Romanian monetary system during the 14th-15th century; the organisation of monetary production and distribution, as well as the minting activity throughout the Principality of Wallachia. As early as 1956 he had proposed a rigorous system of classification of the Wallachian issues based on periodic changes of monetary types and mint-marks, or other items used in the mints of this country for the control of the monetary production. The principles on which this classification system was based are still valid today and can serve as a ground stone for discussion of new ones.
In 1956 he published a small monograph on the coin issues of Vladislav I. This contribution was followed by others dedicated to the coinage of Laiotă Basarab (1975), Vlad I (1988) and, recently, a volume dedicated to the minting activity during the reign of Mircea the Elder (2008). The latest book is, at the same time, the only comprehensive synthesis on the monetary activity of this Romanian prince.
As I review the numismatic work of Octavian Iliescu, I must mention here some of his studies on the political organization of the Romanian polities in the 14th-15th century. Such are those relating to the joint reigns, or those aiming at the economic and financial resources of the Principality of Wallachia during the times of Basarab I, Vladislav I, or Moldavia, during the reign of Peter I. Another series of contributions have analysed the monetary economy development on the Romanian territory in the 14th-17th century.
We are also indebted to Octavian Iliescu for the two modern overviews regarding the evolution of the monetary activity on the Romanian territory from the 14th century to 1867 (the 1st edition published 1964, the 2nd edition in 1997 and another volume in 1970). These books are very useful even today.
Octavian Iliescu was a pioneer on the study of the Dobrujan medieval coinage. He was the first to identify the issues of the Christian political petty-states of Northern Dobruja, under the hegemony of the rulers of the Golden Horde, and the existence of local monetary systems in the main trading centres from the Danube, such as Chilia and Licostomo, during the second half of the 14th century.
Another chapter of numismatics where Octavian Iliescu has played a fundamental role is that focused on the studies in Islamic coinage in Romania. Prior to him, in this field of research only one Romanian contribution can be mentioned - on the Ottoman coins in the hoard from Ţifeşti (Vrancea County), published by Constantin Moisil in 1916. Octavian Iliescu has established the first research on the coinage of the Golden Horde not only in Romania, but also in the entire South-Eastern Europe. Even today the publication of the hoard from Oţeleni (1964) is a methodological model of how to approach such finds of high historical value, but tremendous palaeographical difficulties.
Moreover, Octavian Iliescu was the first eastern European scholar to publish an Indian gold coin. The coin is an issue of the Delhi Sultanate found in the hoard from Brăieşti (Botoşani County). At the moment, the coin is the westernmost find of the kind found on the European territory.
Equally remarkable are the contributions of Octavian Iliescu in the Central and Western European medieval coinage. In 1943, he edited the first hoard of pence of Friesach type found south of Carpathians, the Filiaşi hoard (Dolj County). The hoard consisted of coins issued in Styria, Carinthia, Austria, Köln and England during the 12th-13th century. Quite likely, this hoard was concealed during the great Mongol invasion in 1241-1242.
In the 1970s he published two important contributions on the Genovese and Venetian coin finds in Romania. The conclusions were fundamental for the understanding of the impact of the international trade at the Black Sea and the Lower Danube upon the economic, political and cultural Romanian society in the 13th-15th century. The historical significance of Octavian Iliescu’s works on the Genovese colonial coinage goes far beyond the local and regional importance, and is a major contribution to the Late Medieval European numismatics.
Octavian Iliescu has also carried out research in archaeology and he published a large number of gold hoards from the Bronze and Early Iron Ages in Romania such as the ones from Perşinari (Dâmboviţa County), Sacoşu Mare (Timiş County) and Căuaş (Satu Mare County). The wonderful treasure of swords and daggers from Perşinari was published in several studies in Romania and abroad.
Aside from hundreds of works, studies, articles, notes on numismatics, medals, sigillography and heraldics, metrology, glyptics and archaeology, economic, social politic history, historical geography, Octavian Iliescu also delivered over 300 scientific lectures in Romania and abroad.
For many decades, Octavian Iliescu was member on the editorial board of prestigious journals such as: Studii şi Cercetări Numismatice, Buletinul Societăţii Numismatice Române, Cercetări Numismatice and he was the editor of the volume La numismatique, source de l'histoire de l'art et de l'histoire des idées. Travaux présentées au XVe Congrès Internationale des Sciences Historiques, Bucureşti, 11 août 1980, avec une préface de R. A. G. Carson (Bucharest, 1981).
In recognition of his rich scientific activity, Octavian Iliescu was elected member of the International Committee of Medal (1968-1977) and counsellor member of the International Office of Numismatics (1973-1986). Since 1991 he was an honorary member of the same Commissions, the only Romanian to hold this position so far. He was honorary member of the Royal Numismatic Society (London, 1977) and correspondent member of the American Numismatic Society (New York, 1989). Octavian Iliescu was also a member of the Society of Oriental Studies (1960), founder member of the Society for the Byzantine Studies (1984), member of the Society for the Classical Studies (1970) and member of the Association of Scientists (1989). In 2003 he was awarded the Order for Cultural Merits, rank of officer.
Octavian Iliescu was always a friendly and generous person. Famous scholars or amateurs, young or old, were all happy to receive his advice and help. In the period when he was head of the Coin Room of the Romanian Academy Library the place was an oasis where you could read bibliography and get access to the collection.
Despite the fact that he never taught, through his works, lectures and discussions with young (and not so young) researchers Octavian Iliescu has established a true Romanian school of numismatics.
The disappearance of Octavian Iliescu ends an era not only in the field of Romanian numismatics, but the European one, as well. It is the era of the great scholars with an encyclopaedic spirit, those who decisively made the numismatics one of the most important sources for history during the second half of the 20th century.
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  • Cercetări Numismatice: CN; XV; anul 2009; subtitlu: Volum dedicat lui Octavian Iliescu (1919-2009)
    • Cercetări Numismatice: CN; XV; anul 2009; subtitlu: Volum dedicat lui Octavian Iliescu (1919-2009)
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