By Russell A. Augustin, AU Capital Management, LLC ……

The Colosseo Collection
 

The First Circulating Coinage

Little is known about this mysterious archaic electrum coinage – the first ancient gold coin. It was minted in Ionia, somewhere in central Western Anatolia on the shores of the Aegean sea, but scholars have yet to identify the precise city-state that produced this sophisticated and attractive early type. Based on the weight of these coins, it is speculated that they could have been minted in Miletus, a city often referred to as the origin of the modern world, as it preceded Athens as the intellectual and commercial center of Greece.

Both the obverse and reverse show well-executed geometric and linear images, with the obverse resembling a star (sometimes described as a “collapsing square”). The design is deliberate, and elements of it are repeated across each denomination, but the significance is unclear.

ancient gold coin - IONIA, Uncertain. Circa 650-600 BCE. EL Hekte – Sixth Stater (9mm, 2.30 g). Lydo-Milesian standard. Geometric type.
IONIA, Uncertain. Circa 650-600 BCE. EL Hekte – Sixth Stater (9mm, 2.30 g). Lydo-Milesian standard. Geometric type.

This type likely represents the first true coins which circulated in everyday use. The striation types are known to have been struck earlier but they are not found in heavily worn, circulated condition like many examples of this geometric coinage. It is also generally attributed as being the first coin made with an obverse and reverse type, as opposed to a simple incuse reverse.

The known populations of this type are primarily composed of small 1/24th staters which represented about a day’s pay. Larger denominations are quite rare, including this hekte (one-sixth stater). Even fewer trites (one-third stater) are known and only three full-size staters have been found.

While the stater and trite have different obverse and reverse types, the hektes combine the obverse of the stater with the reverse of the trite, which could have been used to differentiate value.

IONIA, Uncertain. Circa 650-600 BC. EL Hekte – Sixth Stater (9mm, 2.30 g). Lydo-Milesian standard. Geometric type. Geometric figure resembling a star, composed of a cross centered upon a polygon of eight sides within a square with slightly rounded sides / Rectangular incuse punch divided horizontally and vertically into four compartments by two perpendicular lines; the upper two compartments divided into thirds by two parallel lines; the lower two compartments divided into halves by a single line, the upper halves contain a pellet, the lower halves are bisected by two small vertical lines. McFaddden 2; Weidauer –; Traité I 5; SNG Kayhan 698; Boston MFA –; Rosen –; Elektron –; Zhuyuetang 3 (all from same die and punch). EF, lightly toned. Well centered. From the Lexington Collection.

The Stag of Artemis

While second nature today, the original use for the earliest coinage is still unknown. The first person to put an image on a small piece of metal could not have realized that they would change the world forever, starting a substantial departure from millennia-old customs of trade.

During the excavation of the famous Temple of Artemis at Ephesus (present day Turkey near the Black Sea), a group of coins was found which are thought to comprise its “foundation deposit”, a custom that supposedly prevented the building from falling into ruin.

IONIA, Ephesos. Electrum 1/24th stater. ca. 625-600 BCE, 6mm, 0.6g. Forepart of a stag with head facing left.
IONIA, Ephesos. Electrum 1/24th stater. ca. 625-600 BCE, 6mm, 0.6g. Forepart of a stag with head facing left.

The largest type in the group, a stater, had an inscription stating, “I am the badge of Phanes”. As the earliest coinage was believed to be made by private citizens outside of government control, it is speculated that Phanes was a wealthy merchant who guaranteed the coin value with his name, although his life is otherwise lost to history.

Trites of the same type also bear the name of Phanes, making this the earliest use of an inscription on a coin. Due to space constraints, the smaller denominations are without any inscription. They are instead identified stylistically by the same spotted stag, shown grazing on the stater and with a turned head on the fractional coins. The stag allows this coin to be further attributed to Ephesus as Artemis, the patron goddess of the city, chose the stag as her sacred animal.

Whether they were originally intended to be used to appease the gods, pay mercenaries, or to fund city projects, coins revolutionized commerce. As our modern world becomes increasingly digital, the concepts pioneered by the first coins still make up the backbone of trade, offering an accessible, neutral medium through which transactions can be processed quickly and fairly.

IONIA, Ephesos. Electrum 1/24th stater. ca. 625-600 BCE, 6mm, 0.6g. Forepart of a stag advancing right with head facing left. 3 ovals on chest. / Incuse punch with raised lines within. BMC Ionia -; Rosen -; Traité -; Weidauer -. Very rare unpublished variety with three ovals on the stag. Nearly extremely fine.
 


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