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Ancient Coin Stories: A Rare Plotina Sestercius

by Geoffrey Cope & Dr. Alan Walker Nomos Zurich for CoinWeek….

I love Roman coins because of their artistry, their beautiful style, the fact that their content tells us about classical antiquity and, of course, for their quality. The Sestertius is, for me, the unsurpassed Roman Imperial Roman coin to collect, since its size allows the die engraver great scope and because, over time, it can develop an often colorful and beautiful patina, which, once again, appears most magnificently on a coin of this size. In fact, in my opinion the sestertius is the most interesting denomination of the Roman Imperial coinage. Its value was officially a quarter of the silver Denarius, but its large size meant that it was a perfect vehicle for propaganda purposes, and was used as such from when it was first issued under Augustus until it was discontinued during the great inflation of the 260s.

The sestertius described below was minted in c. 112 AD in honour of Pompeia Plotina, the wife of Trajan (emperor from 98 to 117). It is one of the finest examples of its type to survive from ancient times.


Every coin has its own story to tell, if we know how to listen to it! This coin of Plotina was first published when it appeared in an auction catalogue of 1906 (more about that below) and would never come into my collection had it not been for a young man named Yves Gunzenreiner. Yves, who is now finishing his degree at the University of Zürich, is continuing his numismatic interests by working at Nomos AG in Zurich under the sometimes watchful eye of the inimitable Dr. Alan Walker, whose numismatic knowledge, at least in my opinion, is unrivaled. This coin, and many more in my collection have had the Dr.’s ‘blessing’; after all, every collector and collection needs a mentor, since only with the help of a ‘team’ can you build your collection and fulfill your aspi¬rations.

This coin is one of the great treasures of my collection, and is of the highest rarity, both because of its state of preservation and for its provenance: it comes from a hoard that was found in the late 1890’s in Bolsena, Italy* and has remained untouched, as it was found, until today. It is well struck and well centered on a broad flan so that the naturally aristocratic features of the Empress appear in a most noble manner. Quite clearly, after its discovery it was only brushed to remove any soil and dirt adhering from years under the ground. It was described and illustrated in the auction catalogue of 1906 (there it was termed Magnifique and FDC); it then sold for an immense price (1400 Lit) 349 and then a year later sold in Martinetti Collection (Sangiorgi Galleries, Sambon/Canessa, 18 November 1907), lot 1933 PLOTINA ex.Sarti ending up in a collection, which may have begun before World War I, but certainly finished in the early 1960s; after being in a bank vault for over a generation the collection was recently sold at auction.

The whole hoard was legally acquired by Prof. Prospero Sarti soon after it was found; he had intended to catalogue, describe and clean the coins during his proposed retirement, but his sudden death in 1904 meant that none of that work was done. This was an enormous loss because this hoard was clearly one of the most interesting and important hoards of 1st and 2nd century AD aes ever found (the fact that so many of the coins that were in it were little worn may even mean that the coins were selected from circulation specifically because of their condition). Until recently this hoard had been forgotten, but it is fair to suggest that one result of the Sarti sale was to provide collectors and museums with a remarkable number of Roman bronze coins, which, when cleaned, entered collections and museums in Europe and elsewhere (it is known that c. 4000 coins were in the Bolsena find and only a mere fraction of those were sold individually at the Sarti sale; even fewer were illustrated in 1906 with the vast majority being sold uncleaned in multiple lots). Alas, virtually all of this provenance information seems to have been lost.

Plotina is portrayed with aquiline features, with her hair raised over a diadem over her forehead, and bound with pearls. The wonderful long spiral curls of her hair twist around each other sinuously at the back of her head. On the reverse Fides (Trust) stands facing, her head turned to the right, and holds a basket of fruit with her left hand and barley ears in her right.


Plotina was well known for her high moral standards and her kindness, as well as for her support for her husband: she travelled with him to the East and was present at his deathbed. It is said that when Plotina entered the imperial palace after her husband Trajan had become Emperor, she turned to those gathered at the steps and declared “I enter here such a woman as I would wish to be when I leave.” Plotina was instrumental in ensuring that Hadrian, who she greatly liked and was Trajan’s ward, succeeded peacefully to the throne on Trajan’s death. One of the most influential of all Roman Empresses, she was interested in philosophy and in the doctrines of Epicurus, virtue, dignity and simplicity. She provided Romans with fairer taxation, improved education, assisted the poor, and tried to make Roman society ever more tolerant. Plotina first appeared on the coinage in 112 and died in 121/2.

1906 Prof. Prospero Sarti Catalogue – Rome

Plotina, wife of Trajan. Sestertius 112-117, Æ 26.81 g. 34 mm. PLOTINA AVG – IMP TRAIANI Diademed and draped bust to right. Rev. FIDES – AVGVST S – C Fides standing right, holding basket of fruit with her left hand and barley ears in her right. Banti 1. BMCRE 1080 (Trajan). Cohen 12. RIC II 740 (Trajan). Strack 441.

This coin is an extremely rare Roman Imperial orichalcum (brass) Sestertius of Plotina, and is both an exceptionally fine example and is in its original condition as found (when this piece was sold for 1400 Lire in 1906 this price was simply astoundingly high). There are no other specimens known in this overall condition that have not been at least somewhat re-touched; all the others are of poorer quality, tooled or smoothed (sometimes drastically).

*Extract: 1906 Rivista Italiana di Numismatica, p. 276-277, a review of the Sarti Sale…

Sale, Sarti in Rome. – This past May in Sangiorgi Gallery in Rome saw the sale of coins and ancient bronzes left by ‘Prospero Sarti, Prof. Mr’. The coins cannot be said to constitute a collection itself, it was a choice of beautiful bronzes patiently created over a long period of years in the past, a large quantity of coins in the hands of an amateur.

In fact, it contained pieces in a fantastic (meravigIiosa, extraordinario) state of preservation. Two hundred coins, individually chosen to which was added a rich beautiful hoard found a few years ago in Bolsena and consisting of approximately 4000 large bronzes, almost all of the imperial (high) empire. Mr. Sarti had purchased the entire hoard, but had no time to examine it or clean it up before his death. Also in this hoard were some coins in beautiful preservation. The sale attracted amateurs, many shopkeepers or specialists who also competed and prices went up, they went up to limits so far never achieved. Pei lists some large bronzes and we do not believe it even necessary to identify the individual coins, because in this sale the rarity of names seen was completely neglected, prevailing absolutely the modern theory that conservation not only applies to everything, but is the only element of judgment.

We believe there have been no other sales of Roman bronzes in beautiful conservation that have had such an enthusiastic reception.

Great bronze (as listed from the Sarti Sale 1906). Augustus, Livia, Tiberius, Drusus, Nero Drusus, Agrippina, Caligula, Claudius, Nero, Galba, Vitellius, Vespasian, Titus, Domitian, Nerva, Trajan, Plotina, Hadrian, Sabina, Aelius, Antoninus Pius, M. Aurelius, Faustina.


The lot description of this coin from the only known marked priced catalogue of the 1906 sale.



Taking photographs of coins that were from a hoard, in this case 5% of uncleaned and with loose material encrusted created a new challenge. The coins illustrated on the Sarti (Sangiorgi Rome) plates were illustrated by DIRECT PHOTOGRAPHY, NOT FROM CASTS. They were simply photographed from casts the way plates were almost invariably made in those days. Any difference in shape between the coin as illustrated in Sarti and in later catalogues is from the fact that the photograph used in Sarti was improperly trimmed before the plate was made. This means that ALL THE COINS ILLUSTRATED IN SARTI Sangiorgi Rome SHOWS US THE COINS IN DIRECT PHOTOGRAPHS. Sangiorgi in Rome, was a very serious firm that sold all kinds of things at auction at the beginning of the 1900’s, probably they had its own studio and, thus, was enabled to do direct photographs of the coins.

Geoffrey Cope & Dr. Alan Walker Nomos Zurich

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