Ancient Coins – Harlan J. Berk’s Buy or Bid Sale #196


By Mike Markowitz for CoinWeek …..

*All estimates and prices realized in US$ unless otherwise noted

Since 1964, Chicago-based coin dealer Harlan J. Berk, Ltd. has been a major player in the ancient coin market. With their 196th Buy or Bid Sale (closing on February 4, 2016), the firm continues a tradition of offering a variety of quality ancient coins across a wide price range. Berk invented the “Buy or Bid” sale, offering this explanation:

When you want an antiquity or coin in the sale, just bid the estimated price by phone, fax, web site, email or post. We will send you the antiquity or coin immediately. No waiting for the close of the sale. Any and all antiquities or coins not sold before the closing date will be sent to the highest bidder on February 4, 2016.

The 40-page catalog lists some 387 ancient Greek, Roman, Byzantine and Celtic coins, 24 world coins, and 44 antiquities and maps.

hb_196_13The star of this sale (and the catalog’s cover illustration) is Lot 13, gold stater of Panticapaeum, struck c. 325 to 310 BCE. The ruins of Panticapaeum lie on a hill above the city of Kerch on the Crimean peninsula by the Black Sea. Founded by Greek colonists in the seventh century BCE, Panticapaeum grew rich on the grain trade. Pan, Greek god of wildness and sexuality, was the city’s patron and his image appears on the city’s abundant gold and silver coinage in the fourth century BCE.

Weighing 8.53 grams, it grades “Mint State”. The obverse depicts the bearded, pug-nosed, ivy-wreathed head of a “satyr” (almost surely Pan). The reverse shows a griffin with a javelin in its mouth, a stalk of wheat below, and the Greek letters, Π Α Ν, abbreviating the name of the city, around the edge. Estimated at $41,500, the coin was “in the possession of a Crimean family resident in the US since the 1940’s [sic]” and is only the fifth-known example. Previously in the Dr. Lawrence Adams Collection, it last appeared in the CNG 100 sale, lot 61 (7 October 2015) where it realized $23,000 against an estimate of $20,000.

Spectacular and historically important, Lot 3, is an electrum trite of Ephesus in Ionia struck c. 625 – 600 BCE. A “trite” is one-third of a stater; this coin weighs 4.72g. The obverse depicts a grazing stag with the inscription ΦΑΝΕΟΣ, “of Phanes.”

hb_196_3The inscription is “retrograde” – reading from right to left; at this early date the Greeks had not quite decided in which direction they would write. The reverse bears two deep irregular punch marks. We do not know whether Phanes was a government official or a wealthy merchant, but the stag was his personal emblem and he was the first Greek to put his name on a coin.

On the related stater, the largest denomination of this rare coinage (four examples known), the inscription translates as “I am the badge of Phanes.” Fewer than 20 trites of Phanes are known. This coin is estimated at $55,000. In the Triton XIX sale (5 January 2016) a somewhat better example from the Adams collection sold for $70,000 against an estimate of $30,000.

Lot 20, with a remarkable pedigree, is a Roman aureus of Domitian (ruled 81-96 CE). Formerly in the collection of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art (MOMA), it came from the estate of Joseph Hart Durkee, a Florida collector drowned in the sinking of the French liner SS La Bourgogne on July 4, 1898[1]. In 1972, the Museum sold 250 Roman gold coins, including this piece, at a Sotheby’s auction in Zurich, realizing $1.2 million toward the purchase of the famous Euphronios krater, a magnificent Greek vase[2].

hb_196_20Estimated at $14,000, near mint state with some luster, this aureus weighs 7.74 g and bears an obverse bust of the portly, paranoid emperor surrounded by his titles. His titles continue on the reverse, depicting the helmeted goddess Minerva holding a double-pointed spear. This coin last appeared in Goldberg’s Auction 80 (June 3, 2014) when it brought $9,500 against an estimate of $7,000-8,000.

On September 21, 1922, in Beaurains, near the Belgian city of Arras, two construction workers dug up a hoard of 472 gold coins including 25 large medallions. Buried during the chaos of the third century, the treasure probably belonged to a high-ranking officer who served between 285 and 310. The local museum in Arras and the British Museum in London acquired most of the hoard, but some was dispersed in trade, including this aureus of Maximianus who ruled as co-emperor with Diocletian from 286 to 305. Struck at Trier on the Rhine in 303, the obverse bears the emperor’s bearded, laurel-crowned bust. The reverse depicts Hercules standing naked with his signature attributes: club, bow, and lion skin. The Latin inscription translates: “Hercules, Preserver of our Emperors.” Weighing 5.25g and graded Mint State, Lot 24 is estimated at $19,500.

Berk usually has strong Byzantine offerings. This sale is no exception. Lot 39 is a Mint State gold solidus from the joint reign (780 – 790 CE) of the doomed Constantine VI and his mother Irene. In 797 Irene staged a coup that deposed her 26 year-old son; he was brutally blinded, and soon died. Irene ruled until deposed in another palace coup in 802. On this “dynastic” issue, Constantine and Irene appear together on the obverse, while the reverse shows three generations of ancestors: his father Leo IV (775-780), grandfather Constantine V (741-775) and great-grandfather Leo III (717-741).

In a 1986 book[3], Berk noted “this issue is plagued with flat spots,” and the coin’s value depends on how many of the five portraits are well struck. On this example, the left side is weak but Irene’s portrait is superb. The coin weighs 4.41g and grades Mint State, with an estimate of $8,000.

Classic Greek silver coins in high grade continue to rack up impressive prices in the ancient coin market, and Lot 46, a nomos of Tarentum c. 425-415 BCE (with an estimate of $15,500), is among the more important pieces in this sale.

Colonists from Sparta founded Tarentum in 706 BCE. The usual obverse on Tarentine coins is the dolphin rider[4], a popular image from Greek mythology. On this coin the rider holds a large cuttlefish in his left hand. The reverse depicts the muscular seated figure of Taras, son of the sea god Poseidon.

Beautifully toned, this coin grades Extremely Fine and has a pedigree going back to a 1951 Swiss auction (M&M Basel 10, Lot 161). It was unsold in the January 2015 Gemini 12 sale against an estimate of $15,000.

In the fifth century BCE, the Greek cities of Sicily achieved a level of technical and aesthetic excellence in coin design that would not be matched until the 19th century. Messana, on the narrow strait that separates Sicily from the toe of Italy, was one of the leaders in this movement.

hb_196_50Messana’s symbol was a leaping hare, which appears on the reverse of Lot 50, a silver tetradrachm dated to 428 – 426 BCE. On the obverse, the city’s namesake–the nymph Messana–drives a biga (a chariot drawn by two sturdy mules) while Nike, goddess of victory, flies above to crown her with a wreath.

Weighing 17.33 grams, Lot 50 grades Extremely Fine, with a pedigree extending back to 1907! The estimate for this coin is $15,500. It last appeared in the Nomos AG Auction 11 (9 October 2015), where it realized 9,500 Swiss francs (about $9,824).

Wow. Just wow!

Athenian “owls” are among the best-loved and most common ancient Greek tetradrachms, but “archaic” owls (struck before about 450 BCE) are scarce, and high-grade examples are very special indeed.

Lot 90, an Extremely Fine tetradrachm of Athens, c. 475-470 BCE, is “Group I,” the earliest coins to add a small crescent moon beside the sprig of olive leaves on the reverse. This may refer to the Battle of Marathon, fought in a crescent-shaped formation (490 BCE). The image of Athena on the obverse shows a faint “archaic” smile and bears the “archaic” eye[5].

Boldly struck, on 17.06 grams of good metal, the coin is estimated at $21,000.

The artists who engraved dies for ancient coins are almost entirely unknown to us, but a handful of coins bear signatures. One of these is Lot 109, a silver tetradrachm of Rhodes, dated c. 408 – 404 BCE.

hb_196_109On the reverse, among the tendrils of foliage around the Rhodian symbol of a rose blossom, appear tiny letters ΞΕΝΟ, the first part of a personal name, perhaps “Xenocrates” or “Xenophon”. This is one of only three known coins of Rhodes to bear the artist’s signature. The obverse depicts Helios, the sun god, in high relief. This coin was published as #27 in Berk’s book 100 Greatest Ancient Coins (Whitman, 2008). The estimate is $68,500.

A Xeno-signed Rhodian tetradrachm, from different dies, sold for $80,000 in the Triton XIV sale (January 4, 2011, Lot 329).

When Alexander the Great died in 323 BCE, his generals carved up his empire. Ptolemy, son of Lagos, grabbed Egypt (and hijacked Alexander’s remains, for a magnificent tomb in – where else? – Alexandria). Alexander was deified, and his idealized portrait appears on Ptolemy’s early coinage, struck in dead Alexander’s name.

Lot 153, a tetradrachm dated c. 314-310 BCE and estimated at $7,500, is a spectacular example.

On the obverse, Alexander wears the elephant headdress, symbolizing his conquest of India. The reverse shows the war goddess, Athena Promachos, advancing with spear and shield.

This coin last appeared in Roma Numismatics Auction 2 (October 2, 2011, Lot 337), where it brought UK£3200 ($4,985) against an estimate of £3,000. In that sale, the cataloguer enthused: “Beautiful old iridescent toning; a stunning portrait with an almost cameo-like appearance.” The reverse, however, is somewhat worn, which accounts for Berk’s unusual split grade of “Mint State/Good VF.”

* * *


[1] “La Bourgogne was carrying 506 passengers and 220 crew, of whom 549 were lost”

[2] Illegally looted from an Etruscan tomb in 1971, the vase was returned to Italy in 2008 and resides safely in Rome’s Villa Giulia museum.

[3] Roman Gold Coins of the Medieval World: 383-1453 AD (Joliet, IL, 1986). No. 234

[4] Ridgway, Brunilde S. “Dolphins and Dolphin-Riders.” Archaeology 23 (1970): 86-95.

[5] As in Egyptian art, the eye is drawn frontally even though the face is in profile.

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