ancientstamps

CoinWeek Ancient Coin Series by Mike Markowitz….

COMPARED TO COINS, POSTAGE STAMPS are a very modern invention. The first British stamp, the “Penny Black”, dates from 1840; the first American stamps appeared seven years later. Like coins, postage stamps have long attracted the passion of collectors, including King Farouk of Egypt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and John Lennon[1].

Until the 1950s, classic collectible stamps were printed from engraved steel plates that often achieved a high artistic standard. Modern postage stamps are mostly printed by offset lithography, which offers a wider range of colors and effects but allows nations to flood the market with pretty stamps designed to appeal to popular taste. Subjects like animals, flowers and sports heroes have proliferated – not unlike the explosion of “non-circulating legal tender” coins. When dealers in bulk, or individual collectors purchase stamps that are never used for postage, postal authorities rack up profits without having to provide delivery services.

Yet despite active participation in the market from issuing authorities around the world, stamp collecting has fallen on hard times, and few young people seem to be entering the hobby[2]. Coin collectors, however, may enjoy seeking out some of the postage stamps mentioned below since they feature ancient coins as part of their designs.

Crete

In 1897 the Greeks of Crete rebelled against Ottoman rule and a short-lived independent state emerged[3]. In 1900, Crete issued a series of definitive[4] postage stamps–evidently the earliest stamps to depict ancient coins[5]. The 1-lepton brown (Scott 50) shows the reverse of a rare silver stater of Sybrita (c. 300 BCE), with Hermes leaning forward to tie his sandal. The green 5 lepta shows the obverse of a stater of Knossos (c. 300–270 BCE) bearing the crowned head of Hera; the reverse of this coin shows the famous Labyrinth. The purple 1 drachma shows the rare stater of Phaistos depicting the winged figure of Talos. This design was reproduced in 2000 on a Greek stamp commemorating the hundredth anniversary of Crete’s first stamps.

In 1905 a second set of definitives included the stater of Gortyn showing Europa sitting in a tree on the green 5 lepta, a drachma of Kydonia (c. 200 BCE) showing a dog nursing an infant on the slate blue 20 lepta, a stater of Itanos showing a sea god with trident on the blue 25 lepta and another stater of Gortyn with Europa riding a bull on the red and black 1 drachma. This handsome stamp was reproduced on a 1974 Greek “Stamp Day” issue.

Stamp design is often self-referential, with new stamps “quoting” old ones.

Greece

Considering its rich numismatic history, it would be surprising if Greece did not depict ancient coins on its modern stamps. The first Greek postage stamps (Scott 1-9; 1861-1874) show the winged head of Hermes in a medallion. This is a similar design to the American winged liberty head or “Mercury” dime (1916-1945) but it does not seem to correspond to any specific ancient coin.

In 1954, green 2-drachma and purple 5-drachma stamps (Scott 582) honoring the 2,500th anniversary of the founding of the school of Pythagoras on the island of Samos showed a rare Roman provincial copper of Samos (c. 253-260 CE) that depicts the famous mathematician seated with a globe. Also in the same year, and to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the NATO alliance, Greece issued a 2,400-drachma airmail stamp (Scott C72) showing a rare stater of the Amphictyonic League (c. 346 BCE,) an ancient alliance of Greek city-states. A 1954 series celebrating ancient art includes a 1,000-drachma black and blue stamp (Scott 590) bearing the image of Alexander the Great from a familiar tetradrachm of Lysimachus[6] (c. 305-281 BCE). This design was repeated with different colors in subsequent years.

stamps2In 1959, a spectacular series of 10 stamps (Scott 639-648) celebrated some of the masterpieces of ancient Greek numismatics, each shown with obverse and reverse. The series includes images of a stater of Elis with Zeus and eagle, an owl tetradrachm of Athens, a decadrachm of Syracuse, a tetradrachm of Alexander, a didrachm of Rhodes, the griffin tetradrachm of Abdera, the Chalkidian League tetradrachm of Olynthos, the circular labyrinth tetradrachm of Knossos, a distater of Nikokles from Paphos and the rare archaic ram’s head tridrachm of Delphi. This last coin (c. 485–475 BCE) shows a pair of rhytons or drinking horns in the form of ram’s heads; in a 2010 auction an example sold for over $490,000.

The stamps can be obtained for about US$30 mint or $5 used.

For the 2,300th anniversary of the death of Alexander the Great, Greece released a series of stamps in 1977, including a 0.50 drachma (Scott 1208) depicting the reverse of a rare copper coin of Antoninus Pius from Roman Egypt (c. 144 CE) that shows the Pharos lighthouse[7], one of the Wonders of the Ancient World. An example of the coin sold for US$2,300.

For the 1980 Moscow Olympics and the 2004 Olympics in Athens, sets of Greek stamps illustrated ancient coins with themes related to the Games. On the 2004 set of 4, images include a discus thrower on a tridrachm of Cos, a chariot on the gold stater of Philip II, a winged Victory on a didrachm of Elis and a victorious horse rider on Philip II’s tetradrachm. This handsome set can be found in mint condition for about $10.

Israel

When the new state of Israel ordered its first postage stamps in May of 1948, the country’s name was uncertain. One faction wanted the name “Zion” (Tsiyon in Hebrew,) while the majority favored “Israel”. To expedite production, the stamps were printed with only the inscription Doar Ivri (“Hebrew Postage.”) An Arabic translation of the inscription appears at the bottom of each stamp.

israelistampDesigned by Otte Wallish (1903-1977), the set of nine stamps depicts coins from the Jewish War (66–73 CE) and the Bar Kokhba revolt against Rome (132–135 CE.) Because Israel had not established its own currency, the stamps were denominated in the currency of the British Mandate in Palestine (1000 mils = 1 pound). Three high-value stamps (Scott 7, 8 and 9) show the obverse and reverse of the silver Year 2 shekel of the Jewish Revolt (Hendin 1358, April 67 – March 68 CE). In high grade, this coin typically sells for $5,000–8,000.

The obverse of this type also appears on the 20-mil blue. The 3-mil orange shows the obverse of a bronze half shekel (Hendin 1367) with the date palm tree, a characteristic emblem of the land of Israel. The green 5-mil stamp shows the reverse of a bronze prutah (Hendin 1363), while the magenta 10 mil shows the obverse of this coin. The red 15-mil stamp shows a silver zuz (overstruck on a Roman denarius) of the Bar Kokhba revolt bearing a bunch of grapes. The brown 50 mil depicts the reverse of a silver sela (Hendin 1373) showing two ritual objects, the lulav (a bundle of palm, myrtle and willow branches) and etrog (citron fruit).

In December 1949, with the name of the country and its currency established, a second series of coin stamps was issued in denominations of 3, 5, 10, 15, 30 and 50 prutot. It repeated the designs of the first series except for the blue 30-prutot stamp, which shows the reverse of the very rare large bronze of the Bar Kokhba revolt (Hendin 1404) : an amphora surrounded by the Hebrew inscription “year two of the freedom of Israel”.

In 1960, with a change in the currency, new definitive stamps were needed. A single design was used, printed in 11 different colors with the denomination overprinted boldly in black. The coin depicted was the obverse of the rare Year 4 silver quarter shekel of the Jewish War (Hendin 1366), showing three palm branches. Only three examples of this coin are known. The only published example in the British Museum is worn and off center, so the philatelic artist created an idealized image of a perfect coin.

Italy

syracuse1

Considering Italy’s ancient numismatic heritage, reverence for history and the superb talent of Italian graphic designers, it comes as a surprise that very few ancient coins have appeared on Italian postage stamps.

Italy issued the 1953-4 definitive series in eight values (and repeatedly reissued in later years with new denominations as inflation eroded the value of the lira). The design is a medallion with a female head facing left based on the depiction of the water nymph Arethusa on the magnificent Syracusan decadrachms engraved by Euainetos and Cimon. But the stamp designer has added a peculiar “mural crown,” (a crown in the form of a towered city wall, typically worn by Tyche, the goddess of good fortune.) The mural crown on the stamp bears a striking resemblance to Castel del Monte, a 13th-century structure in Apulia that appears on the reverse of the Italian one-euro cent).

In 2002, for the introduction of the Euro currency, Italy issued a pair of stamps depicting medieval gold coins. One showed the reverse of a Venetian ducat; the other showed a genovino of Genoa and a florin of Florence. The same year, as part of a series on “The Woman in Art,” a stamp depicted a Syracusan tetradrachm bearing the head of Arethusa.

Belgium

In 1973, Belgium issued a stamp commemorating the 1970 discovery of a hoard of 368 second-century Roman gold aurei at the village of Luttre-Liberchies in the province of Hainault. The stamp (Scott B905) shows facing coin portraits of Marcus Aurelius and Hadrian. The coins now reside in the fabulous collection of the Cabinet des Médailles of the Royal Library in Brussels.

Collecting Coins on Stamps

The standard English-language reference for world postage stamps is the massive six-volume Scott Catalogue, now in its 172nd edition. Unlike ancient coins, which are attributed using a variety of references that can often be confusing to beginners, once you have the Scott number, you have precisely identified the stamp. Don’t expect a lot of background information, since there are literally hundreds of thousands of types and listings are highly abbreviated.

Coin collectors may be surprised – even shocked! – at how inexpensive stamps can be. The lowest price cited in the Scott catalog is US$0.25, which hardly covers a dealer’s inventory costs.

Common cancelled stamps often have zero market value.

Rare mint state “investment grade” stamps do command fancy prices, however. For example, the complete Israel “first coins” issue in mint condition (with marginal tabs attached) sells for several thousand dollars.

Notes

[1] http://postalmuseum.si.edu/stamp-collecting/famous-stamp-collectors.html

[2] One thing keeping the hobby alive is the the Boy Scout merit badge: http://www.scouting.org/scoutsource/BoyScouts/AdvancementandAwards/MeritBadges/mb-STAM.aspx

[3] Cretans voted for union with Greece in 1908, and this was internationally recognized after the Balkan War of 1913.

[4] In philatelic jargon, “definitives” are postage stamps issued in a range of denominations for ordinary postage, and stocked in quantity by post offices for an extended period: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Definitive_stamp

[5] For an overview of the ancient coinage of Crete, see https://www.coinweek.com/featured-news/ancient-coinage-crete/.

[6] For a superb example of this type, visit http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/cm/s/coin_with_head_of_alexander.aspx

[7] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lighthouse_of_Alexandria

References

Hendin, David. Guide to Biblical Coins, 5th edition. New York (2010)

Scott Standard Postage Stamp Catalog. 172nd edition. 6 volumes. Amos Media, Sydney, OH (2015)

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