By Michael Beall …..
A version of this article originally appeared in the VNA Magazine
A large increase in the supply of any collectible is a mixed blessing for collectors. Owners of the material see declines in value while others welcome an opportunity to upgrade or add new specimens to their collections at affordable prices.
This certainly holds true for ancient coins. During the closing months of 2018, a large influx of Athenian ‘Owl’ tetradrachms (perhaps 30,000 specimens, speculated to have been found in Turkey) began to enter the market and prices have fallen sharply.
So in this article, I try to provide a historical overview of these coins and highlight factors for buyers to consider when seeking to add these classic coins to their collections.
Major Types of Owl Tetradrachm
The Athenian Owl tetradrachm is arguably the most popular and recognized ancient coin. It represented about a week’s pay for ancient Greek soldiers. It is said that President Teddy Roosevelt carried an Athenian Owl as a lucky piece and that it inspired him to redesign US coinage.
Owls were produced in the Archaic style beginning late in the sixth century BCE (Before the Common Era) and were minted in some form or fashion for most of the next 450 years. The key features are a depiction of Athena (patron goddess of the city-state of Athens) on the obverse and an owl (the species of which is sometimes identified as a Little Owl or Minerva Owl) on the reverse. The wise yet warlike Athena sports an Attic helmet with horsehair plume; the owl is joined by an olive branch and the legend “alpha, theta, epsilon” (AΘE, a Greek abbreviation meaning “of the Athenians”). Legend says Athena brought the olive tree as her gift to Athens, in order to best Poseidon in winning Zeus’ favor.
So-called “Classical” pieces were minted in large quantities beginning around 465 BCE, with embellishments to Athena’s Attic helmet and the addition of a crescent moon on the reverse.
After Athens’ defeat by Sparta in 404 BCE, Owl tetradrachms (sometimes referred to as Late Classical) were minted on a smaller planchet and are less sought after by collectors.
Beginning around 165 BCE, the “New Style” tetradrachms appeared with a wider, thinner planchet and changes on the reverse. The exact dating of all the styles (except some new-style Owls) remains a subject of debate. Dating by dealers and auction houses is frequently inconsistent.
The New Style tetradrachm lists magistrates that may be connected to more specific dates. The coin above is attributed: “ATTICA Athens (Circa 168/5 – 50 BCE) AR, Tetradrachm, Head of Athena right, wearing triple crested Attic helmet decorated with Pegasos springing right. ΑΘΕ, Owl standing right, head facing, on overturned amphora, in right field, grape bunch, all within laurel wreath. 115/4 B.C. Metrodoros, Demosthe(nes) and Eukles, Magistrates.”
Most Owls in collections today were produced from 450 BCE to 404 BCE. This was a period when Athens was at its illustrious peak and included the times of the famous leader Pericles, the building of the Parthenon, advances in the arts, and the establishment of the world’s first known democracy. This “Golden Age” was funded by enormous quantities of silver from the mines at Laurium and contributions from members of the Delian League, an alliance run by Athens to counter Spartan aggression and eventually wage the looming Peloponnesian War, which began in 431 BCE. But while Athens survived the war, it never recovered its prior greatness.
The Athenian tetradrachm became the international trade currency of choice, with hoards found in virtually every part of the ancient world. The coin was known for consistency in good metal composition and full weight, around 17 grams. It was imitated in several Eastern cultures including Egypt and principalities in the Holy Lands.
The Owl tetradrachm was officially counterfeited for several years prior to the Athenian defeat by Sparta as finances were squeezed. They were also counterfeited illegally, hence, the high frequency of test cuts needed to confirm authenticity.
The total production of Athenian Owls is unknown but thought to be easily in the tens of millions.
Owls on the Market
In his book One Hundred Greatest Ancient Coins (2008), Chicago-based coin dealer Harlan Berk discusses the change in value of the mass-produced (“Mass”) Classical Owls over his career. A coin he describes as a very nice “extra fine” (perhaps equivalent to an AU or choice AU designation by NGC), with a well-centered strike and good surfaces, was worth $120 USD in the 1960s and $400 in the ’70s. By the ’90s, Berk notes that the coins were valued at around $1,500, rising to $2,000 in 2008 when the first edition of his book was published.
Prices in today’s market are easily 30% and perhaps 40% to 50% below Harlan Berk’s 2008 value. Will Owl prices return to prior price peaks? The answer is unknown but almost certainly not for many years until the recent hoard is dispersed.
Owls are more affordable now than in the past several decades. Evaluating an Owl tetradrachm requires observation and comparison of similar coins. Collectors look for quality of strike, signs of wear (high spots are Athena’s forehead on the obverse and the owl’s feathers on the reverse), centering, and absence of surface issues.
Mass Owls are especially challenging. Not only were they hastily produced, but the flans are often irregular in shape and undersized relative to the dies. Key features fully present on one side of the coin (especially the obverse) usually come at the expense of another feature. We like to see the top of the aegis or breastplate, below the neck of Athena, but this usually comes at the expense of the helmet plume, which will be crowded into the top of the coin. Collectors like the reverse to have the framed look of the square die and the owl with prominent bug eyes.
Perhaps the most coveted feature on the obverse is a “full crest” showing the complete plume of horsehair atop Athena’s helmet. A full crest without issues can add 50% or more value, relative to a problem-free coin with only a partial or no crest. A review of auction statistics indicates that coins with a full crest and no problems represent only three to four percent of coins in the marketplace.
A full crest is frequently accompanied by the nose or chin that is either crowded against the right side of the coin or cut off. This tradeoff affects the value of the full crest and can reduce the worth of the coin by 30% or more from levels it would otherwise command.
Another factor that diminishes the value of Owls is the presence of “test cuts”, which are chisel marks on the coin left by efforts to confirm the coin is made of solid silver. Test cuts are an interesting feature and part of the coin’s story as a verified trade currency; however, they can cause a reduction of 50% or more in value. Punch marks, large flan cracks, cleaning marks, die shifts (sometimes referred to as double strikes), and corrosion can diminish the value of a coin by 10-30% depending on the negative impact to the coin’s eye appeal.
Coins with issues still have value and present opportunities for budget-minded collectors. As a general rule, always buy the highest quality you can afford. You will be happier longer and will find higher-grade coins easier to sell when the day of parting comes. The old saying “you get what you pay for” might better be stated, “you rarely get what you don’t pay for.”
Virtually any book on Greek coinage will devote meaningful time to Athenian Owl tetradrachms. Get one! [Editor’s Note: Might we ever-so-gently recommend CoinWeek Supplies for your numismatic library needs? —CW] Reviewing auction websites and online dealer aggregators like VCoins.com is a great way to become a better-informed buyer. Be wise like an owl and seek out an ancient coin dealer that you trust. It seems like a great time to add this historic coin to your collection!
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Be sure to check out CoinWeek’s Ancient Coin Expert Mike Markowitz talking with Beall about the author’s stunning personal collection in the video below