By Mike Markowitz for CoinWeek …..
The ancient coinage of Southern Arabia is one of the most obscure branches of numismatics. In origin it is Greek; but in development it is Semitic. For the proper study of it a numismatist who is equally well equipped on the Greek and Semitic side is required; and such a scholar has yet to be discovered.
—G.F. Hill, The Ancient Coinage of Southern Arabia (1915)
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THE ROMANS CALLED IT Arabia Felix (“Lucky Arabia”). Today the war-torn and desperately poor southern part of the Arabian Peninsula seems particularly unlucky, but in antiquity it thrived on the caravan trade in frankincense and myrrh, the aromatic resins of desert shrubs, prized across the ancient world for incense and perfumes.
Tribal confederations in this region developed into kingdoms that produced distinctive local coinages that are highly collectible today. These included Saba, Ma’in, Qataban, Himyar and Hadhramaut. A local alphabet of 29 consonants was used for inscriptions on stone, bronze tablets and coins, including many monograms that are still incompletely deciphered.
Arabia, like Egypt, had no silver mines, so silver was an exotic import. The earliest coins in the region were Athenian tetradrachms of the fifth century BCE. Produced in vast numbers, these “owls” became widely accepted in trade across much of the ancient world because the silver they contained was relatively pure. Rulers of Saba in central Yemen, with its capital at Marib, soon realized that they could enhance their prestige and wealth by producing their own imitations of this coinage. The 17.2 gram tetradrachm was inconveniently large, so for centuries, South Arabian silver coins were based on a local unit of about 5.5 grams, with fractional denominations of a half, a quarter, an eighth and even a tiny 16th. As generations of die engravers made copies of copies, the designs deteriorated, so that the obverse head of Athena and the reverse owl become increasingly scraggly and schematic. A feature of this coinage is a prominent South Arabian letter on Athena’s cheek as a mark of denomination: “N” for the unit or drachm, “K” for rare double units (didrachm), “G” for the half (hemidrachm), “T” for the quarter, and “S” for the eighth.
Without inscribed names of rulers, or any hoard evidence that establishes a clear chronology, these coins can only be dated approximately. A sharp example of a Sabaean drachm, “late 4th to mid 2nd century BCE” realized $1,000 in a 2014 auction. A typical hemidrachm recently brought $170.
The kingdom of Qataban rose to prominence in southern Yemen in the fourth century BCE, with it’s capital at Timna. Its early coinage followed the pattern established by the Sabaeans. The coins bear a “royal monogram” that looks like a trident with a bent shaft. A very rare Qatabanian didrachm (c. 350 – 320 BCE, 8.38 grams), one of only three known, sold for $16,000 in a 2014 auction. By the second century BCE, Qataban was minting crude silver pieces with a male head within a wreath on the obverse, and a reverse design based on the contemporary “New Style” Athenian coinage, depicting an owl standing on an overturned amphora.
In the mid-second century BCE, Qataban produced a remarkable series of coins inscribed with names of rulers and finely engraved male heads on each side. The beardless head with short curly hair is probably a portrait of the ruler, while the bearded long-hair figure is a local god. A unique tetradrachm (16.22 grams) of Yad’ab Dhubyan c. 155 – 135 BCE brought $75,000 in a 2014 auction; apparently the record for an ancient South Arabian coin. A century later (c. 50-25 BCE), the same basic design was still in use on small silver hemidrachms.
The kingdom of Himyar emerged in the southwestern corner of Yemen in the second century BCE and eventually absorbed the other states of the region, extending its power over much of Arabia. The most common Himyarite coins are small (two to three grams) silver pieces, often cup-shaped, with a long-haired male head on one side and the head of a horned animal (probably a desert antelope or gazelle) on the other.
A ribbon-like curved symbol on the coins is probably an emblem of a moon god, Almaqah. In 25 BCE, the Roman prefect of Egypt, Aelius Gallus, attempted to conquer South Arabia. He besieged Ma’rib, but was forced to withdraw when the desert climate decimated his army. Friendly trade relations with Rome followed, however, as shown by an extensive issue of coins bearing a crude image of Emperor Augustus.
In the second century CE, most Himyarite coins bear a long-haired male head on each side, the obverse possibly a god, or dynastic ancestor; the reverse a ruler, with an inscription giving his name and the mint city (usually Raydan). Many rulers bear the same names and the chronology is uncertain.
Less than a dozen ancient South Arabian gold coins are known. They might have been experimental issues, special presentation pieces for elite gifts, or temple offerings. They closely follow the design and weight standard of the contemporary silver coinage. A single example, in the name of ‘Amdān Bayān Yahaqbiḍ, c. 100-120 CE appeared in a 2015 auction, bringing only $3,000 against an estimate of $5,000.
The remote kingdom of Hadhramawt (or Hadramaut) in Yemen’s eastern desert had rich deposits of copper and issued crude bronze “owls” as early as the third century BCE. From the first century BCE until it was eventually absorbed by Himyar, Hadhramaut minted massive bronze pieces (47 mm, over 70 grams) that are extremely rare. An example brought $1,300 in a 2015 auction.
Collecting Ancient South Arabia
The American Numismatic Society (ANS) published the extensive collection of Martin Huth, a German diplomat, comprising some 478 items assembled over a period of three decades (Huth, 2010a). On CoinArchives Pro, a database of auction records over the past two decades, the term “Sabaean” produced 151 hits, “Himyar” produced 503, “Qataban” produced 131, and “Hadhramawt” only 12.
In the 1922 British Museum catalogue of the ancient coins of Arabia, curator George F. Hill observed that “[n]umbers of coins of this series have been brought to England by officers stationed at Aden during the war. Some were reported as being brought to Aden by an Arab from Zaaba, others to have come from Marib (Hill, lxiv).”
The ability of American collectors to obtain ancient South Arabian coins, which range from relatively common to exceedingly rare, is now in jeopardy. The International Council of Museums (ICOM) has added ancient Yemeni coins to its “Red List”. Peter K. Tompa, a leading expert on cultural property law notes:
If recent history is any guide, the US State Department-funded list will now be used to help justify and frame US State Department promulgated “emergency import restrictions” on anything and everything of a type identified as “Yemeni” with the aim to suppress collecting any such artifacts in the near future.
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 CNG Electronic Auction 329, 25 June 2014, Lot 42.
 Stephen Album Auction 28, 18 May 2017, Lot 13.
 Triton XVII sale, 7 January 2014, Lot 403. Realized $16,000 USD.
 CNG Sale 78, 14 May 2008, Lot 978. Realized $790 USD.
 Triton XVII sale, 7 January 2014, Lot 404. Realized $75,000 USD.
 CNG Electronic Auction 351, 20 May 2015, Lot 391. Realized $240 USD.
 Nomos auction 8, 2 December 2017, Lot 356. Realized $61 USD.
 Gemini Auction III, 9 January 2007, Lot 340. Realized $350 USD.
 CNG Electronic Auction 399, 14 June 2017, Lot 253. Realized $130 USD.
 CNG Auction 100, 7 October 2015, Lot 107. Realized $3,000 USD.
 CNG Electronic Auction 351, 20 May 2015, Lot 383. Realized $360 USD.
 CNG Auction 99, 13 May 2015, Lot 375. Realized $1,300 USD.
Gunter, Ann. Caravan Kingdoms: Yemen and the Ancient Incense Trade. Washington (2005)
Hill, G. F. The Ancient Coinage of Southern Arabia. London (1915)
–. Catalogue of the Greek Coins of Arabia, Mesopotamia and Persia. London (1922)
Huth, Martin. Coinage of the Caravan Kingdoms: Ancient Arabian Coins from the Collection of Martin Huth. New York (2010a)
Huth, Martin and Peter G. van Alfen (eds.). Coinage of the Caravan Kingdoms: Studies in Ancient Arabian Monetization. New York (2010b)
Munro-Hay, Stuart. “Coins of Ancient South Arabia”, Numismatic Chronicle 154 (1994)
–. “Coins of Ancient South Arabia II”, Numismatic Chronicle 156 (1996)
Sear, David. Greek Coins and Their Values, Volume 2, Asia & Africa. London (1975)
Shaw, Anny. “ICOM unveils Yemen red list at Metropolitan Museum in bid to halt illegal trade of artifacts”, Art Newspaper (1 February 2018)
NGC-Certified Ancient Silver Tetradrachms Currently Available on eBay