million dollar ancient coins

By Mike Markowitz for CoinWeek ….
 

AN ARABIAN GULF OIL SHEIK. A RETIRED software executive. A Russian oligarch. A prominent surgeon. Buyers of rare and costly ancient coins closely guard their identity, but tantalizing tidbits of information occasionally leak through the wall of professional discretion surrounding these transactions.

The most spectacular ancient coins are often sold by “private treaty” without an accessible record. But for public auctions, it is still unusual for an ancient coins or medieval coins to exceed a price of one million US dollars (£715,389 UK pounds or €805,289 euro at the time of writing). It gets complicated, because reported prices may or may not include the 15% to 22.5% “buyer’s fee” auction houses add to winning bids.

In contrast, classic collectible rare US coins so often bring prices over a million dollars now that it hardly rates notice in the trade media[1].

The Record-Holder

The record holder for an ancient Greek coin is the facing portrait gold stater of Pantikapaion, which brought $3,250,000 in a 2012 New York auction.

Pantikapaion (or Panticapaeum) on the Black Sea coast of Crimea grew wealthy shipping grain from the Ukraine’s fertile fields to feed Greek cities. Weighing 9.12 grams (about a third of an ounce), the coin was struck between 350 and 300 BCE. On the reverse a griffin stands over an ear of wheat, surrounded by the first three letters of the town’s name. The obverse shows the bearded head of a satyr.

In the words of a cataloguer:

The head of the satyr is a marvel of speaking portraiture. That so much expression could be packed into so small a round would not be believed by any one who had not seen it … If a single coin had to be selected … as by the greatest of all die-engravers, whoever he may have been … the writer would choose this one. Its creator has left no name behind him, but none but a consummate artist of remarkable and original genius could have produced this unforgettable and amazing little gem[2].

Syracuse Tetradrachm of Kimon

In Greek cities of Sicily during the fifth century BCE, the art of coin die engraving reached a standard of technical and creative excellence that would not be seen again until the eighteenth century CE. Cities like Syracuse, Akragas (see below), Leontinoi and Naxos competed to celebrate their patron deities and their athletic and military victories on large silver ancient coins.

In a 2014 European auction, a beautifully toned tetradrachm of Syracuse brought 2,737,000 Swiss francs (CHF), which is equivalent to $3,052,750 USD–a record for a Greek silver coin[3].

On his list of 100 Greatest Ancient Coins, Harlan Berk ranks this type as #7 and writes:

“One cannot help but wonder if the artist Kimon was in love with a beautiful girl when he created this incredible die, for the image of Arethusa is perfect in every way (Berk, 38).”

Akragas Dekadrachm

Until it was sacked by the Carthaginians in 406 BCE, Akragas (now Agrigento) was one of the largest and wealthiest cities in the Greek world. Shortly before its fall, Akragas issued a magnificent dekadrachm to honor a winner of an Olympic chariot race. On the obverse, the sun god Helios rides his chariot through the sky with an eagle soaring above. The reverse shows a pair of eagles exulting over a hare they have just killed.

This is one of the great rarities of classical numismatics. The unsigned dies are attributed, by style, to the masters Myron (obverse) and Polyainos (reverse). In a 2012 European auction[4], an example of this type from the famous Hunt collection sold for 2,300,000 Swiss francs, equivalent to $2,492,144, but the coin was reportedly never paid for or delivered, and its present status is uncertain.

On Berk’s list of 100 Greatest Ancient Coins, this is #8.

Fewer than 10 specimens of this coin are known. Harvard’s art museum has a worn example[5]; the British Museum has a better one, which I recently had the pleasure of viewing on loan to the local museum in Agrigento. Two guards with submachine guns stood close beside it.

Dekadrachm of Athens

In his autobiography, legendary coin dealer Bruce McNall describes his first meeting with even more legendary coin dealer Leo Mildenberg:

Leo practically danced as he led us to his vault to show me some of those coins. They were all beautiful Roman and Greek specimens. In an almost reverent voice, I quietly asked him which was the best. He reached for a tray that contained one single silver coin.

“This, my good friend, is the greatest coin in the world.”

Resting in the center of the velvet-lined tray was a silver decadrachm of Athens (McNall, 24).

On Harlan Berk’s list of the 100 Greatest Ancients, this is #2. With only about 40 genuine examples known (there are many skillful fakes), the silver dekadrachm of Athens struck c. 467-465 BCE is one of the most desired ancient coins. The obverse, in very high relief, depicts the helmeted head of the goddess Athena. The dramatic reverse shows an owl, wings outspread. At 42.5 grams, the coin is so large that it pushed the limits of hand-hammered minting.

In a 2010 European auction, an example realized 850,000 Swiss francs (equivalent to $852,643 USD) against an estimate of 750,000 francs[6].

Gold Stater of Athens

With its rich silver mines at Laurion, Athens had no need for regular gold coinage. But a handful of gold staters and fractions were struck as an emergency wartime issue in 406-407 BCE. Historians believe the gold for these coins was stripped from statues on the Acropolis[7], which served as a sort of Treasury reserve.

Only four examples of the 8.6 gram gold stater are known, three of them in museums. The fourth, described as “the best known example and one of the most important Greek coins in the world” appeared in a 2008 European auction where it brought 950,000 Swiss francs, equivalent to $783,182 USD[8].

Jewish War Prototype Shekel

In 66 CE, the people of Judaea revolted against Roman rule. The rebels fought stubbornly for four bitter years. They issued their own coinage of silver shekels, with inscriptions in archaic Hebrew letters.

In the 1970s, two examples of an unusual prototype–the trial strike “Year One” shekel–turned up, both from the same dies. One example is in the Israel Museum; another sold for $925,000 in a 2012 auction[9], and a third recently brought $600,000 against an estimate of $750,000[10].

Brutus Aureus

The most famous Roman coin, by far, is the EID MAR denarius of Brutus (85 – 42 BCE) celebrating Caesar’s assassination; but no example of this rare type (about 80 known) has sold for close to a million dollars. The gold aureus struck by a military mint moving with the army of Brutus and fellow-assassin Casca (43-42 BCE), however, comes close. In a 2015 European auction, an example brought 900,000 Swiss francs (about $930,714 USD), against an estimate of 500,000[11].

A cataloguer writes of this type:

The fact that Brutus placed his own portrait on coinage is clear testimony to his confusion about his principles and his mission, for it contradicts some of the lofty Republican sentiments that he proclaimed as a defence for his murder of Caesar. When Brutus came to lead his own political movement he, too, behaved as a despot, and like Caesar before him, he succumbed to the temptation to place his image on circulating coins[12].

Hadrian “Medallic” Sestertius 135 CE

Struck at Rome in 135 or 136 CE in “orichalcum[13], a brass alloy, this coin (formerly in the Hunt collection) is described as “the most beautiful Roman coin ever struck”[14]. The intense, sensitive portrait of Hadrian is attributed to “The Alphaeus Master”, a die and gemstone engraver known from other sources as Antoninianos of Aphrodisias. On the reverse, Pax, the personification of peace, cradles a cornucopia while gracefully extending an olive branch.

This coin, the best of five examples known, sold in December 2008 for 2.3 million Swiss francs (over $2 million USD) against an estimate of 400,000 francs. At the time, it was the highest price ever paid for an ancient coin at auction.

Severus Alexander Coliseum Aureus

Although it is the most famous ancient monument in Rome, the Coliseum is rare on Roman coinage.

The completion of the Coliseum was commemorated on a rare bronze sestertius of Titus (80-81 CE). The finest example to appear in recent years sold for almost $465,000[15]. In 223 CE, a gold aureus of Emperor Severus Alexander depicted the Coliseum on its reverse. Only two examples of this coin are known and one of them brought $800,000 in a 2008 American auction[16].

Maxentius Gold Medallion

The highest auction price ever paid for a Roman gold coin currently belongs to this massive medallion of eight aurei (42.76 grams). Such medallions were made as imperial gifts; for presentation to the highest ranks of Rome’s elite.

It was struck c. 308 for the emperor Maxentius, who ruled from 306 to 312. In 2011, this coin brought 1,300,000 Swiss francs ($1,413,351 USD) against an estimate of 850,000 francs[17]. Perfectly centered, with silky smooth surfaces, the obverse portrait and the reverse scene are executed in exquisite detail.

The cataloguer writes:

On the obverse, Maxentius portrays himself bareheaded at a time when all of his contemporaries are crowned, and on the reverse he wears the robes of a senator. Every aspect of this must have been carefully considered in the hope that the recipient of this medallion would be assured that Maxentius did not rule as a despot, but humbly, and at the behest of Roma herself.

On the reverse, a seated Roma (the personification of Rome itself) hands the standing toga-clad emperor a globe, symbolizing his universal authority. In an amazing coincidence, the imperial regalia of Maxentius, including a blue-green globe, the very object depicted on the coin, were discovered on the Palatine Hill in 2006 by Italian archaeologists[18].

* * *

Notes

[1] For a current list, see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_most_expensive_coins

[2] The Prospero Collection. New York Sale XXVII, 4 Jan 2012, Lot 213. Realized $3,250,000 USD.

[3] Numismatica Ars Classica Auction 77, 26 May 2014, Lot 17.

[4] Numismatica Ars Classica Auction 66, 17 October 2012, Lot 6.

[5] http://www.harvardartmuseums.org/collections/object/189782?position=0

[6] Numismatica Genevensis Auction VI, 30 November 2010, Lot 65.

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

[8] Numismatica Genevensis Auction V, 3 December 2008, Lot 85.

[9] Heritage World Coin Auctions Sale 3003, 8 March 2012, Lot 20195.

[10] Classical Numismatics Group Triton XX, 10 January 2017, Lot 358.

[11] Numismatica Ars Classica, Auction 86, 8 October 2015, Lot 23.

[12] Numismatica Ars Classica, Auction 92, 23 May 2016, Lot 23.

[13] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orichalcum

[14] Numismatica Genevensis Auction V, 3 December 2008, Lot 233.

[15] https://www.coinworld.com/news/world-coins/2017/02/silver-sestertius-showing-roman-colosseum-shatters-estimate.all.html

[16] Ira and Larry Goldberg Auction 46, 26 May 2008, Lot 126.

[17] Numismatica Ars Classica, Auction 59, 4 April 2011, Lot 1164.

[18] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maxentius#Discovery_of_Imperial_insignia

References

Berk, Harlan. 100 Greatest Ancient Coins. Whitman (2008)

Fischer-Bossert, Wilhelm. The Athenian Decadrachm. ANS. New York. (2008)

Kimball Art Museum. Wealth of the Ancient World: The Nelson Bunker Hunt and William Herbert Hunt Collections. Fort Worth (1983)

McNall, Bruce. Fun While It Lasted: My Rise and Fall in the Land of Fame and Fortune. New York (2003)

New York Sale XXVII: The Prospero Collection. New York. January 4, 2012

Sotheby’s. The Nelson Bunker Hunt Collection: Highly Important Greek and Roman Coins. New York. June 19, 1990
 


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