CoinWeek Ancient Coin Series by Mike Markowitz …..
 

Don’t buy damaged coins. They will be impossible to sell. This was some of the best advice I ever got from an experienced collector of ancients.

But like most things in classical numismatics, there are exceptions.

Ancient coins were sometimes pierced with a hole, to be worn as ornaments or amulets, or to be attached to a garment, a weapon, or some other object. If a coin type is so rare that you will never be able to afford a perfect specimen, a pierced coin may be an acceptable alternative. Out of a collection of over 300 ancient gold coins, I have acquired just three pierced coins over the years, all three being scarce types and one of those was holed and plugged in antiquity.

On the CoinArchives Pro database, which lists over 1.8 million records from nearly 4,400 auctions over the past two decades, a recent search for the term “pierced” returned 1,322 hits. The term “holed” returned 1,241. “Pierced and plugged” returned 60 hits, while “pierced and repaired” returned 36. Some of these were repeated sales of the same coin.

Up until the 19th century, Chinese bronze coins were cast with a square hole in the center so that they could be strung together for convenience. Some modern coins have been made with a central hole–notably the current Japan 5 yen and 50 yen pieces–and some British colonial issues for Africa.

But this article will be limited to examining coins that were deliberately pierced in antiquity after they left the mint, in many cases long after they had ceased to circulate as money.

Gold Aurei of Postumus

Postumus, 260-269 CE. AV aureus (20 mm, 5.75 g) Trier or Cologne mint. Apparently unique. 
CNG 118, September 13-14, 2021, Lot 1149 estimate $15,000, Withdrawn

A hoard of third-century Roman gold aurei has been trickling out onto the market recently. Reportedly found “somewhere in Ukraine”, it consisted of some 250 pieces, all holed, perhaps for wear as ornaments by Sarmatian steppe nomad tribal warriors that captured them as booty or received them as tribute. The coins were so expertly plugged by a modern goldsmith that the repair is barely detectable under a microscope.

Most collectors now regard this as an unacceptable practice, and 10 of these pieces were withdrawn from a recent Classical Numismatics Group (CNG) auction[1].

Ainos Silver Drachm

THRACE. Ainos. Drachm (Circa 357-342/1 BCE). Obv: Head of Hermes facing slightly right, wearing petasos. Rev: AINION. Cult statue of Hermes Perpheraios on throne; grain ear to left.May 442-7; BMC 25; HGC 3.2, 1280. Rare Weight: 3.58 g. Diameter: 17 mm. Numismatik Naumann (formerly Gitbud & Naumann) > Auction 72, 2 December 2018, Lot: 15, realized: 140 EUR (Approx. 159 USD).

An early example of a holed ancient Greek coin comes from the coastal town of Ainos in Thrace (now Enez in the European part of Turkey). The well-worn silver drachm was carefully pierced above a portrait of Hermes, the local patron god. In a 2018 auction, the coin brought €140 against an estimate of €80[2]. In recent auctions, unpierced examples of the same type have sold for about €250 to €300.

Gold Quarter Drachm of Berenike II

PTOLEMAIC KINGS of EGYPT. Berenike II, wife of Ptolemy III. Circa 244/3-221 BCE. AV Quarter Drachm (10mm, 1.01 g, 12h). Attic standard. Alexandreia mint. Struck under Ptolemy III, circa 242/1-222 BCE. Veiled and draped bust right / Filleted cornucopia; stars flanking. Svoronos 982; van Driessche 982, dies unlisted;. VF, holed. Very rare. From the collection of Dr. Lawrence A. Adams. Ex Classical Numismatic Group 66 (19 May 2004), lot 745; Marian A. Sinton Collection (Classical Numismatic Group 53, 15 March 2000), lot 701. Classical Numismatic Group > Auction 100 7 October 2015, Lot: 113, realized: 2,100 USD.

A tiny gold quarter drachm of Egyptian ruler Ptolemy III (c. 244-221 BCE) weighing just one gram was pierced with a relatively large hole behind the portrait of Queen Berenike II. Formerly in the famous collection of Dr. Lawrence Adams, this rare coin brought $2,100 against an estimate of $500 in a 2015 American auction[3]. The only unpierced example of this rare type that I could find, graded “good Extremely Fine,” sold for 24,000 Swiss francs against an estimate of 2,500 in 2011[4].

Silver Tetradrachm of Agathokles

BAKTRIA, Greco-Baktrian Kingdom. Agathokles. Circa 185-180 BCE. AR Tetradrachm (31mm, 16.67 g). Diademed head of Euthydemos I right / Herakles seated left on rock, holding club set on rocks; monogram to right of rock. Bopearachchi Série 16B; SNG ANS 261; MIG 145. VF, pierced and mounted in antiquity with remains of an iron pin or nail. Classical Numismatic Group > Electronic Auction 170 8 August 2007, Lot: 144, realized: 450 USD.

Coins that were pierced for attachment to some object occasionally retain a bit of the pin or nail that pierced them.

An unusual example is a silver tetradrachm of Greco-Baktrian king Agathokles, who ruled c. 185-180 BCE[5]. Corrosion of the iron pin behind the portrait of Euthydemos (possibly the grandfather of Agathokles) left a dark stain on the worn and pitted coin, which sold for just $450 in 2007. An extremely fine unpierced example brought £5,000 in a recent London auction[6].

Phraates II

KINGS of PARTHIA. Phraates II. 132-126 BCE. AR Drachm (21mm, 3.83 g, 12h). Uncertain (Apamea-Rhagiane?) mint. Struck circa 128-127 BCE. Diademed bust left; ΛΠ? up right / Archer (Arsakes I) seated right on omphalos, holding bow; lines dividing legends. Cf. Sellwood 16.12 (for type); Sunrise –; cf. Shore 52 (same). VF, toned, holed for suspension. From the David Sellwood Collection. Classical Numismatic Group > Electronic Auction 404 23 August 2017, Lot: 321, realized: 110 USD.  

British numismatist David Sellwood (1925-2012) wrote one of the standard references on the coinage of Parthia, and assembled a comprehensive collection. A pierced coin of Parthian ruler Phraates II (ruled 132-126 BCE) from Sellwood’s collection brought $110 against an estimate of just $75 in a 2017 US auction. Unpierced examples of the same type (but without the impressive pedigree) currently bring as much as $250 to $350 at auction.

Macedon

MACEDON. Koinon of Macedon. Pseudo-autonomous issue. ‘Aureus’ (Gold, 20 mm, 7.13 g, 12 h), time of Elagabalus to Severus Alexander, 218-235 CE. Veiled and diademed head of Olympias to left. Rev. ΟΛYMΠIAC Eagle standing left on thunderbolt, wings spread and head to right. Unique and of great historical importance… Holed and with some minor scrapes, and the flan slightly wavy. Leu Numismatik AG > Auction 7 24 October 2020, Lot: 1423, realized: 4,000 CHF (Approx. 4,410 USD).

Coinage in gold was a jealously guarded privilege of Roman emperors, so gold coins of Roman client states are correspondingly rare. The Koinon (“League”) of Macedon[7] emerged after the Roman conquest of the Macedonian Kingdom in 148 BCE. Under the empire, it became largely ceremonial.

A remarkable gold coin of this League, “unique and of great historical importance” dated to the third century CE, appeared in a recent European auction[8]. The obverse depicts a veiled female head. The reverse bears an eagle grasping a thunderbolt, with an inscription identifying the woman as Olympias, mother of Alexander the Great. Heavily worn, the piece is crudely pierced right below the woman’s nose. The weight of the piece (7.13 grams) corresponds to a Roman aureus of this era, but what monetary value it might have had is purely speculative.

Coinage of Divine Severus

Divus Septimius Severus. Died 211 CE. AV Aureus (22mm, 7.91 g). Rome mint. Struck under Caracalla, 211. Bare head right / Eagle standing left on thunderbolt. RIC IV 191a (Caracalla); Calicó 2440; BMCRE 19 (Caracalla). Near Fine, pierced twice for stringing, a third hole plugged to adjust the weight to full weight, edge hammered, banker’s mark on obverse. Rare. Classical Numismatic Group > Electronic Auction 180 23 January 2008, Lot: 265, realized: 550 USD.

Septimius Severus was emperor of Rome from 193 to 211 CE, when he was succeeded by his son, Caracalla. Following his death, the Senate declared him a god, and an extensive coinage celebrates his deification.

The inscription around the obverse portrait is DIVO SEVERO PIO (“To the Faithful God Severus”). An eagle appears on the reverse with the word CONSECRATIO (“Consecration”).

A cataloguer wrote:

The prominence of the eagle on such issues stems from the consecration ceremony itself; a funeral pyre was lit and an eagle was set loose from its summit, symbolising the elevation of the soul from the earth to the ranks of the gods[9].

This type is very rare. An unpierced near mint state example sold for £80,000 against an estimate of £30,000 in a 2012 London auction.

A heavily worn and battered aureus, pierced twice, holed and plugged to adjust the weight, brought just $550 in a 2008 US auction[10].

Ceremonial Coin of Heraclius

Heraclius, with Heraclius Constantine and Heraclonas. 610-641. AR Miliaresion (20mm, 3.78 g, 6h). ‘Ceremonial’ coinage. Constantinople mint. Struck 638-641 CE. Heraclonas, Heraclius, and Heraclius Constantine standing facing, each holding globus cruciger / Cross potent on base above globe and three steps; to either side, palm frond. DOC 60; MIB 131; SB 791. Attractive find patina, holed. VF. Extremely rare. Classical Numismatic Group > Electronic Auction 458 18 December 2019, Lot: 594, realized: 1,800 USD.

The rare seventh-to-eighth-century silver “ceremonial” coinage of the Byzantine Empire is a mystery. Struck to a highly variable and inconsistent weight standard ranging from under two grams to over four, the reverse of these crudely struck coins bears a cross flanked by palm branches. The coin is sometimes cataloged as a siliqua or a miliaresion, but we don’t know what they were actually called. The palm branch, a pagan symbol of victory, later became a popular Christian symbol (for example, Palm Sunday[11], which commemorates the entry of Christ into Jerusalem).

One theory is that these special coins were thrown to the crowd by emperors on festive occasions or major religious holidays. Those who received one might well have treasured it as a keepsake, so it is not surprising that they are often found pierced to be worn as ornaments. A ceremonial issue of the emperor Heraclius, dated to c. 638-641 CE, shows standing figures of the emperor flanked by his two adult sons. Pierced at the top on the obverse, it would presumably have been worn to show the imperial family–rather than the cross–upside down.

In a 2019 sale, the coin brought $1,800 against an estimate of $150[12]. I could not find a sale record of an unpierced example of the same type.

Gold Bulla of Constantine VII

Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus (913-959 CE). AV medallion of 4-solidi modified from bulla (26mm, 17.73 gm, 12h). NGC VF★ 5/5 – 2/5, Fine Style, pierced. Constantinople. + ЄMMANOVHA +, bust of Christ facing, wearing nimbus cruciger with three pellets on each arm, pallium and colobium, raising right hand in benediction, Gospels cradled in left arm; IC-XC (pelleted) across fields, dotted border / +KwNCT-ANT’ AVTOKPAT’, bust of Constantine VII facing, wearing crown with pendilia and square-pattern loros with jeweled collar, globus surmounted by patriarchal cross in right hand. Heritage World Coin Auctions > ANA Signature Sale 3094 19 August 2021, Lot: 33120, realized: 40,000 USD.

Emperor Constantine VII “Porphyrogenitus” who ruled from 913 to 959, is one of the most interesting figures in the long history of the Byzantine Empire.

His nickname means “born in the purple”, an epithet applied to children of a reigning emperor (a chamber in the palace paneled with the purple stone porphyry[13] was reserved for the delivery of imperial babies). Made co-emperor as an infant, Constantine effectively took power in 944. Yet his interests were scholarly and academic, and he delegated authority to competent subordinates so he could concentrate on writing and research. His solemn crowned and bearded portrait appears on a unique massive pierced four-solidus medallion, modified from a gold bulla[14]. The obverse bears the familiar iconic Byzantine portrait of Christ.

A bulla (the Latin word means “lump” or “blob”) was a document seal.

From a Heritage Auctions catalog:

Imperial bullae, more commonly found in lead, were occasionally issued in gold for the Byzantine emperors’ most important acts (chrysoboulla). The weight of these impressive seals varied in accordance to the status of their intended recipients. For example, most dignitaries within the empire, along with a few outside of it, such as the Bishop of Rome, received gold seals set to the weight of one solidus (approximately 4.54g). Seals of three solidi weight were presented to the Patriarchs of Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem, whereas the highest weight, those of four solidi, were reserved for the most important heads of state, such as the Caliph of Baghdad and the Sultan of Egypt[15].

Weighing over a half ounce, this coin-like object was holed for wear as a pendant, perhaps long after the attached original imperial document had crumbled to dust. Only a handful of these gold bullae has survived, most in museums or the archives of Orthodox monasteries.

Gold EID MAR Aureus of Brutus

M. Junius Brutus with L. Plaetorius Caestianus.  Aureus, mint moving with Brutus in Northern Greece 43-42 BCE,  AV 7.84 g.  BRVT IMP – L·PLAET·CEST  Bare head of M. Junius Brutus r.  Rev. Pileus between two daggers; below, EID·MAR.  Sydenham –.  B. –.  Sear Imperators 215.  H. Cahn, Actes du Congrés Internationale de Numismatique, Paris 1953, p. 213 (this coin) = H. Cahn, Q. Tic 18, 1989, 24a (this coin). Calicò 58 (this coin).  Crawford –.  Biaggi 39 (this coin) Of the highest rarity, only two specimens known. A coin of tremendous fascination and historical importance, which has been debated for decades among scholars. Scratch on reverse field and pierced at twelve o’ clock, otherwise very fine. Numismatica Ars Classica > Auction 45 2 April 2008, Lot: 42, realized: 230,000 CHF (Approx. 226,556 USD).

Possibly the highest price ever paid for a pierced coin is for the gold EID MAR aureus of Brutus, issued by a military mint moving with the army of Julius Caesar’s assassins in Greece in 43 or 42 BCE.

The obverse bears a stern portrait of Brutus, with his name abbreviated BRVT – along with the name of an army financial official, L. Plaetorius Cestianus, who is otherwise unknown to history. The reverse shows the assassin’s daggers flanking a pileus (the “Liberty Cap” worn by freed slaves as a marker of their status). In 2008, this coin sold for 230,000 Swiss francs (about $226,556 USD)[16]. Only two other gold coins of this type are known, one on loan to the British Museum; the other in the collection of the Deutsche Bundesbank.

For many years, experts debated whether or not they were authentic. An unpierced example sold for a record £2,700,000 (about $3,484,321 USD, not including buyer’s premium) in a 2020 London auction[17]. The discovery of this coin helped to persuade experts that the type is indeed genuine.

The silver denarius of Brutus, struck from the same dies, is #1 in Harlan J. Berk’s book of the 100 Greatest Ancient Coins (p. 86).

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Notes

[1] CNG Auction 118, September 13-14, 2021, Lots 1144-1147, 1149, 1152-1154, 1156, and 1157.

[2] Numismatik Naumann Auction 72, December 2, 2018, Lot 15.

[3] CNG Auction 100, October 7, 2015, Lot 113. Realized $2,100 USD (estimate $500).

[4] Nomos Auction 5, October 25, 2011, Lot 209. Realized CHF 24,000 (about $27,245 USD; estimate CHF 2,500).

[5] CNG E-Auction 170, August 8, 2007, Lot 144. Realized $450 USD (estimate $500).

[6] Roma Auction XXI, March 24, 2021, Lot 335. Realized £5,000 (about $,861 USD; estimate £7,500).

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

[8] Leu Numismatik Auction 7, October 24, 2020, Lot 1423. Realized CHF 4,000 (about $4,410 USD; estimate CHF 3,500).

[9] Roma Numismatics Auction 4, September 30, 2012, Lot 582. Realized £80,000 (about $129,199 USD; estimate £30,000).

[10] CNG E-auction 180, January 23, 2008, Lot 265. Realized $550 USD (estimate $500).

[11] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Palm_Sunday

[12] CNG E-Auction 458, December 18, 2019, Lot 594. Realized $1,800 USD (estimate $150).

[13] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Porphyry_(geology)

[14] Heritage ANA Sale, August 19, 2021, Lot 33120. Realized $40,000 USD (estimate $50,000-$60,000).

[15] CNG Triton XV, January 3, 2012, Lot 1648. Two-solidus bulla of Nikephoros III (1078-1081); Realized $80,000 USD.

[16] NAC Auction 45, April 2, 2008, Lot 42. Realized CHF 230,000 (about $226,556 USD; estimate CHF 100,000).

[17] Roma Numismatics Auction XX, October 29, 2020, Lot 463. Realized £2,700,000 (about $3484,321 USD; estimate £500,000).
 

References

Berk, Harlan J. 100 Greatest Ancient Coins, 2nd edition. Whitman: Pelham, AL (2019)

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

Howgego, Christopher. Ancient History from Coins. London (1995)

Sellwood, David. An Introduction to the Coinage of Parthia. London (1980)

Turner, Paula. Roman Coins from India. London (1989)

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Mike Markowitz - CoinWeek Ancient Coin SeriesMike Markowitz is a member of the Ancient Numismatic Society of Washington. He has been a serious collector of ancient coins since 1993. He is a wargame designer, historian, and defense analyst. He has degrees in History from the University of Rochester, New York and Social Ecology from the University of California, Irvine. Born in New York City, he lives in Fairfax, Virginia.
 

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