The One That Got Away: The Trials and Tribulations of Building an Ancient Coin Exhibit

By Michael T. Shutterly for CoinWeek …..

Virtually every collector has experienced “the one that got away”.

This usually involves a coin from your Wish List that someone else snapped up. Sometimes because they saw it first and grabbed it before you could. Sometimes because they snuck in a last-second overbid at an online auction. And sometimes just because they were willing to pay more for the coin than you thought was reasonable or affordable.

But some of us have experienced the greater tragedy of having that Wish List coin IN HAND, only to have it slip away.

There are many words to describe that experience. This article will only include words that the editor will allow in print.

The Background

I put on my first numismatic exhibit at the ANA World’s Fair of Money in Chicago in 2015. I was pleased with the results; Sacred Images won the awards for “Best Exhibit by a First Time Exhibitor” and “First Place – Coins Before 1500.”

At the ANA Awards Banquet, I found myself seated next to Larry Sekulich, who told me that he did not think that I had put on a good exhibit – he said that I had put on at least three good exhibits. My exhibit included 61 different coins covering a wide array of sub-topics, and Larry suggested that I should consider bringing more focus to my presentations.

I figured that Larry probably knew what he was talking about. Not only had he won that year’s “Howland Wood Memorial Award for Best-of-Show Exhibit” (his third win of that award), but he is also the instructor for the ANA’s Summer Seminar class “Creating a Winning Numismatic Exhibit”.

I attended Larry’s class at Summer Seminar in 2016 and built two new exhibits for the 2016 ANA World’s Fair of Money based upon what Larry taught me. I based Heavenly Gold on one of the sub-topics of my 2015 Sacred Images exhibit, and built In the Beginning from scratch. Both exhibits were more focused than Sacred Images had been.

The Exhibit is Formed… Until One Got Away

In the Beginning examined the very earliest coins. Following Larry’s advice to focus on my topic, I designed the exhibit using just six coins. The first was an electrum hemihekte (1/12 stater), with a plain globular surface – little more than a blob of electrum with a blank obverse.

The second was a slightly later electrum hemihekte, but its obverse presented a flattened striated surface – a very rudimentary “design”.

The third was an electrum tetartemorion (1/48 stater) of Phanes, representing the first coins to bear an inscription (although the tetartemorion itself was too small to have an inscription).

The fourth was an electrum Lydian trite (1/3 stater), whose obverse displayed the roaring lion of Lydia, representing the first coins to bear the emblem of the king who struck them.

The fifth coin was a silver Stater of the Lydian king Kroisos, representing the first silver coins ever minted, and the sixth was a gold myshemihekte of Kroisos, representing the first gold coins ever minted.

Electrum Hemihekte.  Globular Surface.  Ionia. c. 625 BCE.  7.7 mm, 1.16 gm
Electrum Hemihekte. Globular Surface. Ionia. c. 625 BCE. 7.7 mm, 1.16 gm
Electrum Hemihekte.  Striated Surface.  Ionia. c. 625 BC.  6 mm, 1.4 gm
Electrum Hemihekte. Striated Surface. Ionia. c. 625 BCE. 6 mm, 1.4 gm
Electrum Tetartemorion.  Ephesos.  Phanes. c. 625/600 – 550 BCE.  5.5 mm, .29 gm
Electrum Tetartemorion. Ephesos. Phanes. c. 625/600 – 550 BCE. 5.5 mm, .29 gm
AR Stater.  Kroisos, c. 550 BCE.  Sardes Mint.  16x18.5 mm, 10.69 gm.
AR Stater. Kroisos, c. 550 BCE. Sardes Mint. 16×18.5 mm, 10.69 gm.
AV Myshemihekte.  Kroisos, c. 550 BCE.  Sardes Mint.  6 mm, .66 gm.
AV Myshemihekte. Kroisos, c. 550 BCE. Sardes Mint. 6 mm, .66 gm.

All of these coins are quite small. The Phanes tetartemorion, both of the hemihektes, and the myshemihekte are each less than half the diameter of the smallest U.S. coin, the silver trime. The trite is slightly smaller than a trime, and the stater – the largest coin of its time – is roughly the size of a Roosevelt dime. I decided to include photographs of each coin so that viewers (and exhibit judges) could see them clearly.

That is when I learned that coin photography requires a very specialized skill, and while I did have the proper equipment, I did not have the proper skills for numismatic photography (I have since taken both of the ANA Summer Seminar classes in numismatic photography). Back then I worked on a trial-and-error basis, taking dozens and dozens (and dozens!) of shots, in different locations under different lighting conditions, in an attempt to get one usable photo. For each coin.

I saved the smallest coin, the Phanes tetartemorion, for last. Unable to get a usable shot after an hour or so’s worth of attempts, I put the coin aside. I planned to take some more pictures the following day when I would be fresh and ready to go.

It never happened.

The coin wasn’t in its flip, nor was it in the flip of any of the other coins. It wasn’t loose in the box in which I was holding the coins. It wasn’t on the camera stand. It wasn’t in the carpet of the room in which I had attempted to photograph it the night before – I literally used a fine-toothed comb over that carpet and turned up many interesting items, but not a single tetartemorion. I vacuumed the carpet and then sifted through the dust in the bag. I found some interesting items, but no tetartemorion. That coin was nowhere to be found – it did indeed get away.

I was vexed, quite vexed. This coin was irreplaceable; not only is the tetartemorion a very rare denomination within the Phanes series, but my coin was one of just two known examples of its specific type (and I never found out who owned the other one). Adding to my vexation was the fact that the World’s Fair of Money was less than two weeks away.

What to do, what to do…

Since I could not obtain a replacement tetartemorion, I decided to revamp the exhibit using two other coins: an electrum myshemihekte with a Mill Sail pattern obverse would demonstrate a more deliberate obverse design, and an electrum hemihekte with a Bridled Horse obverse would demonstrate a highly-detailed, but still anonymous obverse design.

Electrum Myshemihekte.  Mill Sail Pattern.  Ionia. c. 625-600 BCE.  6 mm, .62 gm
Electrum Myshemihekte. Mill Sail Pattern. Ionia. c. 625-600 BCE. 6 mm, .62 gm
Electrum Hemihekte.  Bridled Horse.  Ionia. c. 625-600 BCE.  11 mm, 1.18 gm
Electrum Hemihekte. Bridled Horse. Ionia. c. 625-600 BCE. 11 mm, 1.18 gm

I also rewrote the entire narrative to avoid any mention of coin inscriptions, while focusing on the development of coin design. I completed the work just in time to place both exhibits at the World’s Fair of Money. And held my breath.

It turned out rather well. Heavenly Gold took “First Place – Gold Coins”, won a special award for “Best Exhibit of Coins That Made History”, and finished as “First Runner-Up for Best-of-Show”. And In the Beginning? It managed to take “First Place – Coins Before 1500” and came away with the “Howland Wood Memorial Award for Best-of-Show Exhibit”.

But I still want my Phanes tetartemorion…

Image of Phanes Tetartemorion courtesy and copyright of Classical Numismatic Group, LLC (CNG). All other images courtesy of the author.

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About the Author

Michael T. Shutterly is a recovering lawyer who survived six years as a trial lawyer and 30 years working in the financial services industry. He is now an amateur historian who specializes in the study of ancient Rome and the Middle Ages, with a special interest in the art and history of the coins of those periods. He has published over 50 articles on ancient and medieval coins in various publications and has received numerous awards for his articles and presentations on different aspects of the history of the ancient and Medieval world. He is a member of the ANA, the ANS, the Association of Dedicated Byzantine Collectors, and numerous other regional, state, and specialty coin clubs.


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