By Mike Markowitz for CoinWeek …..
The magazine Numismatic Scrapbook was published from 1935 to 1976 at Chicago by printer and collector Lee Hewitt (1911-1987). In 1974, Numismatic Scrapbook listed 10 record auction prices for ancient coins. CoinWeek asked me to revisit this list, exploring what equivalent coins might go for in today’s super-hot ancient coin market.
Since every ancient coin is unique, comparisons are problematic (except in the case of the repeated sale of the very same coin). When comparing house prices, American realtors use the term “comp” to describe recently sold homes similar to the property you’re trying to buy or sell in terms of location, size, condition, and features.
So I went hunting for “comps”. The results of my searches can be found below.
Incidentally, three of these coin types appear on Harlan Berk’s list of the 100 Greatest Ancient Coins.
Topping the list is a rare gold aureus of Diadumenianus (or Diadumenian), son and co-emperor of Macrinus who ruled from April 217 to June 218.
Macrinus came to power by murdering his predecessor, the demented Caracalla. He then made Diadumenianus, his nine-year-old son, co-emperor. Defeated in battle, father and son were hunted down and executed by rebel troops – a common fate of third-century Roman rulers.
In 1973, a gold aureus of this tragic child-emperor sold for $65,825 USD. In 2018, a comparable example, once in the collection of the famed Italian opera star Enrico Caruso (1873-1921), sold for a whopping $239,020.
Julius Saturninus was the Roman governor of Syria. He was forced by his troops and an unruly mob to proclaim himself as emperor in the year 280, possibly at Alexandria but more likely at Antioch. After a few months, he was killed by his own troops.
Only two coins in his name are known: one in the French national collection at Paris, the other sold by Sotheby’s in 1972 for $61,500. It appeared again at auction in 1991 when it brought $180,000.
Should it appear again on the current market, it would probably bring three or four times that amount.
Jewish War Year 5
Infuriated by perceived Roman disrespect for their religion and customs, the people of Judea rose in revolt in the year 66. The “Jewish War” dragged on for five bloody and bitter years.
The rebels issued their own silver shekels, inscribed “Shekel of Israel” and “Jerusalem the Holy” in ancient Hebrew letters. They bore images of a ceremonial chalice and a sprig of three pomegranate buds. The coinage is dated using Hebrew letters as numerals (alef=1, bet=2, gimel=3, daled=4, he=5). After Year 1, the letter shin (which looks like our “W”) appears with the numeral as an abbreviation of the word shanat (“year”).
On Berk’s list of the 100 Greatest Ancient Coins, this type is #37 (Berk, 99).
Only about 25 genuine examples of the Year 5 shekel are known. The most recent one to appear at auction, “tied for the finest known,” brought $300,000 in 2020.
In the chaotic year 269 CE, a blacksmith who had risen through the ranks of the Roman army on the Rhine was proclaimed emperor by his troops under the name “Marcus Aurelius Marius”. He reigned for just two or three months before he was executed, according to legend with a sword that he had forged in his previous career.
Remarkably, in this short time a considerable volume of coinage – mostly silvered bronze – in the name of Marius was produced, probably to pay the troops. Only about nine gold aurei of Marius exist, seven in museums. One of the other two is damaged. The sole undamaged coin in private hands, formerly in the collection of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, sold for $59,305 in 1972. When it came to market again in 2003, it realized $138,598.
The cataloguer for that sale wrote:
The engraver who cut the dies for this coin was a true artist of great talent; the portrait of Marius is a masterpiece of realism unequaled in its intensity by any produced by his contemporaries working elsewhere in the Empire.
If the aureus of Marius appeared at auction today, it could easily bring $250,000.
Protected on three sides by a bend of the Strymon river, the city of Amphipolis in Macedonia flourished as a center of trade and government.
A lovely silver tetradrachm of the city bears the head of Apollo, facing slightly to his left, in the posture art historians call “three-quarters facing.” A torch appears within a square on the reverse, surrounded by the inscription: AMΦ – ΙΠΟ – ΛΙΤ – ΕΩΝ (“of the Amphipolitans”).
On Berk’s list of the 100 Greatest Ancient Coins, this type is #29 (Berk, 57). Berk writes:
Between about 369 and 353 [BCE], Amphipolis produced some of the most magnificent Greek coins of the period. The obverse of this tetradrachm portrays a three-quarter facing head of Apollo, wearing a laurel wreath. Apollo’s splendid image combines idealism with naturalism, both hallmarks of the classical style. The massive curls that frame Apollo’s handsome face almost swallow the delicate laurel wreath. The facial planes are subtly modeled, the eyes direct and clear. This head of Apollo is among the most impressive ones depicted on all Greek coinage.
With a pedigree dating back to the 19th century, this coin brought over $451,000 in a 2019 Swiss auction – more than nine times what a similar coin sold for in 1973.
Little is known about Ulpius Cornelius Laelianus, a commander of Roman legions on the Rhine frontier who declared himself emperor at Moguntiacum (now Mainz, Germany), from February to June also in the year 269 CE. His revolt was crushed by another rebel emperor, Postumus, and Laelianus was executed, possibly by his own disgruntled troops.
The reverse inscription TEMPORVM FELICITAS (“Happiness of the Times”) is ironic for this chaotic and bloody period of Roman history. Only about a dozen gold aurei in the name of Laelianus are known, with eight of these in museums. The most recent sale of an example, formerly in the collection of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, was in 2005, realizing over $108,000.
In today’s market, an equivalent coin might bring $250,000 or more.
Born in Emesa (now Homs, Syria) about 180 CE, Julia Soaemias, daughter of the wealthy and powerful Julia Maesa, was the mother of the emperor Elagabalus. She bragged (probably falsely) that Elagabalus was really the illegitimate son of the murdered Caracalla. Along with plenty of Julia Maesa’s cash, this persuaded some disgruntled troops to put the boy on the throne. Julia Soaemias became Augusta (“empress”) and coins were struck in her name.
Following the murder of Julia Soaemias and her son in 235 CE by the Praetorian guard, most of her gold aurei were melted down. No example has appeared on the market since one sold for $41,950 in 1972. The only previous sale I could find was in 1922, when A.H. Baldwin & Sons sold one to the British Museum.
If such a coin appeared on the market today, it would bring at least $200,000, perhaps more in high grade.
Maximianus 10 Aurei Medallion
Gold medallions are the superstars of Roman coinage. Many are unique. The largest ones were minted as diplomatic gifts, or presentation pieces to reward victorious commanders and senior officials. Because of their high intrinsic value as bullion, they were often melted down, so their survival down to our time is miraculous.
Born about the year 250 CE near Sirmium on the Danube frontier, Marcus Aurelianus Valerius Maximianus (or “Maximian”) was ambitious, energetic, and loyal, rising quickly through the army to become junior co-emperor with Diocletian in 285. In the complex civil wars that saw the rise of Constantine I, Maximianus was captured and forced to commit suicide in 310.
A unique medallion of 10 aurei (about 60 grams or two Troy ounces!) in the name of Maximianus sold for just $38,660 back in 1963. No exact equivalent has appeared on the market in recent decades, the closest being a Maximianus medallion of 8 aurei, “apparently unique and unpublished” and “…of enchanting beauty, sharply struck in high relief.” It sold for over $441,000 in 2002. The obverse bears a bust of the emperor in the guise of Hercules, wearing his signature lion skin headdress. The reverse bears a naked standing figure of Hercules, with an inscription hailing the demigod as the “Preserver of our Emperors”.
In today’s market, a high-grade unique Roman gold medallion of 10 aurei might sell for over $1 million.
Florianus (or “Florian”) was the half-brother of Emperor Tacitus, who died of fever at the age of 76 in June, 276 CE, or was possibly assassinated. Florianus claimed the throne with the assent of the Senate and ruled for less than three months until his own troops handed him over to the rebel general Probus, who executed him.
His gold aurei are exceedingly rare, with only two examples known. One of these sold for $37,560 in 1973 and realized $109,210 in a 2020 London auction.
Founded about 733 BCE by Greek colonists, Syracuse in Sicily was blessed with an abundant year-round supply of fresh water from the Fountain of Arethusa, which still flows today. The mythical water nymph Arethusa, who presided over this source, is celebrated on the city’s coinage, which reached a high standard of technical and artistic excellence in the early fifth century BCE. Arethusa is depicted as a beautiful woman, with playful dolphins swimming around her head.
Several Syracusan master engravers who signed their coin dies are known by name, and Kimon was among the greatest. Kimon’s large silver decadrachms are considered masterpieces. In 1973, a Kimon decadrachm sold for $31,772. A comparable coin, described as “lightly toned” and with “excellent metal”, realized $150,000 in a 2019 New York auction.
On Berk’s list of the 100 Greatest Ancient Coins, this type is #6 (Berk, 42).
The “top ten” ancients of 1974 included seven Roman, two Greek, and one Judean coin. Two bore images of women, seven depicted men, and one (the Judean) was impersonal. The earliest dated from c. 400 BCE; the most recent from 303 CE. Six were gold and four were silver. The Roman coins included four gold aurei from the troubled era of the “Military Anarchy” or “Barracks Emperors”, (235-284 CE.) Prices realized for these 10 coins in 1974 totaled $494,794. In 2021 dollars that sum represents $2,790,664, but if these same coins came to auction today, I estimate that they would bring at least $4 million, perhaps more.
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 NAC Auction 105, May 9, 2018, Lot 66. Realized CHF 240,000 (about $239,020 USD; estimate CHF 150,000).
 NFA Auction XXVII, December 4-5, 1991, Lot 176. Realized $180,000 USD.
 New York Sale XLVIII, January 14, 2020, Lot 54. Realized $300,000 USD (estimate $160,000).
 Leu Numismatik, Auction 87, May 6, 2003, Lot 84. Realized CHF 185,000 (about $138,598 USD; estimate CHF 200,000).
 Fans of the mid-to-late’90s syndicated TV series Xena: Warrior Princess may recall that Amphipolis was Xena’s home town.
 NAC Auction 116, October 1, 2019, Lot 64. Realized $450,000 (about $451,173 USD; estimate CHF 300,000).
 BM 1922.1016.2 “not currently on display”
 Not to be confused with similarly named emperors Maxentius (ruled 306-312), Magnus Maximus (ruled in Gaul 383-388) Maximinus “Thrax” (ruled 286-305) or Maximinus “Daza” (ruled 310-313). If you yelled “Hey, Max!” in the Roman Forum, a lot of guys would have turned around.
 In 1963 the price of gold was fixed at $35.25 per ounce, equivalent to $302.27 in 2021 dollars.
 NAC Auction 24, December 5, 2002, Lot 245. Realized CHF 650,000 (about $441,696 USD).
 Roma Numismatics Auction XIX, March 26, 2020, Lot 914. Realized £90,000 (about $109,210 USD; estimate £50,000).
 CNG Triton XXII, January 8, 2019, Lot 146. Realized $150,000 USD (estimate $150,000).
Berk, Harlan J. 100 Greatest Ancient Coins, Second Edition. Pelham, AL (2019)
Hendin, David. Guide to Biblical Coins, 5th edition. (2010)
Kimball Art Museum. Wealth of the Ancient World: The Nelson Bunker Hunt and William Herbert Hunt Collections. Fort Worth, TX (1983)
Scarre, Chris. Chronicle of the Roman Emperors. London (1995)
Toynbee, Jocelyn. Roman Medallions. New York (1986 reprint of 1944 edition)
Vagi, David. Coinage and History of the Roman Empire. Sidney, OH (1999)
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Mike 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.