Formed over several decades by a collector with a passion for the arts and a discerning taste for outstanding examples of the most beautiful and famous ancient Greek coins, the Prospero Collection offers a once in a lifetime opportunity to see a group of coins of such magnitude, so meticulously sourced and so lovingly preserved. These amazing, precious, pieces transport you into archaic times when the Greek city states were spreading throughout the known world, to the height of classical art in the 5th century BC, the defeat of the Persians, the Carthaginian wars and the sweeping conquests of Alexander.
The great Greek gods bustle with each other to be represented on the gold and silver pieces: the great goddess Athena, Apollo, Hermes, Posidon, the smiling Dionyses, and the regal Zeus. The coins lead you through a wonderland of myth; depicting the Minator, the heroes of the Golden Fleece, magical beasts like the Griffin, Sphinx and Chimera, the gorgons and monsters of the sea. Some coins depict the source of their city’s wealth: the bulls of Sybaris, wheat from Metapontum both in south Italy, the valuable now extinct. Sylium plant from Cyrene in Libya and the tuna fish emblem of Cysicus on the black sea where a natural mix of silver and gold was turned into coins bearing a different story each year for over a hundred years.
Artistically, the coins rate amongst the finest examples of ancient art. Some are signed by artists who worked throughout the Greek world. Many of the coins are unique or amongst a few examples known and many have a providence of historic collections dating from the early 19th century. It is quite amazing to think that these miniature works of art were produced 1,300 or more years ago, have survived world and civil wars, crossed borders and been admired by collectors of all ages, speaking many different languages.
Not since the Nelson Bunker Hunt collection of ancient Greek and Roman coins was sold in five parts by Sotheby’s in the 1990s has the numismatic community seen the sale of such an important collection of ancient coinage. In the introduction to the Sotheby’s catalogue for the sale of the 3rd part of the Nelson Bunker Hunt Collection Elvira Eliza Clain-Stefanelli wrote:
‘Coins “speak” to the present about the deeds of heroes, the movement of trade, the artistic tastes and the everyday life of human society throughout the ages.’
These coins speak to us, of mythical animals, of gods and goddesses, of the value the Greeks put on beauty and fine artistry; and they most definitely speak for themselves as they capture the imagination with breathtaking ease.
Lot 163 in the auction is one of a number of items in the collection that formed part of the legendary Bunker Hunt collection. This silver dekadrachm from Syracuse, Sicily, created by The Demareteion [dem-ah-re-tay-on] Master, a modern name given by numismatists to the artist they believe crafted the dies for the Demareteion itself and for the related series of tetradrachms from Syracuse and Leontinoi. The Demareteion series is the most famous, and among the most beautiful, of all the archaic and classical coinage of Syracuse and the dekadrachm is the most spectacular creation of this master engraver. The obverse of the coin depicts the scene of a Charioteer driving a chariot with Nike (the winged goddess of victory) flying above to crown the horses. The reverse shows the head of Arethusa with four dolphins swimming clockwise around. Apart from the distinctive style of this coin, there are distinctive differences between the Demareteion issues and the regular Syracusan coinage. The head of Arethusa is shown wearing an olive-wreath, perhaps a reference to the recent Sicilian victory. The facial features are quite unlike those seen on other Syracusan issues. The eye is heavy-lidded and the lips, which do not join to define the corner of the mouth, are rather pronounced. The nose has been engraved rather delicately, and the chin is quite pointed. From the otherwise neatly arranged hair, there is a lock of that curls downwards behind the ear. The lion that appears in the exergue of the obverse could perhaps be seen as symbolic of Carthage. Alternatively, it has been suggested that as the lion was the seal of the family of Demarete and her father Theron, it could refer to the alliance that brought about the Syracusan victory over the Carthaginians. This coin is estimated to sell for US$150,000.
Of the 642 lots being offered for sale a large proportion will be considered as some of the finest examples of numismatic workmanship ever created, some too are completely unique. Many have additional marks of distinction in the form of truly exception provenances. Coin collecting is often described as the hobby of kings and we owe a great debt of thanks to the noble men and women who sought to collect and preserve the examples offered throughout this collection, many of whom collected them for their artistic beauty.
The reverse shows a naked, bearded and ithyphallic Silenos holding a drinking cup. This early classical masterpiece still retains some of the rigidity of design that is typical of archaic art but it is far more naturalistic in its proportions, setting it aside from previous archaic die engraving. While the shape of the beard and the formal arrangement of the hair of Dionysos are reminiscent of the archaic style, his eye is seen in profile and the entire obverse has been set-out with more freedom, indicative of classical progression. The rendering of Silenos on the reverse of the coin moves even further into the realms of early classical art, evident in the details of his anatomy and particularly by the sense of perspective achieved through his foreshortened right leg and feet. The reverse composition is extremely impressive in its technical mastery for the period. This coin is estimated to sell for US$125,000.
Lot 213, the facing head Pantikapaion gold stater, perhaps the rarest and most important of all the coins in this collection, is regarded as one of the greatest masterpieces of ancient coinage and is among the most spectacular numismatic objects to survive from the classical world. The opportunity to acquire an example is seldom witnessed by numismatists. Godfrey Locker Lampson, whose example was struck from the same dies as this coin, provides us with his own inspired account of the obverse: “The head of the satyr is a marvel of speaking portraiture. That so much expression could be packed into so small around would not be believed by anyone who had not seen it….If a single coin had to be selected from those described in these pages, as by the greatest of all die-engravers, whoever he may have been, whose work had lasted to the present day, 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.” (Locker Lampson Collection (foreword, p. vii)).
The example from the Locker Lampson Collection is now in the Gulbenkian Collection, where it resides together with two other similar examples, one of which shares the same obverse die.
The Greek colony of Pantikapaion was founded in the seventh century B.C. by the Milesians and, by the fourth century, the city had amassed considerable wealth through its exports of grain. The griffin on the reverse of this coin is seen standing upon a grain-ear, symbolic of its importance to the financial well-being of the city. The issue of gold staters, this three-quarter facing head example being one of the most incredible and important, was a manifestation of the wealth of Pantikapaion. This coin is estimated at US$650,000.
Following Alexander’s victories over the Persian Empire, he continued to campaign further East towards India. As his army advanced through modern-day Pakistan, it became necessary to deal with the Indian King Poros, ruler of the Pauravas, who had refused to acknowledge Alexander’s increasing dominance. Alexander had to ensure that there would be no danger to the flanks of his army. King Poros positioned himself on the banks of the Hydaspes River, which he saw as a good defensive location as the river was at that time swollen due to monsoon rains. However, Alexander risked the crossing and, having reached the opposing bank, trapped the forces of Poros in a pincer movement. Alexander’s victory at this battle resulted in the annexation of the Punjab into his empire, later leading to the formation of the Indo-Greek Kingdom.
Two new cities, Bucephala and Nicaea, were founded by Alexander and it is in the context of this campaign that the ‘Poros’ dekadrachms were issued. The deficiencies in striking make it clear that the dekadrachms were a local issue, struck in Babylon. The obverse of the coin has traditionally been identified as commemorating Alexander the Great’s defeat of King Poros at the battle of the Hydaspes in 326 B.C. However, research has strengthened the argument that the dekadrachms were struck during the period of Alexander’s campaigns in India. The degree of wear seen on the dekadrachms, when it is considered that the Babylon hoard was probably buried at the end of Alexander’s lifetime, suggest that they might have been issued before the final defeat of King Poros by Alexander. This coin is estimated at US$150,000.
Lot 407, a fascinating and extremely rare stater from Knossos depicts an image of one of the most famous of all mythological creatures, the Minotaur, which had the head of a bull and the body of a man. The myth surrounding this beast dates from the period of the Minoan civilisation on Crete, long before the Greeks inhabited the island. The reasons for the destruction of the Minoan culture are not clear, but might have been the result of an earthquake or an invasion. When the Greeks discovered the complex remains of the palace of Knossos centuries later, the legend of the Minotaur and the Labyrinth were born. The Minotaur was said to have been imprisoned in the Labyrinth, designed by Daedalus for King Minos to hold it captive, and was fed with condemned criminals, maidens and young boys sent from Athens as tribute to the Cretan King. In the well-known mythical tale, the Minotaur was killed by Theseus, who had tied a ball of string to the entrance to the Labyrinth upon entering so that he would be able to find his way back. When he discovered the Minotaur deep within the Labyrinth, a fierce struggle ensued before Theseus killed the monster with his sword.
Although this coin appears from its style to be archaic in origin, with the Minotaur positioned in the familiar kneeling-running stance, it does in fact date from the classical period. This is usually attributed to the fact that Crete was more isolated than the city-states on the mainland and therefore developed more slowly. Crete also relied upon imported coins for the silver used to strike its coinage; the traces of the overstruck coin can be seen on the obverse of the above example. This lot is estimated at US$40,000.
The Prospero Collection will be sold as part of The New York Sale XXVII-XXVIII in the Vanderbilt Suite of the Waldorf Astoria hotel, New York, on the 4th January 2012. Bidders are strongly encouraged to attend his landmark auction where possible although the sale will be broadcast over the internet using the services of www.the-saleroom.com. A limited edition hard-back copy of the catalogue has been produced to mark this very special event and is available to pre-order through the Baldwin’s website.