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Provenances of Ancient Coins

By Edward Waddell for CoinWeek …..
The provenance or pedigree of an ancient coin to a former collection adds historical interest and prestige to the ownership of said coin. In the case of important collections of the past, it provides a tangible link to those former numismatists. In some cases, provenance can add considerably to the monetary value of the coin. In today’s world of cultural property laws, it may also establish a legal basis for the coin’s ownership.

There is a long history of coin collecting.

Rome, silver denarius struck under Trajan, c.112-114 CE
Rome, silver denarius struck under Trajan, c.112-114 CE commemorating a coin struck under P. Cornelius Lentulus Marcellinus, c.50 BCE Photo courtesy of American Numismatic Society

A series of coins produced at Rome circa 112-114 CE during the reign of Emperor Trajan commemorate an earlier coinage dating back to the late third century BCE under the Roman Republic. The details of these types are sufficiently comparable to their antecedents that the originals had to have been available to the die engraver. Either a State or personal collection, perhaps of a Roman intellectual, must have been consulted.

There were almost certainly earlier collections as well, but the records are scant.

With the revival of the importance of classical antiquity during the Italian Renaissance, noble families started to form collections such as those of the Gonzaga and Este families in the 15th century. Their coins were stamped with a heraldic eagle as an indication of ownership.

Northern humanists of the 16th century, such as Erasmus and Sir Thomas More, exchanged ancient coins as gifts among their circles of fellow scholars.

Rome, bronze sestertius for Diva Faustina I, 141 CE
Rome, bronze sestertius for Diva Faustina I, 141 CE with the silver double eagle inset on the obverse as a collector’s mark. Photo courtesy of American Numismatic Society.

Some of the holdings of European nobility became the foundations for the first national museum collections. The British Museum was already consigning its first selection of duplicate coins to an auction in 1774.

But although coins from these early collections do become available occasionally, it is the advent of photography in catalogues beginning in earnest by the late 19th century that allows for the certain attribution of coins to former owners.

Ethics and Law

Legitimate ancient coin dealers exercise due diligence to determine that a coin they are offering for sale is not from an illicit excavation. Members of the International Association of Professional Numismatists (IAPN) have this as part of their code of ethics, which can be found at iapncoins.org/iapn/association.

In addition, the United States has entered into agreements with various countries and established regulations to control the importation of certain ancient coins and other artifacts. Such an agreement is known as Memorandum of Understanding (MOU). They are intended to protect the cultural property of the signatory countries. You can find a list of some of these agreements and import/export guidelines on the IAPN site at iapn-coins.org/download-category/export-import-guidelines. The memoranda require a certification by the importer and exporter that the coin in question has been outside of the country of origin prior to a certain date or has a valid export license from that country. The easiest way to comply with these regulations and the one that is not open to interpretation is the publication of the coin in an illustrated catalogue. The catalogue should predate the regulation and establish the coin as being outside the relevant country of origin.

It is important to note, however, that many wonderful coins that are legally traded have never appeared in sales catalogues. This is often due to the fact that when they appeared on the market, their commercial value was low and their provenance information was not retained. Many coins that circulate in today’s market first appeared before coins were regularly photographed in catalogues, although they may have resided for many decades in a collection.

In the Market

Although pedigrees to well-known collections have always been considered desirable throughout the history of ancient coin collecting and were noted in very early auction catalogs and books, the additional value associated with them is a rather recent occurrence. A value beyond the collectible value of the coin itself is to a large degree still being determined by the marketplace and is dependent on a number of factors. Generally, a pedigree will not add value to a coin unless the coin is already desirable in terms of its own quality and/or rarity. A base level of added pedigree value would be for the publication of the coin in a sales catalogue prior to any restricted date for importation into the USA, but not part of a well-known collection.

This might provide 10-25% of additional value to the coin. Coins from collections with prestigious names or of historical importance could see an addition of 50% or more to the value (in some cases). Typically, a higher premium would be obtained for those coins that are rarely recorded with a pedigree due to very few being known prior to the advent of recent hoards.

Collecting Pedigreed Coins

The easiest way to obtain pedigreed coins is to purchase them from a dealer who maintains a significant library and who can provide you with the details of the provenance.

A collector may also decide over time to build his own library of auction catalogs, books, and fixed price lists that illustrate the coins of interest to his collection. A numismatic library greatly adds to the enjoyment and knowledge of one’s collection – your dealer should be able to provide you with some good recommendations.

There is also a pedigree search service at www.ex-numis.com, which will search for published pedigrees from a photo of the coin for a reasonable fee.

Below are a few examples of historical named collections:

Apostolo Zeno

Rome, Bronze Cast Dupondius, 568 g. c.265-242 BCE
Rome, Bronze Cast Dupondius, 568 g. c.265-242 BCE Ex: Apostolo Zeno collection, Dorotheum, Vienna, Auction 1956, lot 2657. Photo courtesy of Edward J. Waddell, Ltd.

Zeno was born in Venice in 1668 to an old patrician family and was involved in a literary career. He wrote the librettos for many of the Baroque operas of his day featuring mythological themes. In 1710 he was a co-founder of Giornale de letterati d’Italia, the first critical Italian newspaper that featured many well-known writers. He traveled extensively and assembled an enormous collection mostly after he retired from public life.

A small portion of his collection, with over 3,000 ancient coins, was sold in Vienna in 1955-56. These coins represent one of the few readily documented 18th-century collections from which one can still obtain a coin.

Sir Arthur John Evans

Roman Empire, Gold Semissis, Constantius II, c.340-350 CE
Roman Empire, Gold Semissis, Constantius II, c.340-350 CE Ex: Sir Arthur Evans collection, Ars Classica, Lucerne, Auction 17, 1934, lot 1936. Photo courtesy of Edward J. Waddell, Ltd.

Evans was born in 1851 in Nash Mills, England, and became well known as an archaeologist and historian. He became the Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford in 1884 and ushered the museum into the modern era to make it one of the most important for archaeology.

While excavating in Crete in 1900, he discovered the principal site of the Minoan civilization at Knossos where excavations continued until 1939. His coins, both Greek and Roman, have been disbursed over many auctions during his life beginning with a sale at Sotheby’s in 1889.

Professor Samuel Pozzi

Italy, Lucania, Metapontum, c.340-330 BCE. Silver stater.
Italy, Lucania, Metapontum, c.340-330 BCE. Silver stater. Ex: Pozzi collection, Ars Classica, Lucerne, Auction 1, 1921, lot 197. Photo courtesy of Edward J. Waddell, Ltd

Professor Pozzi was born in Bergerac, France in 1846. He became a pioneer in the fledgling field of gynecology and published a standard work on the subject in 1890. He was part of the cultural scene in Paris and was an associate or friend of Sarah Bernhardt, Marcel Proust, and Emile Zola. He was murdered by a disgruntled patient in 1918. His collection of Greek coins was among the finest ever assembled. A selection of the best pieces from his collection was sold at the first Ars Classica auction in Lucerne in 1921.

Professor L. White King

Siculo-Punic, Entella, c. 320-300 BCE. Silver tetradrachm.
Siculo-Punic, Entella, c. 320-300 BCE. Silver tetradrachm. Ex: Professor L. White King, Sotheby, London, April 22, 1909, lot 262. Photo courtesy of Edward J. Waddell, Ltd

This is a typical small collection of high-quality Greek coins that was sold by Sotheby in London in the first part of the 20th century. The catalog refers to the coins representing “the Hellenic pantheon in miniature.”

Professor King was in the Indian civil service and was the father of newspaper executive Cecil Hammersmith King, who was chairman of The Daily Mirror from 1951-1963.

Sir Hermann Weber

Sicily, Syracuse, c.510-500 BCE. Silver Tetradrachm.
Sicily, Syracuse, c.510-500 BCE. Silver Tetradrachm. Ex: Sir Herman Weber collection, # 1549. Photo courtesy of American Numismatic Society

Sir Hermann Weber was born in Bavaria in 1823. He was educated in Germany as a physician, but his love of English culture lead him to take a position at the German Hospital in London in 1851 and to permanently reside in London. He did some pioneering work on tuberculosis and was knighted by Queen Victoria in 1899.

He began avidly collecting coins only in the late 1870s and was in close contact with the leading collectors and dealers of his day. He was an officer and board member of the Royal Numismatic Society and published numismatic articles in the Numismatic Chronicle. His early collecting interests were English and Roman coins, but these were sold in auctions in 1885 and 1893. He then focused on Greek coins until his death in 1918.

Shortly afterward, Spink purchased the entire collection of almost 8,600 Greek coins representing one of the most important Greek collections ever assembled and mostly of the highest quality. Although the British Museum acquired some of the most important coins on favorable terms from Spink, most of the coins were sold to collectors and continue to circulate in the marketplace today. Since the coins are mostly illustrated in the published volumes of the collection, it is easy to verify the pedigree.

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Cunnally, John. “Ancient coins as gifts and tokens of friendship during the Renaissance”, Journal of the History of Collections vol. 6, no. 2. 129-145. (1994)

Dorotheum, Auction, Vienna, June 13-16, 1955 and June 8-9, 1956, Sammlung Apostolo Zeno 1668-1750.

Forrer, L. The Weber Collection. London. (1922-1929)

Manville, Harrington and Robertson, Terence. British Numismatic Auction Catalogues, 1710-1984. London. (1986)

Spring, John. Ancient Coin Auction Catalogues, 1880-1980. London. (2009)

Woytek, Bernhard. Die Reichsprägung Des Kaisers Traianus (98-117). Vienna. (2010)

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Edward J. Waddell Jr. is the President and Chief Operating Officer of Edward J. Waddell, Ltd. (www.coin.com), a privately-held firm specializing in the sale of Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Biblical, and Early Medieval coins. During his 45-year career, Ed has earned an international reputation as an expert in ancient coins with a focus on high-quality coins, many with established and historic pedigrees.


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  1. Excellent discussion. I have dealt with Ed for a number of years and his coins (that I purchased out right or used Ed as my agent to evaluate and bid for coins in auctions) are among my favorites. His coins are usually offered at a full price but worth it!!


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