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The Ancient Coins of Phanes

By Michael T. Shutterly for CoinWeek …..

The first coins to be struck appeared c. 650 BCE in what is now western Turkey. These coins were little more than blobs of electrum; what made these blobs “coins” rather than “bullion” is that they were cast to fit precisely within a measured system of weights and then struck with an official punch on one side (conventionally considered to be the “reverse”). Designs of increasing complexity soon appeared on the unpunched side of the coins (conventionally considered to be the “obverse”). The first coins to carry any sort of an inscription finally appeared sometime during the last quarter of the seventh century BCE.

The Very First Coin with an Inscription

Ionia (?). Electrum Stater. Phanes. c. 625-600 BCE.
Ionia (?). Electrum Stater. Phanes. c. 625-600 BCE.

The very first coin to bear an inscription was struck somewhere in the western coastal area of modern Turkey, c. 625-620 BCE. Its obverse depicts a spotted stag walking right with its head lowered; the inscription, written backward in an archaic form of Greek, reads ΦΑΝΟΣ EMI ΣEIMA (with some variation on different examples). The coins are oblong in shape, measure about 23 millimeters on the long side and 14 millimeters on the short side, and weigh approximately 14.1 grams.

We don’t know what the users of these early coins called them – or even if the coins had specific names. The weight of these coins is almost exactly equal to a stater, a unit of weight under the Lydo-Milesian system of weights, and because of this it has become customary to call the coins “staters”.

These staters are part of a coin series that includes other denominations, not all of which bear inscriptions, whose weights are evenly divisible units of the stater and based on the duodecimal system (that is, based on the number “12”). The staters were the largest denomination in this series, which also included trites (one-third staters), hektes (one-sixth staters), hemihektes (1/12 staters), myshemihektes (1/24 staters), 1/48 staters, and 1/96 staters.

The Phanes staters are quite rare, but there has been a small upsurge during the past 20 years. The first stater to be sold at auction was hammered down for the equivalent of $287,600 USD at an A. Tkalec A.G. sale in February 2000. At that time there were only three known Phanes staters, and the Tkalec coin was the only one in private hands.

Four additional Phanes staters have entered the auction market since then, all selling for six-figure prices. In addition to the two pieces in museum collections, there are rumors in the market of a few coins that have traded privately, but the best estimate is that the total population of Phanes staters is no more than a dozen.

What Does the Inscription Mean?

There has been much debate about the meaning of the inscription.

It is generally translated as “I am the badge (or sign) of Phanes” and most writers attribute the staters to some unknown individual – probably a rich merchant or city official – whose name was Phanes. It has also become customary to identify the mint city as Ephesus, in part because the first known coin of the series was a hemihekte found beneath the foundation stone of the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, and in part because the stag was associated with Artemis herself.

On the other hand, there is enormous evidence that suggests that none of this is true.

Attempting to link the coins to Artemis and Ephesus because of the depiction of a stag on the coin is problematic because the stag was not the creature most closely associated with either Artemis or Ephesus at the time the coins were minted. At that time, the bee was Artemis’ sacred creature: the priestesses at the Temple of Artemis were known as Melissae (“Honeybees”), and the earliest coins that are unequivocally attributable to Ephesus routinely depict a bee.

It was not until two centuries after the Phanes coins that stags began to appear on Ephesian coins – and the earliest of these coins depicted a bee on the obverse, with a stag on the less-important reverse.

Also, the name “Phanes” is quite unusual: the historical record mentions only one person of that name, a mercenary general from Halicarnassus (modern Bodrum, located about 60 miles south of Ephesus on the Turkish coast), who had no association with Ephesus at all. If the word “Phanes” on the stater identifies a person by that name, he could not be the man from Halicarnassus, as that Phanes was busy helping the king of Persia conquer Egypt a full century after these coins were minted.

As it happens, the first known Phanes stater was found on the site of Halicarnassus, suggesting the possibility that the coins were struck there, and that they may have been struck under the authority of an ancestor of the historical Phanes.

Several writers have suggested that Phanes is not a personal name at all and that the inscription might better be translated as “I am the sign of Light,” in which case the coins might be related to Apollo, Artemis’ twin brother, who was known (among other things) as Apollo Phanaios – “Apollo the Bringer of Light”.

Pondering mysteries such as these is part of what makes studying ancient coins so exciting. And, sometimes, frustrating.

Another Inscribed Phanes Coin: The Trite

Ionia (?). Electrum Trite. Phanes. c. 625-600 BCE.
Ionia (?). Electrum Trite. Phanes. c. 625-600 BCE. Image: CNG.

The other inscribed coin in the Phanes series is the trite, or third stater, which carries the single word ΦANEOS (“of Phanes”) above a grazing dappled stag. As with the stater, the inscription is written backward. The engravers who created these early designs apparently did not realize that they needed to cut the inscription backward on the die for it to appear correctly on the struck coin.

The planchets of the trites are rounder and a bit less oblong than the staters; they measure about 14 millimeters across and weigh about 4.67 grams (that is, one-third of a stater).

The trites are rare, but as with the staters, the number of known specimens has increased in the past 20 years.

In 2004, only four trites were known, two of which were in private hands. By 2012, there were 10 known. Today, there are 20. They appear fairly regularly in the auction market, typically bringing mid-five figure prices.

Phanes Coins without Inscriptions: The Hekte

The Phanes coins smaller than the trite do not carry inscriptions – their small size making this almost impossible – but they are linked to the inscribed coins by stylistic similarities in the design of the stag, the use of a common weight standard, and, perhaps most importantly, the use of the same reverse punches for different denominations. All the denominations are scarce, but there is surprising variety in the designs, generally based upon which direction the stag is facing.

Ionia (?). Electrum Hekte. Phanes. c. 625-600 BCE. Image. CNG.
Ionia (?). Electrum Hekte. Phanes. c. 625-600 BCE. Image. CNG.

The largest of the uninscribed coins is the hekte (sixth stater). The coin shown here depicts the front of a dappled stag with his head facing backward. It is fully round rather than oblong and measures 9.5 millimeters across and weighs 2.37 grams (that is, one-sixth of a stater).

The hektes are quite rare; there were only eight known in 2005, although a few more have entered the market since then. They typically bring mid-to-high four-figure prices at auction: the coin shown here hammered down for $9,000 against a $2,000 estimate in a May 2020 auction.

Phanes Coins without Inscriptions: The Hemihekte

Ionia (?). Electrum Hekte. Phanes. c. 625-600 BCE.
Ionia (?). Electrum Hemihekte. Phanes. c. 625-600 BCE. Image: CNG.

The design of this hemihekte (one-twelfth stater) is virtually identical to that of the hekte. This coin measures eight millimeters and weighs 1.17 grams, one-twelfth the weight of the stater. The first of the Phanes coins to become known was a hemihekte that was found in the Artemesion Hoard in 1904.

The hemihektes are quite rare as well and typically carry low four-figure price tags. The coin shown here sold for $3,000 against a $1,000 estimate in September 2011. There is a small market for contemporary counterfeit hemihektes – properly identified as counterfeits – and they generally bring three-figure prices. One of these “coins” – an electrum-plated fourée with a silver core – sold for $1,100 at an auction in April 2020.

Phanes Coins without Inscriptions: The Myshemihekte

Ionia (?). Electrum Myshemihekte. Phanes. c. 625-600 BCE.
Ionia (?). Electrum Myshemihekte. Phanes. c. 625-600 BCE. Image: CNG.

The design of the myshemihekte (1/24 stater) shown here mirrors that of the hekte and hemihekte shown above: here the forepart of the dappled stag faces left, while his head faces right. The coin shown here measures seven millimeters and weighs .57 grams.

The myshemihekte is the only denomination in the Phanes series that can be considered “common”, but it is “common” only in comparison to the other denominations. Prices range widely for these coins, with “ordinary” specimen selling for mid-three figure prices, while particularly attractive coins fetch $2,000 or more. The coin shown here sold for $2,000 against a $1,000 estimate in a May 2020 auction.

As with the hemihektes, there is a small market for (properly identified) fourées, which have sold for as much as $600.

Phanes Coins without Inscriptions: The Forty-Eighth Stater

Ionia (?). Electrum Forty-Eighth Staters. Phanes. c. 625-600 BCE. Images: CNG.
Ionia (?). Electrum Forty-Eighth Staters. Phanes. c. 625-600 BCE. Images: CNG.

The forty-eighth stater is quite small indeed: the two specimens shown here both measure 4.5 millimeters across – approximately one-fifth of an inch – with the first weighing .28 grams and the second .29 grams.

Such tiny planchets do not allow for a detailed design and the moneyers who struck these coins took the easy way out: instead of engraving impossibly tiny dies they struck these impossibly tiny coins using myshemihekte dies. Because the 1/48 stater is smaller than the myshemihekte, less of the design appears on the struck coin.

The forty-eighth staters usually trade within a range of $700 to $1,800, although there are outliers at both ends, and prices are strongly based on the quality of the strike. The two coins shown here were sold by the same auctioneer and are the same general type, but the first coin presents a fuller, much better-centered depiction of the stag’s head and sold for $5,500 against a $500 estimate in May 2019 while the second coin, graded slightly higher than the first but with a much less balanced strike, sold for $1,100 against a $500 estimate in May 2020.

Phanes Coins without Inscriptions: The Ninety-Sixth Stater

Ionia (?). Electrum Ninety-Sixth Stater. Phanes. c. 625-600 BCE.
Ionia (?). Electrum Ninety-Sixth Stater. Phanes. c. 625-600 BCE.

The smallest and rarest of the Phanes coins is the tiny ninety-sixth stater. Its diameter of .14 millimeters is the same as that of the forty-eighth stater but it weighs half as much – just .14 grams.

By way of comparison, it would take five of these coins to equal the weight of one apple seed.

The first recorded sale at auction of a ninety-sixth stater occurred in September 2005, when a specimen graded Very Fine sold for $6,500 against a $2,000 estimate; at the time, it was one of just two known ninety-sixth staters. The coin pictured here is the third recorded example: grading at Extremely Fine, it is probably the finest known and sold at auction in January 2013 for $2,600 against a $1,500 estimate. A fourth example appeared recently: it is described as having “minor deposits, otherwise good Fine” and sold for 240 Swiss Francs (approximately $244.76 at the time) in December 2019. The auctioneer who sold the fourth coin sold a properly identified plated forgery of the ninety-sixth stater for 723 Swiss Francs (approximately $750 at the time) in a May 2020 auction

Collecting the Phanes Coins

The Phanes coins are rare but surprisingly available on the market – virtually every major auction of ancient coins will include an example or two. There are only five known Phanes staters in private hands, but they have made at least eight appearances at auction since the first one was sold in February 2000.

There is no standard reference text on the coins themselves, but they are discussed broadly in Weidauer (1975) and Linzalone (2011) in the general context of electrum coins. When the staters and trites come to auction, the auctioneers typically provide significant background information on the Phanes coins.

Most writers link the coins to Ephesus, but Furtwängler (1986) points out problems with that attribution, and Sear (1979) specifically places them in Halicarnassus. Kastner (1986) argues on linguistic grounds that “Phanes” is either a place-name or a reference to an otherwise unknown goddess or a place.

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Berk, Harlan J. 100 Greatest Ancient Coins. Whitman Publishing: Atlanta. 2008.

Furtwängler, A. “Neue Beobachtungen zur frühesten Münzprägung”, Schweizerische Numismatische Rundschau 65. 1986.

Head, Barclay V. Historia Numorum: A Manual of Greek Numismatics (reprint of 1887 original). Spink: London. 1963.

Herodotus. The Histories. Robin Waterfield (transl.). Oxford University Press: Oxford. 1998.

Hogarth, David G. Excavations at Ephesus: The Archaic Artemesia, Vol. 1. British Museum: London. 1908.

Kastner, Wilhelm. “Phanes oder Phano?”, Schweizerische Numismatische Rundschau 65. 1986.

Linzalone, Joseph. Electrum and the Invention of Coinage. Dennis McMillan Pub. 2011.

Sear, David. Greek Coins and their Values: Volume 2 Asia & Africa. Seaby: London. 1979.

Weidauer, Liselotte. Probleme de Frühen Elektronprägung. Office du Livre: Fribourg. 1975.

Images of the Stater and the Ninety-Sixth Stater courtesy and copyright of Heritage Auctions.

Images of the Trite, Hekte, Hemihekte, Myshemihekte, and Forty-Eighth Stater courtesy and copyright of Classical Numismatic Group, LLC (CNG).

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Michael Shutterly
Michael Shutterly
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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  1. The reverse writing form of “phaneos” is not an accident. When the Greeks took the characters from the Phoenicians and added a few of their own to create the first phonetic alphabet, they initially followed the right to left direction in writing, as Phoenicians had it. Later on they begun writing from the left to the right.

  2. I have a coin with a roman head on one side with dolphins and horses on back how do i find out if it is worth anything

    • Hello,

      If you could post images of both sides, I should hope to be able to identify and attribute the coin.

      Sincerely yours,

      Robert W. Hoge
      Curator Emeritus, American Numismatic Society

    • You might want to speak with a dealer like Russ Augustin or Harlan J. Berk (just off the top of my head) who specializes in ancient coins. Their contact info and business websites are available online.


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