By Michael T. Shutterly for CoinWeek …..
The coins of Athens are among the most popular and best known of all ancient coins – virtually every collector of ancient coins has at least one “owl” (Athenian tetradrachm) in her or his collection. But the most spectacular Athenian coin is the dekadrachm, most likely struck in the 460s BCE. Sadly, very few collectors will ever have one of these coins in their collections.
The first dekadrachm to be known in modern times was found in 1817 in (we are told) Megara, a town about 26 miles west of Athens. It was acquired by Percy Smythe, Viscount Strangford, who was serving as the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire when Greece declared its independence from the Ottomans. Smythe passed the coin on to Honoré d’Albert, Duke of Luynes, who donated it to the coin cabinet of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, where it remains to this day.
A century later, Seltman (1924) was able to identify eight additional specimens, and after another five decades, Starr (1970) described three more. Several significant hoards containing dekadrachms have been unearthed during the past 50 years – the 1984 Emali Hoard alone included 13 dekadrachms – and today there are 40 known specimens.
Eighteen of the known dekadrachms are locked permanently in museum collections, while 19 are in private collections; the locations of three remaining coins are unknown. Athenian dekadrachms rarely come up for sale, but when they do, they come with hefty price tags; nice specimens routinely bring six-figure prices, and even damaged coins sell for five figures.
The Athenian Dekadrachm in All Its Glory
The dekadrachm’s obverse shows Athena in profile and is typical of the obverse designs of contemporary Athenian coins, but the dekadrachm is the only Athenian coin whose reverse displays a facing owl with its wings spread. The outstanding quality of this specimen puts the power and beauty of the design on full display. This coin sold at auction in January 2019 for $525,000.
There is no clear agreement on when or why the Athenians struck these coins. The ancient historian Herodotos (c. 430 BCE) tells us that Athens was preparing to make a distribution of 10 drachmai to each Athenian citizen out of the surplus of the mines at Laurion, until Themistocles convinced them to spend the money on building a navy. The context indicates that this event occurred in 483 BCE, and since a decadrachm is equal to 10 drachmai, Head (1911) and other early writers suggested that this was the time and the reason for minting these coins. The fleet that Themistocles built was the one that defeated the Persians at Salamis in 480 BCE.
Hoard finds and other research has since shown conclusively that these coins did not appear until after the Battle of Salamis, leading other writers to suggest that the coins were minted to celebrate that victory. However, this date also seems a bit too early, as the hoard evidence seems to place the minting of the coins in the 460s BCE.
As it happens, in 469 or 466 BCE (sources differ), Athens led the Delian League to a huge victory over the Persians at the Eurymedon River in what is now Turkey. The Delian League acquired a huge amount of booty from the defeated Persians, who had been planning another invasion of Greece. Thasos, one of the members of the Delian League, objected to the unfair distribution of the booty (the lion’s share having gone to Athens) and seceded from the League to join the Persians. Athens responded by launching a war against Thasos, to force it back into the League. The peace treaty in 463 BCE required Thasos to pay expensive reparations to Athens. The (almost) consensus today is that the Athenians struck the dekadrachms to celebrate their victories over the Persians and the Thasians, using the huge quantities of silver that Athens acquired through those victories.
Other, Less Glorious Athenian Dekadrachms
The appeal of the Athenian dekadrachm is so strong that well-heeled collectors will spend substantial sums to acquire less-than-perfect specimens.
The reverse of this Dekadrachm shows a major planchet defect, probably the result of a void in the metal that was not detected until the coin was struck, but the coin nonetheless sold at auction in January 2010 for $60,000.
One of the 40 known Athenian dekadrachms broke in half long ago: the remaining piece weighs almost exactly half as much as a whole dekadrachm. This coin last appeared in an auction in January 2010, when it sold for $23,000. This is the only known fragment–if the other piece were ever located and reunited with this one, it would no doubt bring a significantly higher price.
Imitating the Athenian Dekadrachm
Whatever the original purpose of the Athenian dekadrachm, the coin must have circulated to some extent, as other states minted imitations of it.
One of the finest imitations is this tetradrachm struck in Askalon, a port city located in what is now Israel. This is the finer of two known specimens (the other coin is in the Israel Museum) and it sold for $325,000 against a $75,000 estimate in January 2019.
On the obverse, Athena’s helmet displays two Udjat symbols. The Udjat was the Eye of Horus, a symbol of protection in the ancient Egyptian religion. Its appearance here might have been intended to identify Athena as a protectress. It also may have related to Athena’s title as Αθηνη Οξυδερκης (“Athena Oxyderkes”, or “Athena the Sharp-sighted”). The reverse displays a beautifully rendered if somewhat out-of-proportion owl.
Any popular or valuable coin will inevitably attract the attention of forgers, and the Athenian dekadrachm is no exception. Lord Strangford – the first known owner of the first known dekadrachm – reportedly owned two dekadrachms at one time, but the second one turned out to be a forgery. The forgery entered his collection before 1828; it later disappeared, and its current whereabouts are unknown.
“Becker the Forger” made his contribution within five years of the discovery of the first known Athenian dekadrachm. He apparently based his dies on an illustration of the discovery coin. He struck his “coins” on bronze rather than silver planchets, and they are easily detectable as fabrications. The example shown here sold for $400 in a March 2021 auction (where it was specifically identified as a Becker forgery).
Becker claimed that he never intended to deceive anyone with his forgeries and that his intent was to make “pretty things” available to people who could not obtain the real item. Perhaps he was being honest.
Other forgers were less altruistic. The very deceptive “Schulman Forgery” appeared sometime shortly after the end of World War I and deceived many professionals until its diagnostics were published and became widely known. It takes its name from a famous numismatist who had nothing to do with the forgery but who included an example in an auction.
In 1859, the British Museum hired Robert Ready to make electrotype copies of many of the ancient Greek and Roman coins in its collection. Ready created over 22,000 electrotypes before he retired in 1896 – aged 85 – and his sons Charles and August carried on the family business for another 35 years, adding tens of thousands more electrotypes to the pot. Robert Ready marked his electrotypes with his initials, while his sons marked theirs with “MB” (for “Museum Britannicus”).
The British Museum sold the electrotypes to the general public, with the stated intention of encouraging the study and appreciation of ancient numismatic artworks. In the early 1920s, a collector desiring an Athenian dekadrachm could obtain an excellent copy of the British Museum’s specimen for 2 shillings, 6 pence (approximately 55 cents US at the time; adjusted for inflation it would be about $9.00 today).
Unfortunately, this system provided miscreants with working models for creating their own forgeries – which of course were not marked with the maker’s initials. Further, the quality of the electrotypes was so good that miscreants were sometimes able to sell them to inexperienced collectors who believed the “coins” to be the real thing. The British Museum eventually recognized the problem and ceased selling its electrotypes. There is an active base of collectors today who collect the electrotypes – with full knowledge that they are not “the real thing.”
This electrotype of the British Museum’s dekadrachm sold for $380 in an auction in December 2015.
Collecting Athenian Dekadrachms
“Collecting Athenian Dekadrachms” is not a realistic possibility for most collectors. But it is possible to study them, to learn about them, and to appreciate them.
The classic references are Seltman (1924) and Starr (1970). The best and most up-to-date reference is Fischer-Bossert (2005), which includes a complete catalog of all 40 known dekadrachms; the text is quite thorough and very approachable throughout.
When the dekadrachms come to auction, the auctioneers typically provide significant background information on the coins.
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Head, Barclay V. Historia Numorum. Oxford: Clarendon Press. (1911)
Herodotos. The Histories (Robin Waterfield, transl.). Oxford: Oxford University Press. (1998)
Seltman, Charles T. Athens, Its History and Coinage Before the Persian Invasion. Cambridge: The University Press. (1924)
Starr, Chester C. Athenian Coinage, 480-449 BC. Oxford: Clarendon Press. (1970)
All coin images courtesy and copyright of Classical Numismatic Group, LLC (CNG), unless otherwise stated.
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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.