CoinWeek Ancient Coin Series by Mike Markowitz …..
Don’t buy damaged coins. They will be impossible to sell. This was some of the best advice I ever got from an experienced collector of ancients.
But like most things in classical numismatics, there are exceptions.
Ancient coins were sometimes pierced with a hole, to be worn as ornaments or amulets, or to be attached to a garment, a weapon, or some other object. If a coin type is so rare that you will never be able to afford a perfect specimen, a pierced coin may be an acceptable alternative. Out of a collection of over 300 ancient gold coins, I have acquired just three pierced coins over the years, all three being scarce types and one of those was holed and plugged in antiquity.
On the CoinArchives Pro database, which lists over 1.8 million records from nearly 4,400 auctions over the past two decades, a recent search for the term “pierced” returned 1,322 hits. The term “holed” returned 1,241. “Pierced and plugged” returned 60 hits, while “pierced and repaired” returned 36. Some of these were repeated sales of the same coin.
Up until the 19th century, Chinese bronze coins were cast with a square hole in the center so that they could be strung together for convenience. Some modern coins have been made with a central hole–notably the current Japan 5 yen and 50 yen pieces–and some British colonial issues for Africa.
But this article will be limited to examining coins that were deliberately pierced in antiquity after they left the mint, in many cases long after they had ceased to circulate as money.
Gold Aurei of Postumus
A hoard of third-century Roman gold aurei has been trickling out onto the market recently. Reportedly found “somewhere in Ukraine”, it consisted of some 250 pieces, all holed, perhaps for wear as ornaments by Sarmatian steppe nomad tribal warriors that captured them as booty or received them as tribute. The coins were so expertly plugged by a modern goldsmith that the repair is barely detectable under a microscope.
Most collectors now regard this as an unacceptable practice, and 10 of these pieces were withdrawn from a recent Classical Numismatics Group (CNG) auction.
Ainos Silver Drachm
An early example of a holed ancient Greek coin comes from the coastal town of Ainos in Thrace (now Enez in the European part of Turkey). The well-worn silver drachm was carefully pierced above a portrait of Hermes, the local patron god. In a 2018 auction, the coin brought €140 against an estimate of €80. In recent auctions, unpierced examples of the same type have sold for about €250 to €300.
Gold Quarter Drachm of Berenike II
A tiny gold quarter drachm of Egyptian ruler Ptolemy III (c. 244-221 BCE) weighing just one gram was pierced with a relatively large hole behind the portrait of Queen Berenike II. Formerly in the famous collection of Dr. Lawrence Adams, this rare coin brought $2,100 against an estimate of $500 in a 2015 American auction. The only unpierced example of this rare type that I could find, graded “good Extremely Fine,” sold for 24,000 Swiss francs against an estimate of 2,500 in 2011.
Silver Tetradrachm of Agathokles
Coins that were pierced for attachment to some object occasionally retain a bit of the pin or nail that pierced them.
An unusual example is a silver tetradrachm of Greco-Baktrian king Agathokles, who ruled c. 185-180 BCE. Corrosion of the iron pin behind the portrait of Euthydemos (possibly the grandfather of Agathokles) left a dark stain on the worn and pitted coin, which sold for just $450 in 2007. An extremely fine unpierced example brought £5,000 in a recent London auction.
British numismatist David Sellwood (1925-2012) wrote one of the standard references on the coinage of Parthia, and assembled a comprehensive collection. A pierced coin of Parthian ruler Phraates II (ruled 132-126 BCE) from Sellwood’s collection brought $110 against an estimate of just $75 in a 2017 US auction. Unpierced examples of the same type (but without the impressive pedigree) currently bring as much as $250 to $350 at auction.
Coinage in gold was a jealously guarded privilege of Roman emperors, so gold coins of Roman client states are correspondingly rare. The Koinon (“League”) of Macedon emerged after the Roman conquest of the Macedonian Kingdom in 148 BCE. Under the empire, it became largely ceremonial.
A remarkable gold coin of this League, “unique and of great historical importance” dated to the third century CE, appeared in a recent European auction. The obverse depicts a veiled female head. The reverse bears an eagle grasping a thunderbolt, with an inscription identifying the woman as Olympias, mother of Alexander the Great. Heavily worn, the piece is crudely pierced right below the woman’s nose. The weight of the piece (7.13 grams) corresponds to a Roman aureus of this era, but what monetary value it might have had is purely speculative.
Coinage of Divine Severus
Septimius Severus was emperor of Rome from 193 to 211 CE, when he was succeeded by his son, Caracalla. Following his death, the Senate declared him a god, and an extensive coinage celebrates his deification.
The inscription around the obverse portrait is DIVO SEVERO PIO (“To the Faithful God Severus”). An eagle appears on the reverse with the word CONSECRATIO (“Consecration”).
A cataloguer wrote:
The prominence of the eagle on such issues stems from the consecration ceremony itself; a funeral pyre was lit and an eagle was set loose from its summit, symbolising the elevation of the soul from the earth to the ranks of the gods.
This type is very rare. An unpierced near mint state example sold for £80,000 against an estimate of £30,000 in a 2012 London auction.
A heavily worn and battered aureus, pierced twice, holed and plugged to adjust the weight, brought just $550 in a 2008 US auction.
Ceremonial Coin of Heraclius
The rare seventh-to-eighth-century silver “ceremonial” coinage of the Byzantine Empire is a mystery. Struck to a highly variable and inconsistent weight standard ranging from under two grams to over four, the reverse of these crudely struck coins bears a cross flanked by palm branches. The coin is sometimes cataloged as a siliqua or a miliaresion, but we don’t know what they were actually called. The palm branch, a pagan symbol of victory, later became a popular Christian symbol (for example, Palm Sunday, which commemorates the entry of Christ into Jerusalem).
One theory is that these special coins were thrown to the crowd by emperors on festive occasions or major religious holidays. Those who received one might well have treasured it as a keepsake, so it is not surprising that they are often found pierced to be worn as ornaments. A ceremonial issue of the emperor Heraclius, dated to c. 638-641 CE, shows standing figures of the emperor flanked by his two adult sons. Pierced at the top on the obverse, it would presumably have been worn to show the imperial family–rather than the cross–upside down.
In a 2019 sale, the coin brought $1,800 against an estimate of $150. I could not find a sale record of an unpierced example of the same type.
Gold Bulla of Constantine VII
Emperor Constantine VII “Porphyrogenitus” who ruled from 913 to 959, is one of the most interesting figures in the long history of the Byzantine Empire.
His nickname means “born in the purple”, an epithet applied to children of a reigning emperor (a chamber in the palace paneled with the purple stone porphyry was reserved for the delivery of imperial babies). Made co-emperor as an infant, Constantine effectively took power in 944. Yet his interests were scholarly and academic, and he delegated authority to competent subordinates so he could concentrate on writing and research. His solemn crowned and bearded portrait appears on a unique massive pierced four-solidus medallion, modified from a gold bulla. The obverse bears the familiar iconic Byzantine portrait of Christ.
A bulla (the Latin word means “lump” or “blob”) was a document seal.
From a Heritage Auctions catalog:
Imperial bullae, more commonly found in lead, were occasionally issued in gold for the Byzantine emperors’ most important acts (chrysoboulla). The weight of these impressive seals varied in accordance to the status of their intended recipients. For example, most dignitaries within the empire, along with a few outside of it, such as the Bishop of Rome, received gold seals set to the weight of one solidus (approximately 4.54g). Seals of three solidi weight were presented to the Patriarchs of Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem, whereas the highest weight, those of four solidi, were reserved for the most important heads of state, such as the Caliph of Baghdad and the Sultan of Egypt.
Weighing over a half ounce, this coin-like object was holed for wear as a pendant, perhaps long after the attached original imperial document had crumbled to dust. Only a handful of these gold bullae has survived, most in museums or the archives of Orthodox monasteries.
Gold EID MAR Aureus of Brutus
Possibly the highest price ever paid for a pierced coin is for the gold EID MAR aureus of Brutus, issued by a military mint moving with the army of Julius Caesar’s assassins in Greece in 43 or 42 BCE.
The obverse bears a stern portrait of Brutus, with his name abbreviated BRVT – along with the name of an army financial official, L. Plaetorius Cestianus, who is otherwise unknown to history. The reverse shows the assassin’s daggers flanking a pileus (the “Liberty Cap” worn by freed slaves as a marker of their status). In 2008, this coin sold for 230,000 Swiss francs (about $226,556 USD). Only two other gold coins of this type are known, one on loan to the British Museum; the other in the collection of the Deutsche Bundesbank.
For many years, experts debated whether or not they were authentic. An unpierced example sold for a record £2,700,000 (about $3,484,321 USD, not including buyer’s premium) in a 2020 London auction. The discovery of this coin helped to persuade experts that the type is indeed genuine.
The silver denarius of Brutus, struck from the same dies, is #1 in Harlan J. Berk’s book of the 100 Greatest Ancient Coins (p. 86).
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 CNG Auction 118, September 13-14, 2021, Lots 1144-1147, 1149, 1152-1154, 1156, and 1157.
 Numismatik Naumann Auction 72, December 2, 2018, Lot 15.
 CNG Auction 100, October 7, 2015, Lot 113. Realized $2,100 USD (estimate $500).
 Nomos Auction 5, October 25, 2011, Lot 209. Realized CHF 24,000 (about $27,245 USD; estimate CHF 2,500).
 CNG E-Auction 170, August 8, 2007, Lot 144. Realized $450 USD (estimate $500).
 Roma Auction XXI, March 24, 2021, Lot 335. Realized £5,000 (about $,861 USD; estimate £7,500).
 Leu Numismatik Auction 7, October 24, 2020, Lot 1423. Realized CHF 4,000 (about $4,410 USD; estimate CHF 3,500).
 Roma Numismatics Auction 4, September 30, 2012, Lot 582. Realized £80,000 (about $129,199 USD; estimate £30,000).
 CNG E-auction 180, January 23, 2008, Lot 265. Realized $550 USD (estimate $500).
 CNG E-Auction 458, December 18, 2019, Lot 594. Realized $1,800 USD (estimate $150).
 Heritage ANA Sale, August 19, 2021, Lot 33120. Realized $40,000 USD (estimate $50,000-$60,000).
 CNG Triton XV, January 3, 2012, Lot 1648. Two-solidus bulla of Nikephoros III (1078-1081); Realized $80,000 USD.
 NAC Auction 45, April 2, 2008, Lot 42. Realized CHF 230,000 (about $226,556 USD; estimate CHF 100,000).
 Roma Numismatics Auction XX, October 29, 2020, Lot 463. Realized £2,700,000 (about $3484,321 USD; estimate £500,000).
Berk, Harlan J. 100 Greatest Ancient Coins, 2nd edition. Whitman: Pelham, AL (2019)
Hendin, David. Guide to Biblical Coins, 5th edition. ANS: New York (2010)
Howgego, Christopher. Ancient History from Coins. London (1995)
Sellwood, David. An Introduction to the Coinage of Parthia. London (1980)
Turner, Paula. Roman Coins from India. London (1989)
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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.