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What Makes the Most Expensive Ancient Coins So Valuable

Hadrian and Expensive Ancient Coins

By Tyler Rossi for CoinWeek …..
As someone working in the field of “pre-modern numismatics” at NAC USA, I have the extremely rare opportunity to handle some of the best ancient coins in the world. Now, more than ever, I ask myself a deceptively complex question.

What drives the value of a coin?

Which factors go into making one ancient coin so much more valuable than another? Since all ancient coins are shall we say, old, it isn’t age.

Furthermore, it isn’t always rarity. One numismatist once told me that “rarity is common” in ancient coins and it is not unusual at all for an ancient coin to be labeled as “unique”, “unlisted”, or as a “previously unknown variety”. There are over 100,000 different common types, as well as many thousands of less common types. In fact, I prefer to view the rarity of ancient coins as similar to that of shipwrecked coinage. They are rare until they are not. The extremely historically important Athenian Decadrachm, for example, was known by only 13 examples up until 1970. However, since then a further 27 examples have been unearthed in various hoards, bringing the total population up to 40.

While in the above example, due to their cultural importance, import restrictions, and the large number held by public collections, these additional discoveries did not affect the Decadrachm’s value the way they do for other coins. For example, a number of recent hoard discoveries in central Asia have led to the decline in prices of silver Bactrian coinage. This doesn’t mean that rarity should not be factored in, as all coins on this list are rare in their own way, but it shouldn’t be viewed as the only factor. Instead, they all have a certain je ne sais quoi… a milieu of historical importance, rarity, provenance, and bidder interest. While the condition is not always vital, expensive ancient coins often have a fine style and good eye appeal.

I include “bidder interest” in this list because all of the pieces were sold at auction. Also, since there may actually be more expensive coins available, I have decided not to put these coins in order of monetary value. Instead, I have put them in order of strike date.

Decadrachm of Akragas
Decadrachm of Akragas

First, we have a beautiful decadrachm of Akragas, Sicily. While unsigned, this coin has been attributed to the ancient engravers My(ron) and Poly(ainos). Struck between 409 and 406 BCE, this coin is simply beautiful. The obverse depicts a quadriga pulled by four extremely lifelike horses and the reverse shows the two eagles clutching a rabbit, which is common for issuances from this city. The series, of which only 10 are known, was supposedly struck to honor the charioteer Exainetos after his victory in the Olympic Games. It has also been supposed that the coins were struck as a tool for civic pride just prior to the city’s fall to the Carthaginians.

This particular example is, as NAC stated in their auction description, “undoubtedly one of the most prestigious, important and fascinating Greek coins. A masterpiece of the finest Classical style, work of two skilled master-engravers.” They were not mistaken; the coin is truly a gem of ancient numismatics. Furthermore, the provenance of this coin stretches back to the collection of Nelson Bunker Hunt, who acquired it sometime before 1983 when it was displayed by the Kimball Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas. When last sold in 2012, it fetched a whopping 2.3 million Swiss francs [At the time of the publication of this article, 2.3 million Swiss francs trades for about $2.5 million USD.CoinWeek].

gold stater of Pantikapaion. Image: Baldwin's.
Gold Stater of Pantikapaion. Image: Baldwin’s.

Next, we come to the gold stater of Pantikapaion struck between c.350 and 300 BCE. The obverse depicts a left-facing bearded satyr with long ragged hair and horses’ ears. Godfrey Locker Lampson, a British politician and numismatist whose example was acquired from the Russian Grand Duke Alexander Mihailovitch and later purchased by Calouste Gulbenkian, stated that “the head of the satyr [struck from these dies] is a marvel of speaking portraiture. That so much expression could be packed into so small a round would not be believed by anyone who had not seen it.” The reverse depicts a griffin standing on an ear of corn to represent the wealth of the eastern trading city.

When the Lampson collection was published in 1923, there were only 14 known examples. This particular example was purchased from Bank Leu Ltd. In 1991, this coin later sold for $3.25 million USD in Baldwin’s New York Sale XXVII on January 4, 2012. This record-breaking sale was fueled by a strong numismatic market that drew 200 live and 156 online bidders to the auction.

gold Eid Mar aureus. Image: NAC.
Gold Eid Mar Aureus. Image: NAC.

As we move up through the years, we come to 42 BCE when the next coin on our list was struck. This is the gold Eid Mar aureus.

While extremely rare, with only three examples known, this piece is an example of the importance of provenance. One piece is held by the British Museum; another was sold by Roma in 2020; and the third was sold by NAC in 2022. This last example, while holed and with a comparatively large amount of wear, has the only “documented provenance” of all three examples dating to before the 1940s. In fact, it first appeared around 1932, when famed numismatist Oscar Ravel offered it to the British Museum. This type is important for several reasons. Firstly, the direct connection to several of history’s most well-known figures (Julius Caesar and Cassius Brutus), the reference to “Eid Mar” made famous in modern history by William Shakespeare, and lastly the rarity in comparison to the silver types which were also struck from the same dies. All of this combines to drive the popular fascination with the coins and led to the high hammer price of $2,299,331 USD in the 2022 NAC auction.

Hadrian, AD 117-138. AE Sestertius (25.53g). ‘Alphaeus Master’
Hadrian, AD 117-138. AE Sestertius (25.53g). ‘Alphaeus Master’.

While still a rare piece without its ancient attribution, this next coin gains most of its value from other factors. Like the first coin on this list, this piece is important based on a name, that of Antoninianos of Aphrodisias, the “Master of Alpheus”. Identified by Charles Seltman in 1948, this artist produced what is thought to be one of the most realistic and skillfully rendered depictions of the emperor Hadrian to have been discovered to date. Seltman goes on to state, in perhaps a slight hyperbole, that this artist was the “last great engraver to employ that style which we have come to regard as Classical Greek”. Minted on the occasion of Hadrian’s vicennial–the 20th anniversary of the emperor’s ascension to the throne–this coin depicts Pax, the personification of Peace, on the reverse and is a masterpiece of Roman art. The coin also happens to be preserved in almost perfect condition and hammered for approximately $1.65 million in Numismatica Genevesis SA’s fifth auction on December 3, 2008.

As a bronze coin, this piece proves that metal is not always the prime driver of value.

Gold Medallion of Maxentius
Gold Medallion of Maxentius

Last on this list is a massive gold medallion of Maxentius, valued at 8 aurei and struck circa 308 CE during an extremely turbulent time. That being said, the value of this medallion is based on three main factors: rarity, size, and historic importance.

First off, this is the largest surviving type of Roman gold medallion – of which there are only two examples. There are many smaller examples, but the 8 aurei denomination is extremely rare.

Buttressing the massive size and rarity of this piece is its history. Such large medallions were distributed personally by the emperor to military and political figures across the empire in a show of imperial favor. There is, as a result, the distinct possibility that this medallion was handled personally by Maxentius. This being such an important piece, both contemporaneously and presently, that the piece would not have seen any significant wear is not surprising. In fact, it has survived in nearly perfect condition.

So it seems that the most important factors driving the value of these five spectacular coins are:

  • Popular Demand
  • Rarity
  • Provenance
  • A Connection to a Famous Historical Figure
  • Artistic Style
  • A Known Engraver
  • General Historic Importance

While I know that the vast majority of ancient coin collectors will never be able to afford such expensive pieces, these collecting principles remain. It is important for collectors to hone their ability to search out and find those special pieces with that special sauce of historical connections, provenance, rarity, and eye appeal.

Happy collecting!

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Sources

Robinson, E.S.G. CATALOGUE OF GREEK COINS COLLECTED BY GODFREY LOCKER LAMPSON. London (1923)

http://www.ivanfrancofraga.com/_gold_stater_from_pantikapaion_eng.html

https://www.jstor.org

https://en.unesco.org

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About the Author

Tyler Rossi is currently a graduate student at Brandeis University’s Heller School of Social Policy and Management and studies Sustainable International Development and Conflict Resolution. Before graduating from American University in Washington D.C., he worked for Save the Children creating and running international development projects. Recently, Tyler returned to the US from living abroad in the Republic of North Macedonia, where he served as a Peace Corps volunteer for three years. Tyler is an avid numismatist and for over a decade has cultivated a deep interest in pre-modern and ancient coinage from around the world. He is a member of the American Numismatic Association (ANA).

Tyler Rossi
Tyler Rossi
Tyler Rossi is currently a graduate student at Brandeis University's Heller School of Social Policy and Management and studies sustainable international development and conflict resolution. Before graduating from American University in Washington, D.C., he worked for Save the Children, creating and running international development projects. Recently, Tyler returned to the U.S. from living abroad in the Republic of North Macedonia, where he served as a Peace Corps volunteer for three years. Tyler is an avid numismatist and for over a decade has cultivated a deep interest in pre-modern and ancient coinage from around the world. He is a member of the American Numismatic Association (ANA).

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