Oct 16, 2011

The most expensive Roman Coin

In December 2008, Numismatica Genevensis held a spectacular auction with many lots of unique quality and rarity. A beautiful sestertius of Hadrian broke then all records for the price paid for a Roman coin at auction, changing hands for 2,300,000 CHF, including the 15 percent buyer’s fee. (2,561,530.74 USD).

This is a completely exceptional coin. The obverse presents an extraordinary portrait of Emperor Hadrian, the work of a master die-engraver dubbed the "Alphaeus Master" by C.T. Seltman ("Greek Sculpture and Some Festival Coins," Hesperia 17, 1948, 71-85). Many Scholars believe this engraver may in fact be the great sculptor Antoninianus of Aphrodisias whose superb style epitomized the Hadrianic revival of Greek classicism, but it is only speculation. The coin auctioned by Numismatica Genevensis is one of the best preserved of these sesterces.

On the obverse we see a striking portrait of the emperor and on the reverse the goddess of peace (Pax) standing and holding a branch and a cornucopia. This Sestertius was probably coined in 135 to mark the celebration of Hadrian Vicennalia (the 20th anniversary of his ascension to the throne). The selection of Pax for the reverse may well be a reference to the hope of the emperor to put a quick end to the Bar Kochba revolt in Judaea, a traumatic event that marred the last years of the emperor’s life.

Oct 1, 2011

The value of ancient coins -10 key factors

The value of ancient coins exerts a special fascination among both experts and beginners. In this post I want to consider some of the key factors affecting coin value.

There is not a precise guide to the value of ancient coins and there never will be. Each ancient coin is unique, and therefore its value is also unique. The asking price for any coin can vary considerable from dealer to dealer. The best way to form an idea of the value of a coin type is to check the price list of various dealers and also auction estimates and prices realized.

The following simple list of 10 key factors affecting coin value can be of great help in judging and comparing prices (they are not listed in order of priority)

Factors affecting the value of ancient coins

1) Grade: it refers to the extent of wear experienced by a coin compared to its newly minted state. The same is in direct relation to the time it remained in circulation. Most of the coins that have reached us from the ancient world remained in circulation for some time and their wear processes were variable. Coins preserved in their original mint state or close to it are rare and coveted. Scratches or cuts can significantly affect the grade of a coin.

2) Mintage: today, coins are produced on mechanical presses with high quality and complete uniformity. In ancient times, however, coins were minted by hand striking the metal blank between two dies with a hammer. Although this work was carried out by teams of professional craftsmen (the so called moneyers), the results were not always perfect. In many cases ancient coins are not well centered or were produced wit worn or broken dies. If for any of these reasons elements of design are not visible, the value of the coin drops
 Athenian obol with irregular shape

3) Shape: the blanks were produced using traditional methods, which resulted in significant variations in weight and shape. Broken blanks or well below the expected weight average affect negatively the value of a coin. The same happens if the form is too irregular.

4) Metal: The metal quality has an effect on value, as collectors prefer coins of high metal quality over debased coins.

5) Patina: a patina is a film that forms on the surface of copper or its alloys as a result of the oxidation process. The patina is a reflection of the antiquity of a coin and it adds aesthetic appeal and value when the tone is smooth and pleasant.
 Sesterce of Septimius Severus with spectacular green patina

6) Relevance to collectors: The physical characteristics of each coin are very important and affect its value, but depending on how they are perceived by collectors. This is the key factor and the one most difficult to assess, because the interests of those who collect coins can be very different and change over time. There are periods and cultures that are more collected than others and that affects demand and, consequently, value.

7) Rarity: There has never been a complete census of ancient coins in private collections, so that no one knows with absolute certainty how many copies exist of a certain type. For the coins of the Roman Empire we have the indications of rarity in the Roman Imperial Coinage, based on a survey of European museum collections at the time of drafting of the different volumes. In many cases, however, the findings of recent decades have dramatically altered the situation. The rarity of ancient coins today reflects, obviously, though not exactly, the rarity of coins in their time, so that the study of the composition of ancient hoards can help to estimate the rarity of certain types for some periods. Beyond all this, it is necessary to note that a new discovery may completely alter the situation and make a rare coin much more common, as happened, for example, with these coins of Arsinoe II.

8) Historic Significance: When a coin is associated with events, places, buildings or figures of historical relevance, then its value goes up, because this attracts the interest of collectors.

9) Aesthetic appeal: Ancient coins have, in comparison with modern ones, a far greater variety of types and designs, some quite elaborate. As a result, there are coins that can be considered true works of art, whose dies were engraved by true masters. These coins are very attractive to collectors, so their value rises.

10) Provenance: We do not know where the vast majority of ancient coins come from, so that the few ones that can be traced to a famous hoard may be more coveted than similar ones for which we do not have that information. The same goes for those coins that have been sold at important auctions and have been part of famous collections. Collectors are always willing to pay a little more for them, especially because this background is seen, deceivingly, as a guarantee of authenticity.

I could have made a longer list, but I think those mentioned are the most important factors to have in mind. Judging the value of ancient coins is not a science, and it can only be learned by experience.

Sep 15, 2011

The Value of Ancient Coins is rising

Last week, Heritage conducted the auction of the "Rubicon Collection" of Roman coins from the late republic. The collection’s centerpiece was the famous denarius of Brutus about Caesar's assassination depicted above. Despite the international economic crisis, this coin surpassed Heritage’s estimate and realized $546,250. This figure represents, to my knowledge, a new record for a Roman silver coin.

The value of ancient coins is since several years on an upward trend for various reasons. The spread of the coin collecting-hobby around the world certainly plays a role, but I think that the strong rise in the value of ancient coins in recent years is mainly due to the weakness of the main international currencies like the dollar and the euro. This weakness generates an undeniable inflation in the values of these “assets”. In addition to this, ancient coins are seen as a safe haven in uncertain times like the present, and this also contributes to the upward trend in prices. Similar trends are observed, by the way, in the markets for other luxury goods, like the antiques or the arts market.

If skeptics still need further proof of the generalized rise in the value of ancient coins, I think it suffices to mention that the same denarius of Brutus had been auctioned in 2005 for $ 140,000. Its value increased by 380% in less than six years. Predictions are always risky, but I believe this trend will continue for the foreseeable future.

Sep 4, 2011

The First Roman Coin

Its military expansion during the fourth century BC transformed the Roman Republic into the greatest power on the Italian peninsula. The political, economic, and cultural contacts with the Greek cities of Campania and southern Italy became much more intense. Compared to these Greek cities, Rome was, despite its power, a backward and predominantly rural society, in which trade played a comparatively minor role. The production of coinage was much more advanced in the cities of Magna Graecia than in Rome, where rustic bronze bars were used instead of coins. 

The need to interact with these cities led Rome to instruct its allies to produce a series of coins with Greek characteristics for its own use. That is the usual interpretation offered by experts for a range of early Roman coins which represent a clear break with the roman tradition of cast ingots. On the chronology of these coins there are, however, very different views. The information available is insufficient to settle the issue definitively. Here I follow the conclusions of Michael Crawford (see Roman Republican Coinage).

The first of these coins (Crawford 1/1) -illustrated above- has fascinated scholars since the origins of numismatic studies. It is made of bronze. On the obverse we can see Apollo crowned with laurels and on the reverse the front of a bull with a human head accompanied by the Greek legend RWMAIWN (of the Romans). Due to its characteristics and style, this coin is usually associated with the coinage of Naples, and is believed to have been produced in the mint of that city at the request of Rome. It was probably coined shortly after the treaty (foedus aequum) that united Naples and Rome as allies at the beginning of the second Samnite war in 326 BC. A second piece of bronze with similar characteristics was coined in Rome around 300 BC. 

This coin is particularly interesting because it is a “fiat currency”. This means that, unlike what happened with the ingots commonly used in this period as currency in Rome, this coin had almost no real value, it weighed only four and a half grams. Its value came from the fact that the Roman state and its allies accepted it as a means of payment. 

In the third century BC Rome entrusted its allies in southern Italy with the minting of a series of coins with a distinctly Greek outlook: the Roman silver didrachms. I will discuss them in a following post.

Aug 18, 2011

One of the most beautiful and mysterious coins of the ancient world

Aureus of Augustus,  photo of Joe Geranium

In 19 BC the monetalis M. Durmius struck one of the most interesting and captivating coins of those produced under the long reign of Emperor Augustus. It was an aureus, a gold coin of nearly 8 grams, the most valuable in the Roman monetary system, equivalent to 25 silver denarii. In the obverse, we see the face of a young Augustus with a crown of oak leaves and the legend CAESAR AUGUSTUS. Nothing surprising there. But the reverse features a stunning crab holding in its claws a graceful butterfly, accompanied by the legend M • III • VIR DVRMIVS designating the magistrate responsible for the minting, the monetalis Durmius. The interpretation of the reverse has been discussed by experts since the times of Joseph Eckhel (1737-1798).

Cassius’ denarius - Crawford 505 / 3

We find a similar representation of a crab in the reverse of a denarius of C. Cassius (one of the Caesar’ murderers), minted in 42 BC, probably in Sardis. The crab holds in its claws an aplustrum (a piece of ornament that was placed in the stern of ancient ships and a common symbol of naval power). Below the crab, we can recognize a diadem and a rose. In this case, however, there is a reliable interpretation of the motif. Cassius had just won a major naval victory against the Rhodian fleet and the crab represented the city of Kos, while the rose symbolized Rhodes. The historian Karl Galinsky sees in the aureus discussed here an example of Augustus’ ability to appropriate motifs used by his predecessors, but his argument is unconvincing. There are significant differences between the aureus of Augustus and this denarius and, at least to me, that makes direct imitation unlikely.

In a paper in the Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, W. Deonna proposed an astrological interpretation, seeing the crab as a representation of Cancer, the sign of the Zodiac, and an allusion to the concepts of happiness, prosperity, and worldly conquest, while the butterfly symbolizes the immortality of the soul. A complex and unconvincing interpretation.

Aureus of Augustus,  photo of Joe Geranium

Before the establishment of what might be called "scientific" numismatics by Eckel in the eighteenth century, it was common to interpret Roman coins allegorically. During this period, Durmius’ aureus was seen as a clear reference to the motto festina lente (make haste slowly), that according to Suetonius was one of Augustus’ favorites adages. This can be seen, for example in the emblem book Imprese Heroiche, by Gabriele Simeoni (1509-1575) where the coin and the phrase are expressly connected. In the absence of more convincing answers by modern experts, should we return to this interpretation?

Aug 3, 2011

Aes Rude and Aes Signatum – The Beginnings of Roman Coinage

Coinage came into use in Asia Minor around 600 BC. By 500 BC its use had spread through the Greek world. Compared with other civilizations of the Mediterranean world, coinage came late into use in the Roman Republic. The Romans remained a primitive and eminently rural people until the late fourth century BC. They used livestock (pecus) and crude bronze bars (aes rude) as media of exchange. Latin preserved the memory of this period in its word to designate money, pecunia (from pecus). A similar system was used by other peoples in Italy, because there were no deposits of silver and gold there. Only the Greek colonies of southern Italy issued coins of these precious metals following the common practice in their mother cities. They obtained, however, these metals through trade.

The Law of the Twelve Tables (Lex Duodecim tabularum) demonstrates the use in Rome of the bronze pound (as, plural asses) as a way of measuring the value of properties in the V century BC. The memory of this primitive system was preserved for a long time. All transactions with these rough bronze pieces involved the use of a scale. Many centuries after the introduction of coinage, a scale and a piece of bronze were still used as a symbol of the sale and the change of ownership in the ceremony of mancipatio, by which the transfer of certain types of goods, like land, for example, was officially confirmed.

In the late fourth century BC, silver coins were minted for Rome in Naples. Their origin and function are discussed by specialists. Their impact on the Roman economy was surely limited. Only at the beginning of the third century BC, Rome began to standardize the form of bronze bars by introducing the use of cast ingots. The purpose of this change was probably to achieve a more uniform set of weights and to facilitate trade. The new bars were marked with various motives, and this is why they are commonly known today as aes signatum.
 signatum aes (Crawford RRC 5 / 1)

The oldest bars had a motive only on one side, but the Romans began soon to decorate both major faces. The motives served, probably, as a certification of the characteristics of the piece. By covering also the entire length of the block, they allowed to recognize if it was intact or if a portion had been removed.

Of course, these bars cannot be considered as coins in the strict sense, because they were produced by pouring molten metal into molds. They met, however, a monetary function as means of exchange. It was common practice to split them when a piece of lesser value was needed.
signatum aes (Crawford RRC 9 / 1)

The motives of these ingots are not without a certain beauty, as seen in the examples that accompany this text. The two most elaborate are RRC 5 / 1 (Crawford) with a bull on each side and RRC 9 / 1 (Crawford) that presents both an elephant and a wild boar. These are usually related to a story told by Aelianus Tacticus, according to which the Romans used pigs to scare the elephants used against them in the Pyrrhic wars.

Jul 23, 2011

One of the Largest Gold Coins of the Ancient World to be Auctioned (Mnaieion of Arsinoe II)

The ancient Greek states did not mint many pieces of gold, and when they did, they produced usually only small coins. This coin (which will be auctioned soon by Harlan J. Berk) is the exception. Struck in honor of Arsinoe II, sister and wife of Ptolemy II, it weighs 27.72 grams and has a diameter of approx. 28 mm. It is a Mnaieion, equivalent to 100 drachmas of silver.

This extraordinary coin was not, for sure, used for everyday commercial exchange. Because of its enormous value, it was a good way to treasure wealth. This unusually large coin may also have had, at least in part, a ceremonial function related to a festival in honor of Queen Arsinoe, who was deified in her lifetime.

About three years ago, a treasure of Ptolemaic gold coins appeared on the ancient coin market, causing prices of coins like this one to go down, so the estimated value for the auction of this piece is "only" $ 12,000.

Jul 15, 2011

The Most Famous Ancient Coin and its History

Heritage will auction in September a silver denarius minted by Brutus to commemorate the assassination of Julius Caesar. Should it reach its pre-auction estimate of $500,000+, it will establish a record price. 

This denarius is rightly considered the most important Roman coin. It ranked first in the vote among some of the world's leading collectors, curators and numismatists organized by Harlan J. Berk  for his book 100 Greatest Ancient Coins.

The Assassination of Julius Caesar

On 15 March (date known in the Roman calendar as "Ides of March") 44 BC, a group of conspirators led by Marcus Junius Brutus and Gaius Cassius Longinus assassinated Julius Caesar in an attempt to restore the Roman Republic. But the dictator's death could not change a political reality that had long become irreversible. The power vacuum caused by the death of Caesar was quickly followed by a civil war between those who wanted to take charge of his political inheritance and those who aspired to restore the power of the Senate. Brutus and Cassius were forced to leave Italy, retreating to the eastern provinces in search of support and resources to fight Mark Antony and Octavian, the leaders of the Caesarian party.

The EID MAR Denarius

Both Cassius and Brutus minted many different types of coins in the following two years, not only to pay their troops but also to make propaganda for their cause. In an age without mass media, in which a very small percentage of the population could read, coins were one of the most effective means to quickly spread a message. The most famous of the coins minted by Brutus is the silver denarius depicted above. It refers directly to the murder of Caesar in its reverse. The meaning of the daggers represented there is unmistakable, but it is still made clear by the legend EID • MAR, Ides of March, the date of the murder. The pileus, depicted among the daggers, was a hat worn by Roman slaves when they gained freedom. Here, it symbolizes the justification of Caesar’s assassination: the tyrant must die because this was necessary to free the roman people from bondage. 

The obverse of this coin depicts the bust of Brutus. This is in sharp contradiction to the message of political liberation in the reverse. The representation of living people on a coin was a recent development in Rome. In fact, it was a novelty introduced by Caesar, and it had clear autocratic associations. It was one of the reasons why he was accused of aiming at the monarchy.

Jul 11, 2011

Beginning a Blog about ancient coins

For over two years now, I’ve been running a blog in Spanish about ancient numismatics (monedas antiguas). Now I begin this blog in English in hope of reaching a wider audience and of being able to discuss with other people sharing these interests. 
I'm not really a collector of ancient coins. I see myself more as a passionate student of Ancient History and Ancient Numismatics. While within my doctoral studies at the German University of Tübingen I had occasion to attend some courses in numismatics, I am far, far away from being an expert on the subject. Learning is the main goal of this blog.