Perfect, Rare or Beautiful?
This post starts with a few thoughts on the ingredients that make up an attractive ancient coin and will eventually get to a coin of Lucius Cornelius Sulla. The thought started this morning with modern coin collecting and the microscopic differences between the highest grades. The "Sheldon scale" a measure of slight differences between coins with grades like MS-70 (Mint State 70) or MS-60. Note: see illustrations from PCGS with Morgan dollars.
Ancient coins are quite different, they aren't mass produced, each one is hand struck, unique, all have survived for centuries and all are uniquely flawed. There would be little value in differentiating ancient coins by the top tiers of the Sheldon scale.
This post builds on an earlier discussion of ancient coins and factors in pricing (Calculating the Price), I try to simplify my framework for evaluating the quality of an ancient coin. This also offers an excuse to present some beautiful ancient coins.
Image copyright held by Shutterstock, used under license
Here are three categories that I think can be useful:
Perfect : fleur de coin (a coin in full bloom) - condition just as it would have been the day it was minted - we'll throw in well centered & well struck too
Rare : not a lot of them in the world - not easy to find one to buy at any price. Some ancient coins were minted in the millions e.g. Athenian owls - recently 30,000 newly found coins made their way to market lowering prices significantly.
Beautiful : the dies made artistically, more detailed, more depth....this one is the hardest to define but easy to see by comparing several of the same coin from different dies. Some dies are clearly made by better artists or made more carefully.
Perfect condition coins can reach astronomical prices - compromise and you have options at many price ranges. I don't have any coins that I can say are "perfect" - so we'll use this one to fill the hole - it is not fleur de coin but let's imagine it were. There is a little wear, but it isn't far from what it was when first struck. It is not rare - there are several available to buy today. It is not beautiful : for this type it is about average, and there are more exceptional examples.
(more on this coin: Julius Caesar v. Pompeians)
Rare coins can vary from surprisingly inexpensive to astronomical - usually popularity (ratio of people interested to number of coins available) is more of a factor than rarity.
I own a few coins that are unique to <10 known - but they were relatively low cost coins because there aren't many people out there interested in them. This coin is a rare local bronze of Thessaly - it is the plate coin from a journal article about these coins. (see: AE Coin from Ekkarra, Achaea Phthiotis)
Thessaly, Ekkarra, circa 325-320 BC, AE Chalkous
Obv: Laurel-wreathed, head of Zeus to the left in a circle of dots. The head of the Zeus is compact with wide cheeks. The beard and hairstyle are cut in stiff lines, and the hair covers the nape of the neck, a wavy line. Details like the pupil can be seen on the eyebrowed eyes.
Rev: ΕΚΚΑΡ / ΡΕΩΝ, downward, Artemis standing in between, in three-quarter view to the left. Her right leg is bent back. Her left arm rests on her hip, her right hand rests on a hunting lance, in the middle of which you can see a strap. Her hair is pinned up in a Lampadion knot and a bow and drapery appear on the nape of the neck, fastened crosswise in front of the chest with the shoulder strap. She is wearing a short sleeveless chiton (woolen tunic) and a himation (outer garment), and an endromides (cloak) lined with fur.
This next coin is rare - a denarius of this type is hard to come by and it isn't beautiful or in perfect condition. Over the last 20 years 12 have come to market from the auction houses that are listed in ACSearch (I didn't look carefully - it is possible that a couple of those sales are the same coin). Illustrated crudely, minted quickly as Mark Antony and Lepidus joined forces in their fight for life and control of Rome.
(more on this coin: Coins of the 2nd Triumvirate)
Beautiful : a well made coin in any condition usually gets a better price than a coin from an ugly set of dies. I pick this coin as a nice example of beautiful, but not rare and not perfect, some flatness on the reverse and a little centering issue, some dark toning...however scrolling through a variety of dies - this is one of the nicer sets of dies in my view. 49 BC at the end of the Roman republic.
(more on this coin: From Ancient Tech to Modern World)
Perfect, Beautiful and Rare: Of course who wouldn't like to have it all - I have very few examples that come close. This one is for me nearly perfect, rare and beautiful - C. Piso Frugi echoing in 61 BC the type of his father's large issue from the Social War thirty years earlier.
(more on this coin: FRVGI Father and Son)
This coin perfect, beautiful and somewhat rare - Brutus declaring his inherited intolerance of tyranny, in 54 BC, ten years before he was a principle conspirator in the assassination of Julius Caesar.
(more on this coin : An Ancient Coin for Independence Day)
This coin rare, beautiful and pretty close to perfect - Vespasian, coin issued and the Ephesus mint promoting his heirs.
(more on this coin : Coins of Vespasian from Ephesus)
For me none of these is the first criteria for picking the coin. I am looking first for stories :
- who were the people?
- where was the coin minted?
- what were the events of the time?
- how did this coin get from where it was minted to where it is today?
I'll accept a lot of imperfections - even ugliness - if there is a story. So I will add "Storied" to my key criteria above. This next coin perhaps a good illustration (not in perfect condition, not particularly rare, not particularly beautiful) but it does come with a tragic story of clash between Khwarezm & Mongol empires: minted in Kurzuwan under siege by Genghis Khan's armies weeks before the destruction of the city. Stephen Album describes it as "one of the very few identifiable siege coins of the Islamic world". There were no survivors from the city of Kurzuwan. Genghis Khan had been provoked in 1218 CE by the execution of a ~450 person trade delegation in the Khwarezmian city of Otrar, likely endorsed by 'Alā' al-Dln Muhammad II Sultan of Khwarazm. For the longer story see:
Farrokh, K., & Khorasani, M. M. (2012). The Mongol invasion of the Khwarazmian Empire: The fierce resistance of Jalal-e Din. Medieval Warfare, 2(3), 43–49.
Islamic, Persia (Post-Seljuk), Khwarezm Shahs from the time of Jalal al-Din Mangubarni b. Muhammad, AH 617-628 / 1220-1231 CE, Æ Jital (3.63), a siege issue from the Kurzuwan mint dated Rabi’ II AH 618 (May-June CE 1221)
Obv: “al-malik” across field; date in outer margin
Rev: Kalima in four lines across field "kurzuwan / la ilah illa allah / muhammad rasul / allah" translated as "Kurzuwan. There is no God but God. Muhammad is the messenger of God"
Ref: Tye 324.1; Nyamaa 31; Album 1971
Note: more on this coin : Top 10 for 2021, and Coins of the Silk Road
This coin perhaps in the same category, although I do think there is a beauty to the calligraphy on these Islamic coins from Damascus. This coin also particularly nice looking example, even if not perfect.
Islamic, Ayyubids, Egypt, al-Kamil I Muhammad, AH 615-635 / AD 1218-1238. Dirham (Silver, 20mm, 2.96g, 12 h), Dimashq, AH 617 = AD 1220/1221. Balog, Ayyubids, 427.
This coin comes with the history of Al-Kamil, remembered as a just and compassionate ruler who sought peace with the crusaders, and peaceful co-existence for Christians and Muslims. He is also said to have met for dialog with St. Francis of Assisi during the 5th crusade ~1219 AD. He negotiated a peace treaty in 1229 with Frederick II King of Sicily, ceding Jerusalem while retaining other rights and holy sites. There is a PBS documentary that tells the story of the influence of St. Francis' encounter with Sultan al-Kamil called "The Sultan & the Saint".
I will conclude with this coin of Lucius Cornelius Sulla - which comes close to "all of the above" : beautiful, nearly perfect, somewhat rare, and linked to the stories of Roman republican civil war, wars with Mithridates of Pontus, Sulla's dictatorship, and a republic wrestling with autocracy, democracy, social policy, definition of citizenship, foreign policy, and more.
L. Cornelius Sulla Felix, as Dictator, AR denarius, Uncertain mint in Italy, 81 BC.
Obv: Diademed head of Venus right, wearing single-pendant earring and necklace Rev: Filleted double cornucopiae; Q below
Ref: Crawford 375/2; Sydenham 755; Marius claimed Apollo as his divine patron, Sulla invoked the goddess Venus and this is why she appears on the obverse of this coin.
Collections and collectors come in many varieties - Storied, Perfect, Rare or Beautiful? What do you look for?