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Wabi-sabi: Embracing Imperfection

Modern coin collectors often seek mint state perfection. "NGC defines a Mint State or Proof 70 (PF-70) coin as having no post-production imperfections at 5x magnification" (see NCG Website). For example: a 1986-S US Statue of Liberty Commemorative Proof Silver Dollar in PF-70 can be purchased for $119 today. Ancient coin collectors must see perfection differently or they would not have much to collect at any price. The unique scars, cracks and flaws make us, the coin that is, more interesting for its storied scars.

Doug Smith, author of the educational site on ancient coins that I have linked to his name, in a post on CoinTalk, proposed 3 categories of coin ugliness that I find entertaining and useful:

- born ugly - from the day it was struck

- achieved ugliness - through the natural aging process

- had ugliness thrust upon it - through a sudden event

I find the categorization very useful along with the Japaneses concept of Wabi-sabi, appreciation of imperfect, incomplete and transient beauty. More on Wabi-sabi on Doug Smith's web page.

Here is a coin that I certainly embrace as much for it's imperfections as its traces of perfection. It's colorful, molten reverse, elevated by ~2000 years of history from "born ugliness" - reverses on this coin are often crudely made and unintelligible - to the next level of "achieved ugliness".

Kings of Elymais, Uncertain King (successor to Kamnaskires V? Early Arsakid Kings?), Late 1st century BC-early 1st century AD, Billon Tetradrachm Obv: Diademed bust left; behind, four-pointed star in crescent above pellet and anchor symbol Rev: Crude diademed bust left, degraded legend This is my second tetradrachm from Elymais - a minor Hellenistic Dynasty of Iran. Elymais is diminutive of "Elam" as the kingdom included parts of the ancient province of Elam. I have a few little copper coins of this kingdom. Not a lot is known about the history of Elymais, with the coins being the major source, if not the only source, of information on some periods. Strabo writes of Elymais in Geography:

"The Elymaei carry on war against both that people and the Susians, whereas the Uxii too carry on war against the Elymaei; but less so at the present time, in all probability, because of the might of the Parthians, to whom all the peoples in that part of the world are subject. Now when the Parthians fare well, all their subjects fare well too, but when there is an insurrection, as is often the case, even indeed in our own times, the results are different at different times and not the same for all; for some have benefited by disturbances, whereas others have been disappointed in their expectations. Such, then, are the countries of Persis and Susis."
-Strabo, The Geography, 15.3.12

"Now Carmania is encircled on the north by Persis, which is a large country; and bordering on this country are Paraetacenê and Cossaea as far as the Caspian Gates, which is inhabited by mountainous and predatory tribes. And bordering on Susis is Elymaïs, most of which is rugged and inhabited by brigands; and bordering Elymaïs are Media and the region of the Zagrus."
-Strabo, The Geography, 16.17.1 

There is an excellent overview on Elymais in the Encyclopedia Iranica. Here are several of the smaller coins of Elymais.

Kings of Elymais, Phraates, c. AD 100-150, Æ Drachm (15mm, 3.5g)

Obv: Facing bust wearing tiara; anchor to right, crescent with dot above

Rev: Artemis standing right, holding bow and plucking arrow from quiver

Kings of Elymais, Orodes III, 2nd century AD, Æ Drachm (15mm, 3.23g, 12h)

Obv: Diademed bust left, wearing tiara with anchor; to right, pellet-in-crescent above anchor with single crossbar

Rev: BACIΛЄVK YPѠΔHC, draped bust of Artemis right, wearing calathus

Ref: van't Haaff Type 16.1.1-1a

Kings of Elymais, Phraates, Early-mid 2nd century AD, Æ Drachm (14.5mm, 2.95g, 1h), Uncertain mint

Obv: Diademed and draped bust facing, wearing tiara; to right, pellet-in-crescent above anchor with one crossbar

Rev: Eagle standing left, holding wreath in beak

Ref: Van’t Haaff Type 14.3.1-1; Alram –; Sunrise –

To appreciate fully the 15.91g weight of the first coin - in this picture you can see it with a late Roman (Arcadius, "salvs reipvblicae"):

There is a related Japanese concept of kintsugi, a pottery repair method that honors an artifact’s unique history by emphasizing, not hiding, damage....

Perhaps this fits the category of "ugliness thrust upon it". Korean Tea bowl, Joseon dynasty, 16th Century, Ethnological Museum, Berlin (Photo source: Daderot, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons)

While the stories behind these imperfections are generally long lost, they open a door to reflection and imagination, and a link to the history of their time. This tetradrachm of Elymais is for me a perfect example of an ancient coin that is more beautiful because of its imperfections.

For an nice introduction with additional reference for the coins of Elymais see: An Introduction to Collecting Coins from Elymais By Robert L3 (Bob L) on CoinCommunity.

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