With Greek coins, nearly everything is exceedingly rare. Due to extensive circulation and power struggles, many nations completely abandoned and melted certain types. In the cases of nations like Crete and Sardis, they were so small that local coinage was minted in extremely minuscule amounts. Even with the most famous types, there may be only a few dozen known examples.
A common coin with extreme historical significance may command a higher premium than a coin with only a few dozen known examples. Coins of Lysimachus or Alexander the Great are highly popular among novice collectors and can sell for thousands of dollars in the best condition. The Athena owl, which will not be mentioned on this page—perhaps the most abundant ancient coin being minted in the hundreds of millions—fetches thousands of dollars simply due to its popularity.
In Greek coins, rarities consist of those coins with a low survival rate, those popular with collectors, and those that command substantial premiums. Coins of fine style and intricate design will command extreme premiums and are therefore considered rarities. It is important to note that large coins were hoarded and exist in significant quantities, while small coins and fractional denominations were used as change and have low survival rates. Extreme rarities consist of coins of extreme historical significance or types that are desired by the most discerning collectors. Coins of extreme rarity are not commonly traded in the day-to-day ancient coin market and are rarely seen at auctions. Coins such as the examples below provide an explanation for why ancient coin collecting is often referred to as "the hobby for royalty."
Temple at Delphi:
A brief series of fine-style Staters were minted after the destruction of the temple of Apollo in Delphi around 373 BC. To finance the reconstruction of the temple, the government melted down the coins in the treasury and refurbished the metal to create a series of Staters, Drachms, and Hemidrachms of the same design. These coins featured a design commemorating the temple of Demeter on the obverse and Apollo on the reverse. This coin type is virtually unknown to seasoned collectors due to its rarity and sells for five figures at the very least. It was minted during the same period as the famous sculpture "Charioteer from Delphi" in 470 BC, originally buried to protect it from war. Its inlaid eyes are still intact, and it was commissioned as a trophy.
Delphi Trade Token:
The Tridrachms minted at Delphi, featuring the dual ram head on the obverse, are among the most historically significant ancient coins. Rarely appearing on the market and known by only 11 examples (most being fragments), these coins are a wonder even to the most experienced numismatists. According to CNG, the obverse type "is a direct reference to the Greek victory over the Persians at Plataea in 479, when a great deal of treasure, including silver vessels, was taken by the Greeks." The rhyta, drinking vessels in the shape of a ram's head, are almost certainly among the "booty" taken by the Greeks and offered to Apollo at his Delphi temple. Furthermore, the unusual reverse raises many questions. Unlike its predecessors, which only show a reverse quadripartite incuse, these coins exhibit a reverse incuse that almost resembles the ceiling of a temple. Theories have been presented suggesting that this is a snippet of what the ceiling of the temple at Apollo looked like.
The Archaic House of Sicily:
The Gamoroi were the original archaic settlers of Italy after the defeat of the Syracusians. Syracuse became a rich nation of the arts and played a key role in the ancient world as one of the main trade superpowers. The Gamoroi period soon became affiliated with the entirety of the Syracusan Democracy after they officially began minting coins around 550 BC. Among the first of the archaic types are a series of silver coins inscribed with SYRA for Syracuse, featuring the synonymous four-horsed quadriga (later issued on most Dekadrachms and Tetradachms of Syracuse).
Punic Issues of Sicily:
A series running through the Golden Age of coinage in Sicily included many "Punic" issues made throughout the Greek mainland. The term "Punic" derives from the area on the southern Phoenician border, often associated with the peoples of that region. These coins were issued under a Punic standard and authority and often exhibit an extremely fine style. Particularly with tetradrachms, many feature Punic legends and a wide array of animals on the coins. Punic issues of Sicily are highly desirable in high grades.
Among the most sought-after coins in all of numismatics, the gold staters minted in Bosporos around 400-350 BC command significant premiums among collectors. The prosperous nation of Bosporos minted coins of all denominations throughout their century-long peak. The region is situated on the west side of the Crimea, a region that extends into modern-day Eastern Europe. The earliest-type staters are the most desirable and can sell for nearly a million dollars, with the type two and three coins being close behind in price. They feature the minor god Pan on the obverse and a griffin on the reverse. Nearly all coins were found in hoards and by independent sources. Even so, the majority of the population of these staters is in uncirculated condition, which supports the theory that they were stored in a treasury of sorts as a security fund.
Type C (most common)
Naxos is one of the oldest civilizations that resided in Sicily during the time of coinage. They minted coins under the Attic standard that surpassed the style of even Syracuse at their height. The coins feature Dionysos on the obverse, with Silenus on the reverse, drinking wine. Although the coins did not survive beyond the Archaic age, they are still a rare wonder of their time. The series is highly desirable due to the extreme intricacy in design and the anatomical style that Silenus demonstrates, supporting himself, and the accuracy and demonstration of movement in the portrait.
The Labyrinth, a famous ancient Greek myth featuring Theseus and the infamous Minotaur, originated in the city-state of Crete, specifically in Knossos, rumored to be founded by King Minos. Coins featuring depictions of the Labyrinth did not come into existence until around 300 BC. Nevertheless, they represent a significant event in the history of coinage and their significance in the Greek world. The Drachms and Staters bearing the Labyrinth design on their reverse are exceptionally rare. Knossos was a crucial and highly sophisticated part of the ancient Mediterranean. Arthur Evans painted the columns of the Knossos palace, which was an exceptionally open and culturally advanced center. It featured amenities like running water, roads, and aqueducts, and it was inhabited by approximately 80,000 people.
The Minoans, who inhabited the Island of Crete, comprised a highly sophisticated culture about which we had no knowledge until the 19th century. Although named after King Minos, their actual names remain unknown. The myth of Theseus and the Minotaur in Knossos is well known. It was a relatively peaceful civilization with no signs of walls or fortifications around the structure. The initial large palaces served as centers for respective communities, and distinctions of social hierarchies emerged after a tumultuous beginning. They had a written language known as Linear A, which is an offshoot of cuneiform, and the city featured four urban centers and palaces.
Crete, especially the ancient city of Knossos, conceals numerous intriguing mysteries and artistic techniques from the era of the early Minoan civilization before the mintage of coins. One of the most prominent techniques was the Buon Fresco method, in which artists applied colors to the wet intonaco, the painting plaster layer, immediately after its preparation and application to the wall. This allowed the colors to be absorbed by the wet plaster, becoming fused with the surface as it dried and hardened through a chemical reaction. Among the enigmatic aspects of Minoan culture, the Bull Leaping scenes depicted in various frescoes have captured the fascination of researchers. These paintings portray young men and women engaging in acrobatic feats with fierce and massive bulls, possibly with religious significance, although it remains uncertain if these daring activities occurred. These images shed light on the society's reverence for women, depicted in elegant, modern attire with fluid skin tones reminiscent of the Queen's Frescos. All of this culture is reflected in the coins that were produced, which were executed in the finest quality available with the most magnificent engraving.
Further evidence of the vibrancy and trade networks of the Minoan civilization can be found in artifacts such as Kamares Ware, beaked jugs adorned with intricate surface decorations, and the Bull's Head Rhyton, a ceremonial drinking cup (similar to those featured on the Tridrachms of Delphi). Notably, the absence of large scale statues of gods or kings suggests a focus on the role of priestesses, with small figurines often depicting women holding snakes, implying their religious significance. The decline and disappearance of the Minoan civilization remain shrouded in mystery. Some suggest that the eruption of the Thera volcano, located approximately 60 miles from Crete, played a pivotal role in their downfall. This catastrophic event occurred 50 years before the city of Knossos fell into ruins, leading to speculation that the volcanic eruption, possibly combined with invasion, may have contributed to the civilization's ultimate demise. The secrets of the Minoans continue to captivate and perplex archaeologists and historians, leaving us with a rich tapestry of art, culture, and enigmatic history to explore. The leadership that took over the Minoan civilization began minting coins around 400 BC, keeping the culture of the fallen nation centuries before.
The Ram of Salamis:
There isn't much information available regarding a brief Stater series minted in Cyprus, specifically in Salamis, during the 4th Century BC. Cyprus, being the third most populated island in ancient Greece, was a significant center of culture, arts, and the exchange of goods and ideas. One might assume that coinage in such an area would be abundant, but due to the proximity of surrounding nations and its prosperous location on the Mediterranean, coinage appeared to be unnecessary. The Cypriot legends on these coins display the names of the monetary magistrates responsible for their minting. The most sought-after magistrate is Nikodamos, and only one known example of his legacy survives. The others, minted under Euelthon or Phausis, vary in rarity depending on their type and condition.
The Dawn of Coinage:
Often considered to be among the very first coins in history, the series of striated Staters and fractional units minted in Lydia has been dated to around 675-650 BC. It's challenging to definitively attribute a specific coin type as the absolute first in existence, but it's widely accepted that this type is among, or could be, the first. Others of a similar type bear seals and marks indicating the ruler or standard they were issued under. It's often believed that the Electrum used in these Staters was sourced from naturally occurring nuggets, but recent sources suggest that the alloys of early Electrum were actually man-made.
First Documented "Map":
The last king of the first Persian monarchy was Darius III, who was an unmemorable ruler defeated by Alexander the Great. Darius made no preparations to fortify his empire against the imminent arrival of Philip II and Alexander, even though he was aware of their impending approach for decades. His defeat was swift, and Darius ultimately abandoned his empire in retreat. He was pursued by Alexander, who made multiple offers of surrender and negotiation, all of which were rejected. Darius retreated into Baktria, which was under the control of the satrap Bessus at the time, and was subsequently killed.
Although it is certain that this Tetradrachm was struck under Darius, the absence of a legend necessitates including Artaxerxes III. The reverse of this type is remarkable, with a crude reverse incuse depicting a map of the city of Ephesus. This makes it the earliest known map in human history and the only known coin with a map on the reverse. These coins were likely struck under the Persian general Memnon at Ephesus to pay his army before their defeat by Alexander, or by Alexander himself as a mocking gesture of the Persian coin design and the city he had recently conquered.
Coins minted on the Greek mainland during the period of the highest art are always of fine style. A Stater minted in Arkadia, specifically in Stymphalos, around 350 BC is no exception. Of the approximately 25-30 known examples, with 15 housed in museums, many are in very low grade. Nevertheless, they command extremely high premiums. The obverse showcases a realistic portrait of Artemis, while the reverse depicts Herakles in the act of executing his sixth trial, standing in an attack position with his club.
Among the most skilled ancient Greek coin artists, the master who engraved this coin die was also famously responsible for the dies of the Zeus Olympia Stater. This specific series features the portrait of Zeus on the obverse and an eagle flanked by a capital on the reverse. The purpose of minting this coin was to commemorate the reclamation of land by the people of Elis after their wars with the Akkadians in the mid 4th century B.C. The Akkadians moved into the southern Mesopotamia region, and their language became the most common. The language of scholars, however, was Sumerian.
The iconic Staters minted in Ionia were produced in relatively large quantities and saw extensive circulation in the archaic coin world. Although they are extremely rare in modern times, these coins served as the inspiration for coins in Tarsos and Abdera Thrace. They were distinguished by an intricate design of a griffin on the obverse, often accompanied by a symbol or control mark, and featured an incuse on the reverse, occasionally displaying the name of the monetary magistrate responsible for their issuance. This series was minted from around 525 BC to approximately 400 BC.
Thasos staters, depicting a kneeling satyr carrying a nymph, are abundant in terms of their variety and style. Thasos, a Greek maritime island located in the Aegean, minted thousands of coins of various denominations during its heyday. The earliest types are the most sought-after and rare, while the subsequent types exhibit greater artistry and appeal. Although all the types fall within the archaic category, they are plentiful and relatively affordable, thanks to their large 21mm flans, making them accessible even for collectors on a budget.
Featuring a striking portrait of a lion devouring a bull, one might expect the Tarsos staters to be exceptionally rare and ancient. However, these coins, despite their beauty and craftsmanship, are actually quite common. They were minted during a period characterized by declining artistic quality, during which mass production of coins was widespread across most regions of the Greek mainland.
Macedonian Archaic Tetradrachms:
Macedonia commenced the striking of coinage long before the reign of Alexander the Great. The very first coins were issued in the early 6th century BC and continued until the Roman occupation under Perseus of Macedon. Initially, these coins were minted under various archaic city-states. The first king to mint Macedonian coinage was Alexander I. There were two significant dynasties in the Macedonian empire: the Argead Dynasty and the Antigonid Dynasty. The archaic coin types initially struck seem to have laid a foundation for future empires. Similarly, the coinage of Alexander the Great remained in use until the early days of the Roman Empire. Given the substantial influence over many decades, the coinage of Macedon holds a special place in history.
Before the rise of the Macedonian monarchs, the region was divided into numerous archaic city-states, and they issued a series of beautiful incuse-design silver Tetradrachms and fractionals. The most renowned of these regions included Akanthos and Mende. While the coins minted are far from common, their relatively high survival rate makes them attainable at a reasonable cost. These coins, minted during the 500-400 BC. era, served as a model for future coinage designs, featuring animal and battle scenes.
Ankathos was one of the earliest city-states in all of Greece to produce Tetradrachms. Many of their coinage pieces featured either a bull or a lion on the obverse, with a common incuse, often featuring dots or rectangles, on the reverse.
Coins from Mende followed a similar design pattern but frequently depicted the god Dionysos on horseback. Coins of Mende, however, tend to be significantly more expensive.
There exists a short-lived series of silver Staters and fractional denominations issued across various provinces of Illyria. An intriguing aspect of this type is that, although common, it exhibits fine style in the portraiture of the animals on the obverse. The reverse incuse features an unusual pattern of dots and lines surrounding a legend, often accompanied by a monogram. The obverse design, featuring a suckling calf, comes in numerous varieties, depending on the place of issuance and the arrangement of the animals.
The Staters of Boeotia Thebes from the 5th century are the most popular denomination among the various shield types issued in this region. The positioning of the shield on the obverse significantly influences the coin's value, as the Amphora reverse incuse is consistently perfectly centered. The most sought-after specimens are those in choice grade, particularly the earlier types with excellent centering.
Second only to the Athenian owl and Alexander Tetradrachms in terms of fame, the Aegina staters are considered a must-have for collectors. Aegina issued several series featuring different species of turtles over the centuries. The earliest type showcases an Aegean Loggerhead sea turtle with a plain reverse incuse. Numismatists have traced this type back to around 560 BC, although it might have been minted even earlier. This series represents one of the pioneering stages of fine-style coin technology. The later types, some featuring legends around 350 BC, exhibit an articulate style and high-relief surface.
Turtle Staters were widely circulated and often bear countermarks and test cuts. Finding an example that isn't worn or stamped is a challenging task. Even heavily worn examples can command prices comparable to the finest Athenian owls. Collectors often pursue these coins to determine Aegina's occupation during various periods or to match their collection's style. Toward the end of the 3rd century, Aegina's coinage became obsolete, as they struggled to meet the demand for coinage and maintain the time-consuming high-relief design. Nonetheless, the region continued to mint coins until their Roman occupation, initially adopting the Alexander type and later transitioning to provincial bronze coins.
Various Dynasts of Lycia:
The earliest depictions of Lycian coinage featured a simple design with triskeles as their symbol. In the later fine art period, rulers began to place their portraits on the coins, along with their chosen design and their name. These coins represent some of the earliest instances in history of detailed portraits of living rulers.
Persian Siglos and Daric:
The Persian Empire, which arguably endured until the rise of Islam, existed in various forms throughout its existence. The Achaemenid Empire, famous for its conflicts with the Greeks in the Peloponnesian Wars, marked the period that issued the most coinage. Darius and Xerxes, the most renowned kings of this era, initiated coinage just decades after it began in Lydia. King Xerxes introduced the silver-based system, following the Milesian standard and later converting to the Persic standard of Sigloi and Staters. Darius introduced the gold Daric and gold Stater, which were valued based on the Mina rather than a Siglos.
The Achaemenids, flourishing from 530 to 330 BC, represented the pinnacle of Persian civilization, conquering the entire Middle East. With their capital at Persepolis (later seized by Alexander), they dominated the world from Egypt to India and possessed abundant resources, including fertile farmland, water sources, and gold. In contrast to widespread slavery practices, the Persians fostered a pluralistic society characterized by trade, diverse faiths, languages, and political structures. They recognized the advantages of preserving local customs while maintaining imperial control through taxation. Zoroastrianism, a faith emphasizing fairness, endured. Their administrative approach was similarly inclusive, incorporating various languages and writing systems, and they constructed the Royal Road, an extensive highway spanning over 1550 miles from Sardis to Susa, strengthening their vast network of roads for provincial connections. Instead of obliterating local adversaries, they prioritized trade expansion, implementing standardized weights, official coinage, and universal laws. The Palace at Persepolis, built between 521 and 465 BC, featured a stairway adorned with representations of the empire's diverse population, reflecting their inclusive nature, while column capitals bearing bull symbols hinted at a rich visual history when painted. For dating, archaeologists employed both relative techniques, such as stratigraphy, and absolute methods, using written records or radiometric dating for structures extending beyond 40,000 years.
Many regions, including Aspendos, featured coins with the Triskeles, a three-legged symbol often associated with Sicily. It was depicted as a major centerpiece of their coinage or in the form of a monogram or control mark. The Triskeles, derived from an earlier Celtic symbol representing a seal of power, symbolized power, unity, and progress. The classic Staters from Aspendos minted in the 5th and 4th centuries are quite common, and they often exhibit test cuts and weak obverses.
A second type of Aspendos staters depicts two wrestlers, reflecting the evolution of coin art during the Golden Age and the Greek passion for games like the Olympics. The reverses display a slinger, possibly an early form of javelin throwing, another game commonly played in ancient Greece. In earlier examples, a Greek soldier in armor prepared for battle. This progression towards weakness in coin imagery mirrors the decline of Greece. Once a war-torn nation, Greece progressed economically but eventually couldn't defend itself against powerful enemies. While these coins, including their earlier types, are common, they remain essential for collectors interested in anatomy and fine art style.
Ionia "Bee" Coinage:
The Bee series minted in Ephesos spanned approximately three hundred years and featured numerous monetary magistrates. The most sought-after examples showcase a fine-style bee on the obverse and a well-struck coin with the magistrate's name. The most rare and desirable magistrates can command six-figure prices.
Article by Colby Abele
Published by VCD Auctions