World Coins

Enigmatic portrait stater available in Heritage sale

A rare portrait stater of Cyzicus, struck early to middle of the fourth century B.C., may show an Athenian general, Timotheos.

Images courtesy of Heritage Auctions.

Electrum staters, among the earliest of coinage, are noted for their crude manufacture and designs, so the appearance of a crafted portrait on one of these pieces is notable.

Heritage Auctions’ Aug. 17 auction in conjunction with the American Numismatic Association World’s Fair of Money highlights one such rarity. 

Electrum is a naturally occurring element composed of varying amounts of silver and gold. It was first used in coinage in Lydia, a small, wealthy country in western Asia Minor. The practice of striking coins from the material soon spread to neighbors, the Ionian Greeks.

The example in the auction was struck in Cyzicus in Mysia (in present-day Turkey), in the early to middle of the fourth century B.C.

The obverse features a bearded male crowned with laurel, facing left, a tunny (small fish) below him.

The reverse is typical of staters, using a four-part incuse pattern. 

The coin weighs 16.1 grams and measures 21 millimeters in width, typical for the stater, the largest denomination in the monetary system.

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The portrait on this coin’s obverse is the subject of centuries of debate. 

The idea that the depiction was intended to honor a specific person dates back at least to 1887, in The Electrum Coinage of Cyzicus by William Greenwell.

The question follows as to who, exactly, is portrayed.

One early theory was that the image is of an idealized Persian king. 

In 1898, J.P. Six (in Numismatic Chronicles), was the first to suggest that the bearded male portrait represents Athenian general Timotheos, who had raised the siege of Cyzicus in 363 B.C. and died in 354 B.C.

Six’s suggestion was based on a similarity between the coins and a marble portrait in the Capitoline Museum, according to the auction firm. 

August 6 2018 issue of Coin World.Inside Coin World: Building a $20,000 collection of U.S. coins. Features in the Aug. 6 issue focus on building a $20,000 collection of U.S. coins, world coins depicting despots and dictators, and national bank notes from Coin World’s own hometown.

Subsequent numismatists refuted that conclusion and proposed others; however, Leo Mildenberg in “The Cyzicenes: A Reappraisal,” American Journal of Numismatics 5-6 (1993–1994), defended Six’s hypothesis.

Cyzicus was under Persian control from 540 B.C. until 445 B.C., and then from 387 B.C. until the end of the Achaemenid Empire. 

During the interim period, Cyzicus was allied with Athens as a member of the Delian League, according to the auction house. Normally, League members were not allowed to coin their own electrum staters; however, Cyzicus was exempted because the practice benefitted Athens as the coins were internationally accepted. 

When the general Timotheos and his forces from Athens successfully raised the Persian siege of Cyzicus in 363 B.C., its citizens may have opted to place his portrait on this issue of staters to show their appreciation and honor him in a way familiar to Athenians.

The coin is graded by Numismatic Guaranty Corporation as About Uncirculated 5/5 - 3/5, Fine Style, flan flaw. 

It is “sharply struck from [an] obverse die with extremely high relief realistic portrait,” and has a pre-sale estimate of $45,000 to $60,000.  

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