World Coins

Rare Roman gold aurei lead bidding in Swiss sale

A trio of rare Roman gold aurei led bidding during Numismatica Ars Classica’s May 9 and 10 auctions in Zurich.

The coins were issued for some of the shortest-serving leaders of the Roman Empire, explaining their rarity, especially in high grades. 

Some of the coins offer provenances to famous and feted collectors, as well.

Including buyer’s fees, each of the three coins topped the equivalent of $250,000 U.S. The buyer’s fee begins at 20 percent, and rises depending on bidding and payment method.

Galba’s gold

Galba’s reign as emperor occurred from July 68 to January 69, and a gold aureus that was “virtually as struck” (according to the auction firm) was the top lot in the sale.

The coin, which is “among the finest aurei of Galba in existence,” realized a hammer price of 260,000 Swiss francs ($259.52 U.S.).

The coin connects Galba, the first non-Julio-Claudian to become emperor, to the empress Livia, with whom he was close. 

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Galba was immensely wealthy before becoming emperor, and served in various roles in Rome and its provinces before being named Livia’s heir. 

The ruler graces the obverse of the coin, and the reverse depicts the standing figure of Livia, who had been deified since the accession of her grandson Claudius in 41.

“The point is clear: Galba advertises his famous attachment to the early Julio-Claudians, and specifically to the first empress Livia,” the auction firm said in the catalog. “In doing so he offers proof of his fitness to wear the purple.”

The appearance of Livia on the reverse “was an appropriate message in this age of chaos and civil war, when faith in the more recent Julio-Claudians had been justifiably shaken, and Galba proposed a return to the severitas [gravitas] of a bygone era,” the firm said.

The coin is “very rare and among the finest aurei of Galba in existence,” according to NAC, and depicts “a realistic portrait struck in very high relief on a full flan.”

Son of Macrinus

Another rarity in the triumvirate of golden goodies leading the auction is a piece struck for the son of emperor Macrinus.

The aureus of Diadumenian Caesar, struck late in 217, realized a hammer price of 240,000 Swiss francs ($239,402 U.S.) against an estimate of 150,000 francs. 

For the majority of his father Macrinus’ brief reign, Diadumenian held the title Caesar, but near the end he was raised to the rank of Augustus. 

When the tide finally turned against their regime, loyal supporters of his father attempted to smuggle Diadumenian to Parthia for safekeeping, but he was captured en route at Zeugma and executed shortly thereafter. 

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Diadumenian was noted for his appearance, being described in ancient records as ”… beautiful beyond all others, somewhat tall of stature, with golden hair, black eyes ...” 

And this coin is noted today for its conditional quality, the firm said, being “extremely rare and in exceptional condition for the issue, undoubtedly among the finest specimens known.”

The “superb portrait [is] of masterly style struck in high relief on a full flan,” and the coin is a perfect fleur de coin, the firm said.

It has a prominent pedigree, to boot, having once been part of the Enrico Caruso (1873 to 1921) Collection, and more recently owned by author Gerald Hoberman.

Florian’s follicle foil

A gold aureus of Florian issued in Cyzicus (modern-day Turkey) in 276 A.D. realized a hammer price of 230,000 Swiss francs ($229,427 U.S.) compared to an estimate of 100,000 francs. 

The coin shows a laureate, draped and cuirassed bust of Florian facing right. His accoutrements, laurel wreath and armored bust among them, are not out of place for a Roman coin, but the head of hair shown on the coin conflicts with ancient sources that report he was actually bald. 

His expression exudes strength and determination, the auction house said. However, it was not strength that propelled him to the ruling seat, but death, as the firm reports in its time line. 

In 275 the once-crumbling Roman Empire had made great strides toward recovery under the stewardship of Aurelian. In the previous year Aurelian had celebrated a spectacular triumph in Rome for his recovery of the Western provinces from Tetricus and the Eastern provinces from the rulers of Palmyra. 

Having achieved so much, Aurelian was not content to rest on his laurels, and had he not been murdered late in 275 he would have waged war against the Persians.

Tacitus stepped in to replace Aurelian as emperor. 

He made his half-brother, Florian, his praetorian prefect and the two immediately set out for the East to confront the Heruli and Goths who had swept into Asia Minor. 

barbarians had only gathered in such force to join Aurelian as mercenaries on his Persian campaign, and with plans interrupted they found themselves with little option but to engage in piracy.

Tacitus and Florian had some success against the invaders, notably in Cilicia. But before long, Tacitus died from disease or murder, after which Florian laid claim to his brother’s title. 

He would not reign long either, however, as Probus, the most successful of Aurelian’s generals and commander of the Roman armies in the East, opposed Florian, and emerged victorious after Florian was likely killed by his own soldiers

The coin is “extremely rare and in exceptional condition for the issue, among the finest aurei of Florian in existence, with a bold portrait perfectly struck and centered on a full flan,” the Numismatica Ars Classica cataloger wrote. 

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