World Coins

Lighthouse of Alexandria popular subject on ancient coins

One of the longest surviving of the seven ancient wonders of the world, the Lighthouse or Pharos of Alexandria, is featured on coinage that is the most readily available and affordable. 

Some of what is known today about the lighthouse can be traced to its many appearances on coinage. 

The Lighthouse of Alexandria was located on a small island called Pharos near the city of Alexandria. It was completed around 270 B.C. during the reign of Ptolemy II, who also built the famous Library of Alexandria. The massive lighthouse was designed by architect Sostratos of Knidos

The city, still a metropolis in modern-day Egypt, was named for Alexander the Great, and the lighthouse helped to guide ships plying the Nile River into and out of the city’s busy harbor. 

In the designs seen on the coins, the lighthouse had three tiers: a square level at the bottom, an octagonal level in the middle and a cylindrical top. 

A 16-foot statue, most likely of Ptolemy II or Alexander the Great, the city’s namesake, stood at the top. 

Modern scholarship suggests that the lighthouse was about 380 feet tall before it was destroyed during a series of earthquakes from 956 to 1323. 

In the 1990s, explorers discovered some of its remains at the bottom of the Nile.

The lighthouse shines on, however, thanks to the abundance of coins on which it is depicted.

Affordable examples of varying quality are available for less than $1,000, but the market for better examples is rather strong. 

Heritage Auctions sold a Very Fine example of a circa A.D. 133 to A.D. 134 bronze drachm from Alexandria featuring the lighthouse design in a Jan. 6, 2014, auction for $646.25, including the 17.5 percent buyer’s fee. The coin, which was issued during Hadrian’s rule, exhibited polyvinyl chloride residue on the reverse near the rim, but was described as having an even brown patina. 

Classical Numismatic Group’s electronic auction No. 316, closing Dec. 4, 2013, included a similar design on a billon tetradrachm of Commodus, struck circa A.D. 188 to A.D. 189. In “Near VF,” the coin was notably rough with a brown patina, but it realized $1,725, including the 15 percent buyer’s fee.

Choice examples are rarer and bring stronger results. CNG in a Jan. 3, 2012, auction sold a Good Very Fine example of the billon tetradrachm of Commodus for $5,600, including a 12 percent buyer’s fee, despite its overall dark brown patina and the presence on the reverse of green deposits around the devices. 

A rare design type also shows the lighthouse but without one of the elements generally found accompanying it, a corbita (ship) or the goddess Isis Pharia. 

A Fine/VF example of the circa A.D. 131 to 132 bronze hemidrachm of Hadrian, sold in Gemini Numismatic Auctions’ Jan. 10, 2010, sale, realized $742 (including 18 percent buyer’s fee). The coin shows a standing figure on top of the lighthouse, as well as two Tritons blowing trumpets on either side of the lantern atop the lighthouse. 

Numerous examples of various coins featuring the lighthouse in varying grades have entered the marketplace the past five years. While not common, Lighthouse of Alexandria coins are not rare, and examples will fit many budgets. 

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