World Coins

Ancient gold coin sets price record in May sale

A circa 350 to 300 B.C. gold stater from Panticapaeum sold for the equivalent of just over $6 million U.S. in a May 18 auction in Switzerland.

Images courtesy of Numismatica Ars Classica.

A gold stater of Panticapaeum in Eastern Crimea that sold at a Swiss auction May 18 established an apparent new price record for an ancient coin at auction.

The circa 350 to 300 B.C. coin sold for a hammer price of 4.4 million Swiss francs ($4,898,520 U.S.). Add in the minimum buyer’s fee of 22.5% and that pushes the total price to at least $6,000,687 (this does not count an additional 1% fee dependent on bidding method, and 7.7% tax for buyers inside Switzerland).

The coin was previously sold in the 2012 auction of the Prospero Collection, where it realized a hammer price of $3.25 million ($3,802,500 after the 17% buyer’s fee).

As the most powerful city in the Tauric Chersonesus with deep involvement in the lucrative Black Sea grain trade, Panticapaeum and its rulers, the Bosporan kings, were no strangers to gold coinage, according to the auction house.

Gold staters were produced in the name of the city on both a local Bosporan standard (about 9.1 grams) and the internationally recognized Attic standard (about 8.6 grams) between circa 380 B.C. and 304 B.C.

These coins regularly featured the head of a satyr on the obverse and a griffin with a spear in its mouth on the reverse.

“While the former has sometimes been misunderstood as a representation of Pan and therefore a punning reference to the city, it has been shown that the features are actually those of a nameless satyr and the head should probably be understood as a reference to the Spartocid dynasty of Bosporan kings, whose real founder was a certain Satyros I,” the firm said.

The griffin type probably alludes to the mythical composite creatures who were believed to guard gold found in the mountains of Scythia, as reported by Herodotus and Pliny the Elder.

Design commentary

On the staters of Panticapaeum the head of the satyr is always depicted in profile facing left except for one spectacular and extremely rare issue for which the engraver decided to break with custom and depict the satyr facing three-quarters left.

“He may have been inspired to attempt this artistically difficult new treatment of the head under the influence of a wider numismatic fashion for three-quarter facing heads on Greek coins that developed at the end of the fifth and in the early fourth century B.C.,” according to the auction house. “The fashion appears to have been triggered by the exquisite three-quarter facing head of Arethusa pioneered by Kimon during the period of the signing artists at Syracuse, after which similar heads also began to appear on coins struck by cities like Heracleia in Italy, Larissa in Thessaly, Aenus in Thrace, Amphipolis in Macedonia, and even Persian satraps in Cilicia and Samaria.”

However, of these, it is really only the three-quarter facing head issue of Panticapaeum that is truly worthy of being placed directly beside Kimon’s tetradrachm as a monument of Greek numismatic art. The extreme beauty of this rare type of Panticapaeum has been charmingly summed up by Godfrey Locker Lampson, whose example was struck from the same dies as this coin.

As he puts it, “The head of the satyr is a marvel of speaking portraiture. That so much expression could be packed into so small a round would not be believed by anyone who had not seen it. ... If a single coin had to be selected from those described in these pages, as by the greatest of all die-engravers, whoever he may have been, whose work had lasted to the present day, the writer would choose this one. Its creator has left no name behind him, but none but a consummate artist of remarkable and original genius could have produced this unforgettable and amazing little gem.”

Design superlatives

The coin is considered one of the most important and desirable coins of the entire Greek world.

Of “enchanting beauty,” the firm said, the work is at the hands of an extremely talented master engraver.

“The present coin represents an extraordinarily rare example of the highest Classical Greek artistry. It is rendered all the more remarkable by the fact that it was not produced in one of the great bastions of culture and art like Athens or Syracuse, but rather at a distant outpost at the northern edge of the known Greek world.”

The finest specimen in private hands of very few known, the Good Extremely Fine coin is “Perfectly struck and centred in high relief on a very large flan.”

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