The writer W.H. Valentine once wrote “There is nothing more fascinating than collecting coins, all history is summed up in them…they are the story of humanity.” The story of humanity: for many, this is the romance of antique coins–unlike many other relics of the past, ancient coins can pass through so many hands, great and small, to reach yours. In this post, we focus on the great–the figures who grace the four coins above–and the basic history of ancient coin collecting. In an upcoming post, we will cover ancient coinage at length, including mints of various styles and empires, grading coins and buying them.
Kings of Bithynia, Nikomedes III Coin, Diameded head of Nikomedes right, reverse: Zeus standing left, holding wreath (off flan) and scepter; in left field, eagle on thunderbolt, monogram and date, 123/2 BC. 33mm, 16.37gms. Gallery #16: Palmyra Heritage/212.319.1077
Ancient coin collecting has been a popular hobby since medieval times, especially among European monarchs and even popes. Today, many new collectors are surprised to find you don’t need the wealth of a head of state to start an ancient coin collection. Some ancient coins are even less expensive than modern coins because the major rulers of vast empires issued a great quantity of coins across several centuries. As there were no banks in antiquity, owners buried their coins and hoards of them have been found where these great cities stood. The first coins were minted in the Roman province known as Lydia in Asia Minor in 600-700 B.C, not far from the kingdom of Bithynia, where later, Nikomedes III (pictured on the coin above) ruled from 127 BC to c. 94 BC.
Sicily, Leontini Coin, Laureate head of Apollo facing right; reverse: lion’s head facing right, four barley grains around, circa 446-422 BC. 25mm, 17.65gm. Gallery #16: Palmyra Heritage/212.319.1077
The coins classified as “ancient” are those struck in the first five centuries A.D., which is around 1200 years of coinage. The coin above from the Greek city of Leontini in Sicily is a well-preserved relic of one of the earlier centuries of coinage. The very earliest Greek coins are uniface (the design is only on one side with a punch mark on the reverse), but most ancient Greco-Roman coins feature the ruling emperor and mythological figures and symbols of the empire on both sides. The Leontini coin features Apollo, one of the most important Greek gods, with his head draped in laurel, a symbol sacred to this god and used in ancient Greece to signal honor bestowed upon poets and heroes.
Seleukid Kings of Syria Coin, Diademed head right / Zeus Nikephoros seated left, monogram below throne in exergue, 129-125 BC. 30mm, 16.3gm. Gallery #16: Palmyra Heritage/212.319.1077
The obverse (face) and reverse designs on ancient coins are the basis for the modern coins you carry in your pocket today. Just as in modern times, the devices of different cities represented sources of their civic pride. Therefore, coins were not just a “medium for exchange” but identifiers of their cities, and inevitably propaganda for the lands from which they originated. The imposing head of the Seleukid King on the coin above is indicative of the power of the Seleucid Empire, a major center of Hellenistic culture. On the reverse of this coin sits the father of the gods, Zeus Nikephoros, which translates to Zeus, who brings Victory, and so he did for a very long dynasty (312 BC-63 BC) until the empire was ultimately overthrown by the Roman emperor Pompey.
Aeolis, Kyme Coin, head of Amazon Kyme right wearing tainia, horse prancing right; one handled cup below raised foreleg, all within wreath, 165/55-145/0 BC. 32mm, 16.30g, 12h. Gallery #16: Palmyra Heritage/212.319.1077
Ancient empires were often in tumult–in fact, some of the most rare and valuable coins are those of emperors who only ruled for a short time or usurpers who minted coins in a bid for legitimacy. The above coin is from Kyme, the most important of the twelve major cities comprising Aeolis, a region that exemplifies the changing tide of history in the classical age. Aeolis was founded by emigrants from mainland Greece, later became a center of the fierce Greco-Persian wars, and was finally merged into the Roman empire. Like all ancient coins, the Kyme coin is a record of shifting reigns and a stamp of what mattered most to people who once lived in empires that are no more. Thus, as the coins lose their original meaning they gain another meaning for us: they become maps of the past.
The predominant rare and ancient coin collection at The Manhattan Art & Antique Center belongs to Palmyra Heritage, Gallery #16. You can visit the Palmyra Heritage gallery page for coins and other antiquities, and reach them at (P) 212.319.1077 (F) 347.693.7728 (E) firstname.lastname@example.org