Posted on 05-04-2010
Filed Under (History, Numismatics) by Rashtrakut

One of the oldest coins in history hit the auctioneers block last month.  The fourth known stater of Phanes dating to about the 7th century BC sold for 345,000 Euro.  See link.  While these coins bear the badge “Phanos emi Seima” (I am the badge of Phanes), not much is known about Phanes.  Whether this represented a ruler, a wealthy merchant, a deity or a city state is not clear.  But these Electrum coins may predate the Lydian staters, generally deemed to start the concept of coinage (up for debate is whether the Shatamana of Gandhara or Chinese coinage predated the Lydians) .  For more on the origins of this coin and speculation regarding its minter see here.

The emergence of coinage greatly facilitated the growth of international trade in the Mediterranean world and along the trade routes to China and India.  The city states seem to have understood the importance of weight standards early on (with the Lydians even managing to keep the gold and silver content of their electrum coins constant).  And the states that resisted the urge to debase their coinage and/or had the largest imperial reach saw their coinage spread across the world and become almost ubiquitous like the Athenian Owl Tetradrachms, the Mauryan Karshapana, the Roman Denarius etc and sometimes spawned local imitations.  See herehere, here and here.

A lot of history in a small blob of metal.

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Posted on 04-04-2010
Filed Under (History, Numismatics) by Rashtrakut

A unique Brutus aureus is on display at the British museum.  See link.  As is evident from the picture the coin commemorates the Ides of March and the assassination of Julius Caesar.  While the silver denarius version of the coin is known, the coin on display at the British museum may be the only authentic gold coin commemorating the assassination in existence today.  See link.  As noted in the articles above, these coins were famous in antiquity and were referenced by the second century historian Cassius Dio.

However, these coins are replete with irony as a few years before minting them Brutus himself would have considered them an act of impiety.  For a long time in the Greco-Roman world it was considered an act of impiety to use the image of a living person on a coin.  Philip II of Macedon and his son Alexander created a loophole to get around this.  Philip’s tetradrachms display the image of Zeus and Alexander’s that of Hercules.  However, the gods on the coin just happen to look like the king.  After Alexander’s death, Ptolemy I of Egypt was the first to brazenly use his own image on his coins without resorting to the divine loophole.  With the horse out of the barn, the other Hellenistic states followed.

But the ban remained in place for Roman coinage for another 250 years until it was breached by Julius Caesar (probably one of the items added to his myriad alleged offenses that led to the assassination).  And yet Brutus, that stern defender of the values of the Roman Republic, issued coins with his own image on them.  The likely reason for this apostasy is the fact that after Caesar’s death his successors discovered the propaganda value of using their own images on the coins used to pay their soldiers.  Once again after horse got out of the barn everybody else followed.  And Brutus decided to use his apostasy to glorify the assassination of Caesar, the act primarily associated with his name two millennia later.

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Posted on 10-01-2010
Filed Under (India, Numismatics) by Rashtrakut

See previous post regarding the coin here.  The auction where that coin was listed closed last week and the coin with an estimate of $75,000 sold for $140,000 (presumably including auctioneers fees).  A rich price for a truly amazing historical coin.

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Posted on 09-01-2010
Filed Under (Numismatics) by Rashtrakut

If you are one of the 5 known 1913 Liberty Head nickels in existence (two in museums and three in private collections), the answer is $3,737,500.  That is the price the coin previously owned by Egypt’s former King Farouk and Lakers owner Jerry Buss was sold for at an auction this Thursday.  See link with picture of the Liberty Head.

Buss paid $200,000 for the coin in 1978.  It will be interesting see if the value of the coin continues to appreciate at its approximate 9.58% annualized rate of return the next time it hits the auction block.

Here is an explanation by the Antique Trader Blog as to why collectors value the coin other than the pedigreed ownership of the coin:

“The U.S. Mint struck tens of millions of Liberty Head nickels from 1883 through 1912, but switched designs in 1913 to depict a Native American on the “head’s” side and a bison on the “tail’s” side. However, five nickels with the new date, 1913, but the old design of the symbolic Miss Liberty secretly were made at the Philadelphia Mint and eventually sold to collectors.”

And through such shenanigans at the US Mint is a nickel worth more than five cents minted.

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Posted on 30-12-2009
Filed Under (History, India, Numismatics) by Rashtrakut

The Indo-Scythian King Azes II is mostly known by his diverse coinage.  However, in the West and the Numismatic world he is often known by claims that he was on of the Three Kings/Wisemen/Magi who attended the birth of Jesus.  There is of course no evidence in the historical record to support this assertion and the historical Azes may not even have been alive at the time of the birth of Jesus.

Indo-Scythian Kingdom from Wikipedia

None of this has prevented (even reputed) coin dealers from attaching the relatively obscure Indo-Scythian King who ruled a loosely held kingdom across Northwestern India and Afghanistan (that crumbled shortly after his death) to the Nativity.  Given the tendency for price inflation of items connected to the Bible this has likely elevated the asking price for and interest in the coins of Azes II which are largely minted in the style of the Indo-Greeks.

Azes II Coin from Wikipedia

Silver coin of King Azes II (r.c. 35-12 BCE). Obv: King with coat of mail, on horse, holding a sceptre, with Greek royal headband. Greek legend ΒΑΣΙΛΕΩΣ ΒΑΣΙΛΕΩΝ ΜΕΓΑΛΟΥ ΑΖΟΥ "The Great King of Kings Azes". Rev: Athena with shield and lance, making a hand gesture identical to the Buddhist vitarka mudra. Kharoshti legend MAHARAJASA RAJADIRAJASA MAHATASA AYASA "The Great King of Kings Azes". Buddhist triratna symbol in the left field.

Even if the three magi who visited Bethlehem were actually Kings, that one of them would be a central Asian nomad who abandoned his kingdom to travel across the hostile Parthian Empire to a small hamlet in an obscure corner of the world strains credulity. Read the rest of this entry »

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The Mughal Emperor Akbar is famous for his tolerance (including the repeal of the jizya on the non Muslim population) and his open encouragement of religious debate that resulted in an attempt to create a syncretic faith the Din-i-ilahi.  While browsing through the upcoming CNG Triton XIII auction, I stumbled across a numismatic example of this tolerance from this coin depicting the Hindu deity Ram and his consort Sita.

This is a fascinating coin on so many levels.  First, it is a rare numismatic representation of Ram and it is ironic that it appears on the coinage of a Muslim ruler. To the extent Hindu coinage represented deities, the goddess Lakshmi (the goddess of wealth) was the most popular choice (See here, here, here and here for examples).  Krishna, Vishnu, Shiva and their consorts make their appearance on Vijayanagar coinage.  But Ram is a rare subject for Indian numismatics (after a quick search I found this coin for Akbar’s Vijayanagar contemporary Tirumala II but have not seen many more) and is more likely to show up on temple tokens.

Then there is the irony that Ram would be the subject matter of this coin.  Akbar’s grandfather Babur allegedly destroyed the temple built on the site of Ram’s birthplace.  A movement to correct this historical wrong has simmered for about 150 years until it burst on to the Indian political landscape in the 1980s.  The after effects are still felt today.

Finally there is the unusual presence of images on Muslim coins.  Since the religion eschews depictions of the human form, Islamic coinage has often relied on calligraphy and geometric forms (See here and here) to enhance the coinage.  Images appeared in transitional coinage like the Arab-Sassanian or the Arab-Byzantine variety or by Muhammad Bin Sam after his conquest of Delhi where he continued the gold coinage with Lakshmi for a while.  There were a few coins on horseback like the Seljuks or Iltumish (See coins 216 and 217 on page 14) of the Delhi Sultanate or the series by Seljuk Sultan Kaykhusraw II honoring his wife.

Akbar’s son and successor Jahangir would commission an equally fascinating (and as a result now widely forged) series of Zodiac coins.  But the open adoption of another deity in a non-transitional coin is unique in Islamic numismatics (indeed the incorporation of Jesus Christ on Byzantine coinage by Justinian II caused the caliph Abd al-Malik to commence the tradition of Islamic coinage largely bearing scripts).

A truly fascinating (and given the estimate, expensive) example how far Akbar’s theological discussions and disputations took him.

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http://www.vcoins.com/ancient/ancientcoinscanada/store/viewItem.asp?idProduct=8002
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Posted on 09-11-2009
Filed Under (Current Affairs, Numismatics) by Rashtrakut

After death panels, Sarah Palin has moved on to the currency.  This time the target is the now abandoned move of the phrase “In God We Trust” to the edge of new dollar coins.  Left out in the speech was the fact that this change was approved by the Republican controlled Congress in 2005, signed by President Bush into law and has already been reversed in 2007.  Also unadressed is the fact that the phrase has not been present on American coins for a large part of the nation’s history and did not become mandatory until 1955.  Luminaries like Teddy Roosevelt opposed the inclusion of the phrase as a cheap political stunt.  Yet another item overlooked in the search for the latest controversy to fire up the base is the benign artistic rationale for the change, to allow more dramatic artwork similar to earlier American coinage.  But why let facts come in the way of a good conspiracy theory.

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