The Most Beautiful Coins of Antiquity: My Selections
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The coins below were offered for sale within the last 20 years from Classical Numismatic Group, Leu Numismatics, and Numismatica Ars Classica. The images are taken from their catalogs. There is a heavy emphasis on facing and 3/4 facing heads, a majority of which come from Greek Magna Graecia. It seems that most of the great city-states there went through a period where facing busts came into vogue. This probably relates to the presence of a true master engraver. Many consider these to be the pinnacle of the celator's art. We are lucky that many of these coins were signed so we know who the artists were. Kimon, Euaneitos, Kleudoros and others are artists whose names will live as long as civilization can maintain itself.
I begin with several coins of Herakleia showing intensely sensitive yet powerful images of Athena while on the reverse the action scene of Herakles and the Nemean lion (notice how the lion seems to be shielding itself from a blow from the hero.) presents a stark contrast. Athena's lips, her wide eyes, the hair combine to make a beautiful portrait. Another. This one seems to fall short of the intensity of the first coin; however, the sensitivity of Athena seems to be heightened. I find these almost hypnotic. Many trace the style of these master Celators to work created by some of the Syracusan masters (see below). In reality, the major impetus from moving from archaic style to this beautiful classical style was provided by the famous sculptor Phidias (The Athena of the Parthenon) and the school he established in Athens - to the best of our present knowledge. This Renaissance impacted the celators shortly after the middle of the 5th century BCE. This coin and the coin above date from the early 4th century. One more. Some would feel that this series falls short of the previous two and I would agree. These were produced one hundred years after the coins above. I feel the flying crests of the helmet detract from the portrait. Nevertheless, the celator caught something which I can only interpret as longing in the face. Athena no longer faces down, rather she is looking off somewhere. I looked at many of these type and found this one the most interesting. Moving on to another city of Lucania - Metapontion. This nomos of 360-340 BCE is becoming my favorite and it was much less expensive Than most of the others represented here. This variety is beautiful and I find this particular coin stunning. First, I thought I recognized her. Then there are several small elements to the design that highlight Demeter. Here off center is a plus. It almost appears that she is playfully looking around a corner. At the same time, there is a die break just under her left eye that could be seen as a tear (I think it is a die break.) I don't know whether to smile at her or cry with her. Great eyes and, as always, great lips. Besides the beauty apparent in this AV stater from around 325 BCE, it is only 2.61 gms.! What eyes these people had! Nomos of Velia, Lucania and signed by Kleudoros (Circa 310 BCE). Beautiful face in a beautiful frame of hair and helmet. Did I mention the lips? On to Kroton in Bruttium (Where my ancestors originated). Hera Lakinia looking stunning in her Stephanus. This is probably 7/8 facing. The turn is very important. It allows the eyes to peer beyond the viewer to something beyond. It also allows the artist to differentiate the hair on the sides of the face, adding interest to the composition. Another, with interesting metal flow giving the appearance (to me, at least) of motion. Hera also has a little Elvis thing going with her lips. Across the strait of Messina to Sicily. This and the following coin, signed by Kimon from circa 400 BCE, are often mentioned as THE definitive coin of ancient times. It is easy to see why. The nymph Arethusa's hair flowing in the water surrounded by dolphins - The wild quadriga in 3/4 perspective. This is as alive and dynamic (and beautiful) as a coin can get Another breathtaking coin of Kimon. I wonder if Victory on the reverse was meant to appear to step on the horses' heads?? Eukleidas was a contemporary of Kimon. I wonder whether they collaborated or ran separate shops? Athena's triple crested helmet is rendered in lovely and intricate fashion. Katane and another classic. This signed by Herakleidas. Apollo in his splendor and the wild racing quadriga. Sometimes you don't need to say a thing. Katane again. This one by Choirion. The certainly doesn't have the initial impact as the one above, although this artist had a unique element to his (her?) style - Background. The column on the obverse and if you notice Apollo's lyre is behind him to the right. Only about a third is visible, the rest behind the head. To the Greek mainland and Amphipolis in Macedonia. You can have one like this for a quarter million dollars. Apollo, not looking as feminine as he does in many of his portraits, from the middle of the 4th century. One of the most sought after and beautiful of ancient coins. Another, from about 10 years before the one above. Amazing contrast between the elegant obverse and simple reverse. To Asia Minor and one of my favorites featuring the bust of a real person, Perikles a dynast of Lycia. The Greek hero reverse is also quite beautiful. Of all the minting cities Rhodes maintained the facing head on its coinage longer than anyone else. The earlier coins from the end of the 5th century are of more beautiful style than most of the later staters. This coin of 375 BCE probably attracted me due to the irregular shape of the flan into which the head fits nicely. At the same time the coin of Rhodes was being minted, this tetradrachm was being struck just up the coast in Clazomenai. There are better examples, but I was struck by how the wear and roughness did not mar the beauty of Apollo's head nor the grace of the swan. The one bronze coin I am including here comes from Mopsion in Thessally. This sold at eight times the estimate in a recent CNG sale. The centaur scene on the reverse just adds to the total power of this coin. Once again, this coin comes from the middle of the 4th century BCE. Is Zeus smiling?? The other coins I include will be beautiful, but will also have some artistic element that I find exciting. This tetradrachm of Kamarina, Sicily from circa 410 BCE has several of these elements. Certainly the detail, especially on the obverse is outstanding. The perspective is interesting indicating to me that the chariot is making a turn. The horses are reacting in a right to left sequence. The horse on the far right is reacting strongly with head erect, while the horse in the foreground has not yet responded. I wonder whether this was due to a left turn or the horses reacting to the very detailed Victory flying above. This is a lovely wedding portrait of Cleopatra Thea, a Ptolemy (pictured with Tyche attributes), and Alexander Balas, ruler of Seleucia. This is much later - circa 152 BC - than the others. The composition of jugate busts is always appealing to me. The exceptionally well rendered obverse contrasts with the rather crude reverse that has far too many muscle lines and connect-the-dot lettering. Here is a stunning coin. A rare tetradrachm from the Carthaginians in Sicily from circa 320 BCE. It is assumed that the Celator was from Sicily and the figure on the obverse is Tanit or Artemis. The Phrygian cap with embroidered ribbon from which her hair flows gracefully is...cannot find the right word. OK, must have a Roman coin and one would think my obvious choice would be one of Trajan (Who I collect). However, this Republican denarius by the moneyer L. Plautius Plancus 47 BC is my vote for the most Beautiful Roman coin for two reasons. The first is the contrast between the ugliness of Medusa and the beauty of Victory holding the reins of the horses. That is a classic juxtaposition of Yin-Yang. More important to me is the second reason which is the rendering of Victory and the horses. I cannot quite tell if Victory is astride the middle horse or walking along side, but look at the detail in her clothing. Her right leg is foreshortened nicely and that allows the left leg in the background to appear longer - and thus be realistic. The beautiful horses, the overlapping of elements to add depth, and the facing head of Victory make this a true masterpiece.
To see a dream collection of Greek coins, visit Leo Mildenberg's Dream Collection page
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