Friday, August 3, 2018
Nowhere is the fine style portrait quite so underappreciated as in the coinage of Rome.
From the fist coinage during the era of the Punic Wars with Carthage through to the Imperatorial Era of the civil wars following Julius Caesar's assassination the coinage of Rome (with a very few notable exceptions) is at best proficient, and more often crude. This is especially true with the portraits, few of which have been identified with any certainty.
For the collector, the period of coinage relies more on historical interest and rarity to determine value.
This is true until the advent of Julius Caesar.
Though Rome was a Republic when Caesar was born (or Res Publica - a Thing of the People) the era of the humble republican citizen politician was long over. Caesar's father's sister was married to Marius, who was engaged in a series of civil wars with Sulla. When Sulla ascended, Caesar had to flee Rome. As a young man he spent much time in the court of Nicomedes in Bythinia, where he was tutored in the Greek Arts (a source of unflattering rumor later in his career).
When he returned to Rome he began a political career the ended when he became Rome's first Dictator for Life in 44 BC.
During the final years of his life he began a series of Portrait Coins bearing his own image. This coinage is indeed extensive as much of it was used to pay his enormous army. Much of it is very crude in the Roman tradition.
a very crude Caesar portrait with a very high technical grade.
However, some of this portrait coinage was engraved by artists of great talent - whose identities have been lost - but who were either of Greek origin or had been trained in the Greek tradition of portraiture.
In the words of Horace: "Captive Greece captured the victor (Rome) and brought the Arts to rustic Latium."
After Julius Caesar, Octavian became Emperor and he in turn invited many celebrated Greek artists to his court where they engraved many coins with portraits of beautiful style. And so it was with every Emperor that followed during the ascending period of the empire.
But the eternal question: How do we judge fine style?
The caesar portrait above sold for $100,000 in a recent NAC aucttion.
The portrait below sold for $30,000 in a recent CNG auction
The condition of the one on top is undoubtedly superior.
Both coins are described by respected catalogers as "Fine style."
Yet the coin above is a cartoonish caricature of Caesar while the one below is a masterpiece of portraiture.
Why do I say that? There is so much personality in the face of the portrait below. Is shows a noble yet care-worn visage, proud perhaps to a fault, yet burdened by power of position. I know I am not alone in thinking that this is one of the true masterpieces of Roman portraiture.
The coin above is a cartoon, plain and simple.
It is quite absurd, in my opinion, that the coin above would cost more than the one below.
It is purely a function of the condition bias in the coin world, that exists in no other art medium.
Take the two paintings below for example:
The painting above is by Leonardo Da Vinci. The one below is by Cynthia Snyder.
The one by Leonardo Da Vinci has been vandalized several times, once with acid - and restored several times, It would receive a surface grade of 1/5 from NGC, and probably get an overall grade of VF.
The one by Cynthia Snyder, a fine canadian artistst is in CH MS 5/5 condition.
Yet the one above is the most valuable painting in the world, and the one below is very modestly priced.
How can this be? It would seem crazy to a coin collector. Yet it is true!
Does this mean that the painting market is bizarrely priced? Or is it the coin market bizarrely priced?
Only time willl tell.
Tuesday, July 24, 2018
As more and more people are drawn into numismatics, the very first thing everyone seizes upon is "quality" as reflected by numerical grades.
In the modern era - let's say starting with the invention of the coin press in the 17th century, a great uniformity was brought to coinage. One coin or medal would look substantially like another - except for the state of preservation.
For these modern coins and medals therefore it is logical to seek out the finest numerical grade, reflecting the highest state of preservation.
But before that, when coins and medals were hand struck - the skill of those striking the coin or medal often had more to do with the overall attractiveness of the piece than the overall state of preservation.
This can be seen most clearly in medieval coinage where something might receive a high mint state grade, but because of a blundered strike - or a terribly worn die - is is offensive to the eye.
Many an MS 61 or an AU 55 is far more pleasing than and MS 63 when it comes to, for example the common Chaise D'or.
One simple device in judging such a coin is the face of the King. A faceless King in MS 66 will never receive a bid from a more sophisticated collector. A beautifully struck King with a little chatter in the legend might receive an MS 61 and still be considered to be a superlative piece.
Above are two coins of the same grade but the coin below is so far the superior in terms of strike that they are really not at all comparable.
Going back farther to Ancient Coins - style becomes by far the most important factor to the more sophisticated collector. Of course, great historical significance plays an important role too. But treating coins as one would any art work, STYLE must be the first consideration.
But how does one judge style? Everyone's taste is different. Graded coins, for example often receive a Fine Style notation, reflecting the judgement of the Grader. Obviously this person's judgement may be quite different from yours.
To complicate matters, NGC grades style not only on the skill of the dies cutter, but on how well the skill has been preserved on a particular coin. So State of Preservation and Style become conflated.
To some extent that is fair. You have to have a well preserved piece to appreciate the style. And obviously when you're you're a grader Wear looks ugly. But when you're simply one who appreciates beautiful style, wear may not be so important.
To those who want to learn to appreciate style, Two major consideration will far more important than preservation will always be :
1) How Much Personality shines through the features of a portrait?
Does the King or God or Goddess or Hero appear to radiate human - or divine characteristics? Do they resonate with our own sensibilities and emotions? Does the portrait make you feel something - if only a appreciation for timeless beauty?
Though both these portraits have received fine style designations the portrait above portrays a noble and beautiful young man (Alexander) at the height of magnetic power. It is clear why thousands were inspired to follow this hero into battle. The portrait below, though perhaps rendered by an adept hand is entirely devoid of human or divine characteristic.
2) How ingenious is the overall composition of the piece? Many archaic electrum pieces, for example may appear crude but may aslo exhibit a brilliance in using the space of the flan to present a mythic being or scene. Just as the space on the reverse ot the signed Tetrdrachms, is absoultely brilliantly used though most of the quadriga scenes appear to be nearly identical.
Two very different but brilliant fine style compositions
If you start with these two consideration you will be along way towards generating you own appreciation of style..
Thursday, July 20, 2017
What was the first coin? Where was it minted?
Legend has it that coinage was invented by the Lydians. Croesus certainly minted the first bimetallic coinage with gold and silver staters of about 10.7 grams.
Prior to Croesus, Alyattes and perhaps Ardys minted coins in Electrum as early as 650 or perhaps even 675 BCE in Lydia,
But electrum coinage appears all throughout the Black Sea area of what is now present day Turkey. Ephasos, Kyzykos, Miletos, Samos, and Phokia all minted electrum coinage.
The archeologists who excavated sites such as Ephasus date the coinage to the early part of the seventh century. They did this because they were able to date with some precision other objects found at the same level of the excavation site along with the coinage. For example objects with inscriptions, especially royal inscriptions, can often be dated fairly accurately, and objects found with or near these are assumed to be of the same time period.
Numismatists have re-dated much electrum based on die studies. These die studies are accepted by other numismatists as being useful in dating coinage, but are not accepted as historical evidence by archeologists. So there is a dispute. Obviously in the coin world, dating, especially by coin houses, as well as grading companies is done according to accepted numismatic practices. But these are far from what would be considered as historically accurate in any other discipline.
So, there are discrepancies. And a lot of guesswork.
Even the precise locations of many mints in this early period are not known. All we know for sure is that large coins called Staters as well as fractions thereof, the most common being the Hekte of sixth stater, were minted throughout the Black Sear Area as early as 675BCE and perhaps even earlier.
What this really means it that there is an entire area of collecting where an enthusiast with a little initiative can acquire examples from early human history and study the origin of coinage for themselves, and make their own connections and come up with their own theories.
What could be more interesting than that?
And because most every example, especially of the Staters will be found in conditions that do not approach mint state, so the prices are relatively cheap, as many collectors are obsessed with condition.
Thursday, July 6, 2017
The Greeks believed in Heroes. They had a different idea of heroes than we do. For the Greeks a Hero was someone who acted out the Will of the Gods - or a particular God or Goddess. In fact, to the Greeks, the God or Goddess descended and entered the human and then acted through them. Quite Literally.
The earliest human heroes were warriors such as Alexander the Great, the first human hero to be pictured on a coin. In fact, the portrait coins of Alexander the Great are most probably the earliest extant sculpture portraying a known historical figure with some degree of realistic accuracy.
How important is that in both the history or art and the history of human accomplishment?
In the earliest portraits Alexander is pictured wearing Apollo's Laurel Wreath which identifies him directly with that God. In later portraits he is adorned with the horns of Zeus Ammon, identifying him with that God.
In fact, heroes such was Alexander were deified and worshiped after their death.
After Alexander, many Greek rulers were pictured realistically on coinage. The first Roman (excepting Quintus Labienus) to put his portrait on a coin is Julius Caesar. He is also pictured wearing weaths that identify him with deities. Like Alexander he also traced his lineage back to a God and also like Alexander he was deified and worshiped after his death.
And, like Alexander his finest portrait coins were executed by artists of the highest caliber. After Julius Caesar, each and every Caesar and most of their wives and many of their children were pictured on coinage
Fine style portraits of these historical Generals and Kings and Princes are all of as yet unappreciated historical and artistic value when compared with most other art forms.
Really, as long as there are Lincoln Pennies and post modern doodles that trade for more than these ancient artworks, I think they can be safely considered to be vastly undervalued.
The trick is to find coinage a) of the finest style and then b) in as well conserved state of preservation you can find and afford.
Thursday, June 8, 2017
This is not an article on why to buy Ancient Coins. If you already understand the appeal, you may still find the marketplace to be something of a puzzle.
Ancients are not like any other type of coinage. Mintages are unknown. Population reports are almost useless even in the very few cases where they exist. Styles vary widely even within particular issues.
But you still need a criteria upon which to base your choices.
1) The best criteria over time is your own eye. If you have a good eye for painting, architecture, sculpture, it does translate.
Even if - or perhaps especially - if you have a good ear - it translates. Not because you can get a sound out of a coin - but because you have a well developed sense of aesthetics.
Ancient Coins are works of art. If you approach them that way, you will rarely be disappointed.
2) Understand and Study some area of history you find fascinating.
Coins are historical documents. If you approach them that way you will rarely be disappointed.
3) Investigate which coins are most beautiful and most historicaly important in the areas that interest you most.
Okay, so you know how to find coins you like. How to price coins?
The worst criteria over time is to look up recent auction results and then try to get a coin just under the last price. The last price might have been a steal which will never be replicated, or it might have been a colossal mistake created by two bull headed collectors with very deep pockets.
So how to price a coin?.
A) Look at many auction results and private transaction off of lists over long periods of time.
B) realize that very small differences in condition and style can mean huge differences in price.
C ) Then apply your own personal system of aesthetics.
D) Always Always buy the best: the most beautiful coin in the best condition that you can afford.
This system of selection is also an art - not a science.
C - your own system of aesthetics is always the most important criteria.
Tuesday, May 2, 2017
Greece. Brexit. Trump. Le Pen. Isis.
None of these are problems. These are symptoms.
There is one big problem plaguing the Modern world. And that is something few are even willing to acknowledge:
Negative Real Rates.
Because of the massive global debt, the central banks of the world are forced to keep interest rates well below the rate of real inflation.
They claim there is no inflation, in order to justify this.
And if you just count the cost of buying a new laptop or flat screen tv it's true.
But is you count in the cost of Education, Health Care, and Housing: Inflation is growing faster than 10 percent per year. Not to mention Food, Energy, Insurance etc.
In fact if you take the 500 most purchased items in the 50 largest cities in the US, inflation has been growing at over 10 percent per year for over 40 years.
Meanwhile, when you lend the bank your money they pay you ZERO percent for the privilege.
That means you are losing TEN PERCENT PER YEAR on all of your cash. For those who can't afford Hard Assets and Stocks that means you are sinking quickly into a morass of debt. That's the entire middle class everywhere.
This will never end because the central banks will never raise rates anywhere near the real cost of holding money. They can't. Because the interest on National Debt everywhere would crush every budget.
So to maintain central government power everywhere, the central banks will continue to crush the middle class by refusing to recognize and compensate the real cost of money. And by taxing every other form of wealth.
This means that the masses of the middle class worldwide will continue to sink into oblivion. And they will express their discontent by electing more Trumps, and Le Pens, in the Western World, and by acting out violently everywhere else.
So buckle your seat belts. Things are moving in one direction. Quickly.
Thursday, March 30, 2017
WHY is gold a Hedge against Chaos?
The fact is that though gold is not accepted as money in the retail stores of the world, gold is still money in the sense that over time it holds its value. Gold holds value not for any use value but simply as a thing in itself. Ding an Sich as the German philosophers like to say. It is the thing that holds its value throughout human history. That is its function. That has always been its function.
You can ask why should it hold its value? Just as you can ask why a beautiful melody is beautiful? You can argue that in some cultures the criterion for beauty changes. You can argue that in some cultures objects that store value change. But the fact is that humans are quite similar in what they respond to and what they value. Humans all over the world respond to a beautiful melody. You can use an Indian scale or a Western scale or an Arabic scale, but if the melody is beautiful, humans respond.
Humans all over the world respond to gold as an intrinsic store value.
Thus has it always been.
Which brings us back to Chaos - or the lack of Order. Humans also respond to Order. As long as things remain orderly humans tend to have confidence that things will remain orderly. In orderly times any type of currency that is condoned by the forces of Order - The Government - will be able to act as a store of value. Simply because the forces of Order proclaim it. By Fiat. In times of Order Fiat Currencies work well. But as Order breaks down, the Fiat or Will of the forces of Order lose their power. People lose confidence that Order can be maintained. They lose confidence that fiat currencies will hold their value.
And as people lose confidence in the force of Order they look for time honored stores of value to hedge against the impending Chaos. Gold is not the only store. Any object of Beauty will do. But gold is the most time tested store of value.
It certainly appears we are on the brink of a massive loss of confidence in the Order of our Governments and our Institutions.
And as Chaos grows and Order diminishes, gold flourishes.