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Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Gold Stater Ancient Gold coin update 5: Syracuse

Gold Stater Ancient Gold coins Update 5: Syracuse.

Syracuse was a city state (Polis) on the southeastern coast of Sicily. The city was founded around 734 BCE as a trade outpost for Corinth, for its strategic position in the trade route between North Africa, Magna Graecia (Italy) and Greece.

Even during this early period North Africa was a source of Gold. There are stories recorded in Herodotus of traders (Both Greek and Phoenician) dropping goods off the shore of Guinea, and waiting, back in their boats, for the natives to leave quantities of gold. The Greeks (0r Phoencicians) would then inspect the gold. If it was enough they'd take it and leave. If not, they'd return to their boats and wait until a sufficient quantity was offered.

Whatever truth in these stories, it is clear that both Syracuse and Carthage (the Phoenician colony) amassed early wealth and power from this important trade.

Syracuse, like the rest of Greece went through periods of being ruled by Tyrants, and periods 0f experiments in Democracy. In 405 BCE, the Tyrant Dionysus (405-367 BCE) gained control of the the entire island of Sicily after eight bloody years of war with Carthage. His rule lasted another thirty years, during which time Syracuse was the undisputed power in the region.

Dionysus was a Tyrant of artistic and literary pretensions. He invited Plato to his court; he wrote his own plays; and he invited the greatest artists of his era to come and design dies for his coinage. Amongst those artists were the likes of Kimon, Euainatos and Heraclitos who designed some of the great masterpieces of ancient Greek art, and signed their work on the dies.

These signed coins were struck in silver with the largest pieces being Dekadrachms of about 43 grams, bearing the head of Arethustra (Perephone) on one side (either facing or in profie), and a racing chariot drawn by horses on the other. The denominations then included tetra (four) drachms, didrachms, and drachms.

In gold, the signed pieces included a 100 litrae piece (see above) of about 5.8 grams, which was equal in value to two Dekadrachms (about a 15:1 ratio.) These masterpieces depicted Arethustra on one side, and Hercules wrestling the Nemean lion on the other. And there was a 50 litrae piece - or dekadrachm, depicting the head of Anapos on one side and a galloping horse on the other. High grade 100 litrae pieces have sold recently for $50-75,000. While the 50 litrae piece, (though rarer) in high grade has sold for $10-15000.

The fact that these classical masterpieces can be purchased on the open market for a tiny fraction of what it cost to speculate on an emerging contemporary artist of perhaps 30 years old, is astonishing to me.

There is also a tiny 20 litrae piece (1.1 grams) with the head of Hercules on one side, and Arethustra on the other, which in high grades sells for about $5000. And there is an extremely rare Dilitron (1.9 grams - with 3 known examples) signed by the artist IM depicting Athena on one side, and a gorgon head on the other, which recently sold in high grade for $30,000. This latter coin is a refined version of the more common Didrachm of the same design (0.66 grams) that seemed to be in circulation before Dionysus. This tiny coin sells for about $2500 in high grade.

After Dionysus, Syracusan gold coins were struck by Timoleon (344-317 BCE), who instituted the so-called Third Democracy. He struck a 30 litrae gold piece (2.15 grams) of beautiful style depicting Zeus Head on one side and Pegasus on the other. This coin in high grade sells for about $10,000.

Timoleon is followed by the Tyrant Agathokles. He struck a gold Dekadrachm of (4.3 grams) imitating those of Philip of Macedon, with Apollo on one side and a chariot and horses on the other (with a triskeles insignia) . He also struck a very rare tetrobal (2.8 grams) of the same design. High grade examples of both go for around $10,000. Also, A double dekadrachm (5.68 drachms) with Athena Head, and a winged thunderbolt - also about $10,000 high grade.

Other coins of Agathokles include electrum pieces of 100 litrae (6.7 grams) with Apollo and Artemis. Fine style high grade examples also sell for around $10,000. As well as the more common 50 litrae electrum with Apollo and a tripod which comes in many styles. The nicest pieces in high grades go for around $5000.

There is also a very rare or perhaps unique Stater of Agathokles (8.2 grams), with an elegant head in an elephant headdress, and an armed advancing Athena which sold in 2004 for $50,000.

After Agathokels, comes the Tyrant Hieron who issued a 60 litrae dekadrachm of (4.3 grams) which also comes in a variety of styles. Nice style, high grade pieces sell for about $10,000.

Then came the fifteen year old Hieronymos, who reigned briefly issued a tiny gold coin of which few examples are known.

This was followed by a very rare (unique?) stater or dekadrachm (4.29 grams) of the fifth Democracy, with a fine style female head and a slow quadriga, which last sold at the Kroisos collection for $80,000.

In all Syracusan gold, though still readily available and relatively affordable on the market, is rapidly disappearing in high grade. It represents very good value in today's market.

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