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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:

Image result for mona lisa

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.
France: Phillippe VI (1328-1350) gold Pavillon d'or MS64 NGC

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?

Ancients:Greek, Ancients: THRACIAN KINGDOM. Lysimachus (305-281 BC). AV stater(19mm, 8.44 gm, 12h). NGC MS 5/5 - 3/5, Fine Style....

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.

Ancients: SICILY. Syracuse. Time of Dionysius I (405-367 BC). AR decadrachm (31mm, 43.47 gm, 8h). NGC AU 5/5 - 4/5, Fine...

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..