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Wednesday, October 3, 2018



There are undoubtedly collectors of ancient coins who can not understand why these are a fine style coins. 

However, the brilliance of the designs can easily be lost on the jaded modern viewer who is inundated from the earliest age by images of all types drawing from thousands of years of artistic and commercial endeavor. 

It may be difficult to appreciate how stunningly new these designs were to the history of world art.  How extraordinary it must have been for ancient merchants to have witnessed for the first time,  Mythical Beings: Heroes, Gods and Goddesses, whom they could only have seen in public buildings temples and shrines presented in this new medium.

These artists who engraved these images did not only have to wonder:  How should we present Zeus?  What posture should he assume?  What emotions should be invoked by those beholding him?

But also: How to effect this on a little oval piece of Electrum?

Now, undoubtedly houses of the wealthy, as well as temples and other public building were adorned with Mythical Images.: sculptures and paintings.  But engraving in metal was certainly a new artform.  And these coins are amongst the first metallic engravings. 

And certainly these are the first artworks that were, in effect, mass produced and disseminated throughout the ancient world.

That  doesn't mean, of course, that every single Electrum image is a masterpiece.  Some are undoubtedly clumsy.  Some perhaps altogether botched.
  This one, for example doesn't do much for me.  It looks more like a chicken than a Siren. 

But others are true masterpieces that use the confines of the oval and the substance of the metal to achieve miniature sculptures to rival those of any period by any artist.

 Some, like this coin, endeavor to evoke an entire mythological story To quote the catalogers at  CNG : This rare type depicts the legend of the omphalos (navel) stone, which marked the sacred precinct of the sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi as the physical center of the earth. According to tradition, two eagles, which had been released by Zeus, one flying from the east, and the other from the west, met exactly at the site of Apollo’s sanctuary. 

Some artist - or group of artists - had to select this myth and then hash out the best way to depict it in this new medium.  How to relate an entire myth with all its associated meaning on a little oval of electrum?

To really appreciate the brilliance of this design you have to consider that most other designs from this period in similar mediums - seals, scarabs, jewels, consisted of signs and image that were much more standardized.: A beatle, a lion, an ibis etc - whose forms had been well established for centuries.

That doesn't mean, of course, that there aren't  beautiful scarabs and seals from this period and earlier, it simply means that this new art from should be appreciated in light of what must have been the equivalent of what would be considered as groundbreaking avant-garde genius in our own era.

Sunday, September 2, 2018


Alexander is by far the greatest Classical Hero of well recorded times. His education in the arts and letters inspired him to tracvel with a retinue of writers and artists. Thus his exploits were chronicled by contemporaries Ptolemy, Heironymus, Nearchus (Alexander's admiral), Aristobulus (Alexander's chief engineer) and Calisthenes (Aristotle's nephew) whose writings, though lost, were read and synthesized by Arrian of Nicomedia, much of whose work survives to this day. Herodotus , Diodorus, and Quintus Curtius roughly contemporay to Arrian, also wrote histories that are still partially extant, also drawing on the writings of Alexander's contemporaries.

Immediately following Alexander's death, his half-brother Philip, his mother Olympia, and his Generals: Ptolemy, Seleukos, Antigonos, Peithon, Lysimachos and Perdikass fought bitterly over the now divided empire.  Much of this discord is also well recorded by contemporary or near contemporary writers,

Unfortunately what is not recorded is a contemporary history of the coinage.   Without a written record, attributions and timelines are speculative - not historical.

To some extent, though, the coins themselves can be read as documents.  They include names of issuing authorities, mintmarks, and, very occasionally,  dates.  From these we can infer a somewhat accurate reconstruction - though with far less certainty then you might find in certain numismatic circles.

Coins are also stylistic documents. The more refined the style the easier it is to identify it  with a particular artist or group of artists.

Alexander's image was recorded by some of the greatest artists of the period. He traveled with renowned Sculptor Lyssippos, and the renowned gem carver Pyrgoteles.

The coin engraving during the period immediately following his death was certainly heavily influenced by Alexander's court artists who surely trained some of the engravers who went on to carve masterpieces at the Abydos, Lampsakos, Kolophon and Magnesia mints.  Fine style coins were also minted at the Pella and Amphipolis mints in Thrace. both before and after Lysimachus took control there.

Much of the portraiture of this period is unrivaled.

Some of the coins have been positively identified as displaying portraits of Alexander.  The coins of Lysimachus have portraits which are identified being of Alexander though many clearly are not.  Some are quite beautiful and seem to be modeled on contemporary images of Alexander.:

Some are probably meant to be Alexander, but were engraved by artists of lesser ability so it's tough to tell if they are Alexander or perhaps some contemporary ruler -  or perhaps the features are conflated:

Some do not appear to be Alexander at all, and almost certainly represent some later diginitary:

But in many ways the most intriguing Alexander portraits were engraved under the auspices of Philip III, Alexander's half brother, about whom little is known.  He avoided military service in an era in which it would have been unthinkable to do so unless somehow infirm, so it is supposed that he must have been.  And it seems certain he reigned under the influence of Olympia.  Otherwise all we know is that he employed a stable of terrific artists.

Certainly the finest Alexander portrait was carved in Philip's name:

This is thought to have been modeled on Alexander's death mask.  There is no proof of that but the skill of portraiture certainly goes beyond anything seen before this coin.  It was produced at the Kolophon and Magnesia mints from the same obverse die almost certainly immediately after the death of Alexander..  But other coins bearing portraits with strikingly similar features came out of these two mints as well as Abydos and Lampsakos mints during the same period of time.

All these mints are on the Western coast of present day Turkey which may well have served as Philip's main area of power.  And, of course, Philip's claim to power lay in his lineage as he was not a military man, so placing Alexander's portrait on his coinage was a way of making his case for succession.

Other quite beautiful dies from this quartet of mints that appear to all be portraying Alexander the Great include:


Not all of these have been identified by numismatists as Alexander, but one would have to be blind not to see the similarities.  And in fact, these portraits are far more similar than most of those portraying Alexander on the Lysimachus staters.  While some may strike a particular viewer as more accomplished than others, they speak to a group of prodigiously skilled engravers who almost appeared to competing to achieve the finest portrait of Alexander.

And several other characters are portrayed in very fine style from this period at these mints.  But thus far their identities can only be guessed at:

Ancients:Greek, Ancients: MACEDONIAN KINGDOM. Philip II (359-336 BC). AV stater(18mm, 8.61 gm, 8h). NGC AU 5/5 - 3/5, Fine Style....

In all, this is certainly a tremendous era of portraiture, the likes of which is not seen again in coinage - or any extant artform - until the golden age of Rome.

Friday, August 31, 2018



Here's a Little Fine Style Game.  Below are coins 10 different FINE STYLE Alexander staters.

All have arguably been engraved by artists of merit.

Some, to my eye are quite pedestrian.  One, in my opinion, is particularly beautiful. 

How many of these do you think have been described by either NGC or one of 5 major auction houses as being of particularly FINE STYLE?

IF you guessed every single one - you'd be correct.  There is obviously a very wide range of what is considered Fine Style, depending on the viewer.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

ANCIENT COINTS: Attractive Coins and Fine Style coins: a subtle guide

How does the traditional collector of ancients judge the beauty of an ancient coin?

How does NGC judge the beauty of an ancient coin?

How do you judge the beauty of an ancient coin?

Different questions.  Because everyone's aesthetic is - and should be - different.

Yet there are certainly aspects to the traditional view of the beauty of an ancient coin that can be objectively gauged.

Some of these will be reflected in NGC grades, some will not.  Outside of condition, which is NGC's obvious strong suit, here some other facets I feel are good to consider when developing your own aesthetic.

These are - in the order of importance - in my opinion:

1) Skill of the die carver (celetor).  This does not count in the NGC grade - or in the "fine style" designation - unless the coin's coindition is attractive in a global way in the opinion of the grader.

Yet a skillfully engraved coin will usually appeal to many collectors.  It is not difficult to
recognize a skillfully engraved coin.  In the case of a portrait, you feel it has been modeled on an actual person.

In case of a mythical tableau. you feel the human emotion associated to the myth: the Grandeur of Zeus, the fierceness of the Winged Lion etc.

What can be more controversial is the difference between a routinely well crafted coin and a true masterpiece of art.

The masterpiece captures and conveys something of the human condition.

Generally this is to be found in a well executed portrait that conveys insight into who the person was: For example this fine style tetradrachm of Lysimachus has a truly a stunning  Alexander portrait, wherein we can experience the combination of will, focus, fierceness and noble beauty that so inspired his troops:

Is can also be found in a composition that conveys exactly what is so compelling about a particular Myth.'  This Odysseus sacrifice scene, captures the drama of the moment before death, the ultimate sacrifice.

The masterpiece of coinage will afford the collector great pleasure with every viewing regardless of whether it it noted on the holder.  For example this masterpiece by signed by the Delta Artist, lacks the fine style designation on the holder:  Ancients:Greek, Ancients: PTOLEMAIC EGYPT. Ptolemy II Philadelphus (285/4-24 BC).AV trichryson or pentadrachm (25mm, 17.82 gm, 12h).  ...

Even a routinely well crafted coin will appeal to the eye in a far more satisfying way than a perfectly preserved coin executed by a aesthetic dunce.  And many NGC fine style coins are only routinely well crafted
 NGC "fine style" yet only routinely well crafted.

2) Die State/ Metal Quality.  A coin stuck from fresh dies on good metal is also something not reflected in the NGC grade, yet traditionally it one of things most prized by collectors because there is little that appeals to the eye more than a fresh image on good metal.  There is nothing more depressing than a Choice Mints State,  coin that is marred by badly rusted  or blundered or worn dies.  Just as even a smattering of die rust can destroy the aesthetic appeal of an otherwise beautiful coin - depending on where it occurs - and how distracting.

For example here is an NGC CH AU 4/5 5/5 "Fine style" gold Syracuse 50 litrae with both die rust and a badly worn die in the chin area - that is really hideous to the eye.  It has been engraved by a skilled die cutter - but the die state is atrocious.
Ancients:Greek, Ancients: SICILY. Syracuse. Time of Dionysius I (405-367 BC). AV 50litrae (11mm, 2.88 gm, 7h)....

How to tell the die state?  For one thing - absence of die rust.  For another: Deep definition of line.  On a fresh die the image pops off the flan.  This is obviously more subjective, and often difficult to capture in a photo.  But you'll know it when you see it.  To old time collectors of CNG coins, the designation "Struck from fresh dies" was something that always elicited excitement - and a premium bid.

3) Strike and Centering.  These are issues that are certainly reflected both in the strike grade and the Star designation at NGC.  And there is no doubt something satisfying in a well centered coin.  However,  it must be noted that many ancient coins have an obverse of prime aesthetic importance and a reverse that serves more to impart information - civic ethnic, titles and affiliations, or, in the case of archaic coins, simple punches. If the reverse punch is off center it may affect the strike grade - but so what?  Who buys an archaic coin to contemplate the punch?  And who buys an Alexander portrait to admire the placement of the chariot on the reverse?  Some people do, but more often the portrait is most important.

Many small striking problems - like die shifts that can only be seen at the edges, or perhaps a slight doubling of horse hooves on the reverse - may be recorded on the holder but, really, again, do these problems interfere in any way with the aesthetics of the coin?

For example this Athenian  tetradrachm, suffers from a die shift that in no way interferes with
the lovely style.  (not noted) .  But it results in reduced strike grade and a notation on the holder - as well, quite possibly, the omission of the fine style designation.  Yet it is a premium example of this coin, and far more beautiful than many CH MS examples.
Ancients:Greek, Ancients: ATTICA. Athens. Ca. 454-404 BC. AR tetradrachm (17.16gm). NGC Choice AU 4/5 - 4/5, die shift....

At the same time most collectors rightfully shun coins where parts of the design are completely off the flan.

4) Toning.  Again, of minor importance to the NGC designations, but something that obviously has a great effect on the eye appeal of a coin. A beautifully toned coin - especially in silver, can add greatly to one's aesthetic enjoyment.  For example this beautifully toned didrachm of Calabria, rightfully has received both "fine style" and star designations.  It is also struck, quite clearly from fresh dies.
Ancients:Greek, Ancients: CALABRIA. Tarentum. Ca. 332-302 BC. AR stater or didrachm(19mm, 7.82 gm, 3h). NGC MS รข˜… 4/5 - 5/5, Fine Style....

6) Surface - I consider minor marks on the surface of a coin to be the least important of aesthetic factors.  Obviously when buying a portrait, one doesn't like to see scuffs across the face.  But does a scuff in the field of an otherwise beautiful portrait really matter?  It may drastically reduce the surface grade, and it may also be noted on the holder - but it may also only be noticeable if one tilts the coin at an angle and studies the field.  What is the point of studying the field when an artistically masterful image is popping off the flan, just begging to be appreciated?

For example this attractive stater has scuffs (on the neck) noted on the holder - yet they certainly in no way distract from the very well crafted (yet not exceptional) portrait. (again, not noted.)

The way in which the coin has been cleaned may drastically reduce a surface grade - yet nearly all ancient coins have been cleaned - just as nearly all old master paintings have been cleaned.   Slight differences in degree to which they'd been cleaned matter greatly to graders - but they hardly affect the aesthetics of the piece unless the cleaning has been materially botched.

COMMON SENSE:  As in everything, use common sense in the aesthetic appreciation of a coin.  Trust your eye.  If problems are noted on the holder that you can't see, perhaps they're not of any material concern.  If a coin is noted as fine style and you don't like the style - then it's not fine style to you.  If the notation is lacking and you see a masterpiece, perhaps you should jump at the chance to get an underappreciated masterpiece.

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

Image result for mona lisa cynthia snyder
The one above 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..