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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.