Thursday, January 28, 2016

Provenance search service

A press release from Ex-Numis informs us that a company has been formed to search out lost coin provenances.

The Ex-Numis web site tells us that it will cost 5 Swiss francs (about US$5) to submit a coin image to the service. Then, if provenance is found in the company's database of coin records there will be an additional fee of 25 or 50 francs to learn what the provenance is.

New subscribers to the service can get a 25 franc credit.

I would be curious to know if any readers of this blog have tried the service and what their results have been?

Ex-Numis claims to have a database of nearly one million coin records. For comparison, the free search tool claims to have 2.8 million records. The subscription-bsed claims to have 'millions'. Both of these sites focus on recent sales. The American Numismatic Society's photo file, which predates the Internet, has 600,000 records.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Keep The Change: A Collector's Tales by Harley J Spiller

Keep the Change is a curious book written by Harley J. Spiller, also known as Inspector Collector.

The full title is Keep the Change: A collector's tales of Lucky Pennies, Counterfeit C-Notes, and other Curious Currency. 112 pages, softcover. $19.95. The heart of the book is eight essays on Spiller's numismatic interests. His main collection is of damaged coins he received in change at face value. He is also interested in money manipulations by artists.

Spiller seems to be doing well with his hobby. He secured a table at the Wall Street Bourse coin show at the Museum of American Finance just to show off his collection and sell these books.

The book is severely limited by Spiller's emphasis on the material he collects and the events he was physically present for. He doesn't hunt for material on auction floors but waits to receive it in change. The book lacks ancient coins, which I have found much more likely to be damaged and corroded in interesting ways. Spiller's New York focus is also limiting: there are no non-US coins, and the chapter on burning money does not even mention The K Foundation!

I wonder where Mr. Spiller will go next. Ancient coins would be a good fit for him, as they often have very interesting corrosion collectors of ancient coins have a culture of acceptance of fine patinas. I gave Mr. Spiller a copy of the catalog of Stephen Sack's Metal Mirror with best wishes in the hopes of getting him interested.

It is difficult to assemble a collection at face value over a single human lifetime and for that we must commend Mr. Spiller for not losing focus. I recommend the book for anyone interested in either the intersection of Contemporary Art and Money.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

India considers banning the melting of ancient coins

An article by Shakti Singh in The Times of India quotes Indian Minister of State for Chemicals and Fertilizers Hansraj Ahir promising to “Pursue with the government the need to frame rules to prohibit melting of ancient coins.”
"I personally believe that melting such precious heritage is a cruel act and the government should work on making strict laws to stop it from happening," he said. "Ancient coins which form a very important proof of ancient civilization have been underrated by several generations. All they see is the value of metal the coin holds," said Ahir while addressing a three-day first international seminar on 'Gupta coinage' organized by the Coin Society of India ...

The article also quotes the former president of the Numismatic Society of India, S. K. Bose, who credits the work of coin societies in raising awareness. “Instead of melting coins [people] are coming to us to know the historic value of such coins.”

(Note that the Indian Antiquities and Art Treasures Act, 1972 allows ancient coins to be sold within India. Coins 100 years or older require permission to be exported. Think twice before trying to rescue coins dated 1916 and earlier from

Sunday, January 03, 2016

An imitation of Perseus/Pegasos?

Mithridates the Great issued thick bronze coins depicting Perseus wearing a Phrygian cap with griffin head decoration, and Pegasos on the reverse.

Classical Numismatic Group

Recently bronze coins of Mithridates have been appearing on the market in large quantities. Among them I spotted two coins with odd style. I believe they are imitations.

On the aegis/Nike example, the head of Medusa has a mane rather than the usual human hair. The visible part of the ΑΜΙ-ΣΟΥ inscription has the M and I connected. The same seller had other odd-style aegis/Nike bronzes for sale.

The Perseus/Pegasos bronze above seems to have an odd style as well. Perseus has a pointed noise. The griffin on the hat seems to be just a few lines. The inscription seems blundered.

Unfortunately, the coin has been triple-struck and is also quite worn. So it is hard to be sure what was really on the die and what is just damage caused by the strike.

To me the portrait looks really odd. Perseus lacks the serious expression seen on Mithridates coinage. I suspect this to be a Skythian imitation of the Perseus/Pegasos coinage of Amisos rather than an official issue.

The head of Perseus, on the official issues, is considered by scholars such as Barclay Head as depicting not merely Perseus but “Mithradates VI as Perseus”. If so, and if I am not delirious when I see the coin under discussion as Skythian, then it is possible that the new coin depicts Mithridates the Great as his Skythian subjects saw him.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Imitations of the bronze coinage of Pontos

Some time around 95 BC Mithridates the Great ordered a massive emission of bronze coins depicting on aegis of Athena with the Medusa's head at the center to be struck at seven of his mints in ancient Pontus on the Southern coast of the Black Sea.

The obverses of these coins depict a gorgon with flowing human hair, lips somewhat frowning, collar, within aegis of six to nine sides, aegis tied at corners, aegis edges sometimes dotted. The reverse names a city and shows Nike, wearing chiton with robe, advancing right; a palm branch held in both hands resting on her shoulder.

These coins must have been minted in massive quantities. They appear in many collections and are often sold inexpensively at auction.

In addition to the products naming the seven official mints we sometimes see crude examples with blundered inscriptions.

In this case the AMI of Amisos has been cut to resemble a W, and the ΣOY is reduced to Σ·. I have not been able to find scholarly literature in the imitations. Michael Mitchiner calls these imitations “Sarmatian”, perhaps because of the fint spot or because Mithridates was allied with those tribes and could have authorized the issue. The Sarmartians were a people who lived in western Scythia along the north cost of the Black Sea from the mouth of the Danube.

The crude issues seem to come scattered and mixed in hoards of mostly official style issues. In published hoards they don't seem to be distinguished. Commercial dealers seem to acquire the crude examples with the good examples. Sometimes it can be difficult to tell an official-stye issue from an imitation, so it can be difficult to be sure how big an issue the crude mints supplied.

Because the crude types are mixed together with the official style, it suggests merchants accepted them evenly with Mithridates own coinage. Why? One possibility is that the crude type represents an eighth official mint. Mithridates controlled Scythian territory on the Northern coast of the Black Sea, in present-day Russia and Ukraine. He had a Scythian wife, Hypsicratea. There is no reason why he couldn't have taken over or set up a mint in Scythia.

About three-fourths of the official-style aegis/Nike coins that I see on the market have an Amisos inscription. (Michel Amandry found 72% in a hoard of 409 specimens he published.) Perhaps the crude issues copied the ΑΜΙ-ΣΟΥ of Amisos on purpose, or had only a few coins for a model. I wondered about this for a long time and then I found a specimen that seems to have a poorly-drawn aegis and poor version of the ΑΜΑΣ-ΤΡΕΩΝ inscription of Amastris:

It is possible a die cutter at a Southern Black Sea mint in Pontos or Paphlagonia was having a bad day and struggled with the aegis and the inscriptions. I suspect instead a Northern Black Sea imitation with style good enough that I can never be certain.

Why was the only the aegis/Nike type imitated? Mithradates had many common copper-alloy coin types. Besides the type we have been discussing there were large bronzes of Athena head/Perseus, large Perseus/Pegasos bronzes, Zeus/eagle, Dionysos/cista, Ares/sword, “Head in leather cap”, and Artemis/tripod. (The mythological figures are all identified by style; there is no certainty that Nike, Ares and Artemis are the correct identification.) Yet the crude examples are always aegis/Nike.

One possibility is the alloy. Mithradates seems to have used different alloys to color his bronze denominations differently. Perhaps one was easier or more profitable for the unofficial mint or mints to strike.

Another possibility is that the aegis/Nike type had special appeal for the unofficial mint. Michael Mitchiner thought it was a “Sarmatian” tribe that issued them. This tribe was named after lizards (sauros). Perhaps the snakes of Medusa were considered kin to sauros.

However, I recently purchased a bronze coin of Amisos from this period that seems to be in an odd style and is not an aegis/Nike.


Tuesday, October 06, 2015

CN 22 from Poland

Yesterday I received a silvered bronze plaquette depicting a WWII event by the Polish artist Bohdan Chmielewski (1927-2014). The medal is interesting but instead of blogging about the medal I will show the Customs Declaration.

The CN 22 form tells us that the item is a 'Podraunek' (gift), a medal, weighing 26 pounds (or 261 grams?). No value is given. The seller paid 18.30 zł (Polish Zloty, equivalent to US$4.83. ) It came in a 9"x7" padded mailer. It was delivered by the US Postal Service and I had to sign for it.

It was not a gift weighing 26 pounds. It was an eBay purchase, costing me $35 plus shipping, weighing 0.22k (about 8 oz.)

Americans usually don't have to pay customs duty for parcels worth less than $200. So I didn't skirt any payment requirement. I believe I am supposed to keep all Customs documentation for five years — so I cut the form 22 off the envelope and put it in the mylar 3.5x3.5 along with the medal.

My understanding is that Customs documents should be correct, but that if it isn't there is nothing I should do about it. I do not believe the US Customs Service expects me to inform them that I actually paid $35 plus shipping, or that the declared weight is wrong.

Sunday, October 04, 2015

Grading Parthian Coins

Many Parthian coins in very high grades are available for purchase. I have no data but it seems like dealer inventories are larger than usual. I wondered if this indicated new hoards had been found. I wanted to see if I could measure a change in the average grade of dealer advertised stock.

I was unable to do so because the letter grades given the coins do not correspond well with the coin's actual grades (as measured by the visible dots on the cheek straps of the helmet of Parthian coins.) With ancient coins, the dies degrade during use and some dies are higher relief than others. So unlike modern coins, which can be graded according to rules like 'number of stars visible', ancient coin grading involves looking at the entire surface of the coin for wear. I do not do that here, focusing only on the cheek strap of the Sinotruces' helmet. The grader of the coins below might have considered other parts of the coin that you don't see.

I could find no coins in Fine or lesser condition on There are some available elsewhere, but shows only coins good enough to make it into auction catalogs.

Here are most of the Parthian Sellwood 33s on, sorted by grade.

About Very Fine

Very Fine

Good Very Fine

About Extremely Fine

Extremely Fine

Good Extremely Fine

About Uncirculated

Mint State

What's important is what we are NOT seeing. There is no more than a weak relationship between the definition of the individual dots and the dealer's chosen grade for the coin.

Because the seller's grades don't seem to line up well with the quality of the cheek strap, it is hard to say if there are better coins for sale or looser grading standers. I cannot therefore make any statistical claims about the true grades of coins being offered for sale. This data should warn buyers looking for a quality specimen to look closely at the photograph rather than trusting a dealer's letter grade.