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Research Coins: Feature Auction


The Power and Supremacy of Athens // A Numismatic Masterpiece


Triton X, Lot: 230. Estimate $300000. Sold for $500000. This amount does not include the buyer’s fee.

ATTICA, Athens. Circa 467-465 BC. AR Dekadrachm (43.38 g, 3h). Head of Athena right, wearing single-pendant earring, necklace, and crested Attic helmet decorated with three olive leaves over visor and a spiral palmette on the bowl / A-Q-E, owl standing facing, wings spread; olive sprig and crescent to upper left; all within incuse square. Starr group II.C (unlisted dies); Seltman 445-452; SNG Copenhagen -; BMC 40 = ACGC 188; SNG Berry 641; Gulbenkian 515 = Jameson 2080; Zhuyuetang 31 (same obv. die); Hirsch 1272; Kraay & Hirmer 357-8. EF, lightly toned. Superb metal quality for issue.

From a North American Collection of Numismatic Masterpieces.

A splendid example of this magnificent ancient work of art. The surface quality of this example exceeds that of the specimens offered over the past several years, exhibiting clear flow lines, very sharp detail junctures, and a crispness often lacking in such large module ancient coins. Additionally, the aesthetic quality of the reverse is exceptional, an extremely powerful design with a well defined and expressive owl in full glory. One of approximately 33 known today, with 18 in museum collections, eight in private collections, and seven whose locations are currently unknown. They rarely occur at public auction, with only three coins appearing in the past 16 years: The Hunt Collection (Sotheby's, 19 June 1990), lot 66; Leu 77 (11 May 2000), lot 206; and Goldberg (7 June 2000), lot 3125 = Numismatica Ars Classica 29 (11 May 2005), lot 183.

The historical context of the Athenian dekadrachms, as well as concomitant tetradrachms and didrachms of the same class, has been the matter of extended debate. Much of the early confusion stems from a passage in Herodotos, who said that Athens paid ten drachms to each of its citizens for surpluses from the Laurion mines (7.144.1). Early numismatists interpreted this as the occasion for the dekadrachm issue. The context of this passage in Herodotos, however, would place such an issue shortly after the victory at Marathon in 490 BC, a date that does not comport with the current hoard evidence. Neither does the view of early prominent numismatists, such as E. Babelon, who popularized the idea that the dekadrachms were struck in commemoration of the battle of Salamis (Traité II, col. 770). Although he discounts Babelon’s conclusion, Seltman, in his major work on the pre-Persian coinage of Athens, also placed the issue far too early, in the later 480s BC. Another confusion stems from early interpretations of the dekadrachms’ purpose. Head, much of whose work had formed the basis of later knowledge, thought they were special, ceremonial issues struck at various times for "the personal gratification of Tyrants or Kings", and were not part of the actual currency.

These earlier views have been completely superseded by modern scholarship. Starr's survey of the Athenian coinage, the seminal work for our current understanding of these coins, conclusively disproved such prior misconceptions. His conclusions, echoed by C. Kraay (ACGC, pp. 66-68) and confirmed by the “Dekadrachm Hoard”, confined all of the dekadrachm issues to a short period in the early- to mid-460s BC. It seems clear that such an exceptional and compact issue must have served some special function, but the nature of that function remains elusive. Key historical events during this period that could have produced sizable quantities of silver for this series are the battle of the Eurymedon River in 467 BC, where the resulting captured Persian booty was enormous and was attested to have been distributed (Plutarch, Vit. Cim. 13.6-8), and the capture of Thasos and its mines in 463/2 BC, where the plunder is assumed to have been substantial (Plutarch, op. cit. 14.2).

The dekadrachms stand apart from the typical Athenian coinage not only by their massive size, but the transformation of the reverse type from an owl in profile to one facing the viewer. One cannot fail to notice the power in such a portrayal, which clearly is a representation of the growing Athenian military might that produced the victory over the Persians at the Eurymedon River and the later capture of the bountiful Thasian mines.