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The First Portrait of Ptolemy

CNG 84, Lot: 751. Estimate $20000.
Sold for $22000. This amount does not include the buyer’s fee.

PTOLEMAIC KINGS of EGYPT. Ptolemy I Soter. 305-282 BC. AV Stater (17mm, 7.08 g, 12h). Alexandreia mint. Struck circa 298/7-295/4 BC. Diademed head right, wearing aegis around neck / Charioteer (Alexander the Great?), holding thunderbolt and reigns, in quadriga of elephants left; three monograms in exergue. Svoronos 147; Zervos issue 91 (uncertain dies); SNG Copenhagen -; Hirsch 1793. Good VF, very faint graffito (ΛAΣ) in field before face. Very rare, only five examples of this issue, from 3 obverse and 3 reverse dies, recorded by Zervos.

Traditionally, this gold coinage was thought to have been a special issue that Ptolemy struck in 305/4 BC to commemorate his assumption of the royal title. Lorber's recent analysis of the early Ptolemaic coinage ("A revised chronology of the coins of Ptolemy I," NC 2005), however, has clearly shown that this series was begun circa 298/7 BC. In any event, the coinage is remarkable for several reasons. First, the new gold staters were struck at a reduced weight (7.12 grams), an initial step toward the new standard introduced circa 294 BC which would become known as the Ptolemaic standard. Second, and more importantly, Ptolemy became the first Hellenistic king to place his own portrait on his coinage. Finally, the coins exhibit a typological innovation in the Ptolemaic series. The obverse shows Ptolemy wearing the royal diadem and the aegis, a symbol implying a special relationship with Zeus. This portrayal of Ptolemy was used on his subsequent silver coinage, and a stylized version continued to be the standard obverse type on the silver of all the following Ptolemaic rulers down to Cleopatra VII. The reverse type, king in elephant chariot, was not novel among Greek coinage, and also appears around the same time in the coinage of Seleukos I. However, its appearance as a type in Egypt was new, and was likely used to emphasize a connection between Ptolemy and Alexander the Great (the elephants being a reference to Alexander's eastern anabasis). These staters were simultaneously issued in Alexandreia and Kyrene, and are differentiated only by style and the monograms that appear in the exergue of the reverse. In his study of the Alexander coinage of Egypt, Zervos noted 15 distinct issues at Alexandreia struck from 20 obverse dies. Although there certainly must have been a substantial quantity that was struck, the subsequent reducing of the standard, circa 294 BC, must have resulted in many of these coins being melted down (see Lorber, op cit. p. 60). As such, only a handful of each issue are known today.