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Research Coins: Printed Auction


The Dekadrachm of Athens

Triton XIV, Lot: 124. Estimate $200000.
Sold for $375000. This amount does not include the buyer’s fee.

ATTICA, Athens. Circa 469/5-460 BC. AR Dekadrachm (31mm, 42.69 g, 2h). 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 / Owl standing facing, wings spread; olive sprig and crescent to upper left, A-Θ-E around; all within incuse square. Fischer-Bossert, Athenian 21 (O12/R21); Starr group II.C (unlisted dies); Seltman 445-52; SNG Copenhagen -; BMC 40 = ACGC 188; SNG Berry 641; Gulbenkian 515 = Jameson 2080; Zhuyuetang 31; Hirsch 1272; Kraay & Hirmer 357-8. VF, lightly toned. Very rare, one of approximately 48 known today.

From the collection of a petroleum engineer formerly working for Agip in the Middle East; found c. 1952 during excavations by his construction crew; thence by descent.

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). Although this passage appeared to provide easy historical evidence for the dekadrachm issue, not every scholar was convinced. It was Ernest Beulé who was the first to raise the chronological question of the issue, and from whom all subsequent research stemmed. Taken in context, the passage in Herodotos would place such an issue shortly after the victory at Marathon in 490 BC, a date that was accepted for the dekadrachm issue by prominent early numismatists, Babelon (Traité II, col. 769-770) and Head (HN, pp. 370-371), but which subsequent scholarship has shown to be far too early. Although Gardner retained the 490 BC date of issue in keeping with Babelon (A History of Ancient Coinage, 700-300 BC, p. 162), he added to the discussion by recognizing that the Athenian dekadrachms were contemporary with those of Syracuse, which he identified with the Demareteia mentioned in the ancient sources and dated to the immediate period following the battle of Himera in 480 BC. Seltman, in his major work on the pre-Persian coinage of Athens, rejected Babelon’s conclusions. Yet, he also failed to put credence in the views of Gardner and subsequently placed the issue far too early, in the later 480s BC. Almost immediately, this view came under fire. Robinson saw Salamis as the occasion for issue (NC [1924], pp. 338-340), and Regling, in his revised edition of Sallet’s Die antiken Münzen, viewed the combined victories of Salamis and Plataiai as the occasion. It was Kraay (NC [1956], p. 55; ACGC, pp. 66-68) who, paying attention to the evidence of the hoards, noted that Seltman’s chronology was far too early; yet, he failed to convince his critics. Starr, whose own study of Athenian coinage also relied on the evidence of the hoards, confirmed some of what Kraay had argued, and suggested that the occasion for the issue of the dekadrachms was the battle near the river Eurymedon (circa 469/5 BC). The subsequent discovery of the Asyut Hoard (IGCH 1644) in 1968/9 and the Elmalı Hoard (CH VIII, 48) in 1984, confirmed a mid-460s BC date.

Various interpretations of the dekadrachms’ purpose have also been proposed. Although Fischer-Bossert suggests that the size of the issue indicates an economic, rather that ceremonial purpose, Head, much of whose work had formed the basis of dekadrachm scholarship, 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. As seen above, Starr's survey of the Athenian coinage, and his confirmation of Kraay’s earlier conclusions, rejected this earlier conception. It seems clear that such an exceptional and compact issue must have served some special function. Recent scholars have focused on two key historical events during this period that could have produced sizable quantities of silver for this series: 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.