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Research Coins: Feature Auction


Extremely Rare Umayyad Caliphate Solidus

Triton XXII, Lot: 1226. Estimate $30000.
Sold for $110000. This amount does not include the buyer’s fee.

ISLAMIC, Umayyad Caliphate. temp. Mu'awiya I ibn Abi Sufyan. AH 41-60 / AD 661-680. AV Solidus (22mm, 4.33 g, 6h). Pseudo-Byzantine type. dd NN hЄARCIISThRЄ NbbC, crowned and draped busts of Heraclius and Heraclius Constantine facing; crossbars on crowns removed / VICTORIA AVУЧ IΘ, cross potent, with upper portion of vertical bar removed to form a large I, set on three steps; CONOB. AGC I 3 var. = Miles, Earliest 3 and pl. XLV, 6 (Bedoukian Collection) var. (officina letter); Walker, Arab-Byzantine –; Album 3548; ICV 121. Good VF, traces of underlying luster.

The earliest, and still best, discussion of the early pre-reform Islamic gold coinage is that of Miles. There, he records four, based on contemporary Byzantine prototypes: one featuring the emperor Phocas: a second with Heraclius and his son Heraclius Constantine; a third of the later Heraclius and Heraclius Constantine type; and, lastly, the issue with Heraclius flanked by his sons, Heraclius Constantine and Heraclonas. Our coin is an example of that last type. On the reverse, the cross potent has been altered in order to “dechristianize” the cross, in keeping with the Islamic prohibition against graven images. To date, our coin is the only example of this type known with this officina. Examples, however, of this type, but with the additional letters IA and IB are known (see One hundred coins of the great dynasties of Islam [privately printed]), as well as one with an addition letter I and the Heraclian monogram (NGSA VIII, lot 226). When taken together with Miles’ other types, which have similar numbers on the reverse (see Album 23, lot 68 and Morton & Eden 63, lot 7), the multiple letters – I, IA, IB (and, possibly, an IΓ) – supports the suggestion that these numbers may represent the caliphal year of Mu’awiya, during whose reign these coins were struck. Since the Byzantine prototypes were already circulating widely within the former eastern territories of the Byzantines now held by the Umayyads, it naturally followed that the Muslims would strike similar types, but with certain specific modifications – namely, the appearance of the Christian Cross. According to the Maronite Chronicle (AG 970 (AD 660]), however, this coinage was not accepted by the presumably Christian members of the population, “because there was no cross on it.” 

On at least two occasions, however, Mu’awiya was required to pay tribute to the Byzantines, and it is possible that these coins were struck specifically for that purpose. One was in AD 659, when the payment supposedly amounted to a thousand nomismata. The second was in AD 678, when Mu’awiya was forced to agree to a very harsh treaty that obliged him to make an annual payment to the Byzantine emperor of three thousand nomismata. Since these coins would have gone to Constantinople to fulfill the required payment, and there subsequently melted down to be restruck later (in addition to the reported rejection of these coins among the Christian members of the local population), the extreme rarity of these coins today can be accounted for easily. This conclusion may be supported by their iconography. The originals of all four types cited by Miles would have circulated widely in Syria, which depended on Byzantine gold and copper coinage – both in great supply – to support their monetary needs for both large transactions and everyday purchases. The originals of the first three types were undoubtedly well known to the inhabitants of Syria and, with only minor alterations in their design, Mu’awiya could expect them to be accepted in circulation without difficulty. In its original form, however, the fourth type, with its Christian and imperial iconography, would have been familiar to the general public as a direct and potent symbol of Byzantine power. By removing the specifically Christian iconography from the design, the three imperial figures could appear as tribute bearers bringing their gifts, such as the three wise men, who were well known to both Christians and Muslims.

This extremely rare piece may be regarded as one of the earliest Islamic gold issues.

CNG wishes to thank Robert Darley-Doran for his assistance in drafting the background note for this lot.