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Research Coins: Feature Auction

Sale: Triton VIII, Lot: 587. Estimate $5000. 
Closing Date: Monday, 10 January 2005. 
Sold For $5500. This amount does not include the buyer’s fee.

PTOLEMAIC KINGS of EGYPT. Berenike II, wife of Ptolemy III Euergetes. AR Pentadrachm (20.44 gm, 12h). Alexandria mint. Struck under Ptolemy III, 246-221 BC. Diademed and veiled bust right / BERENIKHS BASILISSHS, cornucopiae bound with fillet between two pilei. Svoronos 989; BMC Ptolemies pg. 60, 7; SNG Copenhagen -. Good VF, very minor porosity. Very rare. ($5000)

This series raises a number of important questions: upon which weight standard were the coins struck, which Berenike does the series commemorate, and for what purpose were the coins issued. Beginning circa 310 BC, Ptolemy went off the Attic standard, reducing the weight of the tetradrachm from 17.2 gm, first to circa 15.7 gm and then circa 290 BC to circa 14.4-14.2 gm. Called the Ptolemaic standard by modern numismatists, it remained in effect until the first century BC. Used in the areas the Ptolemies controlled, it established a separate circulation area, driving out Attic standard coins and forming a closed economy. A problem with this arrangement, however, is the coins of Berenike, since the series appears to have been divided between the Ptolemaic and Attic weight standards. While no one has seriously denied the smaller coin to be an Attic standard pentadrachm, the larger coin has caused more difficulty. Based on an incomplete specimen, Svoronos proposed it was struck on the Attic weight standard and called that coin a dodekadrachm, a view Mørkholm accepted with reservations. Vagi (SAN XX, 1 [1997]), however, examining the weights of a number of specimens which appeared in recent auctions and private treaty sales, argued that the coin was struck on the Ptolemaic weight standard, calling it a pentakaidekadrachm. That Alexandria remains the accepted source for these issues is a further complication, since no one to date has satisfactorily explained why the main Ptolemaic mint revived the long-discontinued Attic standard.

The series has traditionally been attributed to Berenike II, the daughter of Magas of Kyrene and wife of Ptolemy III Euergetes, R.A. Hazzard proposed that it honored Berenike Syra, the sister of Ptolemy III and widow of the Seleukid king, Antiochos II Theos. He argues the coins were struck in Syria from locally-acquired silver to pay the Ptolemaic army deployed there to press the claim of Berenike’s child to the Seleukid throne, though the two had been murdered in the interim, and that, as pay, these coins were carried back to Egypt by the soldiers. The use of the long-discontinued Attic standard, he argues, implies a provincial mint rather than Alexandria was used for striking the coins. The attribution to Alexandria remains generally accepted and, by this time provincial mints under Ptolemaic control were employing the Ptolemaic standard. Moreover, Hazzard provides no specific alternative mint wherein these coins were being struck. Second, the find sites of the coins may do not necessarily imply where circulation ended, rather where it commenced, thus supporting his contention that these coins were struck outside of Egypt and brought back by the returning soldiers. Vagi, however, states that no examples of the larger coin are known to have been found in Egypt. It would have been difficult for soldiers on the march to transact such large denominations or carry them home. If the finished coins were intended as bullion to be transported back to Egypt, it makes little sense to coin them first. That others have found it difficult to accept such lavish commemoration for a family member who was not actually a reigning queen of Egypt, has further undermined the ostensible thrust of Hazzard’s argument.

Such large denominations clearly imply international transactions and not local consumption. The reintroduction of Attic standard suggests another state still using that standard. According to LeRider (BCH 119 [1995]), the Seleukid coins struck on the Attic standard at the Ptolemaic standard mint in Phoenicia were done so to pay Syrian workers stationed there, and not for local use. It is quite possible that these coins were destined for the Seleukid Empire as well, and the image of Berenike, whoever she was, would nevertheless have kept the question surrounding the Seleukid succession alive. Either way, the subject remains open for discussion.