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Triton XXIII – Session Three – Roman Imperial Coinage Part II through World Coinage Part I

Lot nuber 1046

BULGARIA, First Empire. Omurtag. Kanasubigi, 814-831. AV Medallion (22mm, 3.07 g).


Triton XXIII – Session Three – Roman Imperial Coinage Part II through World Coinage Part I
Lot: 1046.
 Estimated: $ 50 000

World, Gold

Sold For $ 47 500. This amount does not include the buyer’s fee.

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BULGARIA, First Empire. Omurtag. Kanasubigi, 814-831. AV Medallion (22mm, 3.07 g). CAN ЄSV bHГI OMORTAГ, crowned and draped facing bust, holding cross potent and akakia / Blank. F. Curta, "Qagan, khan or king? Power in early medieval Bulgaria (seventh to ninth century)" in Viator 37 (2006), pp. 1-31; Škorpil 151. Lightly toned, slight scuff on reverse. EF. With original suspension loop attached. Possibly the third known example.

The Bulgars had been loosely confederated since the seventh century and a force to be reckoned with. Relations between the Byzantines and the Bulgars were not always cordial, and in 811 khan Krum decapitated Nicephorus I, had his skull made into a drinking cup, and besieged Constantinople. When Krum was killed in a fall from his horse five years later, his son Omurtag became khan. Omurtag’s prowess in and zeal for war and conquest are noted by many contemporary Byzantine historians such as John Skylitzes, but what is also clear is that he was a skilled diplomat and negotiator, completing a long-lasting peace treaty with the Byzantines (which also increased Omurtag’s own territory) in the same year he came to the khanate. With peace with their most powerful neighbor secured, Omurtag established his seat at Pliska and had Bulgar and Byzantine architects and craftsmen decorate his palatial residence with rich ornamentation including stone lions at the entrances. The expansion of Pliska from a small village to a royal center earned Omurtag the title of ‘the Builder’. This prosperous and newly peaceful nation was in need of internationally recognised ways to express their power, and so did what nations had done for millennia before them – they borrowed heavily from the imagery of a famous and more powerful neighboring state.

The Bulgars at this time were not Christian, and in fact actively persecuted Christians, but since Byzantine displays of power were so closely tied to displays of religion, Christian imagery and standard phrases appear on Bulgar depictions of their own leaders. However, despite his clearly Christian/Byzantine presentation on this medallion, Omurtag identified himself through the title in the legend as kana subigi, a distinctly Bulgar term of slightly obscure origins that has a rough translation of ‘given by God’. The use of the title stands in opposition to the Byzantine phrase ὁ ἐκ τοῦ θεοῦ ἄρχων (the ruler from God), but has none of the Christian or Roman baggage which comes with other Byzantine titles or images.

Despite the piece’s obvious similarity to Byzantine solidi, it does not accord with the solidus weight, and too few have been found for them to have been used as circulating currency. Youroukova used the words “lamella” and “plaque” when describing the medallions, but those terms seem inappropriate for small gold discs intended to be hung from some sort of suspension. The scholar Jordanov described them as chrysobulli, gold seals attached to documents sent to leaders of similar stature, in Omurtag’s case either the Byzantine Emperor to the East or the Frankish Emperor Louis the Pious to the West. Byzantine convention dictated that gold seals be used to communicate with other emperors or kings, silver for high ranking church officials, and lead seals for all other correspondence. However, the only other known example of a piece like this was found well within the limits of Omurtag’s territory, suggesting that they did not travel abroad. Additionally, the seal would have been ineffective as a security measure if it were simply tied on through the loop at the top, and would not have prevented any correspondence from being opened and read. As a result, scholars such as Igor Lazarenko and Tsvetelin Stepanov have posited instead that they were given by Omurtag to his “fed people”, his supporters who lived in his palace complex. If the pieces were intended to be worn as a sign of loyalty to Omurtag, the suspension loop would have facilitated that, and the distinctively Bulgar title used in the legend would have meant more to Omurtag’s fellow Bulgars than to a foreign head of state.

Only two examples of this type of golden medallion of Omurtag are known. The first piece was published by Karel Skorpil in 1905 and had been discovered in the area around Omurtag’s capital, Pliska. It apparently did not belong to him, as he did not have the time to photograph the piece for his publication but only included a line drawing. Nevertheless, the drawing clearly shows a loop at the top of the medallion, centered on the cross at the apex of Omurtag’s crown, just as in this example. After Skorpil published the piece, it vanished from the public eye. The second known example is currently in the National Museum in Sofia and was published in 1976 after its discovery during archaeological excavations at Veliko Tarnovo. The two pieces have the same diameter (22mm), but the weight is only recorded for the Sofia piece (2.74g). The Sofia piece is also missing a loop, although traces of one clearly remain. This example and the medallion in Sofia were made by the same die; there is no particular reason to suppose that the 1905 medallion had a different die. Indeed, the possibility that this piece and the one published by Skorpil in 1905 are one and the same cannot be overlooked: Skorpil’s medallion is a slightly irregular circle extremely similar to the slightly irregular circle of this medallion. Could they be the same piece? However, even if the two pieces are different, this still means that this example is the only the third known, and only the second with known whereabouts.

The final winners of all Triton XXIII lots will be determined at the live public sale that will be held on 14-15 January 2020. Triton XXIII – Session Three – Roman Imperial Coinage Part II through World Coinage Part II will be held Wednesday morning, 15 January 2020 beginning at 9:00 AM ET.

Winning bids are subject to a 20% buyer's fee for bids placed on this website and in person at the public auction, 22.50% for all others.