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IN THE ARCANE LANGUAGE OF Classical Numismatics, when coins are described as “important,” it means they cost a lot.
How much? If you have to ask, you can’t afford them.
Nelson Bunker Hunt, who passed away on 21 October 2014, collected Highly Important Coins.
Born on 22 February 1926, he was a son of Texas oil billionaire H. L. Hunt Jr. (1889-1974), who was one of the inspirations for the character of J.R. Ewing on the TV series Dallas. Together with his brother William Herbert Hunt (born 1929), Nelson attempted, unsuccessfully, to corner the global commodity market for silver during the late 1970s. The collapse of this venture drove the brothers into bankruptcy, forcing the sale of their collections in a series of New York auctions in 1990 and 1991 by Sotheby’s.
In 1983, the Kimball Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas exhibited highlights of the Hunt brothers’ collections, including 112 of Bunker’s greatest ancient coins. The catalog of that exhibit comprehensively documents this collection (Above).
What Makes a Coin Great?
Greatness, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. To some eyes, the great masterpieces of Greco-Roman sculpture are just broken statues:
“I don’t get it, where are her arms?”
To many eyes, the great masterpieces of ancient coinage are just dirty metal lumps.
“I don’t get it. $600,000 for THAT?”
For modern, machine-made coins, “Greatness” or “Importance” is a combination of rarity and technical grade. If your coin is MS-69 and only three at that level exist, you have something great.
For handmade ancient coins, things are more complicated. Rarity, state of preservation, surface, strike, historical interest, artistic quality, and “pedigree” (its history of ownership) all factor into the judgment of greatness. For his book 100 Greatest Ancient Coins (2008), the numismatist Harlan J. Berk asked a panel of scholars, dealers and collectors to rate the Greats. He found a high degree of agreement.
In chronological order, here is my personal selection of Nelson Bunker Hunt’s dozen greatest coins. Nine of these types also appear on Berk’s list.
Athens Dekadrachm 465 BCE
A dekadrachm is a 10-drachma piece, weighing over 43 grams (one troy ounce is 31.103 grams). One silver drachma was – roughly – a day’s pay for an Athenian worker. Although Athens controlled the biggest silver mine in ancient Greece, there was only one occasion when it issued this massive coin. Historians are uncertain what the occasion was; it may have been the victory of the Athenian fleet over the Persians at Eurymedon in 469 or 466 BCE.
In 1990, only 13 examples of this coin were known. Today, about 40 have been published, with half in museums (a few are suspected to be expert fakes). Many are badly struck – the size and thickness of the blank pushed the limits of early coining technology.
On the obverse, the heavy helmeted profile of Athena shows the large frontal eye and faint smile of the archaic style of Greek art. On the reverse, a majestic owl spreads its wings, reminding us that Athena’s cute, big-eyed mascot is still a bird of prey.
In recent years, dekadrachms of Athens have gone for prices between US$325,000 and $1 million. Among Berk’s top 100, this type ranks number two.
Naxos Tetradrachm 460 BCE
Founded about 735 BCE, Naxos (not to be confused with Naxos, the Aegean island) was the most ancient Greek city in Sicily. In 476 BCE, Hieron, tyrant of Syracuse, forcibly deported the Naxians. After they regained their city in 461 they commissioned an engraver–known to us only as the Aetna Master–to create this stunning coin.
The obverse shows the bearded head of Dionysus, the god of wine, wreathed with ivy. The beard and hair spill over the dotted border, giving the design a sense of life and immediacy. The reverse depicts a squatting, muscular Silenus, Dionysus’ half-human forest-dwelling companion, drunkenly raising a wine cup. The engraver’s mastery of perspective gives the figure remarkable three-dimensionality on a space only 27 mm across.
In 1990, about 56 examples of this Naxos tetradrachm were known. The Hunt specimen came from the collection of Captain E.G. Spencer-Churchill (1876-1964), a cousin of Winston. In recent years, examples of this type have sold for prices ranging from $53,000 to $180,000.
On Berk’s list, this type ranks as number four.
Agrigentum Dekadrachm 410 BCE
Akragas (or Agrigentum) on the south coast of Sicily was the island’s second largest city after Syracuse. The city may have issued this magnificent dekadrachm to honor Exainetos, the local winner of an Olympic chariot race in 411 BCE. On the obverse, the sun god Helios rides his chariot through the sky with an eagle soaring above. The reverse shows a pair of eagles exulting over a hare they have just killed.
It brought $572,000 in the 1990 Hunt sale. When it appeared at auction again in October 2012, the highest bid was $2,477,647–a record price for any ancient coin. But the buyer, an Arab sheikh, reportedly never paid for it. Less than 10 specimens of this coin are known. Harvard’s Arthur M. Sackler Museum has a worn example. The British Museum has a better one.
On Berk’s list, this type ranks as number eight.
Syracuse Kimon Dekadrachm 405 BCE
Gallons of ink have been spilled on acres of paper (or litres of ink have been spilled on hectares of paper, if you prefer) extolling the beauty of Syracusan dekadrachms. Because the engravers signed their work in tiny letters, Kimon and Euainetos are two of the greatest ancient artists that no one besides numismatists has ever heard of.
The basic design had been standardized for almost a century. On the obverse, dolphins encircle the head of Arethusa, the nymph who presided over the fresh-water spring that gave Syracuse life. On the reverse, Nike, the goddess of Victory, crowns a quadriga driver with a wreath. Working within these strict thematic limits, Syracusan master engravers brilliantly celebrated feminine beauty and equine vigor. The Hunt specimen, with a distinguished pedigree, was considered the best of 13 known examples from a specific pair of dies. In recent years, signed Kimon dekadrachms have sold for prices ranging from $32,000 to $183,000.
On Berk’s list, this type ranks as number six.
Syracuse Euainetos Dekadrachm 400 BCE
Coins of the artist Euainetos are among the most exquisite works of art from the ancient Greek world. Of special value are his decadrachms, which must have been distributed widely, for they were influential to artists in regions far removed from the shores of Sicily.
The differences between this coin and the previous one are subtle. Arethusa has a “dreamier” expression, and, instead of a hair net, her tresses are threaded with water reeds. The chariot horses on the reverse seem to levitate, rising above the heavy ground line. This is not the best example known–there is some wear, and the heads of the lead horse and of Nike are off the edge–but it is a lovely piece. In recent auctions, signed Euainetos dekadrachms have gone for prices ranging from $40,000 to over $436,000.
On Berk’s list, this type ranks as number three.
Alexander Porus Dekadrachm 327 BCE
Found in a hoard “somewhere in Mesopotamia” in 1973, this was, at the time of the Hunt sale, only the eighth known example. Variously described as a dekadrachm and a five-shekel piece, the coin weighs nearly 41 grams and has been one of the great mysteries of Ancient Numismatics (Holt). Perhaps it was struck by a military mint moving with Alexander’s army in India, commemorating his victory over Porus at the Battle of the Hydaspes. Perhaps it was issued to pay Indian mercenaries. Perhaps it was minted at Babylon to pay off surviving veterans returning home to Greece.
On the obverse, Alexander the Great rides his famed stallion Bukephalos against an Indian elephant, ridden by King Porus, and a mahout brandishing a javelin. On the reverse, the standing figure of Alexander in full battle dress extends his arm holding a symbolic thunderbolt, the weapon of Zeus. One interpretation of this design is that Alexander had gone completely nuts, identifying himself with the king of the gods.
Today, 10 examples of the coin are known. Five are in museums, all of them badly struck. The Hunt specimen, which sold for $30,000, may have the best reverse but the obverse is a mess, with the elephant’s front missing. In 2006, another example–with a better elephant but without the top of Alexander on the reverse–went for over $100,000.
On Berk’s list, this type ranks as number 43.
Flamininus Gold Stater 196 BC
This coin isn’t exactly Greek, because the inscription is in Latin. And it’s not really Roman, because it was issued by a Greek city (the mint is uncertain). It was also issued while Flamininus was still alive.
So how did this particular coin come about?
Quinctius Flamininus (c. 229 – 174 BCE) was the Roman general who defeated the Macedonians under Philip V at the Battle of Cynoscephalae in 197 BCE, demonstrating the superiority of the flexible, sword-fighting Roman legion over the rigid, spear-bearing Macedonian phalanx.
After the Battle of Pydna in 168 BCE, Flamininus declared all Greek states independent from Macedonia. It is for this reason that he was honored on this gold stater.
And while the Greeks had no qualms about it, the Romans had a strong taboo against depicting living persons on their coinage. When Julius Caesar did this in 44 BCE, it got him killed, because the Roman elite thought he was trying to make himself a Greek-style king.
On Berk’s list, this type ranks as number 63.
Brutus EID MAR Denarius 43 BCE
Probably the most famous ancient coin type, this silver denarius celebrates the assassination of Julius Caesar.
It was issued during the civil war in 43 BCE by a military mint moving with the army of the assassins in northern Greece. On the obverse, a gaunt portrait of Brutus is encircled by his abbreviated name and title and by the name of the army paymaster, Lucius Plaetorius Cestianus. The reverse is a complex symbol that would have been understandable to any Roman: two daggers flank a gumdrop-shaped object called a pileus, the felt cap worn as a badge by freed slaves. The message is “with these daggers we gained our freedom,” underscored by the inscription EID MAR (for “eidibus Martiae” – on the Ides of March – 15 March 44 BCE).
Only about 80 examples survive, and even the most beat-up ones command fabulous prices when they come on the market. Although the Hunt specimen is a bit off-center, it is one of the best, with a long pedigree. It sold for about $90,000. Purchased by the actor Peter Weller (Robocop, 1987), it was resold in September 2011 for $475,000.
On Berk’s list, this type ranks as number one.
Nero Ostia Sestertius 64 CE
At the mouth of the Tiber river, Ostia was the vital seaport of Rome. Eventually it silted up and was abandoned, but Nero was proud of the massive engineering work that created the harbor and commemorated it on this magnificent sestertius. It features an aerial view of the circular basin, filled with diverse vessels and a rowboat. The detail is amazing – you can actually see tiny figures manning the decks. Below, Neptune, god of the sea, reclines with his pet dolphin.
In May 2014, an outstanding example of this type sold for $49,000. Lesser specimens have gone recently for anywhere from $14,000 to $24,000.
On Berk’s list this type ranks as number 13.
Trajan Circus Maximus Sestertius 103 CE
The Circus Maximus in Rome was where the chariots raced. It could seat 250,000 cheering fans.
The “Colosseum” sestertius of Titus is arguably more famous, but this one is more significant, and certainly more beautiful. The laurel-crowned portrait of Trajan on the obverse conveys Gravitas, that untranslatable Latin term combining dignity, seriousness, and all the traditional Roman virtues. The reverse is a marvel of three-dimensional architectural perspective – something artists would not fully rediscover until the Renaissance. The more distant buildings are engraved more faintly, creating a sense of depth.
In 2013, the “finest known” example of this type sold for $62,500.
Not included on Berk’s top 100, but a similar type of Caracalla ranks as number 31
Hadrian “Medallic” Sestertius 135 CE
This intense, lifelike portrait of the Emperor Hadrian is attributed to the Alphaeus Master, a die and gemstone engraver who may have been the sculptor known from other sources as Antoninianos of Aphrodisias. On the reverse, Pax, the personification of peace, cradles a cornucopia while gracefully extending an olive branch.
Except for slight pitting in front of the forehead, the piece has nearly perfect surfaces with a dark, olive green patina. This coin, the best of five examples known, sold in December 2008 for two million Swiss francs (over $2 million)–apparently a record price for a Roman bronze coin.
Not on Berk’s list of the 100 greatest, but it should be.
Constantius II “Festaureus” 349 CE
The gold aureus, struck at a standard of 60 to the Roman pound (5.4 g), was replaced in the early fourth century by the lighter solidus at 72 to the pound (4.5 g). Since aurei were still issued on special occasions for distribution as imperial gifts, the German term “Festaureus” is used to describe them.
This stiff and formal coin perfectly captures the spirit of the era. On the obverse, young Constantius (born 317) stares blankly off into the distance with a “deer in the headlights” expression. His bland features contrast strongly with the intricate detailing of his parade armor and jeweled diadem. On the reverse, the emperor stands in a quadriga, scattering coins to an invisible crowd. But what a contrast with the animated, lifelike quadrigae of the Syracusan dekadrachms! The frontal presentation of the chariot abandons any attempt at pictorial realism, with decorative little horses arranged schematically to the left and right of the towering emperor.
Only three examples of this coin, minted at the eastern capital of Antioch, are known. One sold in December 2002 for $32,000.
Not on Berk’s list.
End of an Era
“I have the simplest tastes. I am always satisfied with the best.” – Oscar Wilde
Nelson Bunker Hunt’s greatest coins have now been dispersed into the care of the next generation of collectors. We may never see another set of collectors like the Hunt brothers.
Time is cruel to most ancient coins, grinding away their details, corroding their surfaces and scarring them with gouges, dings and graffiti. But for a fraction of a percent of these survivors, time has been improbably kind, allowing them to come down to us across the centuries as fresh as the day they were made. When such a happy accident combines with a strong, well-centered strike from fresh dies engraved by a master craftsman, that lump of metal becomes something great: a costly and exquisite work of art.
 According to Wikiquote, they never actually said this. http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Talk:F._Scott_Fitzgerald
 Numismatica Ars Classica, Auction 74 (18 November 2013) Lot 281 catalog description.
Berk, Harlan. 100 Greatest Ancient Coins. Whitman (2008)
Holt, Frank. Alexander the Great and the Mystery of the Elephant Medallions. California (2003)
Kimball Art Museum. Wealth of the Ancient World: The Nelson Bunker Hunt and William Herbert Hunt Collections. Fort Worth (1983)
McNall, Bruce. Fun While It Lasted: My Rise and Fall in the Land of Fame and Fortune. New York (2003)
New York Sale XXVII: The Prospero Collection. New York. January 4, 2012
Seltman, Charles. “Greek Sculpture and Some Festival Coins.” Hesperia 17:2 (1948)
Sotheby’s. The Nelson Bunker Hunt Collection: Highly Important Greek and Roman Coins. New York. June 19, 1990
Sotheby’s. The Nelson Bunker Hunt Collection: Important Greek and Roman Coins, New York June 21 and 22 1990.