A 4th Century Bronze of Constans




Flavius Julius Constans was the youngest of four brothers to call Constantine I the Great father. Constans was born in 320 (or 323 by some accounts) in Constantinople and received his education there. However, Constans does not receive good reviews from historians such as Eutropius and Aurelius Victor, who list depravity, avarice and contempt among his less vulgar qualities.

In 333 Constans was hailed as Caesar and in 335 received Italy and the Illyrian provinces as his domains. His brother Constantine II ruled the western provinces and Constantius II, the eldest brother since the murder of Crispus, ruled Asia Minor. The three brothers became co-Augusti in 337 with the death of the senior Constantine and quickly removed their cousins Delmatius and Hanniballianus, dividing up their territories among themselves. Feeling slighted by this division of territory, Constantine II demanded that Constans relinquish Italy and North Africa to him. Constans, though technically the junior Augustus due to his youth, refused.

Constans bribed his brother Constantius II with territory inherited from the purge to gain his support. War could no longer be avoided and in the spring of 340 Constantine II invaded Italy only to be killed in an ambush outside Aquileia. Constans was away in the Balkans recruiting for Constantius II, gaining total victory without even being present for the battle.

Constans continued military operations, waging war against the Franks in 341-342 and becoming the last legitimate Roman emperor to visit Britain in 343. Unfortunately, his caustic personality and disdain for his army would soon be his downfall.

In 350 Constans was deposed by his own field commander, Magnentius. The uprising took place at a party hosted by Marcellinus, Constans’ finance minister. Magnentius declared himself emperor and was hailed as such by his troops. Word spread quickly and Constans fled for Spain. He was overtaken near the Pyrenees and put to death.


This particular bronze was struck about 347 or 348 A.D. at the mint of Treviri, now Trier in northwest Germany. Ironically, Trier was the headquarters of the defeated Constantine II. Bronzes of this size and late date are commonly called “half-Centenionalis” though this term is not contemporary.

On the obverse is the diademed, draped and cuirassed bust of Constans with name and title abbreviations around. The reverse depicts two confronting victories, each holding a wreath, with “D” in the field between them. An interesting feature of the surrounding legend is “AVGG”. Not a misspelling, this indicates there were two Augusti at the time of this coin’s manufacture, which we know was Constantius II and Constans.

Bronzes of this era were used as small change. Inflation was rampant and nothing sold at a fixed price. Depending on the region and time period, the value of a handful of small bronzes such as this could fluctuate widely. As the Roman era waned, the only medium of exchange that continued to hold real value was gold.

Descriptive vs. Numerical Grading

Mexico gold

Ambiguity in grading can be the bane of your existence when perusing coin ads, whether it be a print ad, eBay description or a dealer’s scribbled notation on a 2×2 coin holder. Among the most misleading grading terms are Select, Choice and Gem. These terms usually refer to some degree of the Uncirculated grade and have been in use for decades. For this reason, we can safely say with a bit of certainty that not all dealers who use these terms are intentionally trying to mislead. But it is up to you, the collector, to determine for yourself the level of comfort with which you can transact business.

The above terms are examples of descriptive grading. Numerical grading is much more precise. Rather than describing a coin as Select Brilliant Uncirculated (or Select BU), numerical grading should represent the same coin as Mint State 62 (MS62) or so. Descriptive grading allows for much more leeway in the range of a grade. Numerical grading is specific.

So what can you expect when an ad reads “Choice BU Morgan Dollars, grades our choice”? In a perfect world you should receive a nice mix of MS63 to MS64 common date Morgan dollars at a fair price. However, the term “Choice” has no definitive grade range and so a disreputable dealer can be less than honest when selecting your “Choice” purchase. “Select”, “Gem”, High End” and all those other descriptive terms we run into have no specific numerical equivalent either.

Because these descriptive terms have been in use at least since the beginning of modern coin collecting (some of the earliest American auction catalogs from the 1850’s contain them), you can reasonably expect a certain level of quality when these terms are used. Generally:

“BU” or “Select BU” would indicate a range of MS60 to MS62.

“Choice BU” in the range of MS63 to 64.

“Gem BU” in the range of MS65 or higher.

Again, by no means is any equivalency between  numerical and descriptive grading written in stone. When you accept an offer involving descriptive grading, you need to be aware that the level of quality you receive is open to the dealer’s interpretation of that term and it may differ greatly from your own. The best investment you can make to avoid ugly surprises when purchasing coins sight unseen is to educate yourself and learn how to grade. Below are three excellent guides to help you!

MAKING THE GRADE: Comprehensive Grading Guide for U.S. Coins

ANA Grading Standards for United States Coins: American Numismati Association (Official American Numismatic Association Grading Standards for United States Coins)

Photograde: Official Photographic Grading Guide for United States Coins, 19th Edition


And Now A Word From John Kraljevich…

1834 Half Cent obvMany of you are probably already familiar with John Kraljevich. John is a professional numismatist, researcher, and cataloger specializing in early American coinage and ephemera. In addition he is a very entertaining individual. If you haven’t visited John’s website, http://jkamericana.com, you are truly missing out on an excellent place to land for an afternoon.

In the April 28, 2008 issue of CoinWorld John wrote an article entitled “Understanding Context”. I can remember thinking how much this article mirrored my own philosophy of coin collecting, and how much more eloquently John explained it than I could. John has graciously allowed me to reprint that article here, a perfect fit for Numistories. Thanks John!

“Archaeologists are obsessive about context. While an object may be interesting, when divorced from its context even the best object is but a stepchild. In archaeological terms, context means all the stuff that surrounds an object – where in the ground it was found, what that patch of ground has to do with the patches of ground around it, the depth of the find and thus the approximate era of its deposit, and more.

Collectors tend to be of a different mind – it’s all about the object. A coin is to be enjoyed because of, for lack of a better term, its “coinness” – its condition and designs and legends and metal and color and everything else collectors might enjoy about a coin. A story is nice, but the vast majority of collectible coins  – even those from the historically rich early American era – tell only a brief story.

Through my own collecting and interaction with collectors, I’ve found that placing a bit of context with the coins immeasurably enriches the objects.

The most obvious context is the broad historical narrative surrounding them. Knowing about the provisions in the Articles of Confederation allowing Connecticut to coin its own coppers, knowing about the proportion of British halfpence in circulation, and understanding the profit-center economics of coining underweight coppers all add to the story. Having a “hook” with a human connection makes the story even better, such as knowing that the Connecticut copper may well have been struck with copper misappropriated from the federal government and originally intended for the production of Fugio coppers.

Such stories make the coin a bit more alive, make it into a genuine historical bookmark allowing the owner to open the correct page in the long saga of American history.

What kind of stuff can collectors of early American numismatic items place with their coins to further provide historical context?

Some collectors are fond of collecting almanacs, particularly those that state the value of one type of coin in reference to another. While we seek to uplift our coins, sometimes returning our coins to their natural habitats as low-down, dirty pocket change make their history come truly alive. If you can, read Colonial-era newspapers and other contemporary documents. Seek out other objects that may further shed light on the world your coins inhabited.

Seeing the context can make your coin collecting become much more fun and rewarding.

A Tetradrachm of Philip “the Arab”

Philip I tetradrachmMarcus Julius Verus Philippus had a checkered past. According to Edward Gibbon (“The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”), Philip was “an Arab by birth, and…a robber by profession.” Whether robber or no, his Arabic background is factual, as he was the son of an Arab chieftain named Marinus, and hailed from the provincial Arab town of Trachonitis.

As a deputy praetorian prefect in the army of Gordian III, in 243 he purposely roused the army against Gordian by blaming him for a scarcity of food. Gordian’s death followed these allegations and Philip was promptly hailed as the next emperor by the eastern troops. Questions quickly arose as to Philip’s role in Gordian’s demise, but Philip’s insistence to the Roman Senate that Gordian died of natural causes, as well as his proposal that Gordian be deified, established a friendly relationship with the Senate which proceeded to recognize his claim to the throne.

After concluding a hasty peace with Shapur I of Persia, Philip quickly proceeded to Rome where he was well received by the Senate and the populous. He wasted no time in establishing his legitimacy. His son Philip II was declared Caesar, his wife Otacilia Severa was granted the title of Augusta, and Philip’s late father Marinus was venerated on a series of coinage.

For the next three years (245-247) Philip was occupied by numerous invasions by the Carpi and German tribes on the Danubian frontier. At about the time the above coin was minted, Philip celebrated a crushing victory over the Dacian Carpi and began preparations for the 1000th anniversary celebration of the founding of Rome.

The glory was short lived. Philip’s empire was besieged by pretenders to the throne. On the Danube, Pacatian arose to claim the purple, and in the east, Jotapian had won the hearts of the army. Philip became deeply alarmed, lost confidence in his own ability to rule, and called the Senate to offer his resignation. Though both Pacatian and Jotapian were soon murdered by their own men, Philip remained unable to act.

To restore order, Philip promoted the city prefect Trajanus Decius to commander in chief of the forces of Moesia and Pannonia. Decius established control over the frontier by the end of 248. As a result his troops demanded his accession to the throne. Decius protested but Philip was soon on the march to put him down. In poor health, Philip fell in battle at Verona along with his son in June of 249.


This coin is a nice representation of the principal denomination in the eastern Roman provinces of the third century, the tetradrachm. This denomination originally contained a small percentage of silver, enough to give it the appearance of a silver coin. However, all traces of precious metal had long since disappeared by the time this coin was produced and was now composed mainly of copper with some tin or even lead present.

Notice that the inscriptions surrounding the obverse and reverse devices are in Greek rather than Latin. It was common practice for the Roman provinces to retain their native language and customs, including their own local religious practices. Provincial Roman coins frequently depict Greek, Syrian, and other local deities. The subject matter on Roman provincial coinage is very diverse and can provide years of challenge and enjoyment for little cost!

Roman Coins Unearthed In Farmer’s Field

CC Image courtesy of AJoStone on Flickr

Claire Cavanagh is a writer for The Royal Mint in the UK. Recently, she submitted this article and has graciously allowed us to share. Who among us hasn’t dreamt of discovering treasure hidden for hundreds or even thousands of years? It’s easier said than done over here in the States, but the long numismatic history of Western Europe affords the metal detectorist far more opportunity. Claire provides us with this exciting example!

Trudging around in muddy fields come rain or shine may not be everybody’s idea of a good time, but everybody in the coin collecting community owes a lot to those with a passion for metal detecting. Without them, we wouldn’t have half of the amazing ancient coin discoveries that we all love to hear about. The latest great finding comes from the English county of Yorkshire, where Edward Bailey made the sort of finding that every metal detecting enthusiast dreams of.

In a farmer’s field in Sheffield, Yorkshire, Edward unearthed five silver coins from the Roman era. After handing the coins over to the British Museum, they have been identified as silver denarii from the Roman republic. Experts state that the oldest of the coins dates from somewhere between 211BC and 120BC, and are thought to have been lost or perhaps hidden in the field at some point after 74AD. This means that the coins have been in the ground for a staggering 1,939 years.

Denarii were the main coins of the Roman Empire during the republic. The word for a singular coin, denarius comes from the Latin dēnī, which means ‘containing ten’. This is because the denarius had a value equal to ten asses (the lesser value coins of the Roman era, made first from bronze and later from copper). Allegedly, the need for a silver coin came following Roman contact with the Ancient Greeks, and the denarius was styled in a similar way to the Greek coins of the time. Early versions of the coins, struck around 269BC, weighed around 6.8 grams and were not commonly used in Rome. Following an overhaul of the coin system in 211BC however, the new denarii became the most important coins of the empire. The coins struck during this period had their silver content and weight gradually lowered, but on average weighed around 4.5 grams. The coins found in the farmer’s field are thought to be from this post-211BC period.

To put the value of the five coins into contemporary perspective, historians claim that one denarius would be the average daily wage for an unskilled worker or a soldier in the first century AD. The five coins discovered therefore were not a great fortune at the time when they settled into the ground; yet their value today is a very different story. In February of this year, the coins were officially declared treasure by the British Museum. Under the Treasure Act of 1996, which outlines what is to be done to any treasure discovered in Britain, the coins are now the property of the Crown. The Act also states that the finder of the treasure, as well as the owner of the land on which said treasure is found are both entitled to a reward. In compliance with this, a financial reward has been awarded both to Edward Bailey and the farmer, Raymond Woolley.

The coins’ discovery, in June of last year, came just months after another exciting excavation in the UK. In March 2012, over 30,000 silver coins were unearthed by archaeologists in the historic city of Bath. The hoard, discovered on the site of a new hotel, was the largest found from a Roman settlement in Britain – and was the fifth largest ever found in the country. However, these coins were dated from the third century AD and so were not quite as impressive in terms of age as those found in Sheffield. 


This article was written by Claire Cavanagh on behalf of The Royal Mint.


Twitter: ClaireCavanagh



Roman or Greek? Yes!

How best to broach the subject of provincial coinage? It’s a topic with no real clear cut distinctions that creates a lot of confusion among ancient coin collectors (collectors of ancient coins, not ancient collectors of coins!). Let’s tackle the question by starting with the above coin. This bronze was minted sometime between 196 and 146 B.C. by a federation of cities in the Roman province of Achaea, which closely approximates modern day Greece. This group of cities was known as the Thessalian League. Though a Roman province, the iconography of this bronze is all Greek: the obverse features a diademed head of Apollo while the reverse depicts Athena advancing to the right holding a shield and brandishing a spear. Even the legends of the coin are in Greek, denoting the issuing magistrate, Philokrates, and the region, Thessaly.

So why is a Roman coin from a Roman province covered in Greek letters and gods? The simple answer: the Romans were not dummies.

First, some history. In Michael Grant’s “A Guide to the Ancient World” he explains how the Thessalian League existed long before the Roman conquest. Around 400 B.C. a powerful state was created through the cooperation of several separate cities. This league of cities fell quickly under the conquest of Alexander the Great but was reorganized by the Romans around 196 B.C. This Thessalian League was empowered to issue its own federal currency. And, like I said, the Romans were not dummies. They knew that you don’t create productive citizens by crushing their culture and imposing your own.

Provincial coinage illustrates this. The diversity of subjects on provincial coins mirrors the cultural diversity of the people they served. Rather than bury the people living in their outlying territories with Roman gods and Roman language, the empire slowly integrated the colonies while allowing them to maintain their own history.

Provincial coinage is a very interesting subject and can be extremely rewarding to study and collect. See Wayne G. Sayles’ book “Ancient Coin Collecting IV” for more info!

Constantine II- A Question of Seniority

It was definitely a bad idea for the older brother to pick on his younger siblings in the case of Constantine II. But before we discuss the hapless case of the eldest son of Constantine the Great and his second wife, Fausta, let’s turn our attention to the coin.

This particular follis was struck in 332 A.D. at the Lugdunum mint, known today as Lyons, France. The portrait shows a young Constantine II facing right in military cuirass and crowned with a laurel wreath denoting his rank as Caesar. His name surrounds, followed by his rank in abbreviate form. On the reverse, two soldiers face each other holding shields and spears with two military standards between. The Latin inscription around translates to the “Glory of the Army” with the mint and symbol for the fifth officina appearing below.

Constantine II was embarking on his illustrious military career at the ripe age of 16 when this coin was manufactured. Having been allotted the territories of Gaul, Britain, and Spain, Constantine II was installed at Trevirorum (Trier) in 328 to guard the Rhine frontier. In 332 the Sarmatians appealed to his father, Constantine I the Great, for assistance against the invading Visigoths, led by Alaric I. Constantine II was victorious in the ensuing engagements that continued into 334, earning himself the title “Germanicus”.

His younger brother Constans had been declared Caesar in 333, assuming control of the territories of Italy, Pannonia, and North Africa. However, Constantine II was named regent over Constans due to Constans’ minority (he was only 12 or 13 at the time of his ascension). Upon their father’s death in 337, a looming rivalry for the imperial throne began to make itself evident.

338 saw the three surviving sons of Constantine I the Great, now co-Emperors of the Roman empire, at the center of a growing territorial dispute. A meeting was held to finalize their respective borders resulting in additional territory coming under Constans’ control, while Constantine II’s holdings remained the same. It is said that Constans ceded Constantinople to his brother Constantius II in return for his support against Constantine II. Whatever the case, in 340 Constantine II took advantage of the absence of Constans from Italy and decided to invade. He was defeated by the combined forces of Constantius II and Constans at Aquileia, losing his life in an ambush by a group of Constans’ Illyrian troops.

A Counterstamped Sloop

Some years ago I received this Upper Canada halfpenny token as part of a trade. The “T.F. Haywood” counterstamp was very intriguing and has afforded me many hours of speculation.

So now we jump forward to the last month or so and the fortuitous discovery of some excellent antique references. What follows is the result of my recent research. Let’s take a trip to the Great Lakes region of the 1830’s:

Around the time Queen Victoria was about to ascend the throne of England, Canada’s merchants and shopkeepers began issuing fractional currency in response to the suspension of specie by local banks. The public became less and less accepting of these bills, as the varying quality and dizzying variety only compounded the small change problem.

It is here that we meet Mr. T.D. Harris, a Toronto hardware dealer whose firm was known by the “sign of the Anvil and Sledge”. The business had been started in 1829 under the name John Watkins & Co., Harris being the “& Co.”, and in 1832 the firm assumed the name Watkins & Harris.

Watkins & Harris was the only firm in Toronto to issue fractional currency notes, or shinplasters, but other businesses were circulating copper and brass tokens with success. Recognizing the greater practicality of hard currency rather than the quickly worn out paper alternative, Watkins & Harris began issuing what are now commonly known as “Sloop Halfpennies” sometime between 1832 and 1840.

We get corroboration of this fact from “The Canadian Antiquarian and Numismatic Journal”, vol. 8-9: “The one masted vessel on the Sloop Halfpenny was Mr. Oates’ Duke of Richmond packet, taken as a symbol of the traffic and commerce on Lake Ontario. In the newspapers of the period there was at the head of the Richmond’s advertisement a rude woodcut of the vessel, and this was copied as a device upon the copper piece…this token was issued, I believe, by the Messrs. Watkins and Harris, hardware merchants at Toronto…”

Descriptions of the known varieties of the Sloop Halfpenny series can be found in the 1881 edition of the “American Journal of Numismatics”, vol.14-16, pp.37-38. The revealing remarks between descriptions shed further light on these coppers:

“Those who put into circulation these tokens, although they found their illegal issue a profitable undertaking, assumed the role of public benefactors by such inscriptions as “commercial change”, “to facilitate trade”, and the like”.

“These sloop halfpennies had an extensive circulation in Upper Canada, and from the many different reverses, it would appear that more than one firm was connected with their issue.”

“The commerce of Lake Ontario was almost entirely carried on in sloops; larger vessels were nearly unknown on its waters. This design was therefore popular on that account”.

So there we have the origin of the Sloop Halfpenny token of Upper Canada. But what of T.F. Haywood? For this we turn to “The Fisheries of the Great Lakes” by Frederick W. True, 1880. The Haywood family were successful boatbuilders, so successful in fact that their boats were actually referred to as “Haywoods”. T.F. Haywood was undoubtedly a predecessor of Mr. O.P. Haywood, who is described as having a particularly hard time selling his boats in 1880 because “…the fishermen have been too poor to invest in them. He has, however, the reputation of being the best boatbuilder on the lakes.”

The enterprising Mr. Haywood found an excellent advertising medium for his boatbuilding industry by counterstamping the popular and extensively circulating Sloop tokens. Now the only question that remains: why is this token dated 1820 when Watkins & Harris didn’t begin coining tokens until after 1832?

Remember the series of posts on the Massachusetts silver of 1652 posted here some time ago? Though Massachusetts produced silver coinage well into the 1670’s, almost all were dated 1652 to circumvent England’s laws against privately issued coinage. It seems our neighbors to the north weren’t averse to a little deception either. Once again local economies provided for the needs of the public despite oppressive laws against aspects of colonial independence.

A World War I Widow’s Gift

Around 1979 or 1980 I traveled to Pensacola, Florida to spend some time with my aunt. She lived in an apartment complex and in the center was a pool for the use of the residents. I remember spending every spare minute either in or next to that pool. Of course it was a huge draw to a 10 year old midwestern boy, but the people who converged there every day were also very interesting.

One particular day I was playing in the pool and all of a sudden I see two huge men that I automatically recognized from television. They were professional  wrestlers who I watched virtually every Sunday. But wait, these guys were deadly enemies, bashing each other with chairs, microphones, announcers, whatever they could get their hands on, every week that I tuned in! How could they possibly be sitting here laughing and drinking beer together? This was very confusing.

But the most interesting person at the pool that summer was a very old woman who always sat in the shade covered to her neck in a big white bathrobe. She never got in the water or took in the sun. No one paid her any attention, no one seemed to notice her. Except my aunt.

So one day my aunt introduced us. The woman, Mary, was very friendly and told me all sorts of wonderful stories. During one of our visits I told her I liked old coins. Mary said she had some old coins her husband brought back from Europe a long time ago and, if I would like to see them, she would bring them to the pool tomorrow. I couldn’t wait!

Tomorrow came and I almost couldn’t stand to wait until the afternoon when Mary usually came to sit beside the pool. When I saw her walking to her table I saw she had a little black box. She emptied the box and out fell coins from Germany, France, Belgium, Russia and places I never heard of! And then she told me a story that any ten year old boy would love.

Mary’s husband had served in World War I in 1917 but for reasons I can’t remember, didn’t return until 1919. They weren’t married until after he returned. The coins had a gruesome history. It seems soldiers didn’t receive their military pay at the front for months at a time. And so, to get by, it was necessary to go through the pockets of the fallen. This box full of coins had come from the corpses of her husband’s enemies because he couldn’t bring himself to take from his allies, even though the money was no longer of use to them.

That summer ended and it came time for me to return to Illinois. My aunt must have told Mary I would be leaving because she came to the apartment and gave me the box full of coins with a Christmas bow on top. 

After 30 years many of those coins have gone to others. A 1868 French 5 Franc piece of Napoleon III was given to a friend. A  5 Kopeck piece issued by Germany during the occupation of Russia in 1916  was a give away for a local coin club. But every time one of those coins left my hands and went to another, I always included Mary’s story.

The Money of King Arthur II: Mercenary Gold


In last week’s post we learned of a 5th century Briton, Riotimus, who was recruited to help defend Roman Gaul from the Visigoths by the Western Roman emperor Anthemius. We have to assume that this arrangement was looked upon by Anthemius as a business agreement between the empire and an army of mercenaries. To think that the emperor of  Western Rome viewed a regional barbarian “King” as an equal, and thus an ally worthy of trade agreements, defense pacts, and other benefits between independent nations, would be hard to justify even though Rome hadn’t had a presence in Britain for almost 50 years.

So what did the payoff consist of? Well, you don’t entice a warlord with 12,000 men at his disposal to cross the ocean with small change. The most likely answer: gold.

Anthemius was fresh to his new post in 468. The worsening situation in Gaul prompted the Eastern Roman emperor Leo I to appoint him emperor of the West in 467, a post that had been vacant since the murder of  Severus III in November of 465. The mints were sure to have begun commemorating  Anthemius’ reign almost immediately after his appointment but this coinage certainly would not have been the most likely to be doled out in payment.

Severus III

In contrast, the gold coinage of Anthemius’ predecessor was relatively plentiful and easily at hand in 468. Severus III was merely a puppet ruler of Ricimer, Master of Soldiers, whose power didn’t extend much past the borders of Italy during his brief tenure of 461 to 465.  Although his legitimacy was never recognized by Leo, Severus did manage to produce coinage at the western mints of Milan and Ravenna during his almost 4 year reign and it is here that we find our first likely candidate for the gold paid to Riotimus and his troops.

Majorian preceded Severus, ruling from April of 457 to August of 461. He was very successful in his dealings with the Visigoths and Burgundians, maintaining an uneasy peace throughout his reign. Unfortunately he was another puppet ruler of Ricimer’s design and, once he had shown a backbone, was eliminated in favor of someone more controllable. Most of Majorian’s surviving coinage are small bronzes, definitely not a respectable payment for an army.

Valentinian III

Now we come to Valentinian III. A ruler over a span of 30 years (425-455) who produced gold coinage at the mints of Rome, Ravenna, and Milan to name but a few. During his reign the Vandals arose as a power in Spain, the Visigoths and Franks were successfully defeated, and the capital of the western empire was moved from Rome to Ravenna. Like most late emperors, he was murdered in what the perpetrators might call a “hunting accident”.

 Years later when it became necessary to pay the British warlord for his services, I speculate that the chest of gold he received contained an abundance of the coinage of Valentinian III from the local western mints. There would be a few from the reign of Severus, Anthemius, and the eastern emperor Leo I. But there is one problem. Jordanes, writing in 551, tells us that Riotimus suffered a humiliating defeat (due to treachery, maybe Mordred?) at the hands of the Visigoths and retreated, never to be heard from again, to the land of the Burgundians. Did he ever return for his chest of gold? You decide.

All photos courtesy of  Wildwinds.com

The Money of King Arthur Pt. I: A Numismatic Prologue

To begin, I should probably define what (or who) I mean by “King Arthur”. Let’s forget about the standard English form of the Arthurian legends. This popular collection of romances was completed by Sir Thomas Malory around 1469 but has nothing to contribute to our quest for the coinage that would have been familiar to the historical “Arthur”.

To make the case for this historical figure, we can start with one of Malory’s earlier sources, Geoffrey of Monmouth. Sometime around 1136 Geoffrey finished his “History of the Kings of Britain”. Now the word “history” in the title should be taken lightly since this History includes early Britain being populated by giants, Trojans, and Saxon eating dragons. But once again we are led to an even earlier source, and here is where things get very interesting.

His name was Sidonius Apollinaris, an aristocrat who lived in south-central Gaul in the 5th century A.D. As luck would have it, Sidonius wrote many letters to prominent Britons and much of his correspondence has survived. It is from these letters that we discover the historical source of Malory’s Arthur.

Remember that Sidonius was alive during the time period he was writing about, unlike Geoffrey or Malory who were writing 700 to 1000 years after the events had occurred. With that in mind, Sidonius tells us that in 467 the Roman Emperor in Constantinople, Leo I, appointed Anthemius the Roman Emperor of the West.  After Valentinian III was murdered in 455, western rulers tended to have short life spans and turnover was frequent. Avitus ruled less than a year. Majorian was assassinated 3 years into his reign. And Majorian’s successor Severus III was poisoned 4 years later in 465.

Euric, king of the Visigoths in Spain, took note of this instability and set his sights on the western Roman territory of Gaul.

In 468 Anthemius sought a British alliance to thwart Euric’s plans of conquest. We have an account from a book by Jordanes, who was writing in 551, less than 100 years after these events. Here is a portion of his account, which I am quoting from Geoffrey Ashe’s 1987 book “The Discovery of King Arthur”:

“Now Euric, King of the Visigoths, perceived the frequent changes of Roman emperors and strove to hold Gaul in his own right. The emperor Anthemius heard of it and asked the Britons for aid. Their King Riotimus came with twelve thousand men into the state of the Bituriges by the way of Ocean, and was received as he disembarked from his ships.”

Here is our Arthur, not in name but in title. Many scholars, past and present, feel that this man is the source. 1000 years of elaboration resulted in the ultimate publication of Malory’s “Le Morte d’Arthur”. And if this is so, we need only look to the Western Roman coinage of the period, roughly 425 to 470 A.D., to imagine what the High King of the Britons carried in his pockets.

See the results of my imagination in my next post!

The Abduction of Europa

Mythology has always played an important role in the iconography portrayed on coinage. One very enduring myth that saw widespread representation on the coins of many eras and cultures was the story of  Europa and her abduction by Zeus.

According to Greek myth, Europa was a Phoenician princess, the daughter of King Agenor of Tyre. One day as she was gathering flowers by the sea, the god Zeus looked down upon her and became enamored with her beauty. Zeus disguised himself as a white bull and descended to mix in with King Agenor’s herds. When Europa saw him, she approached and, seeing that the bull was tame, climbed onto its back. Zeus then leaped into the sea and swam to the island of Crete. Upon arrival, Zeus revealed himself to Europa in his true form and eventually fathered three sons with her.

The first mention of Europa in literature can be found in Homer’s “Iliad” which is generally dated to about the 8th century B.C. The myth is mentioned by numerous sources throughout history including  Herodotus, and the Roman poet Ovid.

With regard to coins, the depiction of Europa being carried away on the back of a bull has been a popular motif almost since the advent of coinage as a medium of exchange. Beginning around the 4th century B.C., this scene has been reproduced on coins of Greece, Rome, and Cyprus just to name a few. And being a native of Phoenicia, Europa of course figured most prominently on the coins of that ancient nation.

The above coin is a bronze from the city of Sidon, Phoenicia dating from the 1st century B.C. On the obverse is the Phoenician god Melqart facing right, possibly the Phoenician equivalent of the Greek Heracles according to Herodotus. On the reverse is the famous scene of Europa in a divine halo seated on the back of Zeus in the form of a bull. Below is the name of the mint city, Sidon, written in Greek. There is another line of text below the mint name and a possible date to the left of the bull but I have yet to decipher them.

Geographically, ancient Phoenicia corresponded approximately to the modern day country of Lebanon. It was a powerful seafaring nation in its heyday, famous for its navy, wine, and purple dye. Sidon was known for its skillful metalworkers as early as the 7th or 8th century B.C. Sidon fell under the sovereignty of the Assyrians, Babylonians, and Persians in antiquity and was conquered by Alexander III the Great in 333 B.C. The Ptolemies and Seleucids followed as Sidon’s overlords until self government was achieved around 250 B.C.

Around the time this little piece of small change was minted, Pompey the Great of Rome recognized Sidon as a sovereign city-state. Representations of the abduction of Europa continued on Sidon’s coins even after it was assimilated into the Roman Empire under the emperor Elagabalus c.218-222 A.D.

You can still find this myth portrayed on modern day coins, such as the 50 cent coin of 1994 from Cyprus. The Abduction of Europa has endured on coinage for over 2500 years and I’m thinking a collection from ancient to modern times would be a very rewarding endeavor!

Big Joe’s Little Box of Coins and the French Comet

This story comes from Red Henry, a fellow Early American Coppers member. Red and I each had a coin collecting grandfather who passed a love for the hobby on to us. Enjoy, and thanks, Red, for the great story.

My grandfather Arthur Joseph Henry was born in 1891 in Lake City, Florida. Known as Joe Henry all his life, he was called “Big Joe” by the family. (This distinguished him from his oldest son and namesake, who was called Joe Baby, then Little Joe, then Doctor Joe.). Big Joe attended the University of Florida, studying accounting, engineering, and law.

As a young man, Big Joe enjoyed an active life. He entered the U.S. Army during World War I, and was sent to France and Germany. In the early 1920s, as a member of the Corps of Engineers, he surveyed for railroad lines in the jungles of Central America, and then walked across the State of Florida twice, doing survey work for a cross-Florida barge canal. Finally he left the army for good and married my grandmother, Evelyn Whitfield, in 1923.

Big Joe and Eve moved around quite a bit early in his working career, but they settled down in the mid-1930s, living with her parents in their spacious old frame house on Calhoun Street in Tallahassee. Built in 1901 with several bedrooms and called (naturally) the Big House, the place had been enlarged over the years. One addition included a bedroom and bath at the rear of the second floor. There Big Joe and Eve lived as they raised their three sons, cared for her parents, and spent the last 30 years of their lives, while Big Joe worked as an accountant for the State of Florida.

The Big House was a large and mysterious place for me to explore when I was small, but nothing there was more fascinating than what I found on a sleeping porch off my grandparents’ bedroom. There, in the top drawer of a large old-fashioned dresser, was a small cardboard jewelry-store box which contained dozens of coins. After I began collecting in 1959, my grandmother Eve gave me the wonderful box.

Those coins were small round souvenirs which Big Joe had acquired during his youth and work in many countries. Apparently he just picked up whatever caught his fancy, and the sources of several of them are mysterious. The oldest coin was a small Roman bronze from the early 300s A.D., the “Constantinople commemorative” (Seaby-3890), with a nice glossy green patina. There were small, nearly-uncirculated copper and bronze pieces from the 1800s, issued by the German states. There were several small coins from Italy, France, and Austria, along with a gold ducat from Holland, dated in the 1770s.

There were farthings or halfpennies from every British monarch beginning with George IV, who came to the throne in 1820, down to George V, who reigned during World War I. There were handsome nickel Cuban pennies in the box, along with small-denomination coins from the Dominican Republic. (These were badly worn, bringing to mind the desperate condition of the people there.) There was a nice silver Mexican dime with a neat rim cud. Among the U.S. coins were three copper-nickel Indian-head pennies, saved as curiosities.

All these coins interested me as a youngster, for I had seen nothing like them. But none of them holds more fascination for me now than three old pieces of copper.

Perhaps the most important coin in the box, by today’s standards, was an 1834 small-date cent, Newcomb-1. There is little or no wear on the coin, and it is a semi-glossy medium brown, but on the reverse there was a little residue, easily removed, of some whitish, granular stuff—perhaps the little boys, my father and his brothers, shined the coin up for fun back in the 1930s. I value it none the less for that.

Another copper item in the box had a story behind it, though I did not learn so for many years. Conder collectors will recognize this 1793 Inverness Halfpenny. The lettered edge on this example reads PAYABLE AT MACKINTOSH, INGLIS, & WILSON’S. I wondered for a long time just why Big Joe had kept this coin. Then, later in my life, I learned that among his Georgia ancestors were a family named Mackintosh, from Inverness-shire, far to the north in the rugged mountains of Scotland. “Our” Mackintoshes came to this country in Revolutionary times. Big Joe must have felt confident that some distant cousin of his had issued that copper token, although he never talked much to me either about his ancestry or about any of the coins.

Now we come to a case of parallel phenomena. First, let’s delve into Early American Copper for a bit, and discuss the 1807 Sheldon-271, the famous Comet Variety large cent.

The “American Comet,” as we may call it, is remarkable for its die break behind Ms. Liberty’s head, which looks much like a comet in the sky. (For more details about this variety and how it got its name, see my article Which Comet was It? in the January, 1999 Penny-Wise.) At top right is a photo of that distinctive die break. Note how the break extends from Ms. Liberty’s hair all the way to the rim at about 10:00, angling down slightly from left to right.

Now we come to a third item from the little box. Slightly larger than a half cent, it’s a Half Sol of the French king Louis XV, who enjoyed a long and magnificently forgettable reign long ago. The coin’s reverse bears the royal arms along with the date, 1721. The obverse features a bust of the king, his long hair elaborately styled, and the legend LUDOVICUS XV DEI gratia. So far, so good—this was all I noticed about the coin for a long time. But if we pay close attention, we will see a die break on the obverse—and suddenly it is deja vu, for we have seen nearly the same die break before.
This die break extends from the king’s hair all the way to the rim at about 10:00, angling down slightly from left to right. The position and size of the break resemble the break on our familiar S-271 so much that we could say that this is, indeed, a French Comet!

Time never stands still. Big Joe and Eve both died in the 1960s, and the vacant house was torn down. The lot was sold a few years later. Now a huge, modern brick residence stands among my great-grandparents’ gardens. But I kept a few things from the house. That little box of coins stayed with me through school and life, even as (in the customary way) I stopped collecting while college and work kept me over-occupied for 25 years. After I began collecting again at age 41, I incautiously sold the gold ducat and a few other items from the box to finance early copper purchases.

Most of Big Joe’s coins, however, are still with me, and here they will stay. The little cardboard box is gone now, but the coins rest on a tray all their own in my coin cabinet. There are 39 of them, ranging in size from the little Roman bronze to a big piece of Chinese “cash”. Few of the coins have much value in this day and age, but there’s at least one exception. I do sometimes wonder what Big Joe himself would say if he could learn of that 1834 cent’s market value today. That must be the only item from the box that is worth much now. But sometimes personal importance and market value are a long way apart, and nothing numismatic I own has fascinated me more, or taught me more over the years, than Big Joe’s little box of coins.

The Gift

Here’s another great story from a friend over at the forums on pcgs.com. Richard has graciously allowed me to share his story and I want to take this opportunity to sincerely thank him for this privilege. Many of you may recall the story of Tim Mayberry’s purchase of a lincoln cent set I reprinted from the forums back in October of ’09. One of my purposes for starting this site was the fact that I wanted to show the emotional side of coin collecting rather than the investment aspects of the hobby. Richard, Tim, and myself have a passion for numismatics and here is a perfect example:

“About 40 years ago as a young boy I found out that I really like collecting coins. I had some cent albums I would try to fill. When we would visit my Uncle’s house about once a month a cousin and I would walk about 2 miles up the road to the corner of Scottsdale Rd and Shea Blvd in Scottsdale, AZ and visit a little coin shop. Sure that area is in the middle of town now but back then I can assure you it wasn’t. The dealer was a kind enough old guy who always let us look through the junk box and “give us a deal”.

I even somehow was able to secure a 1912-s V Nickel as a part of a year set that I got out of his junk box. I had put them in a Jefferson Nickel album and had written $8 / 23 coins in the book. I only found out it was a “s” mint about 5 or 6 years ago.

Sorry, I got sidetracked as this story is not about that nickel.

Anyway as a couple of years of random visits to that shop went on I’d always drool over the gold Saints in the guys case. I set my sights on obtaining one of these beautiful coins. At the time he said one would cost me $160. That was a lot of money for a kid but I knew that I’d have to somehow raise the cash.

I set out mowing lawns in the hot Arizona summer raising a few bucks at a time. I saved it all. I didn’t buy ice cream off the truck that came by, I didn’t go to the movies… nothing. I mowed lawns…. lots of lawns all summer. I told everyone that would listen that I was working to save money to buy a gold coin. During my summer visits to the coin shop I’d give the guy updates on my progress towards owning a Saint. He would take the time to show me one and that just fired me up more.

The day came that I had raised my $160 and my folks took me out to my uncle’s place. In hindsight I have no idea why they didn’t drive me to the coin shop but they didn’t. My cousin and I walked up there and I announced that I was ready to buy my gold coin.

After all that I need to tell you that this story is not about a gold Saint Gaudens.

Here’s what I remember…

The dealer asked me if I truly had the money so I showed him I did. He asked me to think seriously why I wanted a Saint and I said that I wanted a gold coin.

He said that IF it was gold I was after that for the same money I could purchase a Mexican 50P piece which had about 1.2 oz of gold whereas a saint had less than an oz.

He showed me a 50P coin and I immediately fell in love with it. When he went to ring up the coin we all realized that I didn’t have enough money to cover the tax. The dealer thought for a moment and said for me not to worry about it. He even put it in a nice acrylic holder.

Fast forward to maybe 1981 or so and I found myself a young married father of one who was really strapped for cash. Gold had shot up in value to a shocking level. I called another dealer and he offered $1000 sight unseen for my 50P. Even though I really didn’t want to sell the coin I saw no alternative. I wasn’t about to borrow money from my folks. During a lunch together just prior to selling the coin I told my Dad what I was planning on doing and he reminded me of how hard I worked to get it. I told him I just didn’t see any alternative. That is when he announced that instead of selling the coin to the dealer he’d like to buy it for the same price, so we shook hands and made the deal.

Now you need to fast forward to about 25 years later. The “coin” never once came up between my Dad and I during that time. Anyway one Christmas maybe 2005 or 2006 we were at my folks house in Phoenix and my parents gave me a small gift from under the tree. It felt hefty…. hmmmm. Upon opening up that gift you cannot imagine my shock as there was my 50 Peso gold coin from my childhood. I think I damn near cried. Not wanting to take it as a gift I tried to pay my parents for it but they wanted nothing to do with that. All I could do was to thank them from the bottom of my heart. It was truly a moment I will never forget.

Let’s fast forward to today. You see I sent that same coin into PCGS recently as a part of my 8 coin “freebie” submission for the Collectors Club thing. I don’t submit many coins and in fact put the 50P in there as a filler. The old acrylic holder was all scratched up and in my mind the coin was probably only an AU58 or something. Honestly I didn’t look at it that close as I didn’t really care what the grade came back as because I just wanted it in a nicer holder. I have no intention of ever selling it anyway.

Well… when the grade posted on the computer I was SHOCKED. In fact I figured there must have been some mistake so I waited until the package came today to see it with my own eyes.

No… this is not a “you suck” kind of thing as the grade likely doesn’t change the value all that much I don’t think and it doesn’t matter as I’ll not sell it. It does make it a “special coin” though in that as far as I can tell… at least to this point in time it is the only PCGS Graded Mexican 50 Peso with a “+” sign after the grade.

Anyway… just wanted to tell you the whole story behind this coin. I hope I didn’t put you all to sleep or make you miss out on any “ebay threads”….”

Coins of Colonial America: Beginnings

When we think of early American coinage we have to broaden our definition of what we traditionally call “American”. It’s important to keep in mind that the United States mint in Philadelphia didn’t commence production of coinage for circulation until 1793, yet the North American continent was being populated by European settlers since the mid 1500’s.

Foreign coins made up the bulk of metallic currency available in what would become the United States prior to the establishment of the Mint. In the 17th and 18th centuries, small change consisted primarily of British copper pence, halfpence, and farthings. Since it was against British law to export silver and gold to the colonies, this medium originated from the Spanish American mints of Mexico, Peru, and Chile for the most part. Coins from Portugal, France, Holland and elsewhere were also represented, though on a smaller scale.

In everyday transactions Spanish silver was the most accepted currency. These were denominated in reales, with 8 reales being equal to the Spanish dollar. Divided into eighths (or bits), one reale was equivalent to 12 1/2 cents. Gold was rarely seen in colonial America but when encountered, would most likely hail from Brazil (the joe) or Mexico (the escudo).

Spanish silver was so prevalent that throughout the early 1800’s it was still much more common as pocket change than the Bust and Liberty Seated coins produced by the Federal mint!

The story of our own national coinage began out of necessity in 1652 in Massachusetts. We’ll pick up there in Boston, population 3000.

What A Long Strange Trip It’s Been

It’s interesting to reflect back on how your collecting interests have changed over time. You would assume that, as your income grows, so might the average amount you spend on new acquisitions. Looking back I’ve found this hasn’t always been the case. Like most coin collectors, for me it all started with pennies…

My grandad got me started. We would sit for hours at his kitchen table going through mountains of wheat pennies, ever on the lookout for a 1909-S VDB. After he passed in 1975 I continued to fill those blue cardboard Whitman folders with pennies from circulation. Back then wheat pennies were still plentiful and it took no time to fill a 1941-1974 book, each one a significant accomplishment for an 8 year old.

Jefferson nickels were next. It hurt a little more to part with a nickel than a penny, but it was still easy to fill that blue Whitman folder. Even that tough 1950-D could be found in pocket change with some searching.

At some point I discovered “Coins” magazine. All the different designs from the past 200 years were suddenly at my fingertips. I had no idea there was so much variety! No longer did I have to limit myself to what I could pull from change. My first mail order purchase followed shortly after, a well worn 1864 two cent piece and an 1868 three cent piece from Littleton Coin Company. I think the pair cost me seven dollars. That was a month’s worth of candy and comic books but those two coins were my pride and joy.

After a couple of years randomly accumulating silver dimes, quarters, and halfs I got a summer job doing road repair. A steady paycheck expanded my collecting horizons significantly! I joined the Liberty Seated Coin Collectors Club and began receiving Seated dimes and quarters on approval. For the then extravagant sum of twenty dollars a month I became the caretaker of about 20 or 25 different dates and mintmarks before the money ran out. At today’s prices I really wish I’d held on to those!

Life intervened. College, work, and family became the top priorities and my coin collection was pushed aside. The occasional AU Indian Head cent or Morgan dollar sufficed to keep my interest but there was no specific direction.To say that I was active in the numismatic world at that particular time would be a huge exaggeration.

Once the job turned into a career, my longtime habit again moved to the forefront. I was able to own coins that had always been out of reach. Third party certification had arrived and with it more confidence to collect unfamiliar coin series’. I tried my hand at high grade coins for the first time. A set of MS63 to 65 1878 Morgan dollars with all the mintmarks and different reverses (7 tail feathers, 8 tail feathers, reverse of ’78, etc.) was the first accomplishment. Then I tackled a short set of mint state Buffalo nickels from 1934 to 1938.

Mint state coins were beautiful sets to put together though very expensive. But when I put them next to my old Whitman penny books, those perfect shiny coins had no soul. They hadn’t passed from hand to hand over the years. They had no history, no character.

So I went back to circulated coins. First the early 20th century coins, the Buffalo nickels, Mercury dimes, Standing Liberty quarters, and Walking Liberty halves. No high grades, just very fine circulated coins that saw some mileage. A group of circulated Standing Liberty quarters can tell a lot of stories.

Now my collecting is all about the stories. My 1804 Half Cent, my 1787 New Jersey coppers, the ancient coins from Rome and Greece, they have stories. Some of those coins aren’t very pretty but that doesn’t matter. Like the ghosts of the boys in the old football photo from the movie “Dead Poet’s Society”, each one whispers of a different time, an exotic place, a life all their own.

Coin Auction Catalogs

CatalogsI had anticipated a nice coin purchase upon receiving my tax refund this year but, as you can tell from my silence this past week or so, my laptop decided to take its own life and so my coin purchase turned into a new computer purchase. Despite the lack of funds, my local second hand book store did turn up an interesting and inexpensive find.

Some of you may recall a few posts back when I mentioned that picking up a reference book or auction catalog is a great way to keep your hobby interest burning when you find yourself low on cash.Well, after being all bummed out from losing my coin money, I went down to a little hole in the wall book store that let’s you trade in your used paperbacks. After some digging I came up with an old auction catalog from the ’80s. It was from a series of four sales conducted by Bowers and Ruddy Galleries featuring the incredible Garrett collection.

This catalog is the fourth in the series and contains photographs and in depth descriptions of some of Garrett’s more esoteric holdings, including a huge collection of Washington related coins and medals, 1792 dated coinage, Confederate States coinage, and early Indian Peace medals, just to name a few. Pair that with all the great historical background information and I’d say I clearly got my $5 worth!

Auction catalogs are usually overlooked as a reference option. But many catalogs are a great read. They allow you to have access to some of the greatest collections ever assembled, often illustrating the best examples known of rare and not so rare coins. Specialized collections have even produced catalogs that become THE photographic reference for their particular series.

Look into putting together a reference library of great auction catalogs. They can be had for little money for the most part and can provide for hours of interesting reading. Check out this website to get you started.