Ugly but Collectable

Condition is everything to most coin collectors. It is natural to want coins for our collections that we consider attractive. Beginning collectors are always told to buy the best they can find. Some of the coins shown on this site are beautiful; some illustrate a particular numismatic point. This week we feature coins considered (by me anyway) collectable in spite of their appearance. With faces only a mother could love, they must have something to recommend them - something, but what?

The answer, of course, is that these coins are not common. Our subjects range from being in high demand with short supply to almost no demand and even less supply. Each of these coins would sell easily if in presentable condition and bring a ridiculously high price if mint state. To me, the interest of the type is independent of condition and price. Because of their condition, none of these coins would sell for much if auctioned publicly. All, however, serve their owners well as space fillers for coins of interest that are too rare or too expensive to be owned in attractive condition. The collectors who own these coins love them for what they are. Would you be caught with these in your collection?

Funeral pyre of 4 steps topped with quadriga
When a 'good' Emperor died he was 'deified' with a special issue of commemorative coins. Caracalla was not very 'good' and (by coincidence??) his consecration issues are very rare . The coins were possibly issued by Elagabalus who deified Caracalla (and claimed to be his son) but some students assign them to Severus Alexander because of the MAGNO reference to Alexander (the Great). I do not know. Rarest are the sestertii. In the American Numismatic Society book Treasures of Ancient Coinage, page 116, a gorgeous fine+ specimen with 5 level pyre is listed as 'Probably the finest of four known'. (Sorry, those of you who only will have mint state!) Banti, I Grandi Bronzi Imperiali, IV-1 p. 144, lists two 5 level pyre coins; one, sharing the obverse die with my coin, is illustrated. The 4 level version is listed as being in Vaillant (a book from 1743 which I have not seen) and illustrated with a line drawing. First, we need to be aware that few coins are as rare as such census reports would indicate. This coin was probably a recent hoard find. Finds over the last century could well have doubled the census of these coins. The coin has been tooled considerably to remove bronze disease (ugly pits are better than losing the whole coin!). I consider the die match with the Banti illustration to be evidence that the coin was not tooled into a rarity but actually is what remains of a very rare coin. Is it too ugly to appear in your collection?

Moving on from the rarest coin on this page to the most common, we see a coin of Caesar Augustus that is wildly popular due to its reverse type. In 17 BC, a comet appeared in the sky and was interpreted as the Divine Julius Caesar returning to watch over Rome. The comet is shown as a star of eight rays with a feathery tail trailing behind. The legend is DIVVS IVLIVS. While this coin would seem an obvious choice for use as an amulet, this one was affixed to a piece of wood (coffin? cross?) with a flat head iron nail (still present in the hole). Rather than lightly tacking it in place the (ball peen?) hammer drove the nail home cupping the coin and smashing the obverse. The reverse was cushioned by the soft wood and retains good detail. I would love to be able to tell you the true story of this coin and why it was abused in this manner but this is knowledge lost to time. The coin could be worse. The nail did not pass through the portrait (probably intentionally) and the exit hole fell in a very fortunate place not to destroy the detail on the coin. I might suggest that the nailing makes this coin is more interesting than a mint state example. More interesting does not mean more valuable; few collectors would want this coin. A similar nailed sestertius of Trebonianus Gallus was featured on one of my earlier pages.

Three times as holey is another rare coin. This as of the Divine Augustus was issued as a 'restoration' under Nerva. The nail holes were done neatly without deforming the coin as seen above but it almost seems defective in that it lacks iron nail remnants. Note that the patina extends into the holes proving that they were of ancient origin. With so many nails, it would seem that the coin was not intended to come loose easily. Again this would seem likely to be a coffin coin or decorations for standards. It seems a bit odd in either case since the coin was issued over 80 years following the death of Augustus so it would not have been used for the coffin of a soldier who started his career under Augustus unless he lived to over 100 years of age. Perhaps it was added as a memorial to an earlier burial or perhaps it served on standards of a unit founded by Augustus. We really can never know the true story behind such coins but speculation is interesting. As a collectable, the coin has a nice patina, good detail and overall pleasing appearance --- unless, of course, you are too good to have a holed coin. Certainly the market value of this coin was decimated by the holes. This coin sold on eBay for a reasonably low price. Without the holes, the coin would have merited a major auction where it would have been in considerable demand.

Septimius Severus & Julia Domna/Hecate
Stratoniceia, Caria, AE36
Another coin with a hole that could add interest is this very large bronze of Stratoniceia. The twin portrait obverse is most often marked by a small countermark of a young male head positioned between the two busts. This example has a ragged hole in a location that might well have once contained this countermark. The inset shows a weak example of this countermark (photographed from another coin) in the exact location of the hole. Sorry folks but my image file lacks a good example of this mark. The hole appears to have been dug roughly rather than punched or drilled as would be expected had the intent been to use the coin as decoration or in jewelry. If we assume that the coin bore the countermark (as do most of these) the question is why would someone remove it so harshly? Perhaps this is an example of Damnatio Memoria with the subject of the countermark being hated by the defacer of the coin. The commonly accepted identification of the young head is Caracalla. Perhaps the damage occurred when Caracalla killed his brother Geta and ordered Geta's images destroyed. Does this suggest that the countermark was Geta or that a supporter of Geta took numismatic vengeance on Caracalla. Certainly ugly and worth much less on the market than a perfect specimen, this coin and its hole present an interesting question.

Followers of this site know I like plated (fourree) coins. This one was issued in 38 BC with reverse legend assigning the issue to Marcus Agrippa on the occasion of his being designated Consul. The obverse shows facing heads of the Divine Julius and his adopted son Octavian (later Caesar Augustus). The legend DIVOS IVLIVS DIVI F relates to Octavian's claim to power based on that adoption. For all its problems the coin retains much important detail. It was struck very unevenly (common on this issue) with Octavian's portrait weak and the legend lost at the right. Any coin with a portrait of Julius Caesar is in demand and this dual portrait type is in high demand. Many collectors consider all fourrees to be fakes; they are not. I would like to hear expert opinions on the style of this die compared to specimens in your collections. Is this a regular mint product or unofficial? I have not seen enough specimens of the type to feel comfortable with the call. A die duplicate fourree (no better looking) appeared in the Munzen und Medaillen sale - 6, 7, 8 May 1998 (the week of this posting) lot 395. I wonder how many bids were received on it?

This coin is holed roughly, cracked and in great danger of further breaking. The coin has an encrusted reverse, partial legends and no eye appeal. The hole with a scratch leading to it suggests once being suspended on a wire as an amulet or nailed as with the comet coin above. Why is it worth showing here? Septimius Severus issued a Legionary Series of denarii naming all of the legions that supported his bid for power from the beginning. Of these, the hardest to find is Legion XXII Primigenia which was stationed at Mainz. To make matters worse, two varieties are known for this legion. This, the rarer, names the Legion LEG XXII PRI; the other is simply LEG XXII. All examples I have seen are from two obverse die (three reverse dies?) and just one is full legend. As ugly as it is, this coin shows the critical PRI better than most. What is it worth? Considering how few people are trying to complete a set of Septimian legionaries: Not much! Which is better: a complete collection with this coin or a group missing this legion altogether? Each collector will have a different opinion on what is collectable. Since this page was first written I have added three more of this coin to my collection (no one else would want four, I suspect). This one was my first so it is kept for old times sake and for the fact that no one would pay much for it.

Another Severus denarius is ugly and, at the same time, the only (therefore, the best!) I have ever seen. The type is common from the mint of 'Emesa' but this coin is clearly (by style) from the mint at Alexandria which is not known to have issued this Trophy of Arms type. Is it the only survivor of a small issue or will I find another (hopefully nicer one)? The late Roger Bickford-Smith, probably the greatest expert in Alexandria denarii, once told me that this was the coin in my collection he would most like to find for his own collection --- but he hoped his would be a bit better. Ugly as it is, I will be keeping this coin until I die. Who will want it then?

What was the point of showing you these coins? I am very opposed to the often expressed theory that collecting ancient coins is a hobby reserved for the wealthy. There is a lot of fun to be had in the realm of the junk box. In addition to attractive common coins, the collector of modest means can find an occasional 'budget' example of a rarity. When buying coins for your collection, select items that YOU find interesting and attractive. Study them and learn all you can about how they fit into the history of their time. Do as Frank Robinson recently advised on one of his sale lists: "Love your coins for what they are, not what they're worth."

Back to Main page

(c) 1998 Doug Smith