Wabi Sabi Ancient Coins
Wabi Sabi Ancient Coins

Wabi Sabi is a Japanese aesthetic system emphasizing the acceptance of impermanence and imperfection. If there is anything most coin collectors have trouble accepting it is those two 'i' words. We prefer coins that look better than new. Certainly we don't want coins that show every one of their 2000 years. Wabi Sabi tells us that there is beauty in imperfection and serenity in an attitude that our coins do not need to be more perfect than we are. While this page makes no claim on being a philosophical primer on the subject we will look at the idea as it applies to coins. We will show coins that have added interest or beauty by virtue of their imperfections. Like their humans, most of our coins were imperfect when made and have become increasingly imperfect over the years. This page is to suggest we not only accept it but also enjoy it.

Wabi refers to the fact that not every coin was perfect when made. Sabi covers the fact that things change over time and that this change might not always be what traditional systems of aesthetics would prefer. I do find it interesting that traditional ancient coin collectors prefer coins with a smooth green patina (very Sabi) to something bright and shiny. It will require a bit more of a change in attitude to find interest added by such Wabi Sabi friendly matters as imperfect centering, excessive wear and corrosion.

I am not such a devotee of the Wabi Sabi concept that I propose we all throw out our perfect coins in favor of damaged culls but I do believe there can be added interest, even beauty, in some forms of imperfection. This page will show a few examples of coins that were made imperfect in a 'nice' way and others that have changed since they were made in a way that adds interest at least in my way of seeing the matter. I am not a fan of most forms of corrosion and certainly have no love for bronze disease or any form of deterioration that threatens the permanence of my treasures. Acceptance of impermanence is not easy to accept either for myself personally or for my coins. Understanding that something must happen still strikes me as different from liking it. Does that mean that I am only a fair weather advocate of the Wabi Sabi values? Guilty! I can see some beauty in hair turning silver but I'm less accepting of teeth falling out. I love patina and toning but really wish coin-destroying electrolysis coin cleaners had never been invented.

Faulty coins
Collectors of coins have two big enemies when it comes to finding coins for their collections. Wear and roughness generally combine forces to ruin a coin but our examples here are relatively pure. On the left is a drachm of Alexandria portraying Hadrian. It has one major flaw - wear and plenty of it. Considering the wear it is not a bad coin. The year date (LB) is clear and the elephants are outlined. Many drachms of Alexandria stayed in circulation for decades gradually losing detail along the way. I still see beauty in what is left of this one.

On the right is a Follis of Maximinus II that I never felt like putting in my collection. I saved it from a group of overcleaned coins that came my way as part of a package deal. It has everything going for it except for surface roughness caused by having been harshly cleaned. It has full legends, lots of detail and terrible eye appeal. It has no wear but might be more to my liking if I carried it in my pocket for a decade or so. Wabi Sabi suggests we should accept the decline of perfection as time goes by but the problem with this coin is not a natural aging process to be appreciated. This poor coin was murdered. The rest of my examples below are easier to appreciate although none are close to perfect. Few, however have less roughness than the Hadrian or less wear than the Maximinus II. There is beauty in moderation.

Two dupondii of Nero demonstrate (Sabi) change over the centuries.
As mentioned above, the only form of change over time that collectors consider an improvement over the original state of a coin is patina. Above are two dupondii of Nero. On the left is one which has toned a bit darkening the original yellow brass (orichalcum) with some additional small spots of corrosion. This coin is pretty minimally affected by its just under 2000 years. Sometimes such coins are said to have a river or Tiber patina since long immersion in water can have this effect. While the tone might be considered attractive, the spots are not. The coin has not improved over time in the eyes of most collectors. On the right is a coin that started out the same yellow but has developed a green patina by reacting with chemicals from the soil in which it was buried over the centuries. This even green surface is the one example of Sabi that is generally viewed as improvement. The laws of Wabi Sabi insist that nothing is permanent but these coins will last longer than me. The surfaces as developed will protect the metal beneath. Both of these coins are considered stable and could remain rather similar in appearance for hundreds of years. Neither coin is perfect otherwise but we will examine other coins with similar characteristics later in this discussion.

More patinas
While green is by far the most common color for patinated bronzes, other colors are possible. A problem is these others are much less likely to be even and smooth. Our Tetras of Akragas has an even green patina but, on top of that, it has blotches of hard red encrustation. This is stable and changing slowly enough that I will never see it appear other than it does now. Perhaps I should rationalize the red and say it is a splash of blood from the freshly killed rabbit??? I would like to know how long it took this coin to add its green and red surface and how stable it is now that it is no longer in the ground. Acceptance of the change of our coins does not mean we have to lose interest in understanding the process.

On the right is an AE4 of the divine Constantine I with what is usually called a sand patina. This is dirt glued to the surface of the coin by natural means (unless we have an example of one faked with soil and Elmer's glue or facial make-up). To look best these coins are rubbed or polished to remove the soil from the high points leaving the 'sand' in the recesses. Several colors are common an there are sometimes hard green patinas under the soil. As alluded to above, there is a problem in the hobby with fake sand patinas being applied to coins in the hope of covering roughness or increasing eye appeal. Change as usually considered by the principles of Wabi Sabi should include natural processes and concretions but exclude changes brought about by fraud and Maybelline.

Toned silver coins

That do these six coins have in common? They all are silver and started out bright and shiny. Combination with various chemicals in the air or soil, various cleaning methods and Father Time have left us with six different appearances. Many coins are sold with stark white surfaces after processing by coin cleaners. Some tarnish naturally; some stay light. I can only assume that some are treated to delay the formation of natural tarnish. Some are intentionally exposed to fumes in the hope that the white surfaces will tone down faster. Some have never been cleaned after long burial in chemically active soil. This page is no primer on how to tell the differences. Of the six, I will only mention the Septimius Severus in the lower left corner. I bought the coin in 1963. It was then light gray with the dark area under the chin.. The yellow areas and overall darkening have developed from living in my trays and envelopes for fifty years. What will it look like in another fifty?

Stater of Aegina and Follis of Maximinus II demonstrate imperfection (Wabi) of roundness.
We generally think of coins as round. These two have interest (possibly appeal?) because they are not. On the left a silver stater of Aegina was stuck on a baroque silver nugget rather than a perfectly round flan. It dates to a time around 500 BC when the necessity of perfectly round flans was not yet an important concept. The Follis of Maximinus II (c.300 AD) was intended to be round but just did not turn out that way. This is a good example of the imperfection (Wabi) of manufacture. I find both of these coins more interesting than they would be had they been struck on perfectly round blanks. That would not be a unanimous or even a majority opinion among collectors that make up our hobby. Wabi Sabi concepts tell us that nothing is perfect and there is nothing wrong with being that way. I agree.

Two coins with surface imperfections - One Wabi; One Sabi (not to scale)
Coin collectors like coins with smooth and even surfaces quite unlike what we see on these two coins. However, the concepts of Wabi Sabi allow me to see both of these coins as more interesting than they would be if they were perfect. This most certainly would not translate to the marketplace and both would sell for considerably less than would normal coins of their types and grades. The blank used for the Augustus and Agrippa dupondius of Nemausus (left) was flattened by filing leaving heavy scratches that were not erased when struck with the dies. Many coins of this type show these scratches to some degree but this one is above average (or worse, depending how you view the matter). Such scratches are imperfections in one sense but actually are normal remnants of the manufacturing process (therefore, Wabi). They are not damage (that would be Sabi).

The 5th century BC silver trihemiobol of Corinth on the right shows a classic case of reticulation. Certain alloys of silver and copper kept for many years under certain conditions form a natural pattern that is hard to describe. Jewelry makers have processes for making artificial reticulation but their results are nothing like the result of the years. Coins of Corinth were more base than those of Athens so we see reticulated Pegasi but not owls. This change is the definition of Sabi. Is it a fault or does it add interest to the coin? Do you have trouble believing that I bought the coin shown here because of the reticulation not in spite of it? Will the coin continue this process and eventually fall into tiny pieces? Look me up in a couple thousand years and we will see what we will see!


I have quite a few fourree or plated coins. These ancient counterfeits demonstrate Wabi Sabi principles in a different manner than solid coins since they add the dimension of core metal being revealed through wear or corrosion. I have other pages that discuss plated coins from the standpoint of what they are so this will just show two I find interesting because of the way their cores are coming out. On the left is a fourree drachm of Kalchedon with random peeling of the surface silver. It is not aging as gracefully as we might prefer. However, I was raised playing a game where we sought out interesting shapes in the clouds so my eyes (perhaps my distorted brain?) latched on to the animal formed in the core spot shown in the enlarged inset. I see an animal which changes variety and which direction it faces with a very small change in the tilt of the coin. Not everyone plays ink blots for fun; not everyone will see either or both of my beasts; not everyone would appreciate this coin in any way whatsoever. Some will see a sailfish jumping or a dragon with head reverted where others will see only flaws in the plating. The Wabi imperfection of being plated and the Sabi deterioration of the surface will not appeal to everyone.

On the right is a gold over copper solidus of the Byzantine emperors Basil II and Constantine VIII. Wear has been kind to this coin revealing only the highest points of the core with the rest protected by non corroding gold. The faces of Christ and kings are shown in a contrast not at all like that we see on solid worn solidi. Here the process of change has hesitated at a point easy to appreciate. A little more wear on the gold would have left too much copper exposed to the elements. I have appreciated this coin for 25 years now since I got it from the estate of a friend whose interest in technical collecting introduced me to that branch of the hobby. Technical collecting is very much a place for those who appreciate imperfections in the traditional sense of the word.

Countermarked coins
A common change found on ancient coins is the countermark. These small stamps could be added for many reasons and part of the interest they bring is learning what function they had or how they changed the spendability of the coin. The damage inflicted on a coin by a countermark is usually minor if the mark was placed intelligently by a worker who was trying to mark, not destroy, the coin. Our left example, a 4th century BC stater of Aspendos, is a good example of a countermark placed so as to enhance the coin. The original coin was off center and the countermark was placed in a blank area. Probably more by accident than not, even the flattening on the reverse does as little damage as it would places anywhere else on the design. It is easier to love the change caused by such a mark when it appears the marker was not just striking randomly. I have other examples of benevolent countermarks and must again admit being only wishy-washy in my acceptance of Wabi Sabi imperfections. A coin with clear countermark even showing the legend (LUY = Ba'al) is easier to love than one where the mark destroys the original design. Again the change brought by being marked increased the interest and beauty of the coin in my mind. Not all would agree.

The AE trias of Akragas was quite worn when the destruction of the city in 405 BC led to countermarking of circulating bronzes with the head of a young river god. The intent here must have been to destroy the undertype. My example has about as much of the original design as these are found with many being on slick flans showing only traces of design from the undertype. This brings up a question for collectors of countermarks with interest in principles of Wabi Sabi. How do we balance the clarity of the mark with the detail of the original? This head of the river god merges with detail from the crab undertype almost as if two ghosts were inhabiting the same space. The flattening of the stamp on the eagle centers on his head leaving good amounts of detail on the body of the eagle and the hare (lunch!) as well as the four clear pellets on the crab side that define the denomination (4/12th's of a litra = trias). It even shows the shrimp. The severe crack may have been originated by the countermark hammer blow or a smaller crack may have just been enlarged. Countermarked coins of this type frequently have large cracks while unmarked coins usually do not. Cracks can result from striking on a cold flan so I tend to attribute this one to the countermark. Guesses of this nature may be 'educated' but they still are just guesses. This coin was a beautiful bronze when it fell from the dies some twenty years before it was countermarked. The countermark gave it new life for circulation in the new era (really hard times in the city!) and converted it from a worn coin to a beautiful example of Wabi Sabi ugliness which I have cherished as one of my most/least beautiful coins all at once. When I bought it over 25 years ago, I thought it was a bargain basement example I would have to learn to love. I succeeded. Wabi Sabi coins have a way of growing on you if you allow them a place in your heart.

Multiple strikes

Our two examples show the two major ways a coin can be struck twice. On the left is a silver antoninianus of Trajan Decius that was struck on a denarius of Geta. The fun of a coin like this is trying to figure out what the undertype was and what detail belongs to which strike. Reusing old coins was a major source of coinage metals but striking a two denarius piece on a 35 year old denarius had the advantage of doubling the face value of the coin. Beauty here is in the complexity. I believe some of the contrast on the undertype is due to soil or toning of the denarius embedded at the time of the second strike. Those interested in more details of this coin can visit my page on it.
The AE2 of Magnentius (right) is about as complex as a multistrike can be. At first glance it appears to be a flip over double strike. The obverse shows a clear portrait bust and a good portion of the reverse design so the coin received two strikes from the dies and flipped over between strikes. Flipover double strikes are not uncommon. What makes this coin special is that the first strike was a reverse brockage. After one strike the coin had two reverses - one normal and one incuse. It then flipped over (intentionally by a mint worker or accidentally???) and was struck again producing a normal obverse on what had been a normal reverse and a normal reverse on what was the incuse reverse. The coin is a bit of a mess but the longer you look at it the more details from both strikes become apparent. We might disagree on whether the second strike only a second after the first should be considered Wabi or Sabi but I hope you will agree that the changes and imperfections here are at least interesting.

Two coins with intentional removal of ..... (not to scale)
We think of Wabi Sabi a a natural process of imperfection and change but some things were the result from direct and deliberate human action. Our Septimius Severus and Julia Domna AE35 of Stratonicea (left) is a type that regularly includes a small countermark of a young male head (Caracalla?). This one has had the countermark removed by gouging a rough hole all the way through the flan. We are left to guess why this was done. Sabi change can be gradual or violent. This coin is not high grade even before we consider the hole. Does the gouge make the whole more or less interesting?

The AE 27 of Gordian III and Tranquillina from Tomis is a victim of gouging of a very different type. Here we see Wabi Sabi not of the coin but of the die that made the coin. In the reverse field (lower left) is a raised area resulting from a gouging of the die to remove something from that area. This was the location of the denomination mark denoting the unusual denomination mark for 4 1/2 assaria. I assume that this die was modified so it could be used to strike the standard 5 assaria coins rather than the unusual lower value. Perhaps it was the die in use when the order to discontinue production and the mint decided not to waste a die that could be modified for continued service. This is the only example of this I have seen. I really like the change and imperfection of this coin. Comparatively, a perfect example would be so very, very boring. Is it fair to give this coin as an example of change when that change was finalized before the coin was struck? The die that was changed ceased to exist 1750 years ago. We have this coin.

This page hopes to point out that at least some imperfections found on coins are interesting or beautiful. A true adherent to Wabi Sabi principles would accept and enjoy a much wider range of imperfect coins that would I, an admitted fair-weather advocate of the Wabi Sabi values. I have shown coins that challenge the eye and mind to find a different kind of beauty than we see in MS70 perfection. I showed only one coin too rough to make the cut for my collection but it is far from the worst coin out there. In fact, I feel a little guilty not liking it. The rest have extenuating circumstances that make them beautiful because of their problems rather than in spite of them. I set out to discuss coins that were less than perfect (realizing there is no such thing as perfection) and discovered instead that I was showing examples of what I consider to be better than perfect. Perhaps instead of demonstrating a tolerance for the lack of perfection I only proved that beauty, indeed, is in the eye of the beholder.

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(c) 2015 Doug Smith