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Tracing a Holed Tetradrachm

The Whole Story

Here's a good example of how a hole in a coin can add to its interest. Early in 2006, Pierre Monney read my holed coins page and emailed me about the way he had been able to trace the story of a coin he owned, a holed silver tetradrachm of Mithridates VI. The hole was such a distinctive feature that the coin was recognised and part of its history was revealed.

Pierre Monney was born in Geneva and, after a long legal career, now lives and works there as a Counsel in private practice. He follows his interest in ancient coins wherever he lives or works, collecting coins linked to historical events.

Pierre has written several articles for The Celator, a magazine for people interested in ancient coins, and one of his pieces was the story of this particular coin. This page is dedicated to Pierre's coin and the Celator story.

Here's the coin. (This photo was taken by Pierre Monney and I show it here with his permission.) I like this portrait, which looks quite modern in style compared to many Hellenistic and almost all Roman coin portraits.

Mithridates VI Tetradrachm Coin Type: PONTOS. Mithridates (or Mithradates) VI (120-63 BCE). Silver tetradrachm. Toned VF. Holed at 12:00, reverse struck from a worn die.
Weight: 15.61 grammes.
Obverse: Diademed head r. floating hair.
Reverse: Stag grazing l, star and crescent before, monogram behind, "BAΣIΛEΩΣ MIΘPAΔATOY EYΠATOPOC" all in ivy wreath.
Dated: on r. "ΓΚΣ", "IB" in exergue. (i.e. year 223 = 75/4 BCE. December, prior to departure in campaign)
References: S.7249 var.BMC.13.44.6. HD4108, H.Delger, eBay #235599491, January 2000. de Callataÿ D 53. R7. A
Pedigree: Naville, V, British Museum doubles & Bertier de Lagarde, 18 June 1823, nº 2333, illustrated. Recueil général des monnaies d'Asie Mineure, Waddington, Babelon, Reinach. Ex collection Gd. Duc Russe, Moscou.

Pierre is quite right about the high cost of these coins in good condition. I see one on sale from Spink as I write this for 2,200 GB Pounds, which is almost 4,000 US dollars. If you are following this up, you should also be aware that non-French-speakers would usually spell this king's name "Mithradates". Pierre's spelling follows the French tradition.

Finally, here is its story, transcribed from the Celator article, and reproduced with the agreement of its editor. If you are interested in The Celator, you can find out more, and subscribe, here.

A Hole Through "The Looking Glass"

by Pierre R. Monney

Under the heading "Through The Looking Glass" Wayne G. Sayles, in The Celator's January 2001 issue, recalled Bob Levy's articles about the imaginary or presumed journey of ancient coins before they reach a modern collector. Sometimes, as mentioned by Mr. Sayles, a partial pedigree can be established by reference to old auction catalogues and illustrations or even thanks to countermarks (unfortunately not showing much respect to the coin with which another place of circulation or a possessive owner wished to leave their permanent mark). A simple hole in a pierced coin may also lead to partial historical identification.

Last year, a Mithridates VI of Pontos tetradrachm was offered on eBay. The coin had some obvious wear and a hole on the top of the king's head. Nevertheless, as this coin is rather scarce and very costly when in good condition, it was a tempting occasion to acquire it within a reasonable price range.

Having the privilege of living close to the Belgian Royal Library, where Mr. François de Callataÿ, the well-known expert on Mirthridates' coinage, heads the Coin and Medal department, I decided to show him the coin and ask for some comments, if possible, about this "wounded coin."

With his usual courtesy and interest, Mr. de Callataÿ examined the coin carefully, deciphered the hardly legible date as being "ΓΚΣ", with "IB" in exergue, i.e. 223 = 75/74 BC, in December, before Mithridates' departure for his main campaign.

He mentioned that this coin reminded him of something he had seen out of the thousands of coins he had reviewed when writing his thesis on the coinage of the Mithridatic Wars: " – I wonder if, perhaps" .... I could feel that something triggered his reflection, apparently the existence and location of the hole!

He started looking in his annotated cards and found the same coin, same hole under his reference D 53.R7. The coin was further referenced as having been illustrated in the old auction publication "Naville, V, British Museum doubles & Bertier de Lagarde, 18 June 1923". The book was found and Mr. de Callataÿ picked it up from one of the lengthy shelves of the Royal Numismatic Library. Lo and behold, the coin, "my coin", was illustrated under no. 2333: same coin, same hole. This coin also appeared in the Recueil Général des monnaies d'Asie Mineure, by Waddington, Babelon, and Reinach with this reference: "Ex collection Grand Duc Russe, Moscou."

Mr. de Callataÿ then surmised that the coin was probably found by some local tribesmen in the Black Sea area, where Mithridates' kingdom expanded, and that the coin was eventually pierced to be added as part of the classical coin jewellery worn by tribeswomen as a necklace decoration.

Subsequently the coin must have been "offered" to a Russian Grand Duke, a collector of antiquities, whose summer residence was in Crimea near the shores of the Black Sea.

This tetradrachm then ended up in the hands of the well-known collector Bertier de Lagarde who lived in Russia at the time. After the 1923 Naville auction, one loses sight of the coin's odyssey and who knows how it reached the New World!

The conclusion is that, thanks to the pierced coin's precise identity, we were able to see through the "black hole" of history and trace back part of its historical journey to out contemporary age. This, as Wayne Sayles put it in his article, is one of the thought provoking clues to how an ancient coin may have got around!

The content of this page was last updated on 23 January 2006. It contains material written by Pierre R. Monney

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