Famous Coin Friday: We’ll Never Fade Like Graffiti

There’s an understandable trend in the coin collecting world, as with other collecting worlds, namely that people like their stuff to be pristine. The value of a coin is determined by a balance between the coin’s rarity and/or backstory and its condition. A common coin which is heavily worn will be worth surprisingly little, and some common coins are worth very little even if they’re in excellent condition just because there are so very, very many of them. An extremely rare coin will be worth lots of money even if it’s worn, pierced, or otherwise damaged, like the exceedingly rare Ides of March aureus which is coming up for sale soon. Click the picture below to go to the entire catalogue entry and you’ll see why its estimated price is 750,000 Swiss francs despite the big old hole at the very top and a big scratch on the reverse:

Gold Ides of March aureus, minted by Brutus in 42 CE. Lot 474 in the upcoming NAC Auction 132.

In fact, if you do click through to the catalogue description (and again, please do!) you’ll see that the auction house is trying to turn the hole from a problem into a major asset, pointing out that the hole would enable someone to put the coin on a thread or chain and wear it close to their heart. The intimacy of it! And from something as commercial as a coin! Incidentally, while researching this post, I found this beautiful photo from the Epping Forest Museum showing a love token displayed on a thread around a mannequin’s neck. What an excellent way to bring the token to life and show that it had significance not just despite its wobbliness but because of it.

Photo from Epping Forest Museum’s website showing a tiny coin on a thread in a display case (click through)

Not to get on my soap box, but I think that sometimes in our quest for the Perfect Specimen (which isn’t inherently bad), we are too harsh on the little imperfections that give coins their individuality. We love coins not just for their art or their shininess, but also because they are a direct conduit with the ancient world and, moreover, are sufficiently plentiful and hardy to allow people to handle them even today. So today I wanted to focus on the little human traces that are left on coins by their previous users – not just as acts of protest or political statement, which I touched on in the post about Napoleon III’s defeat at Sedan, or to turn a coin into something else, which we looked at in the post on tokens – but those little prosaic marks that connect a modern viewer with an ancient user and shows the life that these coins had.

This coin is a large gold issue called a histamenon nomisma, issued by the Byzantine Empire, showing the 11th century ruler Michael VII Ducas on the reverse and an image of Christ on the obverse. The Byzantine Empire often had an uneasy relationship with the Arabic-speaking nations surrounding it, sometimes spending huge quantities to bribe them out of attacking. As a result, there’s a non-negligible number of Byzantine coins which feature graffiti in Arabic. It’s difficult to see on this coin, but at some point in the coin’s history someone wrote the word ‘loan’ on the edge of it (not too far in, or it might call the coin’s legitimacy into question). Why did they do this? My impromptu theory: someone was budgeting their cash, putting different coins in different piles; one for food, one for rent, one for medicine, one for a child’s birthday, and this particular coin was (almost literally) earmarked as repayment for a loan. People still do this now by putting specific cash amounts in envelopes with their designated purpose, so it’s not a completely off-the-wall suggestion.

Gold histamenon nomisma of Michael VII, minted in Byzantium 1071-1078.

Tetradrachms of Alexander the Great and his immediate successors are some of the most plentiful coins on the market today, but at some point in the 4th century BCE (or even later) someone wanted to mark this supremely generic coin as something specific, so they put an X on the reverse. Why did they do this? Was it a budgeting thing like I suggested the previous coin might be? Maybe it was the person’s first initial, or just a cross made by one of the many ancient people who were unable to read? Here’s a completely unsubstantiated idea that I like: sometimes modern magicians will have people mark a bank note as part of a trick. Maybe this was part of some kind of ancient close-up magic? You can’t conclusively prove me wrong!

Silver tetradrachm in the name of Alexander III, minted in Babylon c.323-318/7 BCE.

This coin has obviously been through a lot: it’s a stater from Tarsos in Cilicia (now part of Turkey) but at some point someone, probably a banker or money changer, didn’t think it was real and wanted to check that it was silver all the way through, so they made a test cut to check. They must have been satisfied and let the original owner spend it unimpeded. As if that wasn’t enough, the coin has graffiti on the obverse and the reverse; was this part of the same interaction? Did the money changer who made the test cut then, as it were, sign his work to let others know that the coin had been inspected by someone trustworthy? Was the owner of this coin pleased about that, or were they annoyed that their money was ever considered suspect?

Silver stater of Tarsos, minted 361-334 BCE

This coin also features a little banker’s mark, a sort of tiny bore to check the coin’s silver content – not as dramatic as a test cut, or as damaging. Where did this happen? Little circular bores like these often appear on coins circulating in India – perhaps this coin made it that far in its journey before it was buried, either accidentally or on purpose. Given that it’s not very worn we might rule that out. There is a graffitied letter in the obverse field that looks like an M – again, was this the banker’s name, or a completely unrelated inscription? And beneath the M are another two scratches – was someone trying to write another letter and got interrupted? Or did they start to write the M and then change their mind about its placement? Perhaps the letters aren’t Latin but Greek, in which case it might read ‘SL’. Who or what is SL? And if the person was writing in Greek, were they in Greece at the time, or were they visiting Italy? What did they make of their latest overlord Octavian?

Silver denarius of Octavian, minted in Italy(?) 32-31 BCE.

The questions I’m asking are frustratingly open-ended, I realise. I wish so much that we could ask the people who made these marks why they did this and what it meant to them. Maybe doing so would help us trace the coin’s movement from human hand to human hand to the present day. And before you object ‘Julia, you are overthinking this,’ let me just say: yes, overthinking things is my superpower. But! I also believe that these marks, made by our fellow human beings for their own sometimes inscrutable reasons, create an intimacy of connection that spans the otherwise unbridgeable gap of time that separates us.

“This coin is mine,” they say. And we can say, “I know. It’s mine too.”

If this piece has piqued your interest, head over to the Topics Covered section of the site and see some of the other sample presentations I have to offer! Also, follow me on Twitter for more numismatic nonsense at @tellaboutcoins.

Published by juliadomna

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