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Research Coins: Feature Auction


Cabinet W
SICILY, Syracuse. Gelon, Tyrant. 485-478 BC

Triton XV, Lot: 1003. Estimate $600000.
Sold for $700000. This amount does not include the buyer’s fee.

SICILY, Syracuse. Gelon. Tyrant, 485-478. AR Tetradrachm (23mm, 16.99 g, 12h). Head of the river god Alpheios facing, with a moustache, long beard, small horns (their tips off the flan) and non-human ears / ΣVRA, Two large grains of barley; all within a deep incuse square. C. Arnold-Biucchi, and A.-P. C. Weiss, “The River God Alpheios on the First Tetradrachm Issue of Gelon at Syracuse,” QT XXXVI (2007), pp. 59-74, pl. I, 1-1a (this coin). Reverse marginally triple struck, otherwise, extremely fine. Unique. A spectacular and important archaic coin of great beauty and power, one of the most important discoveries in the coinage of 5th century Sicily ever made. Toned and with an astoundingly virtuoso facing head of Alpheios, very probably the finest facing head ever to appear on Greek coinage.

Purchased privately via Leu Numismatics from an European collection in 2000.

This astonishing coin, then uncleaned and thickly encrusted, was in the possession of a European collector for some considerable time before being seen by the late Silvia Hurter who picked it out and sold it to an American collector. He had it very professionally and very carefully cleaned: this is the result. This coin was the subject of an important article by Arnold-Biucchi and Weiss (cited above) in which they concluded that the river god had to be Alpheios: the river god from Epirus who dived into the sea to follow Arethusa to the spring on the island of Ortygia, where Syracuse was founded. They also pointed out that epigraphically and stylistically the coin must have been issued after Boehringer’s Group I, Series II had ended, since all of those coins had four letter inscriptions using three-bar sigmas (ϟVRΑ). This piece has a four letter inscription as well, but with the more ‘modern’ four-bar sigma (ΣVRΑ); however, this only appeared on a single die, V 25, which was used for all of the small group of coins that make up B. Group II, series 3 (B. 34-37). There, however, it was partnered with the complete city name on the reverse (Group II, series 3); beginning with Group II, series 4 the four letter inscription disappears, with only the full name on the reverse. Thus our coin, with only a single inscription, must come before Group II, 3.

This internal chronology enables us to show that this coin must have been struck c. 485 when Gelon, the powerful tyrant of Gela, captured Syracuse. The head of Alpheios is very close to the head of the river god Gelas who appears on Gela’s issues and it would seem that Gelon wanted to mark his control over Syracuse by a spectacular coinage that was completely different from what had been struck before. Clearly, the Syracusans did not approve and must have insisted on a coinage that more clearly reflected the status of their own powerful city. Thus the change to a revised version of their traditional tetradrachm coinage.

In any event, this is clearly one of the most spectacular coins, and most spectacular discoveries, to appear on the market in over a century.