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Research Coins: Feature Auction


Electrum Coinage

CNG 91, Lot: 222. Estimate $300.
Sold for $450. This amount does not include the buyer’s fee.

MYSIA, Kyzikos. Circa 600-550 BC. EL Hemihekte – Twelfth Stater (8mm, 1.32 g). Hurter & Liewald III 5.2; cf. Von Fritze I 2 (hekte); SNG France –; Boston MFA –; CNG 82, lot 586. Good VF. Extremely rare, only one example listed by Hurter & Liewald.

Other than the literary tradition ascribing the origin of coinage to the kings of Lydia, there is little evidence for a more exact chronology of early Greek coinage. The tradition, buttressed by limited archaeological studies, does confirm Asia Minor as the place of origin, most likely Lydia or Ionia, and a date somewhere around 650-625 BC. The alloy used, a mixture of gold and silver known to the Greeks as elektron was based on the natural ore found in nugget form in many riverbeds in the region. The earliest coins were of a globular shape and without design in imitation of this natural form; later, simple striated and punched patterns of squares, rectangles, and swastikas were included. The earliest true types may have developed from the use of personal seals, the most widely known being the stater of Ephesos with a stag bearing the inscription “I am a seal of Phanes”. These devices later took on the characteristics of civic symbols, although it would be dangerous to link a specific symbol to a particular city in this early period. The most secure form of classification has been by weight standard, based on two major, and several lesser-used, standards. The Milesian standard, with a stater of roughly 14 grams, saw circulation in Lydia and parts of Ionia. The Phokaic standard of roughly 16 grams was also used in Ionia as well as Mysia. Persic, Aeginetan, and Euboic standards saw scattered use in early coinage, limited in time and extent of circulation. The intrinsic value of the early electrum, even down to the 1/96 stater, was too high for use in everyday commerce, and early coinage must have been used only for the transfer of large sums of money, such as mercantile transactions, payment of government expenses (mercenaries, tribute and such), and donatives, either for services rendered to individuals or the state, or to religious foundations. The Artemision deposits, hoards of early electrum found at the site of the temple of Artemis at Ephesos, are examples of the latter.

The present sale offeres a diverse selection of electrum, from most of the major cities to issue this early coinage: Kyzikos, lots 221-237; Mytilene, lots 252-269; Ephesos, lots 270-274; Miletos, lot 277; Phokaia, lots 278-292; uncertain mints in Ionia, lots 296-304; Sardes (kings of Lydia), lots 306-312; and Mylasa, lot 321.

The Electrum of Kyzikos

The celebrated electrum coinage of Kyzikos began in the first half of the sixth century, and from the beginning the coinage was notable for the variety and inventiveness of its designs. These staters and fractions were regarded as gold coins and circulated throughout a large area along with the gold darics of the Persian Empire. On all of the coins of Kyzikos, large or small, was engraved the tunny-fish (θυννος), which constituted an important product in the Kyzikene economy. The long awaited corpus initiated by the late Friedrich Bodenstedt is now being continued by Maria Kaiser-Raiss. In the meantime we must rely on the synthesis of material put together by von Fritze in 1914, augmented (and corrected) by the articles by Hurter and Liewald. More controversially, Yuri Pokras ("A New Iconography for the Electrum Coins of Kyzikos," The Celator November 2000, pp. 18-26) has tried to argue that Athens invested Kyzikos with the status of subsidiary mint, and that the presence of specific types parallels each city-state’s inclusion into an alliance with Athens.

The orator Aristotelis, in the second century BC, stated the following in his speech regarding the people of Kyzikos: “It is enough for one just to glance at the location and the nature of this city to immediately understand that the name ‘blissful’ given to it by God was factual, so convenient is its land and its sea. As it is built in front of Asia Minor and since its dominion extends from the Black Sea to the Hellespont, Kyzikos joins the two seas together or rather all the seas that man navigates. Thus, ships continuously pass by or arrive at the harbor or depart from the harbor. Justly it should be called ‘blissful’ just as is Corinth because, as it is built in the mid part of the seas, it joins, as if it was the center of the world, all men who sail the Mediterranean from Gibraltar to Kolchis at the far side of the Black Sea.”