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Research Coins: Affiliated Auction

Sale: Nomos 9, Lot: 199. Estimate CHF5500. 
Closing Date: Monday, 20 October 2014. 
Sold For CHF14000. This amount does not include the buyer’s fee.

KYRENAICA, Barce (in alliance with Euhesperides?). c. 480 BC. Didrachm (Silver, 15mm, 8.32 g). Ram’s head to right, with a beaded truncation; below, silphium fruit (seed pod?); around, border of dots. Rev. Silphium fruit (seed pod?) between two dolphins swimming around it to right; all within incuse square. Apparently unpublished and unknown. Unique. With a beautifully struck obverse combined with a reverse struck from a very worn die. Nicely toned. Nearly extremely fine/very fine.

From the Battos Collection.

This extraordinary coin is one of great interest, and is hitherto unknown. It comes from a collection, or, rather, an accumulation, of coins and objects that left Libya in 1969 when King Idris I was deposed and foreign residents expelled from the country. Since that time it remained unstudied and in storage. The lack of an ethnic, while not uncommon with the early coinage of Kyrene, is particularly dismaying for this coin, since without one its attribution will always remain slightly in doubt. However, the types it bears provide good evidence for its origin. The obverse shows a ram’s head: this could well actually be a rhyton, as found on the contemporary tridachms from Delphi (which were very probably designed for trade with nearby Egypt); in any case, the ram’s head was only used as a type in Barke. This is understandable since Barke was inland and stock raising would have been a major part of the economy. A known didrachm from Barke (BMC 2 = pl. xxxiii, 3) has an obverse that closely parallels this one: on it we see the forepart of a bull paired with a silphium fruit. The reverse is, however, unlike anything from either Barke or Kyrene. It shows a silphium fruit with two dolphins swimming around it, an exact parallel to the way dolphins appear on the coinage of Syracuse, swimming around the head of Arethusa. At Syracuse they appear as a symbol of the sea water that surrounded the island of Ortygia, where Arethusa’s fountain bubbled up. Such a type seems unexpected for a landlocked city like Barke, but would be most appropriate for the coastal port city of Euhesperides. Thus, the possibility that this coin could be recording an alliance of friendship between the two cities is not at all unlikely. As for the fruit that appears on this coin, and is commonly found on most of the early coinage from Kyrenaica, it has been suggested that it is not a fruit at all, but a seed pod, enlarged because of its economic importance. The silphium has always been mysterious: it had died out by Roman times, but we do know that it was greatly prized for its medicinal and culinary properties. It is quite possible that its seeds were pressed to produce a form of medicinal oil while the ground remains were used for seasoning. If so, that would be a good reason to celebrate those seeds on the coinage.