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100 Greatest Ancient Coins

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100 Greatest Ancient Coins by Harlan J. Berk (Whitman Publishing LLC, 2008, $29.95, 133 pages)

 

Whitman continues its “100 Greatest” series with another lavish, authoritative and yet inexpensive issue, 100 Greatest Ancient Coins by Harlan J. Berk. An ANA life member and former president of the Professional Numismatists Guild, Berk’s honors are lengthy and include the Robert Friedberg Award for Literature. As a respected writer, he is a lifelong learner, and for him, writing this book was an educational experience. He told me, “Syracuse was founded on a small island and then moved to Sicily. The four dolphins [on their large silver coins] represent the sea. I had not known that. If I did not, then others probably did not as well.” In addition to his own research, Berk turned to his many friends and colleagues in numismatics for guidance. Among those who reviewed his essays were archaeologist Dr. Alan Walker (newly retired from Leu Numismatik of Zurich and now doing business as Nomos AG), and Dr. Ute Wartenberg Kagan, president of the American Numismatic Society.

 

Unlike the other books in the 100 Greatest series, this one is arranged chronologically. The Number 1 ancient coin of all time is the EID MAR (Ides of March) denarius issued by M. Junius Brutus in 42 BCE to commemorate the assassination of G. Julius Caesar two years earlier. However, the first coin in the book is an Ionian Electrum Stater, (ranked number 81) because it is the oldest known true coin. From archaic Ionia, through the Greeks, Alexander the Great and the Hellenistic kingdoms to the Roman republic and empire, the book closes with the issues from Constantinople of the Eastern Roman Empire.

 

Berk points out that those later Romans of the Eastern Empire never called themselves “Byzantine.” That term is a consequence of papal politics of the 17th century. His assertion is one of many facts that hallmark the recent scholarship behind this book. Berk also maintains that the coins of Alexander the Great depict the young conqueror. Images of Alexander appear on four coins: the Alexander tetradrachm, the Pergamon gold stater, the tetradrachm of Lysimachus and the Porus coin.

 

Those issues highlight another aspect: these are the hundred greatest, not the hundred most expensive. While many of these examples are, indeed, significant rarities that have brought prices in excess of $100,000, about a dozen are affordable to any serious collector. An Alexander tetradrachm in Fine or below can be had for $200. However, another fact remains: the collector who can afford $200 can set aside money over time and buy a truly desirable piece, well-centered and in high grade, with interesting mintmarks for $400 to $1000. Moreover, a few of these hundred greatest can be had for even less. Berk told me that he recently sold 700 anonymous folles of the mid-third century for $18 each. “These are coins that anyone can afford. They had a political impact. There are ten such coins in the book, in the reach of any collector.”

 

David Sundman of Littleton Coin Company provided the Syracuse “Kimon Decadrachm” pictured in this work. That one of America’s best known sellers of American coins owns one of these rare masterpieces of fine ancient art is itself a lesson. Many collectors herald the classic designs of 19th and early 20th century issues such as the Saint Gaudens $20 and the Walking Liberty Half Dollar as the high-water mark of our nation’s money. Those coins were all modeled after examples from the Greeks and Romans. In this book, you will find the best of the best, the finest art work and the historically important coins of the Greek and Roman civilizations.

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