Ancient And Medieval Silver [Stamp and Coin Mart, January 2011, Page 96, 97]
As good as gold? Well not quite, says coin and antiquities expertBrett Hammond of TimeLine Originals, but silver coins can be very pleasing to the eye and are keenly sought by collectors
The 1970s fad for buying and hoarding what some advertisers call scrap precious metals has come back with a vengeance in recent times. That's hardly surprising given present economic uncertainties; investors invariably turn to gold and silver when stocks and shares perform poorly. More often than not the investors are proved correct, as today's prices accurately reflect. Even worn coins that fall far below the poorest collecting grade get drawn into this scenario and sold by weight to anyone who wishes to gamble on precious metal prices rising even further.
Ancient and medieval gold and silver coins command prices much higher than the value of their intrinsic metal content. They are bought and owned not by speculators but by collectors who appreciate their value as works of art; as tangible witnesses to human history; and they possess aesthetic value beyond philistine speculation. Nevertheless collectors cannot escape the laws of supply and demand. Prices for coins as works of art also rise in the face of ever increasing numbers of buyers who want to own coins for pleasure, with the long-term expectation that increases in value will match and even hopefully outstrip future inflation.
For the vast majority of those who collect for pleasure - or who want to join the ever growing ranks - it is now often the case that gold coin prices have gone beyond limited means. But that still leaves a huge number of ancient and medieval silver coins that can match and even surpass gold coins when judged on the skills of die cutters, the variety in designs, and the beauty of the patinas of age. Let me suggest a few that would form a foundation to a great starter collection of ancient and medieval silver coins you will be proud to own and privileged to care for.
Ancient Greece not only left us some magnificent coins; it also pioneered the use of a pure silver currency. Silver coins did more than provide Greek city-states with a convenient medium of exchange; they paid for armies and, perhaps more importantly, they enabled each state to demonstrate its prestige by depicting its own deities and inscriptions to emphasize independence. The owl was the attribute of Athena, goddess of wisdom, and it was the image chosen by the Athenians to display on the silver tetradrachm which became the world's first great trade coin. It circulated around the Aegean and Mediterranean from circa 510 to 38BC. What a glorious coin to commence a collection! Hold one in the palm of your hand and you are holding a coin that might have contributed towards the cost of building the Parthenon.
The Roman Empire bequeathed a remarkable legacy of artefacts, including the stunning bronze parade helmet recently found in Cumbria and sold at auction for £2.3m. Roman coins – probably the world's most popular coin collecting category – provide another legacy; one that can be shared by everyone in the hobby for a great deal less. The silver denarius, for example, a coin used throughout the empire for three centuries, almost always depicted the emperor on its obverse. You can buy remarkable portraits of Claudius, Nero, Trajan, Hadrian, Marcus Aurelius and other famous names for relatively few pounds when you buy silver denarii. Reverses will often display images of gods and goddesses, or their attributes, to emphasize the emperor's association with the deities. The coins themselves have a link with our own currency that lasted for almost two thousand years: the d of denarius gave us the d for our penny in the abbreviation Lsd.
The pre-decimal (pre-1971) penny just mentioned was, of course, made from bronze. We have to go back to Anglo-Saxon times to find the first English silver pennies in circulation. The Old English word was pennige (compare the modern German pfennig), and these coins – broader and flatter than previous issues – were minted by various Anglo-Saxon rulers. Offa, the powerful king of Mercia (still remembered for Offa's Dyke), may have been the first. His pennies were of pure silver and carried legends that named the king, the moneyer and (later) the mint that issued them. Having his name on each coin, the moneyer had to maintain fineness and correct weight or risk the wrath of the king.
The designs cut by Offa's engravers included his portrait in various styles, as well as wolves, eels, serpents and a variety of intricate crosses. The standard of workmanship surpassed anything achieved on the Continent at that time. With only a few modifications in fineness and weight, silver pennies made by subsequent Anglo-Saxon kings, and by Viking rulers in the late 9th century, adhered to the same formula. Indeed silver pennies bearing the monarch's name, the moneyer's name and the mint town's name remained the sole coin denomination minted in England for the next five hundred years. Your silver coin collection must include at least one example.
Surprisingly, after five centuries of nothing but silver pennies – many of them cut into halves and quarters to serve as halfpennies and farthings – the king's subject gave a cold shoulder to the silver four-penny piece introduced by Edward the First in 1279. Known as the groat (from the Latin grossus meaning large), it weighed 89 grains and depicted the king's head within four arcs on the obverse, with a long cross and pellets on the reverse. Minting of this unpopular denomination soon ceased; but very few of the coins found their way back to the mint. Instead people had them converted to broaches and badges, with the long cross gilded and a pin soldered to the obverse. They are prized in this condition today even by coin collectors.
Seventy years later a lighter groat was reintroduced by Edward III, along with a half-groat and round halfpence and farthings. This was a successful launch and groats were then regularly minted down to 1561 in Elizabeth I's reign. Silver groats issued by Lancastrian, Yorkist and Tudor monarchs are reasonably priced; their relatively large size enhances any collection.
The next innovation in English silver coins was the Tudor testoon (or shilling) issued in the early 1500s by Henry VII. Valued at twelve pennies, it boasted a striking profile portrait of the king which replaced the full-face images that had featured on English coins for the previous two hundred years. Other Tudor monarchs – Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary, Elizabeth I – also issued testoons or shillings. An example from any of those reigns would add interest to your collection.
Although the English Civil War (1642–1651) severely disrupted mint production at times, it also threw up some eye-catching silver coins, especially those struck at temporary mints in Royalist held areas. Crowns and halfcrowns which depict Charles, sword-in-hand and mounted on his war horse, epitomize the struggle between the king and Parliament. Purchase one and you will hold in your hand a fragment of history from one of the most turbulent times in our nation's past.
Finally I want to recommend a coin which, like the Athenian silver tetradrachm discussed above, was widely disseminated. In was in fact the first coin to circulate globally; accepted in Europe, the Americas, Asia and the Pacific regions. I refer to the Spanish dollar, or piece of eight, first minted in Spain in 1497. Huge quantities were shipped around the world during the three hundred years in which it was used to pay for colonial raw materials … to buy slaves … to acquire weapons … even to fill pirate treasure chests. You may never know the full history of the specimen you eventually buy; but it will certainly add to the pleasures you enjoy as a collector of antique silver coins.
NOTE: The high-resolution images of coins featured in this article are reproduced courtesy of the Wildwinds project www.wildwinds.com which is an international online numismatic reference whose only current UK sponsor at the time of writing is TimeLine Originals, dealers in Ancient Coins, Collectibles and Works of Art. For up-to-the-minute pricing information for similar coins visit www.time-lines.co.uk
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