The dusty pages of history are rife with accounts of power plays and dynasty shifts. But if you burn the dried leaves of time all that is left behind is something hard, glinting & rusty – scraps of metal that are perhaps the most powerful catalyst of war and hatred. For centuries, brothers have pitted themselves against each other, more often for a small piece of metal than for kicking the pigskin ball. So perhaps it is of little wonder that even after these coins lose their jingle and shine, they still retain an aura of power that to this date has logical men fighting over each other in a bid to be their prized possessor.
Even if you are not a keen numismatic enthusiast, know that behind every coin , there is possibly an undocumented story. Follow the oft misty and sometimes bloody path that the metal has taken to travel continents and oceans, swaying the hearts and minds of gullible men with their repressive old world charm. Some of these coins have been bid for as high as $7 million, and the story behind them is as enchanting as they are rare and notorious.
The Tetra Drachma Owl, 427 BC, Greece
Extracted from the very cradle of civilization, the Owl is perhaps the first widely used international trade currency, later followed by the more famous Roman Denarii, the Spanish Doubloon, the Austrian Maria Theresa Thaler, and the American Dollar. The carved head on the obverse side of the coin is that of Athena (daughter of Zeus and the patron goddess of Athens), and the Minerva Owl on the reverse is her Mascot. Legends has it that Athena, the favorite daughter of Zeus, was known for her wisdom as well as her skills in the battleground – two traits not commonly attributed together. Hinting at the existence of a different ideological world than ours, the symbolism of this coin goes beyond man’s quest for divinity in material things.
This piece was sold for $1300 in a 2014 auction.
Augustus Denarius, 27 BC, Italy
This gold coin, called an Aureus, is one of the 22 known to have survived the two-thousand-odd years that have passed by since its creator decided to embrace his inner narcissist. Depicting a Heifer on the reverse and Caesar’s profile on the obverse, this coin represents an epic period of Rome’s turbulent antiquity when Augustus Caesar changed the course of human history forever. Originally known as Gaius Octavius, Caesar defeated Mark Anthony & Cleopatra and transformed the Republic of Rome to the empire of his uncle’s dreams; becoming the first roman emperor and then proceeding to mint this coin to honor his August presence. The Aureus of ancient Rome were gold coins valued at 25 silver denarii, but today they have an increased mark-up in the numismatic world because of their purity and impossible age.
Sold for $785,000 in a 2014 auction.
Pieces of Eight, 16th Century, Spain
You would probably be humming the theme to Pirates of the Caribbean in your head as soon as you hear the name of this particular coin. Often associated with pirates and ship wreck, these Spanish dollars were minted in the American Colonies and were in circulation until the mid-nineteenth century. This coin could be physically cut into eight pieces, or “bits” to make change, each bit corresponding to the worth of one reale (and there is your cause for using the colloquial phrase “pieces of eight”), while sixteen of these whole 8 pieces were equivalent to a Doubloon. The Spanish merchant vessels transporting large volumes of the bullion from the colonies to Spain and other parts were an easy target and thus frequently intercepted by these plunderers. Pieces of Eight would be frequently found on pirate treasures and hoards – hence the association in popular culture.
Hobo Nickels, 1920’s, USA
Can a counterfeit be more beautiful and expensive than the original? Experts of the Art world might rescind the thought violently but money dictates otherwise. Brilliantly crafted, these nickels are chiseled from clad coins (copper core with layers of nickel-copper on either side), depicting a miniature folk-art form rarely seen in the numismatic world. Lacking the glitz and shimmer of a regular coin, these nickels might not have been minted from the U.S. treasury but they are as deeply rooted in American culture as Jazz itself. Legend has it that during the Great Depression of 1920s, Hobos, or migratory homeless workers, in the US would carve them out of the nickels, dimes and quarter-dimes and trade them in exchange for food and bed.
An example of a hobo nickel, crafted by Bertram Wiegand, known for signing off his pieces by scratching off the L, I & Y from Liberty, was sold for $9060 at an auction.
One Ruble commemorative, 1924, Russia
This humble ruble marked the end of an era of one of the greatest Marxist leader of Communist Russia. Vladimir Lenin, widely known to be the founder of the Russian Communist Party, was a controversial figure who masterminded the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 that led to the disintegration of the Russian state. Following Lenin’s death in 1924 Stalin rose to power and with an authoritarian and stern hand, made sure the Marxist principles didn’t materialize. Lenin would however be commemorated in popular iconography as the greatest champions of Marxist-Leninism and perhaps one of the first dictators of contemporary civilization.
Workers Of The World, Unite!
Double Eagle, 1933, USA
The rarest and perhaps the most expensive coin in the numismatic world today, this shiny piece of gold was actually banned from being legally owned by the US government! These Saint Gauden designed gold coins were minted since 1907 until 1933. With the Great Depression of 1928 settling in the country, people began to withdraw their money from banks in the form of gold coins, which led to the instability of the banking system in an economy already facing the threat of a meltdown. In a serious effort to deter this imminent catastrophe, President Roosevelt enacted a legislation that terminated the gold standard and made the possession of gold by U.S. citizens illegal, except those that had numismatic or collectible value. Later on, the U.S. mint destroyed the 1933 Double Gold Eagle coins that were minted that year and made bullion bars out of them. Only two of them have been known to survive legally, though a couple of them were sneaked out somehow, out of which one was sold to Egypt’s King Farouk.
Sold for a whopping $7.6 million in 2002, it is the only Double Eagle that has been monetized and madelegal tender, after a long-drawn legal battle between the US mint and S. Fenton (a coin dealer).
Touted as the paramour of civilized society, these little souvenirs of history are often associated with greed, lust and materialism.
These world coins from various era hints at the strange hybrid world humanity have often inhabited. While some were typical – showing the profile of deities or rulers on one side, others have spun stories on the socio-cultural trails of the civilized world. So the next time your travels take you to unfamiliar territories with strange denominations, be sure to pinch a few pennies and save up the souvenirs as your travel collectibles; and who knows, a few years down the line you just might be the lucky owner of a rare find.