Ancient coins have, from their beginning, been recognized as objects of great beauty and an important part of Western art tradition. It is perhaps only since the Renaissance. however, that they have been thought of as cultural and historical documents that open a door to the past.
The great humanist Petrarch, in the mid 14th century, was one of the fIrst to form a scientific and artistic collection of coins from antiquity. By the 15th century, most of Europe's princes, religious leaders and wealthy merchants legitimized their claim to sophistication with well stocked cabinets of quality specimens. Many of these collections eventually found their way into museums where they remain to this day.
The enduring value of ancient coins is to be found not only in their own antiquity. or their historical perspective, but as much or more so in the fascinating images created for them by the great artists of their time. Perhaps the most concrete evidence of this is in the marketplace itself. A fifth century tetradrachm struck by one of me great master celators can easily bring 1000 times its intrinsic value in today's market. A less artistic example of the same denomination may bring only a tenth of that amount.
The striking of coins in ancient times was a labor intensive business. The striking itself took the efforts of at least three skilled workers; one to align and hold the dies. one to feed the pre- heated planchet into me die. and one to strike the die with a heavy mallet. The process was slow and exacting.
Temperature control of me planchet was extremely important. as was the amount of force applied by the mallet. Quite often, dies were worn or broken which meant re-engraving at the least and more probably a complete replacement of the die. This constant engraving process provided the opportunity for wide artistic experimentation and expression.
The celator's art required a fusion of the greatest advances in painting and sculpture. The impact of sculptural technique was especially evident in the experimentation with facing heads on Greek coins after 450 B.C. as well as in the refinement of human proportions on reverse types from the Archaic to the Hellenistic periods. At the same time, the sophistication of composition and design on these coins reflects a narrative quality that could only have come from minds schooled in a painterly tradition.
As famous painters of the fifth century signed their works. so too did the best of the die engravers. One can find the signature of Heracleidas on coins of Catana, along with that of Euanitos who also designed beautiful coins for the city of Syracuse. Phrygillus, who worked for Greek cities in Italy, also created coins for Syracuse as did the sculptor and celator Kimon. Other cities such as Acragus, Olympia and Clazomenae produced coins of equal beauty and prestige signed by the masters of their art.
Die engraving was a natural medium for experimentation since the coin presented an image isolated in time and space. It did not compliment any architectural device or rely solely on the fall of light and shade for its essence. It was this freedom which allowed and indeed nurtured within the art itself a synthesis and perfection of ideals.
Greek vase painters of the fifth century. tackling the thorny problem of circular space in their magnificent kylix tondo designs, found a number of successful themes which are repeated on coins. One of the most easily recognized is that of Herakles wrestling the Nemean Lion. There is compelling evidence in this example. and others like it, that the vase painter and celator shared common problems and perhaps jointly came to common solutions.
It is not surprising that numismatic art is collectible today, or that it was in the post-renaissance period, but there is both literary and archaeological evidence to prove that collecting of ancient coins was popular as early as the fourth century B.C. and possibly earlier. Certainly, these pieces were not collected at that time for their antiquity, but rather for their appeal as miniature works of art.
The study of ancient coins is not merely a study of names, dates and places; it is a study of our cultural heritage and the tradition of Western art. Collecting, it seems. should be a logical extension of appreciation and study, not just an accumulation of types from A to Z. Holding an ancient coin in one's hand can evoke feelings of wonderment and reverence. These feelings do not come from a coin's catalogue number, they come from the image that our eyes behold on its suface. They are feelings o f appreciation for the celator's art.