Attica, Athens. Tetradrachm of the "Wappenmünzen series" circa 515, AR 17.15 g. Gorgoneion with open mouth and protruding tongue. Rev. Facing head and forepaws of panther within incuse square. Seltman 324. Svoronos-Pick pl. 1, cf.73. Nicolet-Pierre, RN 25, p. 17 and pl. IV, D9/R–. ACGC 173.
Estimate: 40'000 CHF
Starting price: 32'000 CHF
Price realized: 40'000 CHF
Extremely rare. An issue of tremendous fascination, perfectly centred on a full flan.
Obverse from a weak and rusty die, otherwise good very fine / extremely fine
From the traditions represented in the works of Aristotle and Plutarch, Athenian coinage was introduced by Solon, who became Archon of Athens in 594/3 B.C. However, hoard evidence shows that these literary references cannot be accurate, as they speak of a time long before coinage was first produced in Athens. The references either must be to drachm weights of silver (rather than, specifically, to coined silver) or the original texts were subjected to later revisions.
The first coinage of Athens, known as Wappenmünzen ('heraldic coins'), appears to have been introduced in about 545 B.C., near the start of the tyranny of Peisistratus. It would seem that local elites were the driving force behind this coinage as the variety of designs, fourteen in all, likely represent shield-like family badges. The small number of dies employed and the rarity of the coins both indicate that these were not substantial issues.
Sometime between c.525 and c.515 B.C., during the tyranny of Hippias (527-510), the Wappenmünzen coinage was superseded by the Gorgoneion series, of which an example is offered here. Gorgoneion tetradrachms are among the most significant coinages of Athens, if for no other reason than their denomination. Prior to this coinage the Athenians had stuck nothing larger than a didrachm – a coin equal in weight to a Corinthian stater. The introduction of double-weight coins perhaps indicates that the Athenians planned to start using coins for the purpose of large transactions and international trade, rather than principally for local use.
An equally important innovation of this coinage is the fact that its reverse bore an artistic design. With the exception of a truly remarkable Wappenmünzen didrachm struck with a reverse die that incorporates a facing lion or panther head within one of the quadrants of the incuse punch, all Athenian coins struck prior to this issue were essentially uniface. This may be the first instance at any mint in the western world when a full reverse type was employed. This, of course, would have a profound effect on the evolution of Greek coinage.
The use of an obverse and a reverse design made it possible for the Athenians to move ever closer to issuing a true 'state coinage' as opposed to an eclectic coinage on which a variety of personal designs were employed. With the obverse now bearing the facing head of the Gorgon – an emblem, albeit oblique, of the city's patron goddess Athena – any rotation of personal types (in this case just two, the facing heads of a lion or panther, and a bull) could be isolated to the reverse. This provided Athenian coinage with a sense of uniformity that sometime between circa 520 and circa 510 B.C. found its ultimate expression in the replacement of the Gorgoneion tetradrachms with those bearing the familiar Athena-owl design and the ethnic AθE.