The oldest surviving coin die in the world
Lot 131
KINGS OF LYDIA. Alyattes to Kroisos, circa 610-546 BC. Obverse Coin Die for a Trite (Bronze, 22 mm, 19.03 g), Sardes. Head of a lion with sun and rays on its forehead to right (engraved incuse and mirrored). Rev. Blank. Unpublished and unique, the oldest surviving coin die in the world and hence a discovery of tremendous historical and numismatic importance. Thick olive green patina, otherwise, very fine.

From a Swiss collection, formed before 2005.

For as long as people have been interested in numismatics, scholars have also delved into the technical aspects of coinage. The invention of money in the 7th century BC brought along many organizational and technical challenges, such as operating a mint and ensuring a steady supply of raw materials, and selecting, crafting and applying markers and motives to the pieces of metal we now call coins - at least once authorities moved away from producing plain types and started marking their coins with emblems to denote their origin and guarantee their quality. Since the introduction of such markers and motives, Lydian and Greek craftsmen understood that prefabricating plain flans and then striking them from dies was a much more efficient way of mass-producing coins than casting them in single-use moulds. Building upon the experience of metal artisans, who often used punches to apply motives to craftwork, the manufacturing of coin dies was a logical step.

Unfortunately for us, however, mints have always carefully guarded their dies from being lost or stolen for obvious reasons. Thus, only very few ancient coin dies have escaped destruction, rendering their study very difficult. For a science like numismatics that relies so fundamentally on die matching and die sequencing, this is particularly regrettable. Some of the few dies that have survived were compiled in Göbl's monumental 1978 treatise 'Antike Numismatik' (pl. 22), and a number of additional examples have surfaced in recent years (although the authenticity of some of them is questionable). Their study reveals that ancient coin dies occur in various shapes and metals, some taking the form of square bronze cones (Göbl 240: reverse die for an Athenian tetradrachm, circa 454-404 BC) or large iron rods (Göbl 239/1: reverse die for a tetradrachm of Philip II, 359-336 BC), whereas a series of Augustan (27 BC-14 AD) bronze dies in various sizes and forms (Göbl 239/2-239/6) demonstrates that not even in the highly organized Roman mints, dies were crafted to a uniform standard.

The emergence of our piece, a bronze obverse coin die for a Lydian electrum trite, is an incredibly important discovery, as it is by far the earliest coin die to have ever surfaced. Manufactured in the late 7th or the first half of the 6th century BC, it gets us within a century, or even within a few decades, of the invention of coinage. What immediately stands out is the small size of the die, which has a thickness of just 9.3 mm, less than half of that of one of the smaller Augustan dies, and a fraction of the giant reverse die of Philip II. This is probably due to three factors: first, Lydian emissions were far smaller than the substantial silver coinage of the Macedonian kings, let alone the enormous, highly organized output of the Roman Empire. Hence, Lydian dies were not used nearly as extensively in short order as their Roman counterparts, and were thus less susceptible to stress or metal failure, resulting in no need for such massive pieces of hardened metal. Second, Lydian tritai were famously struck in electrum, a naturally occurring alluvial alloy of gold and silver that was considerably softer than the pure silver or the bronze used for Roman denarii or base metal coinage. And thirdly, the bulk of the blows delivered to Lydian tritai was absorbed by the reverse dies (see lots 132-134 below), which created the distinct deep reverse incusa, and were smaller in diameter, but likely lengthier.

On a different occasion, this author has discussed the appearance of lion heads on Lydian coins being connected to the name of Alyattes, lyd. *Walweta-, which likely derived from the unattested Lydian word for lion, as we know that a lion in the related Luwian language was called 'walwa/i' (see the note on Leu 7 (2020), 1285). He never imagined at the time that a die for a Lydian trite would soon emerge, the oldest coin die ever recorded, and thus a unique testimony to the earliest phases of the invention of coinage!

Please note that the coin on the image is for illustration only and not included in this lot.
7500 CHF
Starting price:
6000 CHF
Hammer price:
65000 CHF
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Closing time: 27-May-23, 06:00:00 CEST
All winning bids are subject to a 20% buyer's fee.


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