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Special Exhibition for a Single Coin (2004)

Last month I was invited to the grand opening of a new exhibition initiated by my friend and colleague, Haim Gitler, head of the numismatic department at the IsraelMuseum. About 300 people gathered on the open terrace at the entrance to the museum to hear Haim’s speech. He was followed by the chief curator of the IsraelMuseum, and then by the head of the Bank of Israel and the Belgian ambassador—a strange combination of speakers indeed. But it gets even more interesting. The whole exhibition was devoted to – a single coin!

A few years ago, Haim devised an ambitious plan to exhibit 100 of the most beautiful, important and valuable coins of ancient times. His requests for the loan of the coins resulted in only partial collaboration by various museums and private collectors, but a chance meeting at a Parisian cafe with Francois de Callatay, numismatic curator of the Royal Library of Belgium, led to a breakthrough. The Israel Museum was granted a loan of what is considered one of the top ten most beautiful and important coins of antiquity—the Sicilian Tetradrachm of Aetna.

PERFECT COINS REFLECT VICTORY

Around 480 BC Greece had great success in military campaigns against the Persians who were attacking Greece and the Chartagians in Sicily. Political freedom led to economic prosperity and cultural confidence that was expressed in various fields. The Greek city colonies competed with each other in producing the most beautiful and perfectly minted coins that would reflect their victories and mythologies. One of the finest coins minted was by the city of Aetna, modern Catania, which lies at the foot of Mount Etna, Sicily. The coin is a silver Tetradrachm (4 drachms). It measures 26 mm in diameter and weighs a little more than 20 grams. The obverse depicts the head of Silenus, a mythological creature with the ears of a horse, while the reverse depicts Zeus, the king of the gods, seated on a throne. Zeus’ right hand rests on a vine staff, and his left hand holds a thunderbolt with two curled wings. An eagle in a pine tree is in the background. The principal images are interesting, but it is the style in which they were engraved on the die that makes this coin so uniquely beautiful. The minting process was so accurate that you see the exact folds of Zeus’ robe, the embroidered cushion on the throne on which he sits, the leaves of the vine staff and the pine tree, and the drunken expression on Silenus’ face. The coin is not only valuable for academic purposes, but also literally— it was insured for 3 million USD!.

The main reason for the coin’s value is not its metal content (silver), nor its large size, but its rarity: it is the only one of its type ever found. In addition, the coin is very well preserved, and the quality of the artwork is most impressive.

Sicilian Tetradrachm of Aetna

But how did it reach the Royal Library of Belgium? The coin also has an interesting modern history. It was discovered probably some time in the 19th century inCatania (Sicily) and bought by the Casetllani brothers, known antiquity dealers of that time. Then in 1882 the Belgian Jewish antique collector Lucian de Hirsch purchased it, for a record sum of 8,000 Belgian francs—about US$50,000 in today’s terms. But shortly after purchasing the Tetradrachm of Aetna, Lucian de Hirsch died of pneumonia at the age of 30. His mother donated his coin collection to the state, which in return named the national numismatic collection room (“Cabinet desMédailles”) in the Royal Library in Brussels after her son. Since then, the Sicilian coin has been presented in various catalogues and research papers, but never exhibited. This is the first time that the coin has been on public display, along with a few other coins attributed to an anonymous Sicilian die engraver master.