Numismatic masterpiece recovered in smuggling ring raid

A raid on an antiquities smuggling ring in the Paleo Faliro area of Athens has recovered one of the rarest and most prized gold coins in numismatic history: a 4th century B.C. gold stater of Pantikapaion. A team of police with the Department of Cultural Heritage and Antiquities of the Attica Security Directorate raided the Olympic taekwondo facilities at 9:30 AM on Saturday, September 16th, only minutes before a member of a criminal organization of Albanian origin known only as “Tzoni” was to meet there with the smuggler to buy the loot. The smugglers fled, leaving behind a total of 31 ancient artifacts to be confiscated by the police, including two marble lekythoi (narrow jugs), four clay skyphoi (two-handled wine cups) and clay figurines from the Archaic and Classical periods.

The gold stater was struck between 350 and 300 B.C. in the Greek colony of Pantikapaion on the Black Sea, modern-day Crimea. The obverse features the head of bearded satyr turned slightly to the left. His hair is long and disheveled and he has pointed horse’s ears. The reverse features a winged griffin with its horned head facing left and its right forepaw raised. It holds a spear in its mouth and stands over an ear of wheat. The high quality of the artistry and detail of the satyr’s head is what makes this coin so exceptional a survival from antiquity. It is considered the greatest portraiture on an ancient coin, conveying emotion and expression as well as physical features.

Before the EID MAR aureus that turned out to be looted sold at auction for $4.2 million, one of the Pantikapaion gold staters held the world record as the most expensive ancient coin when it sold in 2012 for $3.25 million ($3.8 million including buyer’s premium). Given that the EID MAR’s sale was cancelled and the coin returned to Greece from whence it was stolen, technically the 2012 stater has reclaimed the record. It was the only one known still in private hands and therefore the only one that even had a chance of being sold.

Well, this one is an even more beautiful example. It is heavier (9.2 grams vs. 9.1) and the head of the satyr is centered on the coin. The 2012 stater is slightly flattened at the top left so the satyr’s hair is a little cropped, as are the spear and horns of the griffin. It was assessed by an expert from the Numismatic Museum of Athens who valued it at a nose bleed-inducing 6 million euros ($6.4 million).

Of course it will not be sold. It more than qualifies as protected cultural patrimony under Greek law and is destined for a museum. Right now, all of the artifacts recovered in the raid have been handed over to the Archaeological Museum of Piraeus or to the Numismatic Museum of Athens where they will be studied further and kept safe in preparation for the prosecution of the criminal case.

3 thoughts on “Numismatic masterpiece recovered in smuggling ring raid

  1. Panticapaeum or Panticapaion (Παντικάπαιον) is, where the Russian aggressors built their unholy bridge across the Kerch Strait for the invasion into Crimea, attempting to enslave Ukraine.

    This coin from the 4th century BC might have been in the hands of the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, who visited the area. Herodotus annotates around 430 BC:

    Bk.4.18. “After crossing the Borysthenes (river Dnieper/Dnipro), near the (Black) Sea-coast is Hylaia (Ὑλαία “Woodland”), and beyond this, as one goes up the river, there dwell agricultural Scythians, whom the Hellenes who live upon the river Hypanis (Southern Buh) refer to as “Borysthenites”, calling themselves at the same time citizens of Olbia (i.e. Pontic Olbia, Ὀλβία Ποντική). These agricultural Scythians occupy the region which extends Eastwards for a distance of three days’ journey, reaching to a river which is called Panticapes (Inhulets, ukrainian: Інгулець), and Northwards for a distance of eleven days’ sail up the Borysthenes. Then immediately beyond these begins the desert and extends for a great distance; and on the other side of the desert dwell the Androphagoi (“man eaters”), a race apart by themselves and having no connection with the Scythians. Beyond them begins a region which is really desert and has no race of men in it, as far as we know.”

  2. The Panticapaeum which sold in 2012 came up again for auction earlier this year in Zurich. It brought close to six million dollars which did surpass the gold Eid mar. It was also discovered that this 2012 piece originally was sold as duplicate of the Hermitage. It was common for museums back in the day to sell some of their holdings.

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