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.