A Strange Athens Imitation

Discussion in 'Ancient Coins' started by kirispupis, May 16, 2022.

  1. kirispupis

    kirispupis Supporter! Supporter

    Hello everyone,

    The Edom attribution was what drew me to this coin. However, after some research, I doubted that the attribution was correct. Still, though, the coin was interesting. I have yet to find anything quite like it, and so I bid anyways. After being shut out at my last three auctions, I was surprised to win it considerably below my max.

    So, I'm very happy that I won. Now I'm just curious exactly what I won. The below image is from the seller. The size is 15mm and the weight is 4.00g.

    The following are the possibilities I've come up with.

    Edom (Idumaea) - This is how the seller attributed it, but neither the obverse nor the reverse seems to match up. The owl is too "scruffy" and the image of Athena is too abstract. If I can't find any better answer, I'll enter it into the database as Idumaea, but I have little confidence.

    Sabaeans - Those are mostly known from a less abstract Athena with an "N" on the cheek, so that appears to be a "no".

    Lihyan - The scruffy owls matches up, though mine is to the left while all the samples I found are to the right. Some of the later (2nd-1st centuries CE) copies do have an abstract Athena, though the match isn't strong. Most of the copies have a particular monogram, which this lacks. My feeling is the coin may come from the vicinity of Lihyan, but attributing it to Lihyan would be incorrect.

    Gaza - Adding this just to be comprehensive, but IMHO it's clearly not Gaza since both the owl and Athena are too abstract and the cheek lacks the distinctive Gaza "M".

    Gaul/Celt - From what I can tell, they rarely imitated Athenian coinage. They seem to have been more likely to imitate that of Alexander and Philip, since those were the dominant coins when they entered the scene. The few mimics I found look nothing like this.

    Philistia - This is my best guess, since I've found some copies that resemble this one. My belief is that "Philistia" is just a catch-all for "somewhere around the Levant". It could have even been minted in Gaza.

    Time period - The seller attributed this to 400-300 BCE. The similar coins from CNG are dated to 5th century to 333 BCE. I tend to believe the CNG dates, as they're broader and if this does come from the Levant then coinage would have ceased with Alexander. Some of the Arabian comps are dated to 2nd-1st centuries BCE, but this coin seems more likely to be from the Levant instead of from Arabia.

    The interesting - Of the above searches, I couldn't find a single comp where both Athena and the owl are to the left. Maybe that's a sign that my attribution guesses are all completely off. To be honest, that's what pushed me to go for this coin, as I wasn't confident I'd ever have a chance at one like it - wherever it's from.

    Overall, I like my weird coin and can't wait to receive it.

    What do you think? From where do you think it's from?

    Feel free to share your own Athens imitations or oddities.
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  3. Kentucky

    Kentucky Supporter! Supporter

    I like it too
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  4. robinjojo

    robinjojo Supporter! Supporter

    Nice owl imitation! Just a wonderful obverse and reverse!

    I believe it is a drachm from Lihyan. The reverse style certainly suggests that origin. As you noted the obverse style evolved, becoming increasingly abstract as shown here.

    This coin, a BI tetradrachm, is from the second to first centuries BC.

    12.89 grams

    D-Camera Lihyan. Billon 'tetradrachm' owl 2nd-1st cen BC 12.89g 11-8-21.jpg

    Further down the ladder time-wise, the coinage became even cruder.

    7.4 grams

    D-Camera Arabia Lihyanite Kingdom, AE tetradrachm owl imitation 2-1 cen BC,  7.4g 3-11-21.jpg
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  5. happy_collector

    happy_collector Well-Known Member

    Very nice addition, @kirispupis.

    Your imitation owl looks like a mirror image of the Athenian version. Both Athena and owl are facing left, and even the "AOE" characters are flipped.
    ambr0zie and kirispupis like this.
  6. happy_collector

    happy_collector Well-Known Member

    Such a huge eye for Athena. Very cool design. :)
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  7. Kentucky

    Kentucky Supporter! Supporter

    It's like someone made the die to look exactly like the coin they wanted to copy!
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  8. robinjojo

    robinjojo Supporter! Supporter

    Of course there's a wide range of owls that are being attributed to an eastern mint, generally used for owls that clearly are not Athenian but lack more specific information geographically.

    Here's an example, from Roma E-Sale 54, lot 113.

    Attica, Athens AR Tetradrachm. Eastern Imitation. Circa 454-404 BC. Head of Athena right, wearing earring, necklace, and crested Attic helmet decorated with three olive leaves over visor and a spiral palmette on the bowl; c/m on cheek / Owl standing right with head facing, olive sprig with berry and crescent in upper left field, AΘE to right; all within incuse square. For prototype, cf: Kroll 8; SNG Copenhagen 31. 16.33g, 22mm, 8h. Very Fine.

    D-Camera Athens Eastern imitation Owl, 4th cen BC, 16.33g Roma 54, 113  5-21-21.jpg
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  9. dltsrq

    dltsrq Grumpy Old Man

    The eastern locations cited above form a continuum from Philistia/ Gaza south along the Red Sea to modern Yemen. I suspect that attribution to one polity or another is based primarily on find spots. It may be that the seller or the seller's source has attributed the coin based on specific information which would be inconvenient to reveal in detail in the public marketplace.
    Last edited: May 16, 2022
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  10. Ignoramus Maximus

    Ignoramus Maximus Nomen non est omen.

    Interesting coin, @kirispupis :) Congrats. Finding an imitation is one thing, finding an attribution is quite another. I hope you'll succeed with.

    Here is is my only imitational owl:
    2691345_1648693675 (1).jpg

    18,5 mm 16,90 gr.
    Obv: helmeted head of Athena.
    Rev: facing owl, body to right. Olive sprig and crescent to left, (?) to right.
    (seller's pic).

    Though I'm not an owl-whisperer, I believe I got the attribution in the end. The clue, I believe, lies in the edge of the letters you can just make out to the right on the reverse. (Incidentally, it's also what alerted me to the coin and what made me bid on it). The only way the letters make sense to me is when you read them as Aramaic, it's definitely not ΑΦE.
    Aramaic script leaves three candidates: Artaxerxes III as pharaoh of Egypt, and Sabakes and Mazakes as satraps of Mesopotamia. Comparing these three, the legend (MZDK) for Mazakes is the only one that fits the lettering on my coin (and it's a perfect match, I believe). The style and the dumpy flan (only 18,5mm across) also fit the type. So, unless there are other Aramaic owl varieties I am unaware of, I think my specimen is a Mazakes from Mesopotamia. (And feel free to correct me if I'm wrong!)

    And regardless, it's a great story to learn how, some 70 years after the Athenian empire collapsed the famous owl, by way of Egypt and with a little help from Alexander, became the first coin to be struck in Mesopotamia. Who said ancient history was boring?:)
    Last edited: May 16, 2022
  11. kirispupis

    kirispupis Supporter! Supporter

    That's a very nice coin! I'm no owl expert either, but from what I can tell I concur with your attribution of Mazakes. That's a very nice find and I admit I'm a bit jelly-belly.

    I don't have a Mazakes example, though I do have one of his predecessor, Sabakes.

    Egypt, Achaemenid Province. Sabakes, satrap, AR Tetradrachm. Circa 340-333 BC.
    16.61g, 25mm, 9h.
    Head of Athena to right, wearing earring, necklace, and crested Attic helmet decorated with three olive leaves over visor and a spiral palmette on the bowl / Owl standing to right with head facing, olive sprig with berry and crescent in upper left field; uncertain letters to left, "Sabakes symbol" and SWYK (in Aramaic) to right.
    Van Alfen Type III, 24-34 var. (O11/R- [unlisted rev. die]); Nicolet-Pierre, Monnaies 18-26 (same obv. die); SNG Copenhagen 4 var. (no letters on left of rev.); BMC 265 var. (same).
    Ex Roma
  12. Ignoramus Maximus

    Ignoramus Maximus Nomen non est omen.

    Nice! Do you have any idea what the letters to the left mean, and the 'Sabakes symbol'?
  13. kirispupis

    kirispupis Supporter! Supporter

    Thanks! Since you're far more knowledgeable in this space, I'm going to attribute it for now to Lihyan. This works for my purposes, since I'd been considering a Lihyan example as it was Alexander the Great's next target. In fact, the army was scheduled to depart for the attack when Alexander was on his death bed.

    It does seem like someone literally copied the die for both sides, thus reversing everything on the coin. I wonder, given the wide variation even among attributed coins, whether many of these were minted without official oversight.
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  14. kirispupis

    kirispupis Supporter! Supporter

    As I remember from my reading:
    - Sabakes "symbol" - Doesn't match any known script, but is present on all his coins. Generally believed to connote Sabakes.
    - SWYK - most believe to spell Sabakes, but there has been some speculation that it designates the mint, not the ruler.
    - Text to the left. No one really has a clue. For all we know, it means "Eat at Joe's" :)
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  15. ambr0zie

    ambr0zie Dacian Taraboste

    A very nice coin, saw it live but refrained myself from bidding to it as I wanted one certain coin from that auction. To my big surprise, I got it with half the price I was hoping, in the most optimistic scenario.

    I am not skilled at all in owl imitations (my only attempt was a Gaza denomination, but failed). But you can ask Savoca for clarification, they reply promptly. In a few cases I requested some further info in regards to coins I won from them and they always discussed with their attributor and provided the required data.
    They were not upset even when I found errors in attributions.
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  16. robinjojo

    robinjojo Supporter! Supporter

    Here's the only imitative owl with a retrograde reverse similar to the OP owl in that respect. The obverse has the normal orientation of the right facing portrait.

    Again, I think this is an early tetradrachm from Lihyan, pretty much based on a process of elimination of other possible sources.

    This owl is crude and has a character all its own. I do believe the reverse is a die engraving error, but possibly not. Note the retrograde E (epsilon) on the reverse, made so having been flipped 90 degrees from the correct position. The shape of the flan is oblong perhaps imitating the oblong flans of later intermediate Athenian owls.

    Now this owl could have an origin further east, perhaps India? I'm sticking with the Lihyan origin for now, until more information or an other example shows up.

    This coin, by the way, came from a Czech coin dealer about 5 years ago.

    Lihyan, circa 2nd century BC
    Test cut reverse

    16.7 grams

    D-Camera Athens imiation tetradrachm probably Lihyan Arabia c. 4th cen BC 16.7g 3-11-21.jpg
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  17. robinjojo

    robinjojo Supporter! Supporter

    Yes, that is what I would say concerning the origin of your coin for now. Of course that can change later on.

    Wonderful coin!
    Edessa likes this.
  18. kirispupis

    kirispupis Supporter! Supporter

    It's interesting that the reverses of our coins are nearly identical except your 'E' is sideways. The obverses, though, are completely different.

    I do suspect that the dies for both of our coins were carved by someone completely unfamiliar with Greek. That would've applied to a lot of places back then, though, so it doesn't really narrow it down.

    What I find peculiar is that there isn't really a strong match in any coin I've seen so far in the obverse.
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  19. robinjojo

    robinjojo Supporter! Supporter

    I think, due to the sporadic nature of many of these owl imitations, extant examples are few. These owls, based on my observations, come out of relatively small hoards, the vast majority, I am sure, go unrecorded. This aspect, coupled the the wide variations of dies, often very "localized" in style, and even weights, makes for significant barriers when attempting to do die matches, let alone any sort of comprehensive overview of these imitations.

    Looking at the wider landscape for the imitative owls, there are some well know and accepted types: the Pharaonic owls, the owls of Arabia Felix, the owls of cities in the Levant, including Gaza, and the owls of Bactria, to name some. Then, there are the question marks: eastern mint owls which, due to a lack of any specific documentation, go under this broad umbrella.

    Your owl might show up again, or one very similar. But the problem, once more, is that the coin might again be attributed to a location based on at best an educated guess, unless, there's the good fortune of a reliable provenance of its origin.

    I have lots of owls that are imitative, an area of focus for me over the past several years. The vast number of these coins can only be attributed to the "eastern mint". Indeed, some are so close to the classical Athenian owls that I am sure they would pass as coming from Athens for many collectors. Of course, the people who made these coins made them virtual copies precisely to they would be readily accepted by the public.

    I still visit various sites from time to time, also checking auctions for any unusual imitative owl coming to the surface.
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  20. GinoLR

    GinoLR Well-Known Member

    There is no serious reason to attribute the OP coin or this coin to Lihyan. Dealers often call "Lihyan" any kind of crude imitation of Athenian owls, just because they look crude. But serious attributions cannot be made just because of a vague feeling.
    The kingdom of Lihyan was an Arab kingdom of the 6th to 3rd c. BC, its political and religious centre was the oasis of Dedan (today's al-Ula in Saudi Arabia), and in the 4th c. BC it probably extended to all North-Western Arabian peninsula. It is known from texts (such as the Old Testament) and inscriptions in Dadanitic script mostly found around Dedan and nearby Hegra. Nobody knows what happened to this kingdom from the 3rd to the 1st c. BC, all we know is that the Nabataeans seized control of Hegra under Aretas IV (9 BC - AD 40).
    The first Lihyanite coins were drachms imitating Athens, of very good Greek style, but bearing on Athena's cheek the Dadanitic letter dhal : Ḏ corpus dadanitic inscr p422 D045.jpg .
    CNG  eAuction 162 113.jpg
    This letter exists in no other script than the Dadanitic script, these coins cannot be older than the late 5th c. BC, thus the attribution to Lihyan is sure 100%. Other more stylized drachms are known, still with the same dhal but a bit lighter: the local style evolved very fast in the 4th c. BC.
    Leu WebAuction 15 859 15mm 3 12g 9h.jpg
    Tetradrachms are known with exactly the same style: the owl's body is parallel with the vertical sides of the incuse square, the olive-sprig is in the middle of the left field (and not in the upper-right corner). The main difference is that on tetradrachms there is no letter on Athena's cheek but a crescent, or a double-crescent.
    BMC 18e siecle.jpg

    In the late 4th c. or early 3rd c. BC these tetradrachms with one or two crescents were minted in bronze. Hundreds have been found in Hegra, some specimens in Petra, Dedan, al-Bad (Madian), Aynuna, Tayma, Dumat al-Jandal, even one in Babylon!
    BMC p77 3 bon sens.jpg
    The evolution of the Lihyanite coinage can be followed from coin to coin, from the first silver imitative drachms of the early 4th c. BC to the later extremely stylized bronze coins of the 3rd to 1st c. BC. At one moment, in the 3rd or 2nd c. BC, Lihyanite coins were overstruck on Egyptian Ptolemaic coins (bevelled edges, central hole), like the contemporaneous proto-Nabataean coins (Athena and Nike).
    We can see that Lihyan coinage was something coherent, and not any kind of coin crudely imitating Athenian owls. The imitation of Athenian coinage was wide-spread in the whole Middle-East and South Arabia, and we do not need to attribute all of them to Lihyan.
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  21. kirispupis

    kirispupis Supporter! Supporter

    Thank you @GinoLR for your insight. I agree that a Lihyan attribution is not obvious. I believe you would also agree that Idumaea is also not likely.

    I know there may be no great answer to this, but I'd love to figure out from where this imitation comes. For now, I'm tempted to put "Philistia" in the database, since it seems to be a fair catch-all these days.

    My suspicion is the coin comes from somewhere in the Levant or Arabia. So far, though, I haven't been able to find anything with a similar obverse though.
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