24 September 2014
A unique version of a rare gold coin minted during the reign of Augustus Caesar, the first and greatest of Rome’s emperors, sold for £480,000 ($784,000) at the auction of Ancient and World Coins held by Dix Noonan Webb, the international coins and medals specialists, in London on 22 September 2014.
Brisk bidding in the saleroom pushed the price past the pre-sale estimate of £300,000 to £350,000 ($508,000 to $593,000) to reach a final hammer price of £400,000 ($653,000). With buyer’s commission added the final price was £480,000 making it one of the world’s most expensive Roman coins
The gold aureus, which was struck c27-18BC, depicts the new portrait of Augustus transformed into an ageless Apollo-like classical beauty on one side and an image of a heifer based on a long-lost masterpiece by a Greek sculptor on its reverse. The coin is a piece of numismatic genius celebrating the power of the man who founded the Roman Empire and laid the foundations of a regime that lasted for centuries.
Only 22 examples of the heifer-reverse aureus minted during the reign of Augustus are known to have survived of which 15 are in museums, leaving just seven potentially available to buyers. They are sub-divided into five types which vary according to whether Augustus is depicted with a bare head or a laureate head and which way the emperor and the heifer are facing. The aureus auctioned at Dix Noonan Webb is the unique Type 2 coin with the laureate head of Augustus facing right and the heifer looking to the left. Its condition is described as “extremely fine with lustre”.
“This was a strong price for a truly extraordinary coin,” said Christopher Webb, head of the coins department at Dix Noonan Webb. “Not only is it a unique type of an already very rare coin but its condition after more than 2,000 years is extremely fine and visually it is a beautiful work of art. It also represents an epic period when Augustus built an empire that changed the course of human history.”
The exact date of the coin and where it was minted remain unknown and the subject of much scholarly debate but it is believed to have been struck c27-18BC. In 27BC Octavian, as he was then called, the great nephew of Julius Caesar, founded the Principate, the first phase of the Roman Empire. He took the name of Augustus, meaning ‘stately’ or ‘dignified’ and began to stamp his authority on Rome and its territories.
The heifer-reverse aureus auctioned at Dix Noonan Webb perfectly represents this key milestone in Roman and world history. The depiction of Augustus is quite unlike the severe portraits found in late republican Rome and transforms the young Octavian into a figure of calm, remote dignity and power. It is of the same style as the celebrated statue of Augustus which is now in the Vatican and is arguably the best portrait to be found on any Roman coin. The reverse recalls the occasion in 28BCwhen he dedicated the temple of Apollo on the Palatine which had as its centrepiece an altar with four statues of heifers by the great sculptor Myron of Eleutherae. This is in every sense Augustus’s coin.
The rest is history. Augustus dramatically enlarged the Roman Empire and secured its safety with a buffer region of client states beyond its borders, initiating an era of relative peace known as the Pax Romana. He reformed the taxation system, developed a network of roads, established a standing army and transformed Rome with impressive new buildings. Although his latter years were clouded by economic problems, a military defeat in Germany and the deaths of two of his grandsons, he left a solid imperial legacy. He died during August, the month named after him, 14AD and was succeeded by his stepson Tiberius.