Thursday, 17 April 2014

The strange case of the Syracusan dekadrachm ― part one

Sicily, Syracuse. Dekadrachm of the Euainetos type
405-380 BC, dies: Gallatin RXIII/FVI
One of three known of these dies, ex. my collection.
(click to enlarge) 

“Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn't.”

― Mark Twain

I really should have heeded Mark Twain's words when I was in an English class and wrote a short story in which coincidences was the theme: my teacher took off marks because the story was not believable.

What follows is even stranger than that short story I wrote many years ago. It all began when I was thirteen years old and had just started to collect ancient Greek coins. To a new collector of Greek coins, whether young or old, the dekadrachm of Syracuse is "the Holy Grail". They are not particularly rare as a general type, but being a large denomination and considered by many to be the most beautiful coin designs ever created, they do not come cheap. While many numismatists dream of owning one of these coins, Arthur S. Dewing owned more of them than anyone else, including one of the same three die pairs as my own. I give a link to a philosophy site for Dewing. If you would prefer to see him as a prominent numismatist, then go here. He was also a member of the Archaeological Institute of America, but gets no mention on their website, possibly because he was a private collector, and they hate those. A similar discrimination happens with the Egyptologist Sir William Flinders Petrie, who is considered to be one of the fathers of modern archaeology. You will have to look long and hard on archaeological websites to discover that he started collecting (and selling) ancient coins when a boy in London, much as I did, myself. Sir John Evans gets better treatment, and it is commonly known that this other father of modern archaeology was also a coin collector. It fact, he was the father of British Celtic numismatics. I love telling people (especially archaeologists) that modern archaeology is the offspring from a marriage between numismatics and geology. Organizational IQ's are, of course, fairly low compared to that of certain individuals and the former frequently prop themselves up with the latter.

Like Dewing, I also have an interest in philosophy. In my case, it started with Bertrand Russell when I was sixteen years old. Now, a sixteen year old philosopher borders on the pathetic ― philosophy is for old men.
These days, at almost 65 years of age, my philosophical outlook is strongly influenced by Jungian psychology, which is a long way from the philosophy of Bertrand Russell, although connections have been made. By my late teens I was casting my net a little wider: looking into eastern religions (it was the sixties), I even had a short stint joining a cult which made quite a lot about reincarnation. Once, during "regression", I saw myself in ancient Greece as  a boy being sold into servitude by my father who received a dekadrachm of Syracuse in payment. Besides being young and gullible, I had yet to develop my interest in Jung so I believed it was all quite real and that one could walk off the street into a room and become immersed in one's past lives in lucid detail. The Dalai Lama, when asked if he recalls all of his previous lives, often says "I can't even remember what I had for dinner yesterday."

Indulging in a little Jungian self analysis, I think that the image of being sold by my father for a dekadrachm is more due to my own father wanting me, like himself, to go into the oil and gas business ― and to start as an oilfield worker. To me, it sounded both boring and dangerous which is a combination that, without the promise of high pay, would not be chosen by anyone. But I did not have a great interest in accumulating wealth, either. My father was not terribly supportive of my interests, although he once showed a few of my ancient coins to some of his workmates. Later, my wife told me that her own parents used her many abilities mainly for bragging to their friends. Being really supportive is quite different -- it takes a little criticism too. How many would-be singers have failed to make the grade because everything they sang was met with "That's very good, dear" from a parent. I suppose they mean well.

So the famous dekadrachm of Syracuse had become part of my personal mythos. The strange story of how it became material will have to wait until tomorrow.


  1. Thanks. Interesting post. One of my favorite coins. Do you think Dewing paid for his Decadrachms with his earnings as a philosophy professor or businessman? I suspect the latter though the former may have helped inform his collecting choices.

  2. I agree, Peter. Given the salary range of professors, I imagine that if he managed to amass such an impressive collection without heavily dipping into his business earnings, then his university might have started wondering about his use of grant money! These have always been expensive. I remember (vividly) David Sear showing me a dekadrachm of Syracuse at Seaby when I was a kid. It was 650 pounds. My father, at the time, earned about 25 pounds a week as a statistician.

  3. I have Gallatin FI/RVIII (8 recorded). Just got it today!

    1. Well done Bob,

      I presume it is the one with david' Sear's authentication.


      That is quite a good deal.. Is it relatively the same width in cross section or "wedge-shaped" like the one I got? I remember seeing a couple of dekadrachms go for about 7k and 10k that were both common dies and horribly ugly severely corroded on both side. All you could say about them is that is what they were. You have a"collectors coin" there, not a "souvenir hunter's" coin. Ir is attractive. Very good deal, indeed.



  4. My mother gifted me a sterling silver medallion modeled afyea this coin. I've noticed some markings of letters of sorts in pictures I have seen on the coin and on the medallion itself. Do you happen to know what they mean?

  5. Sorry for the delay in replying. I am not checking the blog as much as I should be these days.

    Around the head of Arethusa should be the legend: Syrakosion (in Greek) "of Syracuse". The only other letters might be the die engravers signature -- either Kimon or Euainetos. Most are unsigned, though.