My day job is to research, attribute, and catalog ancient coins. As one who appreciates art and history, I enjoy this very much. Each piece has thousands of years of history—from when the king, magistrate, or emperor authorized the coinage, to the craftsmen and artists who hand-carved the dies, to the slaves who did the striking, to the merchants who spent it and the soldiers who hoarded it, and, inevitably, to the centuries spent buried and lost before it was found and sold—and each piece is an artifact from a people whom we’ll never know again. The artistry found on many ancient coins, particularly the earliest ones, is stunning; each coin is a miniature sculpture, made with a singular purpose. Later coinage became simpler and more workmanlike, its purpose more important than its artistry, but nonetheless still art and still ancient. And after a few thousand years of dozens of kingdoms and peoples striking coins there are countless examples known today. Contrary to what many may assume, the vast majority of ancient coins and artifacts are not in museums, but in the vaults of dealers and collectors.
The coin collecting industry today affords little to the art, and most specimens boil down to numbers. Value, worth, price, cost. But when it comes to the cheapest examples—the ones where the time and effort to sell them exceeds the profit—it seems every dealer has a box or bag full. These are the corroded ones, the overcleaned ones, the ones cut in half two thousand years ago to make change and the ones that have broken since, the ones with holes through them, the ones so well used that there’s no image left, and the ones that are just too common to matter. They are worthless. Scrap metal.
But they’re still ancient artifacts. Each one was still made by human hands.
I am often at odds with this. They have lost their value and worth as a coin for collecting, but have remained ancient, and to cast them away will always nag at me. And maybe it feels the same for other coin dealers, too. I suppose that’s why they all have a box or bag of these unwanteds. But to say that the scrap has value simply because it is old denies the real gems, the museum specimens, their due.
This series, in which I spotlight these coins that spend their lives in the dark, shows the value that they do still retain—as a literal fragment of history. Rough and sculptural, when taken as a piece of the past rather than as a coin, they take on new life, and new worth.