The mysterious coin

If you have the Australian edition of The Pericles Commission, then you've got a bonus mystery on the cover.  

Here's a detail:

This is the coin that peeps over the bottom edge.  The coin isn't an artist's impression; it's a for-real coin.  The clever designers at Penguin acquired the picture from an image library, and then layered it over the artist's very cool textured background.

When I saw this I emailed Belinda the Publisher to say, "You realize this isn't an Athenian coin, don't you?"  I knew that because all ancient Athenian coins were stamped with an owl, a minerva owl in fact, which is the sacred bird of the goddess Athena.  If you're interested, I once wrote an article about Athenian coins, where you'll see an example.

Neither Penguin nor I were too fussed about it.  The lovely gold coin looked great on the cover and that's what mattered, but out of sheer curiousity, Belinda the Publisher asked in that case, where did the coin come from?

It was a terrific question, because there are a lot of odd things about that coin.  To start with, the face is staring straight out.  Almost all ancient coins showed faces in profile.  Secondly, it's a gold coin, and gold coins were quite unusual; even Athens at her height stuck to silver.  Thirdly, the image library labeled it as a head of Zeus, dated to 360BC.  But there's no way that's a picture of Zeus; and that's an amazingly detailed stamp for 360BC.

I guessed it might be a picture of Helios, a sun god, as you can tell from the name.  Helios didn't get much air time in the classical period, but he was more popular in Hellenistic times.

The coin was unquestionably from a Greek speaking locale, because around the bottom edge, although you can't see it on the cover, are six Greek letters:

Α Υ Ε ... that's Alpha - Upsilon - Epsilon on the left; and

Ι Ο Σ ... that's Iota - Omicron - Sigma on the right.

I can't show you the entire image because I don't own the copyright, but those are the letters.  And those had to be mint maker marks.

Back then, all the Greek cities minted their own coins, and all the mints stamped the first three letters of their city name on their coins.  All Athenian coins, for example, had Α Θ Ε: the first three letters of the name Athens.  You can read off the origin of a coin by matching the three letters on the coin to the first three letters of a known Greek city.

But this coin had two mint names.  It was bizarre.  I went looking for cities whose names began ΑΥΕ, or ΙΟΣ.  To add to the mystery, I couldn't find a single city that might conceivably match such an obviously expensive gold coin.

What in Hades was this thing?

It probably wasn't from the Greek mainland.  I guessed, based on the style of the detailed stamp, the gold, the outward facing, and the non-Zeus-maybe-Helios, that this coin was from the late Hellenistic period, probably from Egypt or somewhere in what is now the Middle East.  The Late Hellenistic period is when Rome ruled, but Greek culture held sway almost everywhere, and Egypt and surrounds at that time was rich enough to be minting with gold.

That was my guess.  I sent the image off for an expert opinion, to an acquaintance who is a for-real expert on the economics of the ancient world.  She had better remain anonymous, because this is an unofficial opinion, but she came back with interesting news:

The coin is a fake!

The Greek letters made no sense to her, either, and didn't match any known ancient mint.  The face doesn't match any known god; it's definitely not Zeus (I got that right, at least!), and it's probably not Helios.

So I checked the database of the image library.  The original picture was taken from a collection, presumably private, 20 or 30 years ago.  Sitting in someone's collection, somewhere, is what is probably a forged coin.

That's where it stands.  We left the coin on the cover of course, because having a forged coin on the cover of a crime novel is just too cool.


Stephanie Thornton said...

Whoa! This is one of my favorite posts of yours- what a cool mystery. And you're right, it's definitely fitting to have a forged coin on a crime novel.

Anthony said...

That is, indeed, way cool.

SariBelle said...

A real life mystery. Very cool!

Gary Corby said...

So the question is, who faked the coin, and where is it now?

If this were a thriller, I would try to track down the answers, at which point mysterious men in black would attempt to kill me, and then chase me around the globe until, after many harrowing adventures, I uncovered a vast plot to take over the world, based on a conspiracy that stretches back to Mycenaean times.

But since this is real life, I suspect some antiquities forger last century made a healthy profit.

Peter Cooper said...

There's definitely a book in this, Gary!

I'd love to know who has the coin, and whether they know it's fake. If you ever find out, be sure to let us know :-)

Gary Corby said...

You're welcome to write it, Peter!

Philangelus said...

The next question is when it was forged. The fact that someone forged an ancient coin doesn't mean it is not itself an ancient forgery.

My Biblical archaeology professor said that as far back as the Phoenicians you will find articles that are carefully created to imitate the valuable articles from other cultures (just made cheaper -- the professor added dryly, "So the Phoenicians invented schlock.")

CPatLarge said...

What a great story! And a wonderful side-note to your book.

I think I'm even more jealous now ;-)

Loretta Ross said...

Truly a very cool story! You might try writing to whoever's in charge of the database to see if they have more information about where the image came from.

I know it sounds like a longshot, but several years ago my half-sister found a picture in a book of a Civil War soldier who bore a striking resemblance to one of our brothers. She wrote the publisher and he told her the picture was from a private collection and he couldn't release the name, so she asked him to forward a letter to them. He did, the collector contacted her and she was able to identify the picture as a great-great-uncle.

Hey, it's worth a shot, right? Not to mention that there'd be publicity value in the story if you could track it down, I'd think. It could wind up on Yahoo or somewhere: "Mystery Novel Exposes Old Crime"

Gary Corby said...

Hi Jane! You're right, it might in fact be an ancient forgery, which would give the coin its own unique value.

It's purely my guess, but if tested, I don't think the coin would prove to be an ancient forgery. Someone in the ancient world would be familiar with what for-real coins looked like, and therefore probably wouldn't have committed the anomalies that look really cool to we moderns, but are out of place for an ancient.

Still, I'd love it if you're right. Better and better.

Gary Corby said...

CP & Loretta: cool indeed. I thought about following it up, but given the age of the image, I'm not sure it'd be a productive use of time. I'm dreadfully rational about these things, aren't I?

I love that story about four civil war relative, Loretta!

Loretta Ross said...

BTW, any idea what's on the reverse?

Gary Corby said...

Excellent question! Sadly, the image library has only this one side. I guess that's the clue I'll need to uncover when the Men in Black come for me.

Amalia T. said...

First of all: It is awesome that you took the time to check this coin out! Secondly, I love this post! I thought at first glance that some of those bits of hair looked like snakes--almost Medusa-esque, but I can't imagine why anyone anywhere ever would label it as Zeus. So strange!

I feel like if someone in antiquity had chunks of gold, they'd have done better to sell it than forge coins with it. But I have only a very limited idea of what I'm talking about in this instance.

Corinne O'Flynn said...

I'm not sure which is more cool: The fact of the forged coin or that you spent the time (and have the chops) to have even spotted it and do some digging. *bows down to Mr. C*

Daisy said...

Great detective work! And aren't you glad it's on the cover of your book, and not the showpiece of your collection?

dylan said...

Well thanks Gary, for bringing this up.

I have just whizzed-away most of an afternoon when I ought to have been writing, but instead have been happily poring over images of Greek coins.

If you go to:

and check out the many links you will see many silver "facing head" coins with which your mystery gold coin shares characteristics.

Fascinating, really.

By the way, I read and loved your book, and am looking forward to forgetting enough that I can read it again. Not only a great mystery but a singular introduction to the history of Greece and the dawning of democracy.


Gary Corby said...

@Corinne: it's merely a matter of familiarisation. I knew at once it wasn't Athenian, but I don't even begin to have coin expertise. There are some incredible experts out there.

@Daisy: Hi Daisy, as Jane pointed out in a previous comment, fakes can have their own value, especially if they were faked in ancient times. Which makes them genuine fakes, sort of.

@dylan: Thanks Dylan, that's fascinating, I didn't know about the Larissa coins! Facing coins aren't unheard of, but they're very rare. Gold coins aren't unheard of, but they're very rare. Multiple words on the coin aren't impossible but it's extremely rare. It's when you put it all together that it looks somewhat improbable. Now I'm going off to read more about Larissan coins...

Alli Sinclair said...

A mystery within a mystery. I love it!