NEW York has just seen the greatest dispersal ever of Jewish coins and coins relating to the history of the Jewish people.
Presented under the name of the Shoshana
collection - perhaps to allow the vendor anonymity - the catalogue
at the March 8-9 offering at Heritage Auctions (15% buyer's
premium) did reveal that the owner was a Californian man
who formed this significant collection over four decades.
For anything comparable to this 712-lot
sale we have to go back 20 years to when the 913-lot Abraham
Bromberg collection was sold in two tranches by Superior Galleries
in New York in 1991 and 1992. Shoshana offered more coins of
It says something for London as a
numismatic centre that Heritage saw fit to bring this sale here for
Like classical Greek and Roman coins and
the coins and medals issued by the papacy, those relating to Jewish
history have global appeal. Other coins and medals tend to be
collected on a national basis. Countries which have developed from
an assemblage of small states into a larger nation are mainly only
interested in their own ancient state. In Germany, for instance,
the Frankfurter cares little for the Hamburger. The Swiss collect
by cantons. You get the idea.
The diaspora means that the appeal of
"Jewish" coins crosses many borders, and they also have crossover
appeal because they are sought after by collectors who are not
necessarily numismatists, such as Jewish historians.
The coins at Heritage fell into two main
categories: those issued by Jewish authorities and those with
themes relating to Jewish history.
An example of the second category was the
71AD bronze sestertius of Vespasian with the reverse legend:
Judea Capta. The estimate was $60,000 (£38,200). It made
$220,000 (£140,000). A variant sestertius estimated at $45,000 took
$80,000 (£51,000). It was this campaign that provided the looted
gold to construct the Colosseum in Rome.
The Jewish opposition to the Romans
actually struck their own coins: silver shekels and fractions. They
date from year one of the revolt to year five (66-70AD). The later
the date the rarer they are. Year one is relatively common and
there were three examples here. The most appealing example carried
an estimate of $15,000 and sold for $8660 (£5500). These coins do
turn up in most relevant sales.
An example of year two estimated at
$12,000 took $7500 (£4780). One of year three carrying the same
estimate realised $18,000 (£11,500). A year four piece, estimated
at $40,000, fetched $32,500 (£20,700), while for the very rare year
five, there were two examples, which took $220,000 (£140,000) and
$150,000 (£95,500) respectively. The one that went for $220,000 had
sold earlier in the Hunt sale at Sotheby's in June 1990, when it
took $170,000 (then £101,190). It is said to have been found at
Masada, that dreaded mount which was the scene of the mass suicide
of the Jewish protestors against Roman rule in 73AD.
I cannot stop myself boasting of being on
the Masada summit, a place of gaunt and majestic beauty, having
walked from the shore of the Dead Sea, when attending the 1963
Jewish Numismatic Convention on the day that Yigael Yadin (the
celebrated archaeologist - I met him on this day!) found six year
five shekels. Sorry! Boast over.
These Masada shekels, defiantly inscribed
Shekel of Israel, are a good example of coins that have a
far wider appeal, beyond numismatics. The most spectacular of these
shekels is the prototype of year one, of which there are only two
known. One is in the Israel Museum at Jerusalem. The other was
offered here with an estimate of $950,000. Having realised $220,000
(then £131,000) at the aforementioned Bromberg sale, this time out
it took $925,000 (£590,000).
The coins (Son of the Star) of the Simon
Bar Kokhba revolt against the Romans (132-135AD) come in much
greater variety - there were 286 lots here - and are much more
common. In the straitened times the Jews suffered, these coins were
struck using existing coins of great variety. Perhaps the most
emotive coin from this section of the sale was the silver sela
(denomination) bearing an image of the Temple of Jerusalem, which
had been destroyed in 70AD. It shows the Arc of the Covenant
between the Temple's pillars and is defiantly dated year X of the
Freedom of Israel - freedom from the forces of the Emperor Hadrian,
Unlike the Masada coins, it is the earlier
examples of these later coins that are rarer. A sela from the first
year was estimated here at $30,000 and took $20,000 (£12,750). The
Bromberg sale had seen this same example realise $11,500 (then
about £6845). The Shoshana sale saw the dispersal of several of the
later (year three) Temple selot. An equally appealing example
estimated at $6500 took a bid of $7000 (£4460).
The total for this sale was $6.41m
(£4.08m) and virtually every lot found a new cabinet. There were
about 30 lots which failed, a very small proportion given the
difficulty of arriving at estimates for coins whose individual
appeal is often hard to judge.
Keep this catalogue, we shall (probably)
not see its like again.