Two of the greatest offerings of Islamic coins ever have recently been sold in London. The two catalogues – Morton & Eden’s and Baldwin’s – will be useful historical documents for a long time to come.
The last offering of this importance in Islamic
coins was the 1904 Schulman (Amsterdam) sale, but even allowing for
inflation, the prices then were nothing compared to those estimated
and in part achieved this April.
A century ago there was considerable interest in
the recording of Islamic coins. The British Museum catalogue of ten
volumes published from 1875-90 is still relevant today. Interest
rather waned until around the late 1990s and Baldwin's held their
first specialist Islamic sale in 1999 - they have now staged
This market is hard to forecast, mainly because
there are very few serious buyers and prices only tend to soar for
pieces that fill gaps in their collections, to some degree
regardless of rarity.
This may explain the contrasting fortunes
between the two sales, with
Morton & Eden having the advantage of going first on April
23. But it was also true within the sales. A case in point was the
differing performance of two lots in M&E's offering (164 lots,
On the face of it, one might expect the earlier
Umayyad dinar, dated AH89 (707AD), to be rarer and more desirable
than one from AH105 (723AD), but the latter was struck on gold from
the mine of the Commander of the Faithful (i.e. the Caliph). In
view of this, the AH89 version was prudently estimated at
£800,000-1m. Bidding was hesitant and eventually it realised
Meanwhile, the Caliph's dinar took £3.1m.
When one considers that these coins look
superficially similar to Umayyad examples which can be had for
under £250, it is easy to see an almost philatelic attitude to the
Islamic series. Minor differences can mean major price hikes, with
dots, dates and mints in various combinations mattering to the
What it also means, however, is that serious
scholarly collectors can acquire silver and gold coins of historic
significance from just a few hunderd pounds, even where highly
similar versions can attract bids in the hundreds of thousands.
Another dramatic range in prices for different
versions of the same coin was illustrated in bidding for an
Arab-Sasanian silver dirham struck (probably) in Damascus in the
This is iconographically an important coin in
that it is the earliest depiction of the Caliph, with a prominent
sword, on a silver coin. Examples in copper are relatively common
and can be had for less than £100. Despite being damaged, this
silver version commanded an estimate of £50,000-80,000 and went way
past this figure to achieve £170,000.
Soon after this coin was struck, late in AH77
(696AD), images on Islamic coinage were banned, a move inherited
from Hebraic tradition, possibly as the result of a proseltysing
Byzantine emperor putting a head of Christ on the coinage. A cross
was just tolerable to the emerging Arabic power, which hitherto had
no coinage of its own, but this was just too much.
So this short window of two years, when the
Caliph was depicted, has led to some true rarities. To put this in
context, an example from the following year, AH77, would be
estimated at less than £1000.
On April 25
Baldwin's hosted a sale covering similar ground. The bidding in
this sale was considerably more hesitant despite the excellent
quality and rarity of the lots. Perhaps there was just too much
material on the market at the same time and Baldwin's suffered from
holding their sale later. The other explanation could, of course,
be the insistence of vendors on unrealistically high reserves.
Nonetheless, despite 67 of the 150 lots failing
to find a buyer on the day of the sale, the auctioneers did take
£2.24m, and I understand that there has been much successful
negotiation after the sale - around another £1.5m worth - so
Baldwin's managed a good result in the end, even it was a little
As a demonstration of the marvels of Islamic
calligraphy perhaps the prize should go to the Ilkhan (Mongol) gold
presentation multiple dinar struck in Madinat al Salaam - the City
of Peace, now called Baghdad - in AH719 (1319AD).
This wonderful coin was estimated at
£70,000-80,000, but took a final bid of £57,000, a typical
performance throughout this sale.
These very rare elimosine (alms or donative)
pieces show evidence of Islam preserving the cult of the medal from
late Roman times to its re-establishment in Italy in the mid-15th
It is also worth noting that just as Roman
lettering was rendered more wonderful than previously by the
inscriptions on Trajan's column (98-117AD) - a typeface still in
use today - the Caliph's establishment of an epigraphic coinage in
AH77 (696AD) established the Arabic alphabet as a universally
appealing art form. Before this, Arabic was written in a rather
unattractive and cramped style.
A coin which is, or should be, of interest to
English readers is the Nasrid dynasty dinar struck at Granada
(Spain) in AH851-858 (1447-54AD). It is these long-established
coins described in English medieval documents as 'Denarii of Murc'
(Murcia in Southern Spain) which provided Henry III with the gold
to strike his very rare gold 'pennies' of 20 silver pence and the
ability to pay for his wars in Gascony.
The example in the sale demonstrated the
longevity of the Spanish Islamic coinage, this one being later than
Henry III. It carried an estimate of £3000-4000 and made £2600.
An example of this coinage actually bearing the
mint name Murcia, it seems to be one of two known. Another was sold
at Bonhams in July 2009 for £7200.
Those without the mint name cost £200-300. The
gold came from what we now call the Guinea coast.
The buyer's premium at Morton & Eden is
The buyer's premium at Baldwin's is