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Harlan Berk's "100 Greatest Ancient Coins"

Actual book review follows this null entry.

5 years ago

“Knowledge is king,” said Harlan J. Berk, asking rhetorically, “Do you have a Hannibal portrait versus just another Melqart?”  For Berk, learning is a lifelong process, and writing 100 Greatest Ancient Coins exemplified that. “Syracuse was founded on a small island and then moved to Sicily. The four dolphins [on their large silver coins] represent the sea. I had not known that. If I did not, then others probably did not as well.”
To validate the book, Berk relied on his extensive network of personal friends and professional contacts in numismatics. Among them were Alan Walker, Ute Wartenberg Kagan, Curtis Clay and Phil Davis. 
The tally of one hundred coins came from a poll the world’s hundred best numismatists.  “I chose the group,” Berk said. “I gave [Whitman] the names of a hundred or so academics, collectors, and dealers from around the world.” Each person in this group submitted their own list of a hundred or so aesthetically superior or historically important issues. All of the polling was requested, accepted and compiled via emails. Perhaps not surprising in an antiquarian, Berk himself is not an engrained user of electronic media. His own preference would have been for paper and postage. Nonetheless, he remains satisfied with the final inventory. This same group provided the experts who reviewed the essays. 
Dr. David MacDonald, professor emeritus of history at Illinois State University, wrote the preface. “I did not do very much,” he demurred. “I talked over a number of the Greek and a few of the Roman entries with Harlan, made a few suggestions, retyped a number of the entries. I was mainly there to let Harlan bounce ideas off of me. In some cases, Harlan liked my suggestions, in other cases not. The book in concept and substance is his work.” 
Berk’s hallmark can be seen in the order of presentation. The other books in Whitman’s 100 Greatest series all deliver a strict numerical ranking from 1 to 100 (or beyond). Berk insisted on chronological order. The first coin is the oldest known true coin, an electrum stater from Ionia, ranked number 81. The number one greatest ancient coin is the EID MAR (Ides of March) denarius struck by Brutus to commemorate the assassination of Julius Caesar, struck 600 years after the invention of coinage.  
While grounded in the fundamentals of current scholarship, the book also presents new ideas derived from Berk’s lifelong study of numismatics. The coins of Lydia struck by Croesus (Kroisos) and his successors feature a bull and lion confronting each other. The meaning of the symbols has been the subject of speculation for over a century. To Berk, that the lion hallmarked the Croesoid dynasty was a given. “But what of the Bull?  To me it looked like the Lion represented strength and the Bull virility.” Berk also asserted that the coins of Alexander the Great are accurate portraits of the young conqueror. “The coin of Pergamon never really had been published, but it is Alexander the Great.” Berk acknowledged that in reviewing the manuscript, Dr. Alan Walker disagreed with that identification. (As an archaeologist, Walker learned to uncover his evidence with a camelhair brush, so it is appropriate that he found about a dozen problems not all of which were remediated to his satisfaction.)  Speaking of the coin of Alexander’s father, Philip II, Berk said that the head of Zeus is an accurate portrait of Philip. Berk also pointed to a perhaps unique consequence of his extensive research: “The other thing was to start with the Neanderthals, who had art.  They made pendants out of shells.”
Speaking of the earliest coins, Prof. MacDonald said, “I too think that coins were probably invented for payments to mercenaries, but Harlan makes a good argument that the extensive system of early fractionals down to truly tiny coins that could well indicate trade. It is, I think, one of those indeterminate questions of ancient history. People love to argue about such things, but there is really no way to resolve the argument. So, I figure, let each state his or her theory and the reasons to back it, without getting too doctrinaire about it.”
Berk also rejected the label “Byzantine” for the Eastern Roman Empire, calling that euphemism an artifact of papal politics. Those claims and others resulted Berk’s learning that “AQ” stands for “Author Query” an editor’s notation to check back with the writer for verification of an assertion. In reply, Berk presented his facts. “There’s a lot more things in there that people have not read, a lot of things you hope to find in serious numismatic works. You write it for your severest critic and you learn a lot.” 
David MacDonald said: “There is always a problem in such a book, balancing readability and comprehensibility on a basic level with current research. In some instances, one can only appreciate the latest theories if one knows intimately the earlier positions or if the latest theories are presented in much longer explanations and in greater technicality than can be accommodated in such a format. I think Harlan has done a good job matching the level of the text to the target audience.”
As an example of that last point, Berk said that he started off calling the obverse of a coin the “front” in order to keep the book accessible to a wider audience. “But I decided that if people are going to come into our world, into our hobby, they need to know the proper vocabulary and that’s all there is to that.”
As a dealer, Berk is especially cognizant of price. Therefore, the essays and illustrations in 100 Greatest Ancient Coins are supplemented with the results of important auctions. Beyond the historical data, Berk also estimates current values for coins that have not come on the market recently. This is significant for the museum-quality pieces such as the Syracuse Decadrachm or the Sextus Pompey Aureus. Such extreme rarities comprise over half the listings. These are, after all, the greatest. 
Highly important auctions are not the only venues. “All over the Western World, the coins have the same price,” Berk said, acknowledging a basic truth about any open market. Therefore, the devoted collector can find a local dealer who can act as a purchasing agent. Extreme rarities are not the only items in this inventory. Several entries are affordable to the average collector. “There are $15 coins in the book,” Berk said, citing issues of the mid-200s CE. “I sold 700 [anonymous folles] for $18 each. I have given them away in the store to kids, saying, ‘Here is a coin from the book. Now write me an essay about it.’  These are coins that anyone can afford. They had a political impact. There are ten such coins in the book, in the reach of any collector.” 
Behind that statement lies a caveat. Collectors whose passions are goaded by impatience often buy the cheapest examples, and those are not highly desirable. A Corinthian or Tarentum stater, a tetradrachm of Alexander the Great or a “Tribute Penny” denarius of Tiberius can all be had in lower grade for a couple hundred dollars or less. Perhaps most collectors have lifestyles that allow the enjoyment of our hobby in that price range. It is better to set aside that initial outlay and add to it because for double the money – $400 versus $200; $1000 versus $500 – the collector can acquire a nicely centered piece in higher grade. 
“Everyone has common coins, so they are cheap,” Berk said. “Do you want to have a lot of coins? Fine!  …  Constantine bronzes or Roman colonials are collected by academics who do not have large pocketbooks. They are detail-oriented academics who want to have lots of coins, without spending lots of money and they want to do lots of studying. … But you cannot get your money back. … Numismatics is a science in art and history. If you want to make money, you have to study and wait a few decades. … A new collector should start with whatever catches their eye, then specialize in some area. You have to sample everything out there and then go into the collecting area that captures your interest. Don’t follow the crowds.” He underscored that requirement for deep study by pointing out that many of the appreciated examples were issued by transitory usurpers and generals who left no dynasties. “Successful people make common coins. China was successful and made billions of common coins.” 
Speaking about the other side of the scale, Berk said, “Of course, we have coins with good provenance from collections such as Pozzi and A. P. Hall. If a coin went through two, three, or four distinguished collections, then it must be an important coin.”  Unfortunately, famous sales did not always generate complete references. “The Lockett sale was an auction, so the catalog could not picture all the coins. With important collections, there are sylloges that show everything.” That touches on one of the truisms of numismatics, attributed to Aaron Feldman: Buy the book before you buy the coin. “It’s OK to buy the coin first,” Berk said, “but you won’t get deeply into the coins. You won’t enjoy it [the collecting] as much.”
His own library runs over 16,500 volumes. They enable the professional activities of specialists at his business which includes autographs, documents and paper money as well as modern and ancient items.  Speaking of his own references, Berk said, “I like Gross and Weber – those are large collections from the beginning of the last century – Mazzini and then Cohen. Think of it, a work written in 1857 by a musician who wrote about coins. His pricing is generally correct. It is s brilliant work, created without typewriters, photocopiers, cameras and all that.” 
Stopping at the “one hundred greatest” is an inherent challenge. Another of the books in this series, 100 Greatest American Tokens and Medals by Katherine Jaeger and Q. David Bowers, included an appendix of another 100 examples. Berk acknowledged “probably 40 more coins that could have gone in there” citing the Apollo/Zeus tetradrachm of Antiochus IV issued in celebration of that king’s attempt at what Berk called “a triumphal orgy to compete with the Olympics.” But the line had to be drawn somewhere and Berk repeated his statement from the Acknowledgements which close the book: it was never his intention to re-write the British Museum Catalog.

5 years ago

@Michael Marotta

“Knowledge is king,” said Harlan J. Berk, asking rhetorically, “Do you have a Hannibal portrait versus just another Melqart?”  For Berk, learning is a lifelong process, and writing 100 Greatest Ancient Coins exemplified that. “Syracuse was founded on a small island and then moved to Sicily. The four dolphins [on their large silver coins] represent the sea. I had not known that. If I did not, then others probably did not as well.”
To validate the book, Berk relied on his extensive network of personal friends and professional contacts in numismatics. Among them were Alan Walker, Ute Wartenberg Kagan, Curtis Clay and Phil Davis. 
[This review was originally published by the MSNS MichMatist in 2008.] The tally of one hundred coins came from a poll the world’s hundred best numismatists.  “I chose the group,” Berk said. “I gave [Whitman] the names of a hundred or so academics, collectors, and dealers from around the world.” Each person in this group submitted their own list of a hundred or so aesthetically superior or historically important issues. All of the polling was requested, accepted and compiled via emails. Perhaps not surprising in an antiquarian, Berk himself is not an engrained user of electronic media. His own preference would have been for paper and postage. Nonetheless, he remains satisfied with the final inventory. This same group provided the experts who reviewed the essays. 
Dr. David MacDonald, professor emeritus of history at Illinois State University, wrote the preface. “I did not do very much,” he demurred. “I talked over a number of the Greek and a few of the Roman entries with Harlan, made a few suggestions, retyped a number of the entries. I was mainly there to let Harlan bounce ideas off of me. In some cases, Harlan liked my suggestions, in other cases not. The book in concept and substance is his work.” 
Berk’s hallmark can be seen in the order of presentation. The other books in Whitman’s 100 Greatest series all deliver a strict numerical ranking from 1 to 100 (or beyond). Berk insisted on chronological order. The first coin is the oldest known true coin, an electrum stater from Ionia, ranked number 81. The number one greatest ancient coin is the EID MAR (Ides of March) denarius struck by Brutus to commemorate the assassination of Julius Caesar, struck 600 years after the invention of coinage.  
While grounded in the fundamentals of current scholarship, the book also presents new ideas derived from Berk’s lifelong study of numismatics. The coins of Lydia struck by Croesus (Kroisos) and his successors feature a bull and lion confronting each other. The meaning of the symbols has been the subject of speculation for over a century. To Berk, that the lion hallmarked the Croesoid dynasty was a given. “But what of the Bull?  To me it looked like the Lion represented strength and the Bull virility.” Berk also asserted that the coins of Alexander the Great are accurate portraits of the young conqueror. “The coin of Pergamon never really had been published, but it is Alexander the Great.” Berk acknowledged that in reviewing the manuscript, Dr. Alan Walker disagreed with that identification. (As an archaeologist, Walker learned to uncover his evidence with a camelhair brush, so it is appropriate that he found about a dozen problems not all of which were remediated to his satisfaction.)  Speaking of the coin of Alexander’s father, Philip II, Berk said that the head of Zeus is an accurate portrait of Philip. Berk also pointed to a perhaps unique consequence of his extensive research: “The other thing was to start with the Neanderthals, who had art.  They made pendants out of shells.”
Speaking of the earliest coins, Prof. MacDonald said, “I too think that coins were probably invented for payments to mercenaries, but Harlan makes a good argument that the extensive system of early fractionals down to truly tiny coins that could well indicate trade. It is, I think, one of those indeterminate questions of ancient history. People love to argue about such things, but there is really no way to resolve the argument. So, I figure, let each state his or her theory and the reasons to back it, without getting too doctrinaire about it.”
Berk also rejected the label “Byzantine” for the Eastern Roman Empire, calling that euphemism an artifact of papal politics. Those claims and others resulted Berk’s learning that “AQ” stands for “Author Query” an editor’s notation to check back with the writer for verification of an assertion. In reply, Berk presented his facts. “There’s a lot more things in there that people have not read, a lot of things you hope to find in serious numismatic works. You write it for your severest critic and you learn a lot.” 
David MacDonald said: “There is always a problem in such a book, balancing readability and comprehensibility on a basic level with current research. In some instances, one can only appreciate the latest theories if one knows intimately the earlier positions or if the latest theories are presented in much longer explanations and in greater technicality than can be accommodated in such a format. I think Harlan has done a good job matching the level of the text to the target audience.”
As an example of that last point, Berk said that he started off calling the obverse of a coin the “front” in order to keep the book accessible to a wider audience. “But I decided that if people are going to come into our world, into our hobby, they need to know the proper vocabulary and that’s all there is to that.”
As a dealer, Berk is especially cognizant of price. Therefore, the essays and illustrations in 100 Greatest Ancient Coins are supplemented with the results of important auctions. Beyond the historical data, Berk also estimates current values for coins that have not come on the market recently. This is significant for the museum-quality pieces such as the Syracuse Decadrachm or the Sextus Pompey Aureus. Such extreme rarities comprise over half the listings. These are, after all, the greatest. 
Highly important auctions are not the only venues. “All over the Western World, the coins have the same price,” Berk said, acknowledging a basic truth about any open market. Therefore, the devoted collector can find a local dealer who can act as a purchasing agent. Extreme rarities are not the only items in this inventory. Several entries are affordable to the average collector. “There are $15 coins in the book,” Berk said, citing issues of the mid-200s CE. “I sold 700 [anonymous folles] for $18 each. I have given them away in the store to kids, saying, ‘Here is a coin from the book. Now write me an essay about it.’  These are coins that anyone can afford. They had a political impact. There are ten such coins in the book, in the reach of any collector.” 
Behind that statement lies a caveat. Collectors whose passions are goaded by impatience often buy the cheapest examples, and those are not highly desirable. A Corinthian or Tarentum stater, a tetradrachm of Alexander the Great or a “Tribute Penny” denarius of Tiberius can all be had in lower grade for a couple hundred dollars or less. Perhaps most collectors have lifestyles that allow the enjoyment of our hobby in that price range. It is better to set aside that initial outlay and add to it because for double the money – $400 versus $200; $1000 versus $500 – the collector can acquire a nicely centered piece in higher grade. 
“Everyone has common coins, so they are cheap,” Berk said. “Do you want to have a lot of coins? Fine!  …  Constantine bronzes or Roman colonials are collected by academics who do not have large pocketbooks. They are detail-oriented academics who want to have lots of coins, without spending lots of money and they want to do lots of studying. … But you cannot get your money back. … Numismatics is a science in art and history. If you want to make money, you have to study and wait a few decades. … A new collector should start with whatever catches their eye, then specialize in some area. You have to sample everything out there and then go into the collecting area that captures your interest. Don’t follow the crowds.” He underscored that requirement for deep study by pointing out that many of the appreciated examples were issued by transitory usurpers and generals who left no dynasties. “Successful people make common coins. China was successful and made billions of common coins.” 
Speaking about the other side of the scale, Berk said, “Of course, we have coins with good provenance from collections such as Pozzi and A. P. Hall. If a coin went through two, three, or four distinguished collections, then it must be an important coin.”  Unfortunately, famous sales did not always generate complete references. “The Lockett sale was an auction, so the catalog could not picture all the coins. With important collections, there are sylloges that show everything.” That touches on one of the truisms of numismatics, attributed to Aaron Feldman: Buy the book before you buy the coin. “It’s OK to buy the coin first,” Berk said, “but you won’t get deeply into the coins. You won’t enjoy it [the collecting] as much.”
His own library runs over 16,500 volumes. They enable the professional activities of specialists at his business which includes autographs, documents and paper money as well as modern and ancient items.  Speaking of his own references, Berk said, “I like Gross and Weber – those are large collections from the beginning of the last century – Mazzini and then Cohen. Think of it, a work written in 1857 by a musician who wrote about coins. His pricing is generally correct. It is s brilliant work, created without typewriters, photocopiers, cameras and all that.” 
Stopping at the “one hundred greatest” is an inherent challenge. Another of the books in this series, 100 Greatest American Tokens and Medals by Katherine Jaeger and Q. David Bowers, included an appendix of another 100 examples. Berk acknowledged “probably 40 more coins that could have gone in there” citing the Apollo/Zeus tetradrachm of Antiochus IV issued in celebration of that king’s attempt at what Berk called “a triumphal orgy to compete with the Olympics.” But the line had to be drawn somewhere and Berk repeated his statement from the Acknowledgements which close the book: it was never his intention to re-write the British Museum Catalog.

 

5 years ago

This is too long (in my opinion) for a forum.
Blog posts are viewed more,

SO I recommend you post this there so that even more people can enjoy your hard work.
Good job!

5 years ago

The blog does not work well for me. I have tried different browsers and other remedies and nothing is helpful.  


If you want to open a New Blog and just type in a paragraph with the native editor, yes, you can make a short entry.

I write offline, using Word. That way, I can spellcheck and engage other tools.  I write for a living. The ANA has published several of my articles.  I am pretty good at this.  And I participate in both CoinTalk.com and CoinPeople.com, among others. I have no problems with other platforms.

You will note that the article is posted twice. That was not intentional. It was an artifact of the interface software. I cannot delete the second entry.

5 years ago
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