NGC Ancients: A Pedigreed Irish Collection of Ancient Coins

Posted on 2/9/2016

It is wonderful to speculate about who assembled this collection, and about where and when the coins were acquired.

One of the great pleasures associated with ancient coins is the discovery of an old pedigree. It reminds us that we are merely the most recent in a long line of collectors who have appreciated the coins of antiquity.

Ancient coins have been deeply appreciated since the 14th Century. Indeed, it was customary for educated young men of the Renaissance (and also in the 18th and 19th Centuries) to possess a strong knowledge of ancient coins. Coins were recognized as prime resources for the understanding of the foundations of Western Civilization, and it was a mark of distinction to have a collection.

Spain, Barscunes
This drachm-denarius was struck at Barscunes, located in modern Spain.
Click images to enlarge.

The study of ancient coins remains an active field to this day, and we are the inheritors of a legacy that in a very real sense helped launch the Renaissance in Europe. The fascination with the ancient world continued long afterward, culminating in the concept of the ‘Grand Tour’ that was so popular with the well-to-do of the 17th, 18th and 19th Centuries. The current popularity of ancient coins demonstrates that our fascination with the ancient world has not subsided.

In the summer of 2015 an NGC dealer member, NFC of Winter Springs, Florida, acquired a coin collection that had been sold intact at public auction in Dublin, Ireland. The lot consisted of an ornate wood coin cabinet and the coins that filled its eleven pull-out trays. In addition to a core collection of 175 Greek and Roman coins, the cabinet also included a smattering of coins of the 19th and early 20th Centuries, which probably were just random additions rather than a focused collection.

A few collection tickets from the MacCormack Collection
Click images to enlarge.

It is wonderful to speculate about who assembled this collection, and about where and when the coins were acquired. A few of the original tickets that accompanied the coins record acquisitions in Liverpool, England. We may, however, speculate that most were acquired in London, which has always been the center of the ancient coin trade in England.

NGC was fortunate to receive this collection for identification, grading and encapsulation. Recovering the pedigree was no easy task, and required that the submitter consult the auction house, which, in turn, contacted the consignor. In the process some valuable information was retrieved.

Campia, Neapolis
This stater was issued at Neapolis, modern Naples, Italy
Click images to enlarge.

The consignor had inherited the coins through his family. They once had belonged to one of his great-uncles who had lived most of his adult life in Belfast. It seems that no one in the family had taken an interest in the dusty old box of coins, so it was passed down to the consignor as an afterthought. As he noted in correspondence, “…I ended up with the box when [my eldest sister] was clearing out my family home and nobody wanted it so [the family] saddled it on me…rather nice now to have been saddled with it !!! :).”

Roman Republic, Anonymous
This quadrigatus is the earliest Roman coin in the MacCormack collection.
Click images to enlarge.

Attaching a name to the collection was a challenge since knowledge of the original collector had passed from family memory. The consignor noted, however, that his father had always insisted that his family was Scottish, hailing from the Isle of Skye, and that the family name originally had spelled beginning with ‘Mac’. Thus, NGC preserved the old spelling of the name, MacCormack, rather than using the family’s current form, McCormack.

Roman Republic, Q. Caecilius
The head of the goddess Roma graces the obverse of this Republican denarius.
Click images to enlarge.

Armed with this information, and evidence from the many hand-inked collector’s tags that accompanied the coins, NGC was able to determine that most of the ancient coins had been purchased between about 1868 and 1900. Based upon this, we formulated the pedigree: “ex MacCormack Collection (assembled c.1868-1900)” that appears on the NGC identification labels.

Roman Republic, Q. Marcius
MacCormack Collection
Click images to enlarge.

NGC graded and encapsulated 175 ancient coins from the “MacCormack” collection including 15 coins of the ancient Greek world, 84 of the Roman Republic, 11 of the Roman Imperatorial era, and 65 of the Roman Empire.

Roman Republic, Q. Sicinius & C. Coponius
MacCormack Collection
Click images to enlarge.

The Greek coins are all silver, and consist mainly of issues from Greece and Greek colonies in Southern Italy. To these we may add lone ‘Greek’ issues from Barscunes (in modern Spain) and Massalia (in modern France). The Greek coins date from the mid-4th through the 1st Centuries B.C.

Many of the coins are from the Roman Republic, and except for a lovely silver ‘quadrigatus’ of the Second Punic War (dated c.225-214/2 B.C.), all are silver denarii issued from the mid-2nd to the mid-1st Centuries B.C. Many bear on their obverse the iconic helmeted head of Roma, but there is a significant variety of types.

Roman Empire, Claudius
A wonderful portrait of the Emperor Claudius appears on this as.
Click images to enlarge.

The collection also contained 11 coins issued during the ‘Roman Imperatorial’ era, during which civil wars caused the collapse of the Roman Republic and the rise of the Roman Empire. It principally includes silver denarii of Julius Caesar (murdered 44 B.C.) and Octavian (who in 27 B.C. was hailed Rome’s first emperor). Ten of these coins are silver denarii, and one is a fractional silver coin called a quinarius.

Roman Empire, Hadrin
The bust of the Emperor Hadrian on this denarius is engraved in fine style.
Click images to enlarge.

The 65 coins of the Roman Empire in this collection span the reigns of Augustus (27 B.C.-A.D. 14) to Commodus (A.D. 177-192), together with a lone coin outside that range, a base metal sestertius of the Emperor Gordian III (A.D. 238-244). In this segment there is a good mix of silver denarii and base metal asses and dupondii, all of which bear the portrait of a Roman emperor, empress or Caesar. Included are coins of famous emperors, such as Augustus, Tiberius, Nero, Hadrian, Marcus Aurelius and Commodus.

Roman Empire, Mar. Aurelius
The philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius is portrayed on this dupondius.
Graded NGC XF
Click images to enlarge.

The composition of the Roman Imperial coins suggests the collector had embraced the prejudices (for lack of a better word) of his times since, except for the sestertius of Gordian III, the collection has no coins issued after the reign of Commodus. After all, relatively few classicists of the 19th Century paid notice to Roman history after the reign of Commodus, which generally was considered the end of Classical Antiquity.

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