NGC Ancients: Ancient Die Engravers

Posted on 9/13/2016

The tradition of die engravers or designers signing their work can be traced back to the fifth century B.C.

Collectors of US coins are familiar with the names Gobrecht, Longacre, Morgan, Barber and Saint-Gaudens, to name but a few. These artists designed many of the coins that are so popular with collectors today. After the appearance of Victor D. Brenner’s ‘V.D.B.’ on the Lincoln cent in 1909, many artists began to put their initials on their work. Now one can observe a wide range of signatures on U.S. coins, including FS on the Jefferson nickel, JS on the Roosevelt dime and JF on the Washington quarter (and many more still on modern commemorative quarters).

However, the tradition of die engravers or designers signing their work is not a modern invention, it goes back to the 5th Century B.C. Ancient coin collectors are fortunate to know the names of many of the artists who engraved the dies used to strike coins. The high point for signed dies came in Sicily in the late 5th Century B.C. At this time many Sicilian artists signed their dies, almost as if there was a competition among the engravers to see who could produce the most beautiful coins.

These men clearly were proud of their work and they wanted everyone to know who had produced the dies. Some of them worked only for one city (presumably, their home town), whereas others produced dies for more than one mint.

Syracusan Tetradrachm, obverse die signed by Eumenes,
reverse die signed by Eukleidas.
Click image to enlarge.

In Acragas we see the work of Silanos. In Camarina, we have Exakestidas. In Catana we see Euainetos, Prokles, Herakleidas and Choirion signing their dies. At Himera we have the unknown ‘MAI’ who signed his work. At Messana a Simin signed his work, and at Naxos there is Prokles. In Syracuse we have Kimon, Euainetos, Eukleidas, Phrygillos, Euarchidas, Eumenes, Parmenides and Sosion.

Syracusan Decadrachm signed by Kimon
Click image to enlarge.

Today, the coins of these artists are actively sought by collectors and many are considered to be some of the finest examples of Greek numismatic art. It is always a matter of curiosity, however, that some artists who produced remarkable dies in this period did not sign their dies. Perhaps there were clashes of personalities (as often has been observed at the US Mint) that allowed a person in authority to suppress the notoriety of an engraver.

The signing of dies didn’t end in 5th Century B.C. Over the next several centuries, many die engravers signed their work, although their signatures tended to be initials or abbreviations so today we do not know the artist’s full name. A few who worked at mints in Southern Italy include ‘Kal’ and ‘Sosi’ in Heracleia, ‘Apol’ in Metapontum, Molossos in Thurium and Philiston in Velia.

Pharsalos Drachm signed by Telephantos.
Click image to enlarge.

Moving further east, to the Greek mainland, we find Telephantos and ‘Hip’ in Pharsalos. In Larissa we have dies signed ‘Simo’ and ‘Ai’. In Egypt early in the 3rd century B.C. we encounter the “Delta” engraver who signed many dies used to strike coins for Kings Ptolemy I (305/4-282 B.C.) and Ptolemy II (285/4-246 B.C.) using a small Delta behind the king’s ear.

Larissa Drachm signed by the engraver "Simo".
Click image to enlarge.

Unfortunately for Roman coin collectors, we know virtually nothing about the engravers who often produced such wonderful dies. Only one issue of the triumvir Marc Antony is known to have been signed: a silver denarius of 32 B.C. is signed with a small P behind Antony’s ear.

Marc Antony Denarius signed by the artist 'P'
Click image to enlarge.

Though engravers’ signatures are virtually absent on Roman coins, we can determine, for example, that in most cases the best engravers worked on obverse dies, being that they typically bore the portraits of emperors or members of the royal family. Second-tier artists (or trainees?) were relegated to the production of reverse dies, except in circumstances were some extraordinary and special types were made.

Each die was hand engraved by an artist, many of whom had their own stylistic proclivities. Careful study of the fine details of individual coins sometimes allows the work of individual engravers to be identified. While this is difficult to do with large issues, small issues from branch mints are more open to engraver identification. For example, close study of “Emesa” mint denarii of A.D. 193 to 195 reveal the work of several different engravers. An examination of sestertii of the rebel Postumus (A.D. 260-269) has also revealed the work of several die engravers.

Recently, two coins crossed our desks at NGC Ancients with portraits that almost certainly were the work of the same engraver. One was a coin of Valerian II (issued soon after his death in A.D. 258), the other a coin of his brother Saloninus (Caesar, A.D. 258-260). Both coins were struck at the Cologne (Germany) Mint, c.A.D. 258-259.

left: Double Denarius of Valerian II ; right: Double Denarius of Saloninus
Click images to enlarge.

The portraits on the two coins are very nearly identical: the ears, eyes, drapery and hair lines are all cut with a similar style and the overall portraits are difficult to distinguish from one another without reading the legends.

While it is unlikely we’ll ever know much about the artists who engraved the ancient coins we collect today, we are fortunate that some were gracious enough to leave us their names. The question remains, though: will collectors 2,000 years from now wonder who V.D.B. was?

Images courtesy of CNG.

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