NGC Ancients: The Elusive “Full Crest” Owls of Athens

Posted on 8/14/2018

Athenian tetradrachms are a staple of ancient-coin collecting.

The silver tetradrachms of Athens, which pair the helmeted head of the goddess Athena with the standing figure of her owl, were produced on a very large scale from the mid- to late-5th Century B.C. So many were struck that scholars consider it fruitless to conduct a die study on the series (a problem which, one day, might be resolved with the aid of technology).

Even though a large number of these coins survive to the modern day, it still is not enough to meet the interest expressed by collectors. Owls remain a staple of the ancient coin field, with most every new collector seeking one, and veteran collectors revisiting the series to find just the right example.

One design element on these coins that almost always is missing or is incomplete is the horse hair crest that adorns Athena’s helmet. The broadness of the obverse dies and the comparative narrowness of the planchets assured that most every Athenian tetradrachm of the Classical period was missing at least half of its crest.

We may examine the two pieces above as good examples. The first one, as is typical for the series, lacks Athena’s crest, whereas the second one has an essentially complete crest.

Usually when a ‘full crest’ owl is found, it’s at the expense of Athena’s chin and/or nose since the completeness of the crest is gained only by the loss of design elements at the opposite end of the obverse die.

Thus, to find a full crest owl on which Athena’s chin and/or nose also are present is a very rare circumstance. And even when that small miracle occurs, one can only cross their fingers that the surface is pleasant – with sound metal and none of the distracting defects, such as test cuts, graffiti, countermarks, scratches, scuffs and improper cleaning, which so often mar these coins.

NGC Ancients had the good fortune to grade an exceptional group of Athens tetradrachms in which some pieces had a full crest. Since this was such an unusual circumstance, we decided to illustrate the pieces.

We’ll start with the early issues. Shown above is an Archaic tetradrachm struck c.510-480 B.C. During the latter part of this era, the Persians launched two unsuccessful – yet highly damaging – invasions of Greece. Though a full crest is not as unusual on these early pieces as on those of the Classical period, it’s still an uncommon feature.

Above is an owl tetradrachm from the ‘transitional period’ of c.465 to 455 B.C. A full crest on this scarce and collectible issue is highly unusual. This piece qualifies for that designation, even though the tip of the lower end is not present. We may note that a bit of Athena’s chin was lost in the striking, but it’s so minimal that it does not detract from its charm.

Above are two owls of the Classical period. They belong to a massive issue that began in the late 450s B.C. and ended in 404 B.C., when Athens surrendered to Sparta and her allies in the Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.C.). These examples show some of Athena’s crest, but are nowhere near complete.

By contrast, the eight coins shown below qualify for NGC’s full crest designation. Even though none are technically perfect in that regard, they are as good as any collector can reasonably expect to find considering the imperfect nature of hand-struck coinage. As such, they’re highly desirable pieces.

We end this survey with the seven examples shown below. Though they have far more crest than usually is present, in no case is it enough to earn the full crest designation.

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