Numismatic Dinner Table: The Greatest Gold Coin
Posted on 3/31/2020
NGC Vice President and Grading Finalizer
Coin conventions will soon resume and collectors and dealers will again gather to discuss every conceivable topic in numismatics. During more normal times, when on the road for shows, dealers get together at the end of the day for a formal sit-down dinner. They talk about particularly rare coins they saw on the bourse floor earlier that day, coins that sold for crazy money in auction and they recall the conversations they had with collectors and fellow dealers.
During this hiatus from shows, we imagine a dinner table conversation among a small gathering of dealers. It goes as follows:
“A collector came to my table and asked me what I thought the most important gold coin was,” said Susie, a dealer in ancient coins.
“What did he mean by that?” said Steve, a dealer in US coins.
“He was interested in history and gold. He wanted to put together a set of the gold coins that he thought made the greatest contribution to history,” replied Susie.
“Which coin did you say? The Liberty or the Saint-Gaudens Double Eagle?” asked Steve.
Susie laughed. “Neither!” she said.
Steve said, “I’m not joking. The Liberty $20 came out in 1850, after the Gold Rush began. The world never needed such a large gold coin before that, at least not made in such large quantity. It is a symbol of American prosperity.”
“What about the Spanish Colonial 8 Escudos? They are nearly as large and were made in huge number!” refuted Robert, a dealer in foreign coins.
“Well the Saint...it was designed by the greatest artist of its day, the most beautiful gold coin of the era,” countered Steve.
“A great coin, to be sure, but designed after Greek coins. And it circulated for only 27 years,” said Susie.
“So beautiful is the design that it was resurrected for the obverse of the Gold Eagle. That’s been circulating for 35 years!” countered Steve again.
Susie was laughing.
Robert spoke up, “How about this? If one of us can convince the others that the coin he selects is, in fact, the most important gold coin, the others buy his dinner. Sound good?”
Susie said, “You mean buy her dinner? I’m in.” Steve agreed, although he was pretty sure he’d already lost.
“Let’s get another bottle of wine before we begin,” said Robert. “Something good.”
Susie began. She proposed electrum staters of Lydia, the first gold coins dating from 600 BCE. Steve objected that electrum wasn’t gold, but a natural alloy of gold and silver. To him, the coins were glorified gold nuggets. Susie said that any collection of the most important gold coins in human history would need one of these. Everyone agreed that was true. She then freely admitted that it wouldn’t look like many of the other coins in the collection.
Susie ventured forward with another candidate. The coin that established the template for coins that followed is the Roman aureus. It has a portrait of an emperor on the obverse, the leader of the state, surrounded by a legend stating his name and title. The reverse has a deity or subject of importance to the state. “They are the model for all coinage to this very day,” concluded Susie.
“That is true,” said Robert, “but all Roman coins are equally models for more modern coinage, including the silver denarii and the copper, not just the gold. I feel like coinage generally veered away from Roman style for a thousand years until being rediscovered in the Renaissance.
“OK, then, Mr. Smartypants,” cajoled Susie, “what’s your pick?”
“The zecchino of Venice,” replied Robert.
“What?” exclaimed Steve, “I barely even know what that is!”
Susie and Robert looked at each other and smiled.
“Sure, you do," Robert said. "You know Venice, right? It was an independent republic for over 1,000 years, from about 700 to 1800 CE. It was ruled by a Doge or Duke, elected by the leaders the Venice. The coins showed the Duke and had his name on them, so they were coins of the Duchy. The Latin legend of the coin ends with this word: DUCAT.”
“I see where this is going,” said Steve.
Robert continued: “Venice was a powerful trading center for all the world. It’s because of this coin that we call gold trade coinage 'ducats.' They were very high fineness gold, weighing 3.5 grams. That standard never changed. You know how long Venice made ducats?”
“I’m about to,” said Steve.
“They were first issued in the mid-1280s by Doge Giovanni Dandolo. And then by the 72 Doges that followed! When Francis II took over Venice, he issued coinage in his name in the exact same style. They continued to be struck well into the 1820s. For about 650 years, this coin was the standard trade coinage of Europe and the Near East. Its design, weight, and composition never changed, only the name of the Doge on the obverse legend. The Venetian ducat is the most important gold coin,” explained Robert.
“Yeah. But you called it something else, a za-key-no,” said Steve.
Robert concluded: “The ducat had been circulating for a couple hundred years. Then, in the 1540s, the Venetians built a new mint for gold coins, called the Zecca of Venice, after the Arabic word sikka which meant coinage die. There were several different size coins struck there, but this standard unit was simply called the zecchino, coin from the Zecca. The coin didn't change. It still included DUCAT in its legend, but zecchino is the popular name for the coin. Probably because it’s fun to say.
“In English, zecchino was co-opted as sequin, which is used sometimes as a denomination for other coins. But because the zecchino was so prevalent, the word sequin just came to mean anything round and shiny. That’s why we have sequined dresses today.”
The three of them sat there quietly for a while. Robert caught the eye of the waiter and rapped lightly on his wine glass to have it refilled. Steve and Susie paid for his meal.
See Ducats and Zecchini of the Doges 1280-1789 in the NGC Registry.
See Venice Ducats and Zecchini in the NGC Census.
In 2005, the highest price realized from the Eliasberg Collection of World Gold Coins was a 50 Zecchini of Doge Alvise Mocenigo IV, setting a new record for an Italian coin struck after the Roman Empire.
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