22.12.2017 One of the Münzkabinett’s most important items, the decadrachm struck from a die engraved by Kimon can now be reacquired after more than 70 years, thanks to the support of the Kulturstiftung der Länder and the Ernst von Siemens Kunststiftung. From 2018 onwards, the Kimon decadrachm will once again feature in the permanent exhibition of the Altes Museum.
One of the Münzkabinett’s most important items, the decadrachm struck from a die engraved by Kimon can now be reacquired after more than 70 years, thanks to the support of the Kulturstiftung der Länder and the Ernst von Siemens Kunststiftung. From 2018 onwards, the Kimon decadrachm will once again feature in the permanent exhibition of the Altes Museum.
“We are delighted that in this particularly eventful year for the Münzkabinett we are able to welcome one of our most priceless objects, the decadrachm, back into the collection”, said Michael Eissenhauer, Director-General of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. “We extend our special gratitude to the Kulturstiftung der Länder and the Ernst von Siemens Kunstiftung; without their support this spectacular reacquisition would not have been possible. Bernhard Weisser, Director of the Münzkabinett, added: “We are overjoyed that one of our most important artefacts is returning to Museum Island, right in time for the 150th anniversary of the Münzkabinett.”
The decadrachm (c. 405–400 BCE) is the largest silver coin from ancient Sicily. It has a diameter of 35mm and a weight of 43.13g. The coin was not intended for daily use, but rather for large payments, such as for wood for shipbuilding. The obverse shows a victorious charioteer with a long robe (xystis) in a chariot drawn by four horses (quadriga), facing left. In his left hand, the charioteer holds the reins, and in his outstretched right hand, a staff. From the left side, a Nike flies in, crowning the charioteer’s head. The exergue shows the weapons of a Hoplite, the prize for the winner of the chariot race. The reverse, which bears the names of the mint of Syracuse, shows the head of the spring nymph Arethusa with a hair net, pearl necklace, earrings, and head band (apyx), facing left. The head is surrounded by four dolphins which indicate the spring-sanctuary on a rocky island outside the town. As a special feature, Arethusa’s hairband includes the name of the die engraver, KI(mon).
The era of signing engravers from the Sicilian city of Syracuse in the second half of the 5th century BCE represents the high point of antique coin art. At this time, it was Syracuse, not Athens, that was the centre of the art of die engraving. Johann Joachim Winckelmann, founder of classical archaeology and of art history as scientific method, whose 300th anniversary will be celebrated this December, put it succinctly as long ago as 1759: “Human minds cannot conceive of something greater than these coins…. Anyone who has not seen the finest works of classical antiquity cannot comprehend what is truly beautiful.”
That this judgment remains true today is well justified: of all coins of all ages, the decadrachm stands out with view to its high relief, the outstanding mastery in the relief design in the round, its stylistic perfection, and its High Classical period style, considered exemplary to this day.
After the coin was discovered in 1908 near Syracuse, it travelled back with Tomaso Virzi to Munich, where it was auctioned off at the Jakob Hirsch auction house in 1912. Then-curator Kurt Regling acquired the decadrachm for the Münzkabinett and presented it to the public for the first time in 1914, together with all other known decadrachms of the engraver Kimon. On 2 May 1945, the Museum Island was occupied by the Soviet Army and thefts occurred. In 1946, the entire numismatic collection was transported to the Soviet Union, not returning to Berlin until 1958. During a general inventory of the collection, it was discovered that the decadrachm was missing. On 20 April 1959, it became known that the coin was in the United States. All attempts to retrieve it during the era of the Cold War failed; the Münzkabinett was after all located in East Berlin.
The owners of the coin since then remain largely unknown. However the identity and whereabouts of one of its owners came to light through another theft, when the decadrachm, along with several other coins, was stolen from a collector in Omaha on 10 April 1965. When it resurfaced, along with other stolen goods, in 1976, the heirs of the then deceased owner had it auctioned off in Zürich. It was put up for auction in Zürich again in 1997 and was then, possibly with other intervening owners, in the possession of a New York-based coin collector until 2015. This collector put the coin up for auction in Geneva that year, but then agreed to withdraw it from the auction and eventually assign it to the Münzkabinett in 2017, which was able to buy it back with the support of the Kulturstiftung der Länder and the Ernst von Siemens Kunststiftung. With this chequered recent history, the Syracuse coin will henceforth be featured in a special vitrine in the permanent exhibition of the Altes Museum.