Collectors Bid for Million-Dollar Shekel

Silver Coin from First Revolt Grabs Spotlight at Auction

Coin Man: Ancient coin expert David Hendin says coins are a window into cultures.
David Sundman
Coin Man: Ancient coin expert David Hendin says coins are a window into cultures.

By Lisa Amand

Published March 27, 2012, issue of March 30, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share

It was a single silver shekel that stole the spotlight at a recent New York coin auction. Its gavel price: $1.1 million.

Back in the day, the shekel might have represented four days of a soldier’s pay. But that was 66 C.E., during a bloody and doomed fight to the death by Jewish nationalists against their Roman overlords. On March 9, under the chandeliers and oil portraits of the Fletcher-Sinclair House, on Manhattan’s tony Upper East Side, this piece was just one of a trove of Roman era Judean coins eyed by a mix of numismatists, some in suits with deep pockets and others in jeans, at one of the largest auctions of coins from that era ever held.

This was an auction at which sela’im and zuzim­ — the equivalent of pocket change in Roman times — made a name for themselves. The event, sponsored by Heritage Auctions, a major house for ancient collectibles, also featured 260 silver-and-bronze pieces from the Bar Kokhba Revolt, a later, separate anti-Roman rebellion that broke out in 132 C.E. Several of those pieces fetched record-breaking amounts topping $100,000. Aficionados armed with loupes and credit cards, looking to start or complete a collection, converged on the turn-of-the-century mansion to pore over the bounty.

Million in Hand: Kinga Pates of Heritage Auctions holds an ancient sela coin, valued at about $100,000.
lisa amand
Million in Hand: Kinga Pates of Heritage Auctions holds an ancient sela coin, valued at about $100,000.

“These coins are part of the whole sweep of history in that part of the world,” said David Michaels, Heritage’s director of ancient coins. “[The Bar Kokhba Revolt] can date the dispute of who owns the Holy Land.”

Experts believe 5,000 to 10,000 coins from Bar Kokhba’s short yet critical underground conflict were made between 132 C.E. and 135 C.E., the three-year tenure during which the outnumbered Jewish rebels were able to maintain their beleaguered state. The coins were actually struck, or embossed, over older Roman coins because there was no time for the Jewish revolutionaries to set up a mint for smelting and casting.

Interest in Bar Kokhba coins has been increasing since the 1960s, when letters found in a cave near the Dead Sea revealed the real name of the revolt’s leader, Simon ben Kosiba. It was the famed Rabbi Akiva who gave him his nom de guerre, Bar Kokhba, or Son of a Star.

“Ancient coins are powerful; they tell stories,” said self-dubbed “coin whisperer” David Hendin, who is curator at the American Numismatic Society, located in New York City’s Financial District.

Among these stories, Michaels said, is how the value of precious mined metals contrasted with the cheap labor it took to extract them, especially when that labor was extracted from slaves.

In today’s market, Michaels explained, a coin’s value is based on its rarity, condition, historical importance and artistic qualities. These coins were all hand engraved by individual artists.

The coins are generally unearthed during excavations of all kinds that take place across the Holy Land, from digging a roadbed to laying a house foundation. “Sometimes they are found by accident, other times by metal detectorists who are looking for them,” Michaels told the Forward via email, from Heritage’s gallery in Beverly Hills, Calif. “One important coin hoard was found when an Arab woman tripped over a hole in the ground while carrying a water bottle back to her village; they looked in the hole and found a hoard of Bar Kokhba coins.”

Patina, the tarnish on coins, is a big plus for collectors, which is why an old coin must be handled carefully on its edge and should never be polished after purchase. An ancient coin can “look like a black clump of dirt,” Michaels said, and just to be recognized, it must be cleaned. But the coins, he said, protected from oxidation by the dry dirt found around Jerusalem and in other parts of Israel, “often come up in pristine condition.”

Hendin penned parts of Heritage’s catalog for the auction. Also the author of “Guide to Biblical Coins” and of “Not Kosher: Forgeries of Ancient Jewish and Biblical Coins,” Hendin said he has “been playing with coins” since 1967, when he volunteered to work in Israel during the Six Day War. In view of the coins’ 2,000-year histories, Hendin considers contemporary owners of these ancient pieces as mere “temporary curators.”

As for the shekel that went for $1.1 million, it was struck in Jerusalem during the First Revolt, which ended with the Romans’ destruction of the Second Temple, in 70 C.E. One side shows a ceremonial chalice; the other displays three pomegranate buds. The legend, which reads “Shekel of Israel” and “Year 1” on one side and “Holy Jerusalem” on the other, has provoked controversy since the auction, because of its mute testimony to the existence of Jewish nationalism dating back to Roman times. Only two prototype “Year 1” shekels are known to exist, and the other one is in Jerusalem’s Israel Museum.

Where the spectacular coin will end up is as much of a mystery as who its ultimate buyer will be. But what is known is that the private East Coast collector, who obtained it through an agent at the auction, bought it for four times the amount it sold for in 1991.

Contact Lisa Amand at feedback@forward.com


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • A new initiative will spend $300 million a year towards strengthening Israel's relationship with the Diaspora. http://jd.fo/q3Iaj Is this money spent wisely?
  • Lusia Horowitz left pre-state Israel to fight fascism in Spain — and wound up being captured by the Nazis and sent to die at Auschwitz. Share her remarkable story — told in her letters.
  • Vered Guttman doesn't usually get nervous about cooking for 20 people, even for Passover. But last night was a bit different. She was cooking for the Obamas at the White House Seder.
  • A grumpy Jewish grandfather is wary of his granddaughter's celebrating Easter with the in-laws. But the Seesaw says it might just make her appreciate Judaism more. What do you think?
  • “Twist and Shout.” “Under the Boardwalk.” “Brown-Eyed Girl.” What do these great songs have in common? A forgotten Jewish songwriter. We tracked him down.
  • What can we learn from tragedies like the rampage in suburban Kansas City? For one thing, we must keep our eyes on the real threats that we as Jews face.
  • When is a legume not necessarily a legume? Philologos has the answer.
  • "Sometime in my childhood, I realized that the Exodus wasn’t as remote or as faceless as I thought it was, because I knew a former slave. His name was Hersh Nemes, and he was my grandfather." Share this moving Passover essay!
  • Getting ready for Seder? Chag Sameach! http://jd.fo/q3LO2
  • "We are not so far removed from the tragedies of the past, and as Jews sit down to the Seder meal, this event is a teachable moment of how the hatred of Jews-as-Other is still alive and well. It is not realistic to be complacent."
  • Aperitif Cocktail, Tequila Shot, Tom Collins or Vodka Soda — Which son do you relate to?
  • Elvis craved bacon on tour. Michael Jackson craved matzo ball soup. We've got the recipe.
  • This is the face of hatred.
  • What could be wrong with a bunch of guys kicking back with a steak and a couple of beers and talking about the Seder? Try everything. #ManSeder
  • BREAKING: Smirking killer singled out Jews for death in suburban Kansas City rampage. 3 die in bloody rampage at JCC and retirement home.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.