Roman coin plucked from the ashes of Pompeii eruption sells at auction for £18,000

A ‘breathtaking’ gold coin celebrating the Roman conquest uncovered among the ruins of a suburb near Pompeii has sold for thousands at auction.

A perfectly-preserved Roman coin celebrating Emperor Claudius’s conquest of Britain has sold at auction for £18,000 after being discovered from the ashes of Pompeii. The gold aureus celebrating the conquest in AD 43 was uncovered among the ruins of a suburb five kilometres north of the archaeological site in southern Italy’s Campania region.

Experts say they are hardly surprised the coin, born from two of the most dramatic events of the Ancient World, fetched such an eye-watering price at auction. The “breathtaking” history of the small coin saw it contested over by collectors and museums across Europe.

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It is made all the more valuable due to treasure-hunting now being strictly prohibited in the UNESCO-protected areas surrounding Pompeii. The coin was first found by antiquarians in 1895, beneath mounds of volcanic ash inside the Roman villa ravaged and preserved by the eruption of the volcano Vesuvius in 79 AD.

The eruption is still regarded as the most high-profile in history due to the ash preserving the ruins and the lives of the people there. The eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD killed more than 16,000 residents of the city and its surrounding environs, including the smaller town of Herculaneum and other towns and villages in the region on the Amalfi coast.

The coin was discovered as part of a horde alongside the body of a servant in the wine-pressing room of the Villa della Pisanella in the suburbs of the town of Boscoréale. The unimaginable volcanic temperatures of the eruption toned the coin with a distinctive reddish hue.

But, this particular coin was buried deep enough under the ash that it preserved its golden glow. From the position of the human remains found near the horde, alongside silver tableware inscribed to the lady of the house, Maxima, it was determined that the unidentified man perished while dutifully guarding the treasures.

The coin is estimated to have been worth the equivalent of around six to eight weeks’ wages for the average Roman soldier. One face of the coin depicts the triumphal arch of Claudius on the Via Flaminia road out of Rome, topped by an equestrian statue of Emperor Claudius flanked by British battle shields and inscribed DE [VICTIS] BRITANN[IS] - ‘Triumph over the Britons’.

i. The gold aureus celebrating the conquest in AD 43 was uncovered among the ruins of a suburb five kilometres north of the archaeological site in southern Italy’s Campania region.i. The gold aureus celebrating the conquest in AD 43 was uncovered among the ruins of a suburb five kilometres north of the archaeological site in southern Italy’s Campania region.
i. The gold aureus celebrating the conquest in AD 43 was uncovered among the ruins of a suburb five kilometres north of the archaeological site in southern Italy’s Campania region. | Spink / SWNS

Emperor Claudius launched the Roman conquest of Britain in AD 43, which was largely completed in the southern half of Britain by AD 87. Roman historians record Claudius as receiving the surrender of 11 British tribal chieftains.

The first recorded sale of the coin came in 1898 when, ironically, the coin celebrating British defeat at the hands of Romans was bought by Englishman Sir Samuel Bagster Boulton, a vice chairman of the London Chamber of Commerce. The coin was passed down through generations of the Boulton family through Sir Samuel’s children - one of whom survived the sinking of the RMS Lusitania in May 1915.

The family sold their collection of Boscoréale coins in 1942 to London coin dealers Spink, and the coin in question was sold for £12 (around £450 today) to the present vendor’s family, where it has remained ever since. But the coin was finally sold at another Spink auction for the first time in more than 80 years to a private collector, for the price of £18,000.

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On the cultural and historical significance of the coin, Gregory Edmund, the Roman Coin advisor at Spink, said: "If you were to combine the two most dramatic events of the Ancient World into one object, this would be the dream combination.

“While its discovery is hardly bathed in the rigorous archaeological disciplines we would demand today, and have since rightfully legislated the world over to enshrine, the pure theatrical romance of finding Roman gold leaves little to anyone’s imagination.

"As historians, we often harp on about navigating windows into the past, but few objects could ever resonate so emphatically as this. Historical fact and romantic fiction are wedded together in this object.

"To actually stop and comprehend what this coin has played witness to: from the very hands that crafted the Roman invasion of Britain, to being buried by the volcanic ash of the most famous natural disaster of the Ancient world. It is truly breathtaking."

Other pieces from the famous Boscoréale horde are on display in museums such as the Louvre in Paris and the British Museum in London. In the years that followed its discovery the Boscoréale Treasure was improperly transported around central Europe, before being accessioned into the Louvre in 1896.

Legislation was later introduced in Italy to prevent further exploitation of culturally-sensitive objects after 1909. Since its implementation, archaeological finds now revert to the Italian state - rendering Boscoréale coins one of the few legitimate exemptions for private collectors.

Today, Pompeii and the other villages and towns decimated by the Vesuvius eruption are protected as World-Heritage sites and all treasure-hunting and unlicensed excavations are strictly prohibited. Mr Edmund added: "Three owners since new’ is more likened to used car sales in auctioneer parlance, not 2,000 years of world history.

"This transcends every conceivable fantasy within the esoteric world of numismatics. I am not at all surprised that bidders fought like modern-day gladiators to own this treasured heirloom of antiquity - their first opportunity to do so in over 80 years.

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“I am very glad to see the infectious passion of the winning bidder who reveres the cultural significance of this object first and foremost as its next privileged guardian. If only this coin could talk, what more could it tell us?".

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