Byzantine coins and the price of gold

In his report Antiquities Trafficking in Syria Olivier Moos made the interesting and important observation that dealers on the ground inside Syria might buy looted coins and other precious metal antiquities according to their bullion value and not their projected sales value on the international market (Moos 2020: 11, 29). Until now, quoted on-the-ground prices for looted antiquities inside Syria have usually been considered suspect because they appear unrealistically high. But if prices for coins are indeed linked to their bullion value, then bullion value provides an objective measure of price inside Syria that can be used in conjunction with published prices on the retail end-market to investigate the pricing structure of the coin trade.

Reverse of solidus attributed to the Byzantine emperor Heraclius recently sold on Catawiki

A good coin to start with is the Roman-Byzantine gold solidus. The solidus was introduced by the Roman emperor Constantine I (306-337 AD) and for centuries afterwards it was produced with high purity gold (98 per cent) and a consistent weight of 4.5 grams. Debasement started in the eighth century and became marked from the tenth century onwards (Grierson 1999; Morrison 2002). Hundreds of solidi (at least) are known to have been found in Syria through legitimate excavations and hundreds if not thousands more must have been found through looting. Solidi would lose weight through wear during circulation, but for some basic exploratory calculations it can be assumed that in bullion terms today a solidus minted before 700 AD is a lump of pure gold and would be priced according to weight by dealers inside Syria. From 2012–2013, gold was trading on the international market for about 50–55 USD per gram, dropping during 2014–2019 to about 40 USD per gram. Thus in 2012–2013, a newly-looted solidus weighing 4.5 grams could have been sold for 236 USD, dropping to 180 USD from 2014–2019.

Outside Syria, over the period 2011–2020 three US/UK numismatic companies between them sold 3,883 fourth-to-seventh-century solidi for an average (mean) price of 1,082 per cent of their bullion value (1). This average figure was inflated by the sale of some exceptional high-priced coins. The highest price achieved was 62,625 per cent of bullion value (140,000 USD) for a coin minted in Ravenna of a type not likely to be found in Syria. The highest price paid for a coin minted in Constantinople of a type that could be found in Syria was 43,563 per cent of bullion value (65,000 USD). The median price of the sold solidi was lower at 323 per cent of bullion value. In other words, a looted coin sold for 200 USD inside Syria in 2018 would most likely have been sold in the UK or USA for about 646 USD, but on average, because of the high price of rare coins, for every coin sold for 200 USD inside Syria the UK or US company would have made 2,164 USD. Thus the pricing structure of the coin trade is dependent upon end-market companies with the knowledge necessary to recognise high value coins and access to similarly knowledgeable customers with the means to pay for them. The price of gold might form a floor beneath which coin prices cannot drop, but rarity is a more important determinant of end-market price. Presumably dealers inside Syria or its immediately neighbouring countries are able to sell coins for more than bullion value or else it would be easier to sell them for melting and recycling. Judging by the numbers of coins in circulation, that doesn’t happen. Dealers inside Syria may well be able to recognise rare and potentially expensive coins themselves, but without access to wealthy end-market customers they will be unable to capitalise upon their expertise.

Solidus advertised on Telegram in 2018

Moos illustrated 25 Byzantine solidi that had been advertised on Telegram on 21 November 2018 (Moos 2020: 25). Gold that day was trading for 39 USD per gram, so inside Syria each coin would have been sold for approximately 176 USD, a total of 4,400 USD. The coins are only illustrated in reverse, but they look to be seventh century in date, from the reigns of the Byzantine emperors Phocas (602–610 AD), Heraclius (610–641 AD) and Constans II (641–668 AD). Over the period 2018–2019, the three UK/US companies sold 193 solidi attributed to these three emperors, for an average (mean) price of 496 USD and a median price 358 USD. A coin very similar to one illustrated by Moos, possibly the same coin, was sold recently on Catawiki as a solidus of Heraclius with Heraclius Constantine and Heraclonas for 455 EUR, say 500 USD (shown above). The Telegram account was used by members in Idlib Governorate in territory controlled by the Salafist group Hayat Tahrir as-Sham (HTS). HTS has imposed a 20 per cent tax on antiquities sales and is believed to monitor the Telegram account to ensure that tax is paid (Moos 2020: 7). Thus the seller of the solidi would have needed to pay 880 USD tax. It is possible that coins might be sold inside Syria for more than their bullion value, with their bullion value being declared to HTS for tax purposes (Moos 2020: 11). Nevertheless, prices on the ground would still need to reflect gold prices.  

Fluctuating gold price (goldprice.org)

At the present time, gold is selling for more than 60 USD per gram, so a solidus that in November 2018 might have been sold inside Syria for 176 USD could today be sold for 270 USD. For the hoard of 25 solidi, that would be 2,350 USD more. This marked increase in prices inside Syria might be enough to persuade some previously undecided people that it is worth their while to go out searching for gold coins to sell. High gold prices have not previously been considered an incentive for looting, but it is possible that they are just that.

1) Percentage bullion value = ((Price of solidus at sale/weight in grams of solidus)/Price per gram of gold on same day as sale)*100.

Reference

Moos, Olivier. 2020. Antiquities Trafficking in Syria. Religioscope.