BAR 38:04, Jul/Aug 2012
First Revolt Shekel Sells for $1.1 Million
When it comes to exchange rates, the euro, pound and yuan have nothing on the ancient shekel. A silver shekel from the first year of the First Jewish Revolt was presented at auction earlier this year as part of the Shoshana Collection of Ancient Coins of Judea. Going in, estimates priced the rare coin at $950,000, but when the auctioneer’s gavel finally fell, an anonymous buyer had paid $1.1 million for this small piece of rebel currency. Although publicly unidentified, the buyer is a private collector known to be generous with loans of his artifacts to museums in Israel and elsewhere.
With a Hebrew inscription “Shekel [of] Israel, [year] 1” on the front and “Jerusalem the holy” printed on the back, this silver shekel was among the very first coins minted by the Jews after the start of the revolt against Rome in May 66 A.D. In fact this shekel was among “only a handful of coins struck from this first set of dies before the design was radically changed,” according to Cris Bierrenbach of Heritage Auctions. The rebels ultimately went through three distinct shekel designs, all bearing the same legend. This shekel and another in the Israel Museum are the only two known “prototypes” from the first series that have survived.
Another coin from Year 1 of the revolt, a silver quarter-shekel, also sold at the auction, for $896,250, to an unknown buyer. According to David Hendin, expert numismatist and adjunct curator at the American Numismatic Society, the quarter-shekel is arguably even rarer than the whole shekel. This denomination seems to have been less practical and was minted only in the first and fourth years of the revolt, again with a redesign. The only other known example of a Year 1 quarter-shekel has a hole that was plugged, and its current whereabouts is unknown—probably in a private collection—making the recently sold coin the only known intact exemplar.
These coins can tell us a lot about the Jewish Revolt in 66–70 A.D., as Hendin explains. “With the Romans attacking Jerusalem from the outside and Jewish factions killing each other on the inside, it seems everything would have been haphazard. But coin making wasn’t like that at all.” The coins were well manufactured, boldly designed, high in silver content and true to weight in a range of denominations. Hendin believes that some unknown governing body in Jerusalem (perhaps associated with the Temple Mounta) established a thoughtful, deliberate process for producing, and redesigning, beautifully made coins—even in the stressful and difficult conditions of a revolt.