The Athenian owl is considered one of the greatest coins, not only because of its beauty, but because of its elegant design — head of Athena on the obverse, iconic owl image on the reverse, and identifying inscription — making it the prototype for centuries of coins worldwide.
There are several types of Athenian owls, with the first appearing circa 510 BCE. The owl graced Athenian coinage for centuries. The earlier designs, though highly collectible, are a far cry from the classical artistic standard beginning in 465 BCE and flourishing between 440-404 BCE.
The tetradrachm (four drachmae) typically weighs 17.2 grams of a thick silver planchet. Athens used the attic standard of 4.3 grams per drachma, increasing its desirability over rival coins, especially the Aegina “sea turtle” stater of 12.3 grams below.
While the turtle stater was important as a trade currency, its design left much to be desired, especially the reverse punch mark.
Compare the above design with the Athens tetradrachm featuring the obverse depiction of Athena, the Olympian goddess of wisdom and war.
Here is the Athenian owl reverse with olive spray (representing olive oil and peace — a gift from Athena) with a crescent moon and inscription “ΑΘΕ,” an abbreviation of ΑΘΕΝΑΙΟΝ (“The Athenians”).
As you can see, the above coin has a test cut to make sure it is not a fourrée or silver-plated base metal counterfeit from ancient times. Below is an example of an owl fourrée from the Heritage archives, which also has a test cut, revealing its counterfeit composition.
Test cuts appear on many ancient coins. Precious metals were especially desirable not only for coins but also for use in jewelry, ornamental, and religious objects. Silver from the great mines at Laurian, about 50 kilometers from Athens, played a central role in the rise of the city-state, underwriting a great navy and powerful military.
In 431 BCE, the Peloponnesian War broke out between Sparta and Athens. Sparta defeated Athens in 404 BCE, marking the end of the classic tetradrachm. Athenian owl coins were still produced on smaller planchets in the late classical period. A thinner and wider version appeared circa 165 BCE. Here’s an example from the Heritage archives:
To learn more specifics about the Athenian owl tetradrachm, check out an excellent video by American Numismatic Society chief curator Peter van Alfen. The Numismatic Guarantee Corporation also has an informative post about the changes in styles of the Athenian owl in each of the main periods.
Here are seven reasons you should consider purchasing an Athenian owl coin.
- They are plentiful in all conditions because they were mass produced between 440-404 BCE, with hoards found in 1967 and 2018, flooding the market with prime specimens.
- Debate continues among collectors about whether ancient coins should or should not be holdered; however, in this case, you might want to purchase a raw Athenian owl to feel its heavy silver in your palm. You’ll be transported to the Parthenon, the iconic temple at the Acropolis, Greece.
- Given its beauty, desirability, and plentiful status, the Athenian owl is remarkably affordable. Recent Heritage archives show dozens being won with bids under $1,000, as in this Choice AU example with excellent strike and surface.
- The Athens tetradrachm is ranked 10th in Harlan Beck’s beautiful glossy-papered 100 Greatest Ancient Coins (second edition) by Whitman Publishing.
- The coin’s iconic design remains a numismatic prototype, giving rise to today’s heads and tails obverse-reverse description.
- President Teddy Roosevelt is said to have carried an Athenian owl coin in his pocket to bring him luck. It inspired a new era of American coinage as he and sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens marveled at its beauty.
- The Athenian owl represents the birthplace of democracy as inspired in 507 BCE by lawgiver Cleisthenes who called his reforms demokratia (“rule by the people”).
Finally, the Athenian owl is a great showcase and conversation starter when you share your love of the hobby with friends and family or at coin club meetings. Use this article and other resources cited here so you, too, can tell the story of this must-have coin.
Great piece, Michael! I’ve had this on my want list for a while.
My favorite ancient coins! I have 2. One NGC graded AU and one raw which looks VF