The third edition of Harlan J. Berk’s 100 Greatest Ancient Coins will debut in December 2023, available from bookstores and hobby shops nationwide, and online (including at Whitman.com). Here, David Hendin, vice president and adjunct curator of the American Numismatic Society, shares his thoughts on the book and its author.
The greatest thing about Harlan Berk’s 100 Greatest Ancient Coins—aside from the coins!—is that even family and friends of collectors will appreciate the fabulous photos of these treasures and Harlan’s concise historic explanations. Collectors fear not, however, since Harlan has also provided current scholarly information to satisfy them as well. He also gives us a book that covers Greek, Roman, and so-called Byzantine coins in a single, impressively entertaining, and informative volume.
I can’t think of another person more qualified to have written this popular book than Harlan J. Berk. He is a serious collector and connoisseur of art and paintings. (He has amassed the best-known collection of Chicago Modernists.) Anyone who has even chatted casually with Harlan knows his excitement for the subjects, as well as his expertise. He has also been a leading coin dealer, based in Chicago, for more than fifty years. He maintains an extensive numismatic library at his office and welcomes collectors and scholars. I’m proud to say that we have been friends for fifty years or so.
Harlan is obsessed with beauty and workmanship of coins, which, he notes, “have been collected almost since they were issued. There is evidence that the leaders of some great cities issued wonderful artistic coins made by recognized artists so that future generations would know what heights they reached. . . . Renaissance kings and princes collected coins. . . . Today ancient coins are collected around the globe.”
If you are one of those readers who tend to skip the text and admire the beautiful photos and look up values—don’t even think about it. Harlan’s notable introduction explains a great deal about ancient art and how it evolved; in the third edition of 100 Greatest Ancient Coins he adds a new section on cave paintings. We also get Harlan’s quick guided tour of coinage from the beginning up to the Eastern Roman Empire (the topic of one of his other important books), as well as an overview of collecting, grading, and authentication. Especially illuminating is Harlan’s snapshot of how the values of these coins have evolved from the mid-twentieth century forward. I’ve been reading about ancient coins for more than fifty-five years, and I learned something!
In this third edition, Harlan has paid special attention to updating his text on Tyre shekels, coins with portraits of Cleopatra VII, Athenian owl tetradrachms (a significant summary that updates dating theories and suggests that some later Athens types, once believed to be Athenian in origin, were actually struck in the ancient East), the Horseman staters of Tarentum, Brutus’s Eid Mar coins, Nero’s Port of Ostia sestertius, Titus’s Colosseum sestertius, Constantine IV folles, and the Judaea Capta sestertius. Photos of these coins and others have been upgraded to even more fabulous than in previous editions.
If you are a collector on a budget, you don’t need to worry. If you cannot afford to purchase all 100 of these significant coin types, there are many first-cousins of the “100 Greatest” that can still be purchased for less than $100.
It’s not easy to write about the “best 100” of anything. Harlan presents his numismatic hit parade in the order they were issued, hence #87, the Ionia electrum stater, is listed first. There is also an appendix that lists the coins in their order of “greatness,” as well as an appendix that shows the coins in actual size alongside each other together with dimensions, weight, and page number where the coin is featured.
Even some collectors often pass over words they do not fully understand. Harlan provides a brief but excellent illustrated glossary of terms, locations, and mythological and actual names that enhance the book’s value.
It’s no wonder that the first two editions of this classic book are “out of print.” It is the perfect gift for your cousin, aunt, uncle, mom, dad, sibling, grandpa, or friend who collects ancient coins. In fact, it’s a fun book to read for anyone interested in ancient history.
Coin collectors have a well-known saying: “Buy the book before the coin.” In this case, you must have the book, so in this case, it is okay to buy it before or after you buy the coin. You will be paging through it for many years to come.
By Harlan J. Berk; foreword by David Hendin.
Hardcover, coffee-table size. 152 pages. Full color.
Retail $34.95 U.S.