Athenian coinage first consisted of coins now known by the German term Wappenmünzen or "heraldic coins," because they depicted a wide range of types once thought to be emblems of powerful Athenian families. These coins, which were not issued in large numbers and which rarely circulated outside Attica, were replaced toward the end of the sixth century B.C. by a new type of coinage, consisting primarily of tetradrachms, which became the most authoritative coinage of Classical Greece. In contrast to the constantly changing types of the Wappenmünzen, the new coins consistently depicted Athena, the patron goddess of Athens, on the obverse and her attribute the owl, a sprig of olive, and a crescent moon on the reverse. Popularly known as "owls," they were also clearly marked as Athenian, probably because they, unlike the Wappenmünzen, were intended for wide circulation. The owls were soon issued in very large numbers, thanks to the exploitation of Athens' rich silver mines at Laurion. By the time this tetradrachm was issued, approximately 75 years had elapsed since the first owls were produced, yet the style of the types had changed very little, probably so that the consistent, unchanging nature of the issues ensured continued acceptance in foreign markets. This owl comes from the High Classical period, yet the head of Athena, with its frontal eye, patterned hair, and "archaic" smile, is archaistic. These very features render fifth-century owls somewhat difficult to date, but slight changes over time allow them to be dated stylistically.
How many hands have touched a coin in your pocket or purse? What eras and lands have the coin traversed on its journey into our possession? As we reach into our pockets to pull out some change, we rarely hesitate to think of who might have touched the coin before us, or where the coin will venture to after it leaves our hands. More than money, coins are a symbol of the state that struck them, of a specific time and location, whether contemporary currencies or artifacts of long forgotten empires. This stunning hand-struck coin reveals an expertise of craftsmanship and intricate sculptural detail that is often lacking in contemporary machine-made currencies. This magnificent coin is a memorial to the ancient glories of Athens passed down from the hands of civilization to civilization, from generation to generation. - (C.4265)