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500 of the first coins ever minted featured in new exhibition at the Israel Museum
Electrum Stater. Lesbos . Ca. 500 – 450 BCE . Lion's head right / incuse punch. Courtesy of the Israel Museum.

JERUSALEM.- The Israel Museum presents a new exhibition featuring 500 of the first coins ever minted, providing an intimate look at the dawn of coinage. Struck in western Asia Minor (present-day Eastern Turkey) during the mid-seventh century BCE, and made of an alloy of gold and silver known as electrum or “white gold,” these intricately decorated coins shed light on one of the most important innovations in human history. Many of the coins featured in the exhibition are held in private collections and have never before been on public view. White Gold: Revealing the World’s Earliest Coins is on view at the Israel Museum from May 8, 2012, through March 30, 2013.

“Electrum coins offer a glimpse at a pivotal innovation in human history and serve as a striking reminder of the importance of iconography and visual communication in a period when literacy was limited worldwide,” said James S. Snyder, Anne and Jerome Fisher Director. “We are thrilled to present these beautiful and extremely rare coins to our audiences, and very grateful to the collectors who have agreed to lend these treasures for public display in this landmark exhibition.”

White Gold traces the evolution of visual imagery in coinage, beginning with the earliest designs, which resemble Near Eastern seals and take their inspiration from contemporaneous Near Eastern art. With time, Greek elements began to appear, such as mythological scenes drawn from the Greek tradition and humanized deities. Later coins also demonstrate an increased plasticity of form and a qualitative improvement in the understanding of the relationship of a coin’s design to its surface.

The exhibition highlights three main categories of images found on electrum coins:

Myth – Many images appearing on electrum coins have their origin in myth, including depictions of tales of the gods, interactions between deities and mortals, and adventures of heroes who combated monsters. Examples on view include:

• Medusa and Perseus: The Greek mythological figures Medusa and Perseus are depicted on electrum coins from the cities of Cyzicus and Mytilene.

• Winged Figures: Winged figures, such as Phobos and Nike, who appear on the coins of Cyzicus, are commonly depicted on electrum coins.

Mortals - Idealized human images, rather than specific individuals, often appear on electrum coins. Females are young, beautiful, and sophisticated, and males are generally depicted as handsome youths, armed warriors, or bearded men in the prime of adulthood.

Animals – Animals, both wild and domestic, are often portrayed on electrum coins, with depictions of domestic species frequently featuring sacrificial animals. Examples on view include:

• Spotted Stag: The “Phanes stater,” usually attributed to Ephesus, is perhaps the most recognized of all electrum coins, and only six specimens of this rare coin are known to exist. The Greek inscription “I am the sign of Phanes” suggests that the stag motif derived from the signet of a prominent male figure.

• Felines: Members of the cat family, especially lions, are common motifs in ancient Near Eastern iconography, where they often represent the protective powers of deities or symbolize ruling authorities. Lions are particularly common on electrum coins, and lionesses and panthers also appear. They are often depicted in a prancing position, with wide-open jaws and protruding tongues.

• Seal and Octopus: A large coin on display features an unusual action scene depicting a seal eating an octopus.

It is through the passion and generosity of Dr. Thomas S. Kaplan and Baron Lorne ThyssenBornemisza, that the Israel Museum is able to present this first public display of an outstanding group of five hundred miniature masterpieces.

White Gold: Revealing the World’s Earliest Coins is curated by Haim Gitler, Curator of Numismatics.

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