By Gerald Tebben
Replicas of the Persian “coins” used in the movie “300” show Persian King Xerxes on both sides and are unlike anything that actually circulated in the ancient world. (Photo: Warner Bros.)
From the cursed gold coins in “Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl” to a common $1 bill in “National Treasure,” money plays a part, sometimes a starring role, in many recent movies. Here’s a look at some of the numismatic treasures appearing on the silver screen.
Primitive? Persian-like “gold coins” appear in “300,” the popular retelling of the 480 B.C. Battle of Thermopylae in which 300 vastly outnumbered Spartans famously held off Persian invaders for three crucial days, buying time for the Greeks to marshal their fleets for battle.
Prop pieces, replicas that are sold in boxed sets of two by Warner Bros. for $29.95, bear a passing resemblance to coins of the period. The pieces show a somewhat low-relief portrait of the movie’s much-pierced Persian emperor Xerxes the Great on both sides and are irregularly shaped in imitation of the hand-struck coins of the era.
The designs of Persian coins of this period are much different from the prop pieces and are much smaller than the 1.5-inch diameter pieces shown in the film. For centuries, the Persian Empire issued roughly dime-sized gold coins, called darics, showing the emperor running and carrying a weapon, usually a bow, on the obverse and a shape on the reverse. The coins were issued with only minor changes from the rule of Darius I (522 to 486 B.C.) until the conquest of Alexander the Great in the early 300s B.C. Among their many uses was the hiring of mercenaries.
In “300,” the Persians use “gold” coins to pay the traitor, Ephialtes, for information about a strategically important trail around the Greek position.
The plot of “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl,” the first of the hugely successful Johnny Depp movies, hinges on a cursed chest of Aztec “gold coins.” The Black Pearl’s crew must return all 882 coins to the chest to lift a curse. The coins show a skull on the obverse and a design that looks a bit like the points of a compass or an Aztec calendar. The reverse shows two designs: an adapted Greek key and two concentric circles.
A bloodthirsty people known for human sacrifice, the Aztecs might have placed a skull on their coins if they had ever minted any. Coinage was unknown in pre-Columbian America. While the Aztecs produced fine gold, silver and copper jewelry, the culture produced no coins. The closest the Aztecs ever got to money was the cacao bean. Replicas of the cursed-coin prop are widely available at prices starting at $10.
In 2003, Disney sold prop gold Spanish doubloons, which were piled high in one of the film’s scenes, in a package that included a signed photo of Depp. These replicas of real coins sell for about $300 to movie memorabilia collectors.
Wizards use “gold” galleons, silver sickles and bronze knuts, in the Harry Potter movies, which they store at Gringotts Wizarding Bank. The coins appear to have a relationship roughly analogous to the old British pounds, shilling and pence system.
While the coins are not described in the Harry Potter books, prop coins from the movies show a wizard’s head on the obverse, the legend Gringotts bank and raised circles to indicate denomination. The reverse shows a mythical creature, the numeral 1, more circles and the denomination in Latin, unum galleon, for example.
Licensed reproductions sell for $30 for a set of three. Actual props from the movie sell for about $100 per coin.
In the 2004 film “National Treasure,” Nicholas Cage tracked down a Colonial-era fortune using a map drawn on the back of the Declaration of Independence and clues from paper money. In the film, the Great Seal of the United States on the back of the $1 Federal Reserve note is part of a coded message sent down through the ages by the nation’s Founding Fathers.
The $1 Federal Reserve note is one movie item that’s readily available—for $1—at any bank, store or coin dealer. Reproductions, or course, are illegal.
In 2005, fellow Coin World columnist Fred Reed wrote a book about movie money, “Show Me the Money! The Standard Catalog of Motion Picture, Television, Stage and Advertising Prop Money,” which details hundreds of movie props. Anyone interested in collecting prop money would benefit from owning this book.
Gerald Tebben, a longtime numismatist, is editor of the Central States Numismatic Society’s Centinel and a contributing writer to Coin World.
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