Let My Denarius Go: Collector to Free Ancient Coin from Slab

A silver denarius of Vespasian, issued in 73 A.D., which is a little different of the one owned by the author. This one was purchased on eBay for $38.61 in 2011.

By Gerald Tebben

I recently bought a denarius of Vespasian celebrating Rome’s capture of Judea in 70 A.D. It’s one of those coins that spoke to the people of its time and speaks to the people of today, too.

It was minted at a time when the books of the New Testament were still being written and when the Jewish people wailed as the Second Temple was being laid waste.

My coin grades a generous Fine, proving that it passed hand to hand for years and years after it was issued. Vespasian has lost most of his hair, and much of the obverse legend is lacking. The reverse is worn, too, but the word “iudaea” is boldly struck and fully visible.

A Jewish woman mourns at the base of a military trophy on the reverse, telling all that saw my coin in the first century that troublesome Judea at the eastern reaches of the empire had been subjugated.

To a conquered Jew, the image would have recalled the Babylonian Captivity, the destruction of the First Temple in 587 B.C. and the words of the prophet Isaiah.

“For Jerusalem is ruined, and Judah is fallen,” Isaiah wrote. “And her gates shall lament and mourn; and she being desolate shall sit upon the ground.” Isaiah 3:26.

I want to touch the coin. I want to run my fingers along the surfaces that last saw use in the marketplace nearly 2,000 years ago. I want to trace iudaea with my forefinger and press my thumb into the military trophy. The coin, though, is slabbed. Four white plastic fingers reach out from the edge of a round hole to secure the piece in a clear holder.

While someone paid $20 or more to have this coin graded and attributed, I’m going to break it free soon.

I want to hold this history in my hand.

The author plans to free this silver denarius of Vespasian from its plastic holder so that he can tactilely experience the ancient history for himself.

When he does break it out of the plastic, he will trace the word “iudaea” with his forefinger and press my thumb into the military trophy.

The coin is nowhere near uncirculated. Handling it will do no harm. The type is an icon of its age, a coin that even non-collectors can identify on sight. Attribution is not an issue. With ancients, I generally trust my eye to ferret out fakes. There is no reason to imprison this piece in plastic.

A quarter century after the first coin was slabbed, I’ve reached a peace, of sorts, with slabbed coins. I wouldn’t buy a key-date piece that wasn’t slabbed or an unslabbed uncirculated type coin. Technology enables counterfeiters to fake rare coins beyond my ability to detect. As for pricey, uncirculated pieces, if it’s not slabbed, it’s probably got a problem.

For some coins—ancients, early large cents and Colonials, especially—touch is a part is collecting. If you can’t feel it and absorb its history, you can’t truly own it.

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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