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INTERVIEW WITH A MEMBER: Parthicus


Ocatarinetabellatchitchix

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The wide variety of numismatic knowledge posted on NF impresses me, and I can only admire the depth of research that some members have carried out. And if we want to know more about Kushan, Sasanian, Parthian, Indo-Parthian, Kushano-Sasanian, Indo Scythians, Islamic coinage... who can we turn to? The answer: to our interviewed member of the week, Parthicus!  If you are looking for a Parthian coin at recent auctions, you will often see an "ex-Parthicus collection" example. Let's learn a little more about this passionate collector.

 

Parthicus, can you tell us a bit about yourself, where you’re from, your family, hobbies, work…?

About 13.7 billion years ago, a singularity underwent rapid expansion in an event we call the Big Bang, leading to the universe we know.  Skipping forward a bit… In 1972 I was born and grew up in a small town in southern New Jersey (a small, East Coast state in the United States).  I attended college in Pennsylvania, majoring in Biology, and went on to graduate work at a major university.  I earned a Master’s in Molecular Biology and spent some time in the Doctoral program, but ultimately dropped out without earning a Ph.D.  I then entered the workforce, as a technician and later lab manager in a series of academic research labs.  For the last 12 years, I have been in a Cell Biology laboratory at a major biomedical research university in Baltimore that you have surely heard of (and which I am not naming solely because I am not an authorized spokesperson for them, and don’t want anyone to confuse my opinions for the official positions of the university.  Although, frankly, I doubt that the university has any official position on the slabbing of ancient coins, or whether non-figural Islamic coinage is boring.)

I have a number of hobbies and interests besides coins.  I am an avid reader (especially of history and science fiction).  I collect fossils, both those that I’ve found and those I’ve purchased.  When I get a chance I enjoy birding, and my “life list” (the overall list of species that I’ve seen at least once) is 470 species.  (Which sounds impressive, until you learn that there are over 10,000 known species of birds worldwide, so I’ve seen less than 5% of them.)  I also love movies, both the good and the so-bad-they’re-good.  (I own DVDs of both Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris and Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space.)  I sometimes worry that I have too many hobbies, and am not able to focus enough on one to really excel.  But there are just too many interesting things in the world to learn about, I can’t force myself to narrow down to just one area.  Finally, I also enjoy cooking; if you are very lucky, I might share some of my eggplant parmesan with you.

 

How did you get interested in ancient coinage ?

I first became interested in coins at the age of 7.  I received a birthday gift of a prepackaged “coin collecting starter kit” made by Whitman Publications.  It included a couple of Whitman coin folders (the blue cardboard kind), some 2x2 holders, a US coin price guide (not the Red Book, but some other book) and a 64-page introductory booklet about coin collecting.  I still have the booklet and the Lincoln cent book (which is now full):

 

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I knew of ancient coins and could recognize a few major types (like Athenian owls) but didn’t own any.  I was aware that it was possible to own ancient coins, but the only ancients at the local coin shop were priced far above my modest collecting budget.  I drifted away from coin collecting around age 12.  When I went off to college, I soon found a coin store located just a short walk from campus, and began collecting again.  At first I just haphazardly collected whatever interesting US or world coins they had and I could afford, with no clear plan or organizing theme.  There were some interesting finds in the junk boxes, including what I later identified as a penny of Edward III.  Then, in (I think) 1993, the coin store got in a bunch of late Roman bronzes and other lower-grade, inexpensive ancients.  This was just after the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, and large amounts of material from the former East Bloc countries entered the market.  I bought a few of the better-preserved and interesting-looking coins (from $3 and $5 junk boxes) and managed to attribute them using books from the college library.  I also bought a few nicer, already-identified ancients (including an antoninianus of Gordian III and a drachm of the Indo-Greek king Menander).  My first ancient coin reference book was Sear’s Roman Coins and Their Values (4th edition, the last single-volume one), special-ordered through the coin store.  I’ve been collecting ancients ever since.  My precise collecting interests have shifted a few times, and my purchasing has sometimes slowed down due to financial or other life changes or another hobby taking up my time and money, but I’ve never entirely stopped collecting ancients.

 

What was the first coin you ever bought ?

I have no idea what is the first coin in general that I bought.  As for ancients, I bought several at once from a coin store (as I said in the previous question), and the first I was able to identify was this AE3 of Constantius II:

 

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Can you tell us an anecdote about a coin you own ? Your best bargain ? Your rarest   coin ? The specimen you will never sell ? The one you dream of acquiring ?

Best bargain: I have “cherry-picked” dealers a number of times by knowing the details of a particular series better than a generalist dealer can. However, most of these are minor varieties that are not worth a great deal more than the common type, so not a huge bargain.  Percentage-wise, my best bargain would probably be a coin from that initial $3 junk box.  It was a blackened lump, but enough silver poked through to make me think it could be worth trying to clean up.  After several series of soakings in dilute lemon juice, followed by thorough repeated rinses in distilled water and retoning by carrying it in the front pocket of my jeans for a week, I was left with a Fine+ denarius of Marcus Aurelius with Pax seated on reverse. So I got a maybe $30-40 coin (at the time) for just $3 and a bit of work.

Rarest coin: I have several Parthian coins that are unlisted in the standard publications, mostly for dates on tetradrachms. (Parthian tetradrachms usually include both the year and month, but the month is frequently off the flan.) But almost nobody collects Parthian tetradrachms by date, so the total population of people who really care could probably fit in my living room.  My rarest in general (as in seldom seen for sale) is probably the coin I have that is attributed to the Khazars.  Many references state that the Khazars did not issue any coins, but there are a few rare imitations of Islamic coins that have been attributed to them by experts.  I bought this coin from Stephen Album (author of the standard guidebook to Islamic coins) and the type is listed in his book, so I feel rather confident that this is indeed a coin from that enigmatic group:

 

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Coin I dream of acquiring:  There are a few types I hope to obtain but have not been successful so far.  I’ve bid on a few specimens of the rare Kushan bronze coins featuring the Buddha but have not been successful yet.  I’d like to upgrade my Parthian drachm of Queen Musa, and maybe even acquire one of her tetradrachms.  As long as we’re talking about coins I will almost certainly never own, I could add a Sasanian drachm of Queen Azarmidokht, Parthian drachm of Pakoros (son of Orodes II) and a denarius of Quintus Labienus (a Roman Republican general who defected to the Parthians), or, why not, an “Eid Mar” denarius.

 

What do you collect exactly ? What is the size of your collection ?

My main collecting focus right now is on Parthian, Sasanian, and early Islamic coins.  I also sometimes buy a Roman, Kushan, or other coin if it appeals to me for some reason.  I used to collect pretty extensively in Roman and in Chinese cash, but have bought very few of either in the last few years.  I haven’t finished making spreadsheets for all my collecting areas, but here are some numbers for what I do know:

Roman Republic and Imperatorial: 30; Roman Imperial (including Provincial): 257; Byzantine: 13; Parthian: 100; Parthian sub-kingdoms (Persis, Elymais, Characene): 42; Sasanian: 135; Kushan: 35; Pre-reform Islamic: 37

Of course, that’s not including Chinese cash (maybe 300 coins?), Greek, Indian and Central Asian, or various modern US and world coins. So I really have no good idea of the overall total.

 

What did you write about ?

I’ve never published any numismatic-related articles professionally.  I do like to write up short posts about (most of) the new coins I acquire, I’ve been posting them on Coin Talk since 2016 and here on Numis Forums since I joined.  In my “real” career I’ve been a co-author on about a dozen published scientific articles (both original research papers and review articles).

When I post about new acquisitions, I always try to include the historical background behind the coin, in addition to basic cataloguing data.  My purpose is to educate both the readers, and frequently myself, to better appreciate the fascinating history that they may not have known.  This is especially the case when I am posting coins from cultures that are less-well-known to classically-oriented collectors.  I often end up learning a great deal myself when I do the research for a post.  For example, I’ve posted a few Arab-Sasanian drachms lately, that were issued by the Muslim governors of the eastern Caliphate in the mid-to-late 7th century CE.  They all look very similar, with designs closely imitating late Sasanian drachms and the main differences lying only in the brief inscriptions.  But we actually have a fair bit of information on most of these governors, and their story yields a lot of insight into how a small band of desert tribesmen managed to conquer a large portion of the civilized world in just a few decades.  I was familiar with the broad outline of the story, but in researching these men I found fascinating stories of men who in some cases showed unwavering loyalty, while other men would betray their allegiance and switch sides, and in turn be betrayed or forgiven depending on circumstances.  Fascinating stories, and I probably wouldn’t have known them unless I had tried to research my coins and write about them.

 

In what part of history are you interested in ?

I think any period of history can be interesting, if described by a skilled historian who focuses on the human drama inherent in the story.  Too many people get turned off from history because it’s taught as just a series of important dates and names to remember for a test, or (at a more advanced level) as a compilation of economic and political statistics to explain vast historical trends.  But fundamentally history is the record of people living their lives, often just trying to survive, sometimes trying to achieve a higher goal (for a leader, country, ideology, religion…) and these stories can make for fascinating reading.  The historical periods I tend to read about the most are the Roman (especially late Republic through Antonines and Severans), Persian (especially Parthian and Sasanian) and the US Civil War.

 

Do you have a numismatic goal for the next year ?

My main goal is to finish compiling my spreadsheets so I have some semblance of organization to my collection.  I will of course continue searching for interesting coins, but don’t have any specific types that I intend to purchase in 2024.  I may also finish part of my Super Secret Side Project (which I will describe only when it’s more complete).

 

What numismatic books do you own / consult most often ?

For Parthian coins, I use the “three Ss” (Sellwood, Shore, and Sunrise) especially Sellwood (for the all-important type numbers) and Sunrise (for recent scholarship on attributing types to specific kings).  For Sasanians, I mainly use Gobl, supplemented by online references for mintmark attributions.  For most Indian and Central Asian coins I still use volumes 1 and 2 of Mitchiner’s Oriental Coins and Their Values series (Ancient and Classical World and Non-Islamic States and Western Colonies, respectively).  Islamic coins are tougher- I mainly use a mix of Steve Album’s Checklist of Islamic Coins, Richard Plant’s Arabic Coins and How to Read Them, the third volume (World of Islam) of Mitchiner, Gaube’s Arabosasanidische Numismatik, and Gyselen’s Arab-Sasanian Copper Coinage.  For Chinese cash, nothing beats Hartill.  A very helpful source for coins of Asia in general is the website zeno.ru, although you need to know at least a little bit about a coin already to effectively look it up.  I attribute modern (1600 to present) using various volumes of the Krause catalogues.  I have many other useful numismatic books, but these are my go-to attribution guides.

 

Can you tell us more about the sale of a part of the « Parthicus collection » in 2017 ?

For a while I was focused almost exclusively on Parthian coins.  While I was able to build up a pretty substantial collection (about 400 coins), by 2016 I was starting to see the downside of such intense specialization.  I had already acquired most of the common types, so the remaining varieties tended to be hard to find and expensive.  My collection was starting to feel like a grim duty – fill the spaces, obtain every sub-variety- rather than a source of joy.  So, I resolved to sell off at least the greater part of my Parthians.  I decided to sell by auction rather than attempt a private sale, so that there would be a public record of the collection including several varieties not listed in the references.  Classical Numismatic Group (CNG) seemed an obvious choice, as they had a history of regularly selling important Parthian coins (including Shore’s own collection), and I knew that every serious Parthian collector would see the auction and (hopefully) put in some healthy bids.  So I contacted CNG by email, asking whether they were interested and attaching a list of the coins in the collection.  They replied that they were, and suggested that it could be a “named” collection in one of their electronic auctions. So, following their instructions, I packed up the collection and shipped it off to them for cataloguing and sale.  (I kept only 20 coins for myself, out of the 400, mainly coins with sentimental value.)  About six months later, in April 2017, the “Parthicus collection” was included in CNG’s Electronic Auction 396.  About two months after the sale, they sent me a pleasantly large check.  I was overall happy with the prices that the “headliner” coins achieved, though some of the group lots went too cheaply in my opinion.  

 I think that selling the bulk of my Parthian collection was the right thing to do.  Although I have had occasional regrets about a few specific coins (the Musa drachm I sold was much nicer than the one I currently own), selling what had become a burden has freed me to enjoy collecting again.  While I haven’t entirely given up on Parthian coins (the 20-coin remainder has now grown to 100 Parthian coins in my collection) I feel more freedom to try out different areas and not worry about whether I am “complete” for any sub-sub-sub-specialty.  

 I don’t have an online gallery of my collection, but please enjoy this random sampling of some of my coins:

 

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Many thanks @Parthicus for participating in our project. I’m pretty sure many members will like to give their comments about your interview. Looking forward to see your future threads on this forum of discussion.

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Nice to learn more about you @Parthicus!

I also enjoy birding, though I'm more of a photographer and don't keep any lists. Here's a leucistic sparrow who lives at a park where I like to photograph. Her name is Margaret.

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I don't have any Parthian coins, though I do have this one.

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Kings of Persis. Baydād (Bagadat)
Istakhr (Persepolis) mint
Early 3rd century BCE
AR Drachm 17mm, 3.57 g, 4h
Head right, with short beard, mustache, and earring, wearing kyrbasia with flaps tied behind /
Fire temple of Ahura-Mazda; to left, Baydād standing right; standard to right.
van't Haaff, Persis, Type 516; K&M –; Alram 516; Sunrise 561

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Another interesting & informative interview with Ocat. & Parthicus ☺️! I'm happy to hear you were satisfied with the results of the CNG auction of your collection. It's not easy liquidating a collection that you worked so hard building, however, it's also good to start with a clean slate that offers new vistas to explore. I'm curious what lured you to specialize in Parthian coins 🤔? I sold 6 of my best Parthian coins at Heritage auctions but kept the 2 coins pictured below. 2Parthiancoinsadj..jpg.589270a987c3ea4bb5046863cf90c090.jpg

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Another great interview. Although I'm not much into parthian coins myself, I got slightly interested in them through @Alwin's collection, who is a close friend of mine.

While we are at birds here are two from my garden

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And some neighborhood watch

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Q

Edited by Qcumbor
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Another great interview! I love that we have such a diverse group of collectors here; not just your normal Greek and Roman people. I find the Sassanian, Parthian, Kushan coins to be interesting but very daunting.  I'm glad to have @Parthicus around to provide more knowledge and insight into these areas. If you are ever so inclined, I'd love to sample that eggplant parmesan, neighbor 😛
 

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Thank you @Ocatarinetabellatchitchix for choosing to interview me, and thanks everyone who liked this interview.  And if I've inspired some of you to delve more deeply into some "Non-Classical" coinages, then  I've succeeded in my not-so-secret mission.

@kirispupis @Qcumbor : Thanks for sharing your bird photography.  While I mainly focus on spotting and identifying birds, I have attempted to photograph some, and managed a few decent photos.  Here's two I especially like, a Common Gallinule I photographed here in Baltimore this spring, and a Lilac-breasted Roller from my 2013 safari vacation in Tanzania:

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@Al Kowsky :  Why did I decide to specialize in Parthian coins?  I'd say the biggest reason was a fortuitous purchase of Fred Shore's book.  It included enough history of the Parthians, and variety in photographed specimens, to whet my interest.  The Parthians seemed poised partway between nomadism and settled civilization, and between East and West.  The imagery on the coins was interesting- the distinctive portraits, the archer, Greek legends that gradually fade into gibberish.  At the time I was thinking of focusing on either Kushan or Hephthalite coins, and while those certainly feature interesting designs, the amount of firmly established history is much less for those groups than for the Parthians.

 

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57 minutes ago, Parthicus said:

Thank you @Ocatarinetabellatchitchix for choosing to interview me, and thanks everyone who liked this interview.  And if I've inspired some of you to delve more deeply into some "Non-Classical" coinages, then  I've succeeded in my not-so-secret mission.

@kirispupis @Qcumbor : Thanks for sharing your bird photography.  While I mainly focus on spotting and identifying birds, I have attempted to photograph some, and managed a few decent photos.  Here's two I especially like, a Common Gallinule I photographed here in Baltimore this spring, and a Lilac-breasted Roller from my 2013 safari vacation in Tanzania:

image.jpeg.96d1a189dafc774be203ed2e984256c8.jpeg

image.jpeg.4028b73076c457b8dbc691d91c6a07bc.jpeg

@Al Kowsky :  Why did I decide to specialize in Parthian coins?  I'd say the biggest reason was a fortuitous purchase of Fred Shore's book.  It included enough history of the Parthians, and variety in photographed specimens, to whet my interest.  The Parthians seemed poised partway between nomadism and settled civilization, and between East and West.  The imagery on the coins was interesting- the distinctive portraits, the archer, Greek legends that gradually fade into gibberish.  At the time I was thinking of focusing on either Kushan or Hephthalite coins, and while those certainly feature interesting designs, the amount of firmly established history is much less for those groups than for the Parthians.

 

I was shopping for a copy of Shore's book when I had some gem Parthian coins, but dealers were asking an arm & a leg for it. After Shore auctioned off his collection prices for the book got even crazier 🤪. Some vendors on eBay were asking $1,000 for a copy 😮! I managed to chase down a copy from the University of Rochester Library, but they wouldn't let me borrow it 😠, so I Xerox copied every page of the book before I left 😆.

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On 11/25/2023 at 2:30 AM, Ocatarinetabellatchitchix said:

My collection was starting to feel like a grim duty – fill the spaces, obtain every sub-variety- rather than a source of joy.

Great interview. I can relate to the statement above. I have one area of collecting where I feel I have to buy a coin when it comes up in auction, without actually enjoying the coin that much. This is a trap that collectors should try to avoid. On the other hand, I also fear “sellers’ regret”.

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