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Of coins and chronograms

Reverse of Nürnberg 8 ducat whose 1721 date is shown as the chronogram MDCCVVVVI in the reverse legend. (Image courtesy Stack’s Bowers)

The top-selling lot at Stack’s Bowers’ NYINC world coin sale back in January had its date woven into its reverse legend as a chronogram. Whether or not this aspect of the coin contributed to the U.S. $78,000 price tag of the Nürnberg 8 ducat is unknown, but it sure didn’t hurt.

Chronograms have been around for a long time. They occur in many cultures. The legends of coins have provided a favorite habitat in which they thrive.

The word means “time writing” or “time letters.” It refers to interpreting specific letters in a sentence or coin legend as numerals. When these are rearranged, they provide a specific date. Both Roman and Hebrew characters are the most commonly used.

The reverse legend on the ducat provides an example. Certain letters are shown in a large font. From left to right, these are: V V D M I V C C V. Rearranging these, we have the Roman numerals MDCCVVVVI, or 1721, the date the coin was struck, where M=1000, D=500, C=100, L=50, X=10, V=5, I=1.

Clearly, when it comes to coins, it is essential to have a legend containing the letters to provide the appropriate Roman date.

Klippe of Saxony with chronogram date in legend MDLLVVIIII = 1614. (Image courtesy Stack’s Bowers)

Chronograms are quite common among European issues of the 17th and 18th centuries, particularly higher-value coins of the German states. A nice example from Saxony is provided by a klippe taler struck by Johann Georg I to mark the baptism of his son. The reverse legend contains the letters V I I L D I L I V I M in large font. These rearrange as MDLLVVIIII, or 1614.

Medals of Tsar Peter the Great of Russia frequently display chronograms. Among them, a large gold medal by Philipp Müller is of particular note. Not only does it celebrate the founding of Russia’s Baltic fleet but it also provided a model for subsequent generations of Russian medalists.

Peter the Great medal with chronogram date of MDCCIII = 1703. (Image courtesy Stack’s Bowers)

The reverse legend reads FINNIA ECCE TRIDENTEM [Finland behold the trident]. The larger letters, bolded here, give MDCCIII, or 1703.

Chronogram date of MDDCLLXXVIIIIII, or 1731, is worked into the obverse legend of this Austrian Netherlands’ jeton. (Image courtesy Stack’s Bowers)

Occasionally, the obverse legend is cunningly worked to incorporate a chronogram. This occurs in a copper jeton of Archduchess Maria Elisabeth of Austria, Governor of the Austrian Netherlands. Her title reads: ELISABETA SEXTO BELGII AUSTRIACI MODERATATRIX. This one is a bit tricky, as the “U” in AUSTRIA doubles as a “V.”

Breaking it down, we have LIXLIIVICIMDIX, for MDDCLLXXVIIIIII, or 1731.

Reverse of highly charged religio-political medal celebrating the uncovering of the Gunpowder Plot with a chronographic date. (Image courtesy Classical Numismatic Group)

A particularly fine example with a British theme is found on a silver medal struck by the Dutch Republic for James I. It commemorates the discovery and failure of the Gunpowder Plot. Amongst a design heavy with political and religious symbolism, the reverse legend contains the date within the legend NON DORMITASTI ANTISTES IACOBI [You, the keeper of James, have not slept]. Readers may wish to figure out the date of Guy Fawkes’ arrest from the bolded letters.


This article was originally printed in World Coin News. >> Subscribe today.


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