"All passes. Art alone
"Enduring stays to us;"The bust outlasts the throne -
"The coin, Tiberius."
- Henry Austin Dobson, 1876.
Silver was his downfall. Now it's part of his salvation.
Nelson Bunker Hunt recently emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings after losing $1.5 billion with his brother, William Herbert Hunt, speculating in the silver futures market.
Now Bunker has put his collection of ancient coins on the Sotheby's auction block - what is said to be the greatest such collection owned by one person ever to be sold.
Sotheby's also is selling Herbert's collection of ancient bronzes and Byzantine coins, and together the Hunt treasures are expected to fetch more than $20 million.
Bunker flew to New York from his home in Dallas one recent day to talk about silver tetradrachms and deca-drachms, the money and preserved wonders of long-ago civilizations.
His eyes scan a table at Sotheby's where ancient coins in sparkling silver and shattering gold silently stare at modern times. Some are as small as a thumbnail and weigh but a few grams. Others have the diameter of a silver dollar and would add a welcome weight to any pocket. One is as large as an angry fist.
They are so beautifully defined, they could have emerged from the engraver's chisel only moments earlier. Some bear the artisan's name. All, when held, seem to tremble with the mysteries of time.
A silver decadrachm of Agrigentum shows a two-wheeled chariot with four horses driven by the sun god Helios. An eagle soars above carrying a snake; below, a crab scampers between pounding hooves. The reverse design shows two eagles with a dead hare lying on rocks.
The coin was struck circa 411 B.C. It is only the seventh specimen of its type, weighs almost 2 ounces and measures about 1 1/2 inches in diameter. It was made to celebrate Exainetus, a citizen of Agrigentum, who had won in the Olympic games.
Another, much smaller coin is the extremely rare Ides of March denarius of Brutus, struck to mark the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 B.C. The obverse (the side of a coin bearing the main design) shows the bare head of Brutus; the reverse shows a pileus (a brimless hat worn in ancient Rome) between two daggers.
Bunker's collection of almost 3,000 coins in silver, gold and bronze not only attests to the artistry of ancient engravers but also documents 1,000 years of history, from the Archaic period in Greece to the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 A.D.
It took the 64-year-old Hunt about six years to amass his collection. He sought coins from around the world, largely in Switzerland, and kept them in a Delaware bank vault.
Parting for the fallen Texas tycoon is indeed sweet sorrow.
"I hate to have to sell them, but that's what life is. Sometimes you buy and sometimes you sell," he said.
Bunker also is selling 15 Greek vases, ranging in style from the geometrical designs of the early Archaic period (about the 7th century B.C.) to the more fluid style of the Classical Age. The drawings chronicle the vicissitudes of everyday life: the departure of Herakles (a mortal hero) for Olympus; Hypnos (sleep) and Thanatos (death) carrying the body of Sarpedon; athletes; putting on armor; a concert.
His brother's collection of ancient bronzes covers the entire span of classical art from the Italian bronze age (eighth century B.C.) through the Roman art of the third century A.D. His collection of Byzantine coins is said to be the largest privately held.
The sons of flamboyant oil baron H.L. Hunt, a gambler who turned a $5,000 inheritance into one of the biggest family fortunes in America, were pushed into bankruptcy by lawsuits and Internal Revenue Service claims in 1989 that Bunker owed $730.42 million for back taxes and interest, and that Herbert owed $317.31 million. Including other creditors, Bunker's debts topped $1.5 billion and Herbert's almost $1.2 billion.
In September 1988, the brothers filed for protection from their creditors under Chapter 11 of the federal Bankruptcy Code after a Peruvian mining company won a $196 million judgment against them for their attempt, according to a federal jury in New York, to corner the silver market in 1979 and 1980. The brothers denied any wrongdoing.
"I had silver, but I didn't corner any market because the market obviously was a very big market," Bunker Hunt said. "But people do accuse you of things - sometimes quite unjustly.