A version of this article originally appeared in World Coin News, 1991

By Bob Reis

copyright 1991, 1998 by WCN & BOB REIS

The territory on which the Republic of Bulgaria now sits is known to have been
occupied by humans of neolithic culture before the first millennium BC. The wild tribes
who invaded the region around that time from the north and east, with their newfangled
horses and iron swords, conquered and caused to shrink and vanish the stone-and-bone
using people they found there, peacefully fishing the Danube and Ister and the Black
Sea.. The earlier of these horse-and-iron peoples spread through Thrace and Makedonia
(northeastern Greece and southern Bulgaria) and on to the south and west until they
reached the Mediterranean Sea. There they developed the literate culture from which we
Westerners like to claim descent. We call that culture Greek.
Further north in Dacia another group of horse-and-iron peoples was immigrating.
These were the Gauls (= Gaels = Celts). The Celts were backcountry cousins of the
Greeks whose most marked cultural differentials were that they did not build extensively
in stone, did not develop a generally useful written language, and did not employ mass
slavery to produce a substantial surplus product. Thus, while the Greeks built cities and
became "civilized," the Celts remained "wild."
In Eurasia, since before recorded history, metal was known and valued. From the
time of the earliest records the gold-silver-copper-tin-lead hierarchy was operative, the
metals having the same ranking as today. (Iron was a later addition, which, because of its
general, and more particularly, military utilities, has always been partially outside of the
exchange ratios.) The Greeks were the first to make standard small ingots of precious
metal and to have the ingots guaranteed by a political agency, and today we call these
ingots and their descendents "coins."
Thracian and Makedonian tribes were making archaic style Greek coins from the
sixth century BC The Durrones, Ichnai, Bisaltai, etc. issued crude, rare silver pieces,
including dollar size dodekadrachms, among the largest of the ancient Greek series.
Examples of these giant coins are actually offered occasionally in fancy auctions. Greek
city-states in the region struck coins through the archaic and classical periods up to the
time of Alexander III of Makedon. Cities of note are Mesembria and Apollonia on the
Black Sea, Maroneia and Abdera on the Mediterranean. Perhaps one of the most easily
available coins of the classical period is the silver hemidrachm of Cherronessos of the
fourth century BC. This coin has forepart of lion obverse, incuse-square-with-bee reverse
(Sear #1602). A type which enjoyed a vogue in the region was that of "nymph seized by
satyr." These coins are quite popular in our porno-conscious era, and high prices have
brought noticeably more pieces into the market than were around twenty five years ago.
The Celts of Northern Thrace and Dacia watched the doings of their Greek
cousins and in many ways attempted to imitate their accomplishments. (The Greeks,
denying any kinship, calling them "barbarians," treated them with general contempt.)
The Celts knew about gold and silver, of course, and as the ever more beautiful Greek
coins began to filter into Celtland, traded for furs and horses and slaves, the Celts
imitated them as well. The majority of these Celtic imitations are based on types of the
kings of nearby Makedonia, most commonly of the most famous of all the ancients,
Alexander the Great. These Celtic coins are on the market. They are much scarcer than
their prototypes, yet their crudity and difficulty of firm attribution to time and locale
diminishes somewhat their mass appeal, and they are typically only a little more
expensive than the much more common original types. Attribution of ancient imitations
depends almost exclusively on hoard data, and the habit, from time immemorial, of coin
finders to keep their mouths shut about where, when, how they found their coins, has
subtracted immeasurably from the sum of numismatic knowledge. Most ancient hoards
reaching the market these days are smuggled out of their country of origin, stripped of all
scientific information, exact provenance a carefully guarded secret.
Alexander, (336-323 BC) subdued and conquered Thrace, but did not campaign
in Dacia. He issued his imperial style coinage from several hundred mints, including
some in Thrace. His tetradrachms and drachms are of a glut on the market these past few
years. I've had several attributed by Mueller (Coinage of Alexander the Great) to
Thracian mints.
In the aftermath of Alexander's death his empire went up for grabs among his generals.
Thrace devolved on Lysimachos (323-281 BC). During the first part of his reign he
continued the standard Alexander types in gold and silver. Later he issued a prolific
series in gold, silver, and copper. He was a powerful ruler of a wealthy kingdom, and his
coins are reasonably available today. His line ended with him though, as he was attacked
by the army of Seleukos, King of Syria, and died in battle.
By annihilating Lysimachos Seleukos reunited all of Alexander's conquests save
Egypt, which was held by Ptolemy. Seleukid government began to deteriorate within
fifty years of the death of Seleukos (280 BC), and the Thracian cities began to reassert
their independence. This new political situation was reflected in the coinage of course,
as civic coinage came into use once again. This time (second and first centuries BC) is
stylistically referred to as "Hellenistic." Silver types often imitated the old Imperial
"Alexander" coins, and copper coinage became quite plentiful. Noteworthy in this period
are the coins of Olbia on the Black Sea. Issues of this city include enormous cast copper
coins, and others shaped like dolphins. A hoard of gold staters of a Thracian king named
Koson of the first century BC has recently come on the market.
The Romans dominated Makedonia and southern Thrace by the second century
BC. They began their attempts to subdue the Celts of Northern Thrace in the next
hundred years. This was not, of course, the first time the region had been invaded, and
the Celts liked to fight. Caesar, in the late first century BC, said of the Celts in Belgium
that they were the toughest warriors he had ever seen, and the Emperor Trajan had a
similar experience in Dacia (modern Romania and northern Bulgaria) a hundred and fifty
years later.
Roman territorial administration was designed for the generation of surplus
product which could be taxed. The taxes were used to do the big business of
government, build the aqueducts, walls, etc., to run the army, and to improve the
lifestyles of the rich and famous. Modern taxation was developed first in Rome. The
Greeks were used to bureaucracy, but all the central government stuff was very strange to
the Celts of the Danube. They didn't cotton to taxes, and, being hot blooded folk, they
rebelled frequently. The Romans would come and kill lots of men, taking lots of women
and children for slaves to pay for the military action, tending to keep the local population
low. With the passage of time administrative headquarters became good sized towns.
Intermarriage was the norm, and the region became "Romanized." Several towns struck
"Greek Imperial" coins in the first through third centuries AD. Among these are Abdera,
Bizya, Odessus, Perinthus, Philippopolis, Hadrianopolis in Thrace, Tomis, Istrus,
Marcianopolis in Moesia Inferior (between Thrace and Dacia). At the start of the third
century AD the town of Serdica began to issue coins, initially of the "Greek Imperial"
series. Later, in the reign of Aurelian (270-275 AD), regular Roman style coins were
issued. The same town, bearing the Christian name Sofia, serves today as the capitol of
the People's Republic.
Serdica was a small town, and it's mint had a low output. Its products are rather
scarce. I suppose that some of the antoniniani of Aurelian are the most common types.
They're not particularly easy to find. Post reform copper coins are known for
Maximianus, Licinius I, and their minor compatriots in the period 303-313 AD. Serdica
emissions of these series are also scarce, but a lot of fourth century bronzes are traded
without regard to mintmarks. One can always get lucky.
The mint at Serdica became inactive from the reign of Constantine the Great,
307-337 AD. Roman rule continued through the demise of the Western Imperium in 476
AD and on into the period we now call the "Byzantine" era. Roman, and later, Byzantine
coins were used in Thrace and Moesia Inferior. The closest mints were Siscia and
Sirmium, both now in Yugoslavia, and both reasonably common mints for Roman fourth
and fifth century bronze. In the Byzantine series the nearest major mints were
Thessalonika and Constantinople. Bulgarian hoards of the fifth through eighth centuries
show a more or less "normal" mint distribution, with pieces from Constantinople
dominating, then Thessalonika, Antioch, etc..
During this period a population shift was occurring as nomadic Bulgar, Khazar,
and Avar tribes began to maraud in from the east. These peoples appear to have had
some ethnic affinity with the people known as the Huns, who were violently roaming
around from Hungary to northern Italy in the last years of the Western Empire. The Huns
retreated into the Russian steppes and disappeared from history, the Bulgars, Khazars,
and Avars remained in occupation of the Balkans. Bulgarian presence grew in the region
until they were the dominant ethnic group, at which time they began to assert their
nationalism against the Byzantine government.
Under several charismatic Khans (they being at that time still pagans) the Bulgars
established an independent kingdom, later styled the "First Bulgarian Empire," with a
capitol at Pliska. One of the ninth century Khans accepted Christianity, and by the tenth
the Bulgars were considered a Christian people.
Byzantine coins of this period were debased billon cup-shaped "scyphate trachea."
Byzantine trachea are by and large common and totally wretched in execution, hardly any
difference at all between "good" and "extremely fine." But there are non-imperial
outlander imitations, identifiable by being even more crude, and some of these are
tentatively attributed to the First Bulgarian Empire. What is certain is that several of the
Byzantine Emperors of the period bought peace on their Makedonian frontier by paying
tribute in gold to the Bulgarian rulers (by now thoroughly Christianized and styling
themselves "Czars").
By the late tenth century Bulgarian power had disintegrated and a degree of
Byzantine control was reestablished for a time in the region. New nomadic peoples were
appearing out of the east: Pechenegs and Magyars, keeping the pot boiling. Meanwhile,
the Byzantine government became involved against its will in the Crusades. From the
west Venetian commercial power was making itself felt. No coins were issued in
Bulgaria for another two centuries.
In 1185 the Vlachs (Wallachs) and Bulgars began a war of national liberation
against the Byzantine government. After several terrible years the Bulgars were
successful in their struggle, the Byzantines recognizing the Second Bulgarian Empire,
with its capitol in Turnovo, in 1204. It didn't really matter what the Byzantine
government did at that point, as Constantinople had just been captured by armies of the
Fourth Crusade.
Most of the rulers of the Second Bulgarian Empire issued coins. In that same
momentous year - 1204 - Kaloyan (1197-1207) obtained from the Pope in Rome the right
to coin in his own name. No pieces of this ruler are known today, but coins exist bearing
the names of most of his successors.
Ivan Asen II (1218-41) - To this king belong the earliest positively identifiable
pieces. He issued billon trachea, and good silver but lightweight versions of the Venetian
gross. Both of these types are extremely scarce. There is also a unique gold hyperpyron.
Finally, there is a series of imitations of the trachea of the Latin Emperors of
Constantinople which is assigned to Bulgaria (Hendy Type D-T). These coins are quite a
bit less scarce than the named pieces of Ivan, yet still are basically unavailable.
Mikhail Asen (1242-57) - Rare silver groshove (sing. "grosh") of Venetian style are
known of this Tsar.
Konstantin Tikh Asen (1255-77) - He issued rare trachea of several types, most notable
being an extremely scarce piece with horseman motif.
Giorgi I Terter (1280-92) - There are rare silver groshove and still rarer small
copper coins of this ruler. During his reign Bulgaria became vassal to the Kipchak Tatars
under Khan Nogai. Two ephemeral Tsars succeeded Giorgi, neither issuing identifiable
coins. With the death of Nogai Bulgarian independence was reestablished.
Todor Svetoslav Terter (1300-22) - Named coins began to be struck again in his reign.
Todor's silver groshove are somewhat less scarce than those of his predecessors. His
copper is quite rare.
Mikhail Shishman (1323-30) - Mikhail issued silver groshove which today are
very scarce.
Mikhail's successor was Ivan Aleksandur(1331-71). The groshove of this king are
actually quite common. They, and the reduced size groshove of the next Tsar, Ivan
Shishman (1371-93), are the only medieval Bulgarian coins for which there exist any
quantity sitting in dealer stock. I would guess there are several hundred groshove of
these two rulers in (or recently in) the numismatic market. Average price would be in the
$20-40 range. There are also rare coppers for both of these rulers, decidedly unavailable.
Copper hoards are much more likely to be thrown away by ignorant finders than silver,
thus fewer pieces make it to the market.
Ivan Aleksandur had divorced and remarried, disinheriting his first son Ivan
Sratsimir in favor of Shishman. To Sratsimir he awarded the Vidin region so he shouldn't
feel so bad. The ingrate broke away from his feckless dad, ruling and issuing rare coins
in his own name. Also during this period the boyar Balik, in the Dobrogea region,
asserted his independence. He was succeeded by his son Ivan Dobrotits, 1348-86.
Dobrotits issued rare coppers from the Black Sea fort of Kaliakra.
The Turks occupied the Balkans by 1395. They held the region until the
nineteenth century. For the first four hundred years of the Turkish occupation the
coinage system was quite simple. There were little copper coins called "mangirs", even
smaller silver coins called "akjes", and gold coins called by the Turks "altun" (= "gold")
and by the Italians zecchini or sequins, equal in value to the Venetian ducat. Ottoman
coins are relatively cheap compared with contemporary Italian issues. Akjes of, say,
Suleyman the Magnificent, (1520-66), from any of the common mints, run only a few
dollars in normal wretchedly struck fine. His altuns in VF rum $150 or so, but in gold
Egypt and Constantinople are the common mints. Balkan gold is kind of scarce.
Ottoman copper tends toward rarity, because who wants to risk Turkish jail for some
cheap coppers? Suleyman's coins are probably the most common of the great Ottoman
Sultans. Prices tend higher for other rulers. Balkan mints included Kosovo and Adrana
in what is now Turkey, Sidrekepsi and Salonika in Greece, Belgrade, Novar, Srebreniche,
and Novabirda in Yugoslavia. Nuri Pere lists akjes from Sofia for Osman II (1618-22)
and Murad IV (1623-40). Both of these are rather scarce rulers, and I have never seen
those, or any other Ottoman coins from Sofia.
The end of the seventeenth century saw a reform of the Ottoman silver coinage,
where the tiny akje of good silver was displaced by the crown-size kurush (piastra in
Italian) and its fractions in billon. Another aspect of the reform was the closing of most
provincial mints. Adrana remained open longer than most, but by the nineteenth century
it closed too, and coinage needs in the Balkans were exclusively served by the output of
KINGDOM, 1879-1946
Bulgarian patriots began their War of Independence against the Turks in 1876.
By 1878 the Ottoman government was losing, and was forced by international pressure,
chiefly from Russia, to allow the creation of a vassal state of Bulgaria under Prince
Alexander I (1879-86). First coins of this new semi-country were the copper 2, 5, and 10
stotinki of 1881. Contracted from the Heaton mint, made to the module of the Latin
Monetary Union, they are reasonably common coins, no trouble at all to find in
circulated condition. Choice uncirculated pieces, however, are rare. These were
followed in 1882 by silver 1 and 2 leva pieces, with a companion 50 stotinki in 1883 and
5 leva crowns in 1884 and 1885.. These are common enough coins in all but gem
condition. VG is the normally encountered grade, and the crowns are frequently banged
up. In 1888 a set of copper-nickel minors was issued. The 5 and 10 stotinki are common
in VG, the 2« and 20 stotinki are not so easy to find. All are extremely scarce in
uncirculated. King Ferdinand issued portrait coins in silver in 1891, '92, and '94. In '94
also gold coins were issued. The silver coins are easily available up to VF or so, can be
obtained in XF, and are scarce in uncirculated. The gold is scarce in any grade. Think
about all the Hungarian 20 korona coins you've seen. Now think about all the Bulgarian
20 leva. Haven't seen any, have you?
Twentieth century coinage began with a new denomination, the 1 stotinka, also a
2 s, both common, and occasionally found in uncirculated. 1912 coins of the same type
exist in some small quantity in AU or better. 5, 10, and 20 s in copper-nickel, issued
1906, `12, and `13, are very common. The silver 50 s, 1 and 2 leva coins of 1910, `12,
and `13 exist in some quantity in AU-Unc. 1916 coins are more or less a waste of time to
look for. You just have to be patient and keep money in your pocket. Gold coins of 1912
commemorate the King's jubilee, but no one ever has them. There are also those funny 4
ducat gold coins. I've actually seen a couple of these, polished and plugged. I've heard
there are counterfeits, too. Rounding out the early twentieth century are the zinc minors
of 1917. These are common enough (20 s is a little tougher), in circulated with minor
oxidation spots, but I bet they don't exist in choice Unc, and should be worth at least
double the SCWC price in that grade.
In concert with that of the rest of Europe, the economy of Bulgaria fell apart after
World War I . The whole continent was in hock to the American banks. Devaluation
was the order of the day. Only a few coins were issued in the '20s. The aluminum 1 and
2 leva of 1923 are not particularly easy to find, perhaps more common in Unc than
circulated. The copper-nickel coins of 1925 are very common. And there's another of
those funny looking 4 ducat gold coins. I've never seen one, but again have heard that
counterfeits exist.
Aside from the not especially common 50 s of 1937 only large denomination
inflation coins were issued in the '30s. The copper-nickel 5 and 10 leva coins are
moderately common in F-VF, while the silver 50 and 100 leva of 1930, '34, and '37 in VF
are ubiquitous. The 20 leva is a bit tougher. These silver coins have soft, low relief
surfaces, so the line between Xf and Unc tends to blur.
During World War II iron versions of the old type 1, 2, 5, and 10 leva were
issued, the 5 and 10 leva again in nickel-clad steel in 1943. 1941 coins are scarce in
rusty F-VF, rare in nice Unc. The 1943 coins are easier to find, and have an unfortunate
propensity for rust spots along the edge. The 1940 20 and 50 leva in copper nickel are
available in Unc.
The king of Bulgaria had been an Axis ally, and his country ended up the war
under Soviet occupation. A referendum in 1946 abolished the monarchy, and the
government which eventually emerged was modelled on Soviet lines. Minor coins were
issued in 1951. The brass 1,3, and 5 s were heavily imported by wholesalers, and were
standard elements of "25 different coins" packets for years. The copper-nickel 10 and 25
s are a bit less ubiquitous, but still are quite common. 20 s of 1952 and '54, and 50 s of
1959, are less available. The 1962 coins are even more available than the '51s, the lower
denominatios again having been imported in quantity. The same pattern of availability
obtains for the 1974 dated minors. Those of 1979, '80, and '81, in proof only, are rather
difficult. How many Bulgarian proof sets have you run into? 80's dated minors are less
available. They have such low value, and Bulgarian coins have never been a prime
seller. Importers have not jumped on them.
The People's Republic started issuing commemoratives in 1963 with a gold and
silver set on the 1100 Anniversary of the Cyrillic alphabet. They have continued
releasing commemoratives ever since. Most, but not all were struck at Leningrad mint.
Noteworthy pieces include the Anti-Turk 1 lev in bronze, a piece for Russo-Bulgarian
Friendship ("Close as lips and teeth" they like to say), several pieces concerned with
space exploration, several honoring children, a couple for a hunting exposition, and lots
of sports coins. In 1981 they really rolled out the barrel for the 1300th anniversary of the
founding of the First Bulgarian Empire. That set ran from brass 1 stotinka to gold 1000
leva, including twelve different 2 leva coins, for a total of 24 pieces in the set. Some of
these pieces are fairly common, 1980 1 and 2 leva coins for the 1980 soccer World Cup,
for instance. But when you think about all the Czech and Polish commemoratives
floating around, you realize that by and large the Bulgarian coins are not there, most of
them never turning up at all. The "law of supply" would make these coins "sleepers," but
the "law of demand" has so far kept them in dreamland.
I believe it would be tough to assemble even so much as a complete set of
People's Republic coins. A Kingdom type set could probably be assembled fairly easily
in circulated grades, minus the gold. The earlier pieces are all scarce to extremely rare.
By and large, even Albanian coins are more common than Bulgarians. Numismatically,
this is a very underappreciated country.