- Getting Started -
By Josh Moran, WINS#62
As the introductory article to this series, it seemed prudent that it was used to discuss an introduction to collecting ancient coins. Many collectors find appeal in ancient coins, yet they never pick up the hobby for one reason or another. The most commonly cited reasons are a lack of knowing where to begin, difficulty of the material and the incorrect notion of excessive rarity and expense of the coins themselves. With a little guidance, these fears and falsehoods can be over come. The intention of this article is to provide a little of that guidance.
Pursuing any new interest, numismatic or otherwise, requires a certain amount of core knowledge. Though experience may be the best teacher, the beginner must rely on books and other publications for basic information. One of the best introductory texts on the subject is Ancient Coin Collecting by Wayne G. Sayles. This book is the first of a six part series on various ancient coin subjects. It lays an excellent foundation for five major areas of ancient coin collecting: Greek, Roman, Roman Provincial, Byzantine and Non-Classical Cultures. In addition, it provides information regarding clubs, shows, the ancient coin market and suggestions for further reading on specialized areas. This book is easily found in most major bookstores for less than $25.00. Another book that should be considered is A Handbook of Ancient Greek and Roman Coins by Zander H. Klawans. This book provides good background information on the two most commonly collected ancient coin series. It lists the symbols, people, cities, inscriptions and deities most commonly seen on these coins. Also included is a basic history of Greek and Roman coins, their methods of manufacture and an explanation of the various denominations. This book can be purchased in many chain bookstores for less than $15.00. A simple search of the local library or any number of online book vendors will likely turn up additional tomes that the beginner will find useful.
One cannot argue that beginning a collection of ancient coins is an easy task. The majority of ancient coins, unlike most modern ones, do not provide an easily read date. Oftentimes the names of rulers and mints are listed in obscure abbreviations in a language that is scarcely spoken nowadays, if at all. However, it is not as difficult as it sounds. Roman Imperial coins, for example, contain legends using letters that most members of the Western world should be able to easily recognize and decipher. A coin with the inscription of NERO CLAVDIVS CAESAR or L AVREL COMMODVS would be hard to attribute to anyone other than the emperors Nero and Commodus respectively. Unfortunately, they are not always recognized this easily. However, Roman Imperial coins are overwhelmingly one of the best ways to start a collection of ancient coins because of their ease in recognition and attribution when compared to most other series.
The most common misconception about ancient coins is that they are all "rare" and "expensive" museum quality pieces. This is very far from the truth. Ancient coins, just as most modern, come in a wide variety of grades, prices and degrees of rarity. The following is a list of various sources for ancient coins, from the most inexpensive common to the truly rare and priceless:
Uncleaned bulk lots: Hoards of ancient coins are always being discovered by metal detectorists in Europe and Asia. Bulk lots of these coins can be purchased easily on the internet for $0.90 - $3.00 each. These lots are generally 98% bronze coins, but the occasional silver coin will slip through. Some internet dealers will claim gold coins have been found in their lots. If not a complete falsehood, it is likely that inexperienced collectors are mistaking their over polished brass coins for gold. These lots are generally picked over at the source for all silver, gold and other rare coins. However, scarce and rare bronze coins do regularly show up in these lots. The catch, of course, is the dirt that they are still encrusted in must be removed.
Common bulk lots: Common ancient coins can often be purchased in bulk. The coins are generally of average quality and can include cheaper bronze coins up to pricier gold coins. When bought in bulk, average quality common bronze coins can often be had for as little as $5.00 each, silver for $15.00 each and gold for little more than $100.00 each. These are usually wholesale lots from dealers who are looking to quickly sell large quantities of coins that may be difficult to sell individually.
Dealer Pick Bins: Dealers who set up at shows generally have bins of ancient coins that the customer may pick through for a certain amount per coin, depending on the type. These are often the result of the dealer having recently purchased one of the above common bulk lots. They can charge a markup because the customer has control over which pieces he or she purchases, instead of an "all or none" type of scenario. This is an excellent way to fill in holes in a collection with common types. The experienced collector can sometimes pick rare pieces from these pick bins because the dealer didn't take the time to look closely.
On-line auctions: Ebay and Yahoo both provide excellent opportunities for new and experienced collectors to add to their collections. Many dealers have private online auctions hosted on their websites. One usually has to register ahead of time before participating in these types of auctions. In general, prices for ancient coins are significantly lower for internet transactions than for mail-bid catalogs, shows and live auctions. Online auctions are also excellent sources for uncleaned coins.
Coin show:The classic venue for collectors of all coins is the coin show. Many good deals can be had at a show with a little knowledge and bargaining ability. A good show will have coins ranging from the most common and inexpensive to the most elusive and rare pieces. The Chicago International Coin Fair and the New York International are both excellent shows for ancient coins.
Mail-bid catalogs and fixed price lists: Most coin publications have classified ads in the back for dealers with ancient coins for sale by fixed price or mail-bid catalog. These dealers can be small part-timers all the way up to major coin firms. The prices a collector will have to pay for individual coins from these lists depends on the type of sale, as well as the dealer from whom the coins are being purchased. Larger coin firms with an excellent reputation oftentimes charge a higher markup for their coins because collectors are willing to pay a little extra for the prestige and expertise associated with those firms. Smaller dealers will regularly have coins as low as $30.00 in these catalogs and lists. The larger firms generally don't have many coins below $100.00 for sale through this venue.
Live auctions: The live auction is arguably the least common method of sale for ancient coins. This type of auction is usually only held when a rare and extremely desirable piece is coming to market. Most, if not all, lots at a live auction are likely to be well out of the price and expertise range of beginning ancient coin collectors. Ancient numismatics is a fun and rewarding field. Getting started takes a little ambition, a desire to learn and a certain willingness to make some mistakes. Like any other interest, the beginner will take some time to "learn the ropes" and settle into a specialty. Hopefully this article will spark an interest in the reader, and point the way to developing his or her new collecting interest.
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