Collecting Ancient Coins

Alexander The Great Tetradrachm (c317-311 BC)Ancient coins offer a fun and fascinating collecting opportunity. Although they’ve gained in popularity in recent years, the ancients remain a frequently overlooked area of numismatics. Many people are surprised to learn that relics of Greece, Rome and other ancient civilizations are not only plentiful but that there are affordable examples suitable for virtually any budget.

If you choose to specialize in ancient coins, you’ll be joining in a grand tradition. Collecting and cataloging contemporary circulating coins is a relatively modern phenomenon. For much of the history of coin collecting, ancients were the mainstay of the hobby. As numismatics developed, it was the coinage of antiquity that scholars worked to identify and establish in history.

While there are obviously many similarities in the pursuit of ancient coins when compared to moderns, there are also significant differences to note in the ways that collectors typically approach their hobby.

For the most part these differences are rooted in the nature of the coins themselves. From engraving the dies to the actual strike, ancient coins were made by hand and show tremendous variety. Unlike modern minting in which hundreds of millions of virtually identical coins are produced, in truth it is fair to say that every ancient coin is unique.

For the collector of ancients, meeting the challenges of proper identification is one of the hobby’s primary areas of focus. In collecting lingo, the process of indentifying a coin is called attribution and it involves assigning the coin to a time and place, determining the denomination of the coin (its “face value”), and documenting any interesting facts concerning the historical context of the coin and the coin itself. Over the centuries that numismatists have been working to unearth the mysteries of the past, a great many coins have been studied at length and there is general agreement as to their correct attribution. However there remain coins for which the history is unknown and coins for which the correct attribution is the subject of debate.

Silver Denarius of Elagabalus (218 - 222 AD)One of the results of the uniqueness of individual coins and the challenges in proper attribution is in the marketplace itself. The market for modern coins is normalized, meaning that available coins have been cataloged and the scarcity and relative value of each coin established. Collectors and dealers are accustomed to being able to turn to a standard reference for values, and those values are almost always used as a starting point in negotiating a sale or trade. With ancient coins there is considerably more latitude, and arriving at a fair market value is much more in the hands of the individual buyer and seller. There are of course fine resources available in the form of books, periodicals and websites. One of the most important resources to for any collector to cultivate is the prices realized in completed auctions and net price sales.

As with any pastime, there are no rules to be followed in terms of what to collect or not collect. Typically a collector will focus on one or more distinct areas and try to cultivate both an expertise and a representative sampling from those areas. The first coins as we think of them appeared in about the seventh century BC, but even before that time pre-coins or proto-coins existed as cultures experimented with the ideas of currency.

Roman coins are among the most commonly collected ancients, and most people get their start in this area. The coins of Rome are well documented, inscriptions use the familiar Latin alphabet, and bronze coins of the late Roman Imperial period are very affordable. As with all things Roman, the field of Roman currency is vast both in terms of time and geography. Typically Roman coins are divided into three periods, Republican, Imperatorial (pre-Empire), and Imperial, covering time which extends from the third century BC well into the fifth century AD.

Greek coinage begins earlier than Roman, with the first coins seen about 600 BC. As a collecting area, Greece is generally considered slightly more challenging than Rome, with coins less affordable and attribution more difficult. There are three major periods of ancient Greek coins: Archaic, Classical, and Hellenistic. Roman and Greek coins overlap for a period of history, but at the end of the Hellenistic period in about the first century BC, Greece was effectively absorbed under Roman domination. Provincial currencies were still produced, but the general currency was Roman.

Despite the fact that European and American collectors tend to be focused on the classical civilizations of Rome and Greece, and later Byzantine and Biblical coinage, there are a great many other collecting opportunities of equal variety and historical interest. India and China both have extensive coin production legacies that emerged independently of the West. China in particular was likely minting coins prior to Greece and may well have had the world’s first coinage. Early Chinese coins appeared in a variety of interesting shapes and were punched with holes to allow them to be strung together on a cord.

Grade is an important part of the description of an ancient coin, useful in establishing a fair price as well as a simple comparison of other similar coins. In comparison to modern coin grading, the grading of ancients is by force considerably more subjective and takes into account a great many more variables. The quality of the strike is significant and the coin is evaluated for everything from centering to flaws in the planchet or die. The surface of the coin is closely studied to evaluate original luster and how well it has survived the ravages of time. With each die being handcrafted, the quality of engraving and the attractiveness of any individual coin is also a factor in the grade.

Although you will occasionally see a numerical designation from the Sheldon scale applied to an ancient, more typically dealers and collectors simply give an adjectival grade. With no accepted standard, the specifics of the grade will be particular to the dealer or collector. A typical scale might include: poor, good, very good, fine, very fine, extremely fine, and mint.