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Ancient Coins – Collecting Strategies – Surviving the chase

The Seaton Down Hoard of 22,000 coins is one of the largest hoards found in Britain
The Seaton Down Hoard of 22,000 coins is one of the largest hoards found in Britain

By Wayne Sayles – Ancient Coin Collecting Blog ………..

Once I heard about a collector who didn’t care what he had to pay for a coin, and cared even less what he could eventually sell his collection for.  I have yet to meet him, but he probably does exist—somewhere.  More typically, collectors envision their accumulations as having some value above and beyond the ethereal benefit that comes from personal satisfaction.  But is that really true?  Do we stand a chance, financially, of surviving the chase?  Most of us don’t think about that too much, perhaps as a defense mechanism to ward off anxiety attacks.  But really, is it likely that our coins will be worth something someday?

That is a fair question and it deserves an honest answer.  Beginning collectors, by nature, tend to lack the sophistication to collect in a way that will maximize their chances of a good return on their investment.  Many will be inclined to accumulate a menagerie of inexpensive coins which seem an incredible bargain in comparison to modern issues.  Coins like this, which exist in the hundreds of thousands or more, are undeniably worth the price that they bring on today’s market.  But, will they be worth more tomorrow?  My guess is that they will, but only marginally.  It is unlikely that a collector who buys a “Heinz” variety of common ancient coins today will be able to resell them anytime in the near future at a profit.  As one might expect, the coins that traditionally appreciate most in value are also the most actively sought and competed for in the market. This can be an intimidating environment for fledgling collectors and not everyone is comfortable with it in their formative years.  Those who have the financial resources may choose to buy high grade and rare coins right from the start, but they should find a reputable advisor before jumping into the fray.  For those who simply want to enjoy collecting and do not have the budget to delve into rare and expensive issues, all is not lost.

There are many areas of ancient coin collecting that are neglected by mainstream collectors.  Sometimes, these coins can yield good returns, as well as important expertise, to the collector who bothers to learn about them and to collect them with persistence and purpose.  In coin collecting, like many other pursuits in life, knowledge is power.  And, for those who haven’t yet figured it out, power = wealth.  The best way to turn an inexpensive collection into something of value is to stock it with interesting coins that others have failed to appreciate.  And, in the process, a serious collector expands the corpus of our knowledge about the past.  So, what are these coins?  They can be found in almost any series, but I will mention just a few here to give you an idea of what I am suggesting and then you can figure out for yourself what kinds of coins might suit your taste, budget, and inclination.  Those coins that seem to be found everywhere you look can sometimes hold potential for appreciation, simply because they are so cheap to begin with.  What happens when a huge hoard of one type appears is that the market immediately becomes depressed for those issues.    Nevermind that there are many rare specimens passing at generic coin prices, the entire market for a given series can suffer from the saturation caused by large hoards.  The savvy collector will see this as an opportunity to obtain rarities at common coin prices.  But, to do this, one needs to learn the series.

Market saturation most often comes from the discovery of large hoards—these are generally limited today to the types of coins found outside the Mediterranean basin,  where reasonable export laws allow international trade.  Keep in mind that hoards come and go.  A few years from now, something else will be common and the coins we see today may well be obscure.  We are seeing a rather unusual opportunity in the market today, as there are many more ancient coins available than there are collectors for them.

So, rather than chase the high profile coins that everyone will bid dearly for, why not collect the coins that no one pays any attention to?  They are inexpensive, and often they are rare—but  at the moment few seem to care.  In the nearly 50 years that I have been collecting and selling ancient coins, there have been a great many changes in the market.  What is hot today is not tomorrow, and vice-versa.

Another source of market saturation is the liquidation of very large old collections.  The Edoardo Levante collection is a prime example, but only one of many in the past few decades.  The added value of a distinguished provenance is increasingly attractive these days.  The key is to purchase during the rush to sell because these coins typically increase in value more quickly than hoard coins.

Over time, collections that are assembled with forethought and consistency will outperform those accumulated randomly, regardless of the series that they represent.  It can be smart to collect coins that others ignore.  Twenty years ago, Turkoman coins were so poorly understood that they were practically unsaleable.  Today, the market for these coins is stronger than ever in their history.  Nice Roman Provincial coins that were cheap in the 1970s and 80s, when the market was hot for Roman Imperial coins, are more highly regarded in todays market.  Meanwhile, the sestertii that were darlings of that era are much less in favor these days.  Today, there is international interest in Islamic coins that were looked upon with disdain by many collectors in previous generations.

It is this writer’s opinion that the way to survive the chase is to collect with a purpose and not be afraid to be a bit contrarian.  Regardless of your interest or budget, it is better to collect intensely within a managable area than to attempt an accumulation of many diverse and unassociated items.  A collector should not think in terms of years, but in decades.  It is very difficult to assemble a meaningful collection in a few years.  Choose your path carefully and plan to spend a good share of your collecting life following it.  If you do, and if you mature as a collector along the way, it is likely that your collection will indeed be worth something to someone when your time with it has come to an end.  And, as a bonus, it will bring you a lot more enjoyment in the meantime.

Wayne Sayles
Wayne Sayles
Retiring in 1982 from the U.S. Air Force, Wayne earned a MA degree in Art History at the Univ. of Wisconsin. In 1986, he founded The Celator — a monthly journal about ancient coins. He co-authored "Turkoman Figural Bronze Coins and Their Iconography" (2 vols.) and wrote the six vol. series "Ancient Coin Collecting" (3 are in expanded 2nd ed.), the monograph "Classical Deception" and the exhibition catalogue for the Griner collection of ancient coins at Ball State University. He wrote the "Coin Collecting" article and revised the main "Coins" article for Encyclopaedia Britannica. Wayne is a Life Fellow of the ANS; Fellow of the RNS (London); Life Member of the Hellenic Numismatic Society (Athens); Life Member of AINS; and member of numerous other numismatic organizations including the American Numismatic Association and the Numismatic Literary Guild. He is the founder and current Executive Director of the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild, has lectured extensively, written more than 200 articles about ancient coinage, and is a recipient of the "Numismatic Ambassador" award from Krause Publications. He is a biographee in Marquis, "Who's Who in America" and in "Who's Who in the World".

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