CoinWeek Ancient Coin Series by Mike Markowitz ….
Aren’t they very expensive?
Along with How do you know they’re authentic?, this is probably the most common question that classical numismatists are asked about ancient coins.
Well, yes and no.
The price of an ancient coin, like any other price in an imperfect market economy, is a function of supply and demand, modified by asymmetry of power and knowledge on the parts of the buyer and seller. The price of desirable ancient coins seems to creep ever upward. In a recent major auction, the average price of a coin was $2,520 USD (before the buyer’s fee) – well beyond the means of a typical collector.
The demand for ancient coins is a complex combination of rarity, condition (or “grade”), and historical interest. Taking these factors into account, it is entirely possible to acquire a good, collectible ancient coin for under $100 (equivalent to £75.00 or €85.00 in mid-October 2017).
“Melt value”, or the current price of bullion, may also be a factor for gold coins; the copper and silver in ancient coins are of trivial value.
This is a very rare coin. Only two examples are known to exist. Unfortunately, the only guy in the world who cares has the other one. –Old Numismatic Joke
By itself, rarity has little to do with the price of an ancient coin. Rarity of scarce coins is often defined in terms of the number of known published examples, but the number of unpublished examples is generally unknown and unknowable.
The appearance of a new hoard on the market can suddenly render a very rare coin merely “scarce”. Dealers and auction houses have a practical understanding of demand, and will tend to regulate the release of new material in a manner that does not saturate the market.
Modern collectible coins are meticulously graded on a complex 70-point system (the Sheldon Scale, named for numismatist William Herbert Sheldon, 1898-1977), but this system has never caught on for ancients. Most ancient coins, unless they are still caked with dirt, have been cleaned (a major no-no for moderns), and very few have enjoyed ideal conditions of preservation during centuries of burial.
Ancient coins are traditionally graded with descriptive adjectives:
- “Good” means “really terrible”
- “Fine” means “less terrible”
- “Very Fine” means “you can tell what it is, in good light”
- “Extremely Fine” means “ both sides are completely present and all the inscriptions are readable”
- “Mint State” means “you can’t afford it”
An exquisite super-grade for “proof-like” ancients in a miraculous state of preservation is sometimes seen: Fleur de coin (“Flower of coinage”). This indicates 1.) that the cataloger knows French, and 2.) that you really can’t afford it.
Numismatic Guaranty Corporation (NGC), the leading encapsulator (“slabber”) of ancients, uses a split five-point scale, separately grading the “strike” and “surface” of the coin, with additional descriptors, such as “fine style”. In this system, a coin graded 5/5 is sharply struck, and its surfaces are free of blemishes.
Encapsulation (“slabbing”) typically adds $20 – 30 to the cost of a common ancient coin. Older collectors tend to regard slabs as abominable plastic coin prisons that should be cracked open at the first opportunity, but many younger collectors find slabbed coins reassuringly familiar.
Historical interest or “fame” strongly determines the value of an ancient coin. Everyone has heard of Julius Caesar and Cleopatra, but even classical historians might not know much about Florianus or Otacilla Severa. Any recognizable coin of Julius Caesar or Cleopatra is likely to find a ready buyer, no matter how poor its condition. Even in superb condition, coins of very obscure people or places are in little demand, and can often be acquired cheaply.
Ancient coins are broadly classified as “Greek”, “Roman”, or “Other”. In each of these categories, collectors can find surprising bargains with a bit of effort and luck.
Some of the best bargains in Archaic (pre-500 BCE) and Classical (c. 500 – 323 BCE) Greek silver are very, very small coins. Collectors seem to prefer substantial silver coins, like the hefty 17-gram tetradrachm, but the fractional coins are often superb miniature works of art that can be acquired for just a fraction of what their big brothers cost. These small denominations (some are rarely seen) include:
- Hemidrachm or triobol (half drachma, 2.15 g)
- Diobol (1.43 g)
- Obol (0.72 g)
- Tritartemorion (.54 g)
- Hemiobol (half obol, .36 g)
- Trihemitetartemorion (.27 g)
- Tetartemorion (¼ obol, .18 g)
- Hemitetartemorion (0.09 g), the smallest ancient Greek coin
A good magnifying lens is helpful for appreciating these small coins.
Ancient gold coins are beyond the means of most collectors on a limited budget, but a notable exception is the small electrum fractional coinage issued by the kingdom of Lydia and a few Greek cities (the mint for these un-inscribed coins is often uncertain). Electrum is a highly variable alloy of gold and silver — the gold content ranges from 30% to 70%. These are some of the earliest coins ever struck. The denominations of 1/24 and 1/48 stater can sometimes be found for under $100.
Another category of Greek coinage that is common, under-appreciated, and perhaps under-valued is “Greek Imperial” or “Roman Provincial” coinage, mostly bronze, issued by dozens of Greek-speaking cities under Roman rule. For collectors unfamiliar with Greek letters, these can be baffling, but really, the Greek alphabet is not that hard. Many emperors that would be expensive to collect on regular Roman issues are much more affordable on Greek imperials, and their portraits can be as good or better.
Small denomination bronze coins of the Roman Republic, typically from the third century BCE, can sometimes be found for under $100. These pieces often bear the helmeted head of the goddess Minerva (the Roman equivalent of Athena) on the obverse, and a horse head or the prow of a ship on the reverse. Rome was always a land power, but in the First Punic War against Carthage, Romans learned to build and fight oared warships, and they were so proud of this accomplishment that they recorded it on their coinage.
Some of the best bargains in Roman imperial coinage are the silvered antoniniani from the chaotic period of the “military anarchy” (sometimes called the “barracks emperors”). Between 235 and 284 CE, more than 50 mostly short-lived emperors held the throne. This was a period of rampant inflation, and vast quantities of low-value bronze coins with a trace of silver were churned out. Many survive in remarkably good condition.
People speaking Celtic languages occupied much of Western and Central Europe in antiquity. Celtic tribes and kingdoms adopted the use of coins from their Greek, and later Roman neighbors, but imposed their own vigorous, abstract style on the designs they copied. For centuries, the Eastern Celts copied the widely circulating coinage in the name of Alexander the Great. The Celts of Gaul and Britain copied a wide variety of Greek and Roman types.
These coins, in all metals, are sometimes found in large hoards, and good examples can be acquired inexpensively.
A series of Persian empires ruled much of the East in antiquity: Achaemenid (550 – 330 BCE), Parthian (247 BCE – 224 CE) and Sasanian (224 – 651 CE). The common silver coins of these empires survive in great quantities. The Achaemenid siglos of about 5.5 grams is a crude, lumpy single-sided coin bearing the image of a bearded king holding a bow and dagger. Rulers of Parthia placed their own image on the obverse of their silver drachms, with a reverse showing the ancestral founder of the dynasty, surrounded by the ruler’s titles in a long Greek inscription, which became increasingly erratic toward the end of the era.
The kingdom of Judea was a client state of the Persian empire, and its successors for centuries. One of the most common Judean coins is a small copper prutah issued by Judean ruler Yehonatan (better known by his Greek name, Alexander Jannaeus) between 104 and 76 BCE. This coin remained in local circulation for many decades and because it figures in one of the parables of Jesus (Mark, 12:41; Luke, 21:1) it became famous as the “Widow’s Mite“. Examples of this type still sell for just a few dollars, and even high-grade specimens go for well under $100.
Collecting Inexpensive Ancients
Experienced collectors often repeat the best advice they ever got, which is, “Buy the book before you buy the coin.” Second-hand copies of numismatic references are often perfectly usable, and considerably cheaper than new editions.
Beginning collectors often become frustrated when they are outbid at the last instant in major online auctions by those with deeper pockets and faster reflexes. Excellent advice on avoiding fakes can be found at:
Some of the best bargains in ancients, can be found at coin shows or local coin clubs. To find a nearby ancient coin club, try https://www.money.org/club-directory.
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Berk, Harlan J. 100 Greatest Ancient Coins. Atlanta (2008)
Butcher, Kevin. Roman Provincial Coins: An Introduction to Greek Imperials. London (1988)
Sayles, Wayne. Ancient Coin Collecting. Iola, WI. (1996)
Sear David. Greek Coins and Their Values (2 volumes). London (1978 – 1979)
–. Roman Coins and Their Values (5 volumes). London (2000 – 2014)
NGC-Certified Widow’s Mite Prutah Coins Currently Available on eBay