Harlan J. Berk founded the company that bears his name in 1964, but like so many other numismatists, he actually got his start as a kid when someone (in Berk’s case, his mother) gave him those first fascinating coins. And now, after 52 years plus as a professional and a coin dealer–specializing in ancient and United States coins–Berk is one of the most respected names in the industry.
As such, CoinWeek sat down with the noted Chicago dealer and author to talk about his love for ancient coins and to find out what this area of numismatics offers today’s collector. We also asked him about some of the recent controversies in the field of antiquities and what impact they have on the business of coin collecting.
CoinWeek: Harlan, you wrote the book 100 Greatest Ancient Coins (Whitman, 2008). In your opinion, what makes for a great ancient coin?
Harlan J. Berk: There are several factors. First is art – How good is the art on the coin? Next is historical importance. That’s a factor that plays out for the rare coins. What makes a common coin important? Like an Alexander the Great tetradrachm or stater? These coins are great because, at their time, they were so important that they became a world currency.
CW: Even common coins can be great?
HJB: Of course.
CW: That reminds me of an account of the World’s Columbian Exposition, which, of course, took place in Chicago. The [United States] Mint brought a selection of coins from the Mint Cabinet. The two that impressed exhibition goers the most were the 1804 dollar – a great American rarity – and the widow’s mite, a common coin.
HJB: Well, the 1804 dollar was important from the time [it was] minted in 1840 and 1861. The widow’s mite… that’s important because of Christianity. It was an important coin in the bible. As a coin, though, it’s incredibly ugly and worthless.
CW: In the past, collecting ancient coins was seen as a mainstream part of numismatic study and collecting interest, but the area has grown increasingly specialized, with contemporary collectors turning to modern issues like those issued by the United States or the coins of Europe struck over the past 600 years. How have ancient coin dealers reacted to this shift in focus and how do we bring new collectors into the fold?
HJB: I don’t think there’s much of a shift in focus. Back in the 19th century and earlier, educated people with extra income would collect coins from antiquity. Interest in ancient coins grew in the 18th and 19th centuries in America and Europe.
Today, it’s a question of knowing that ancient coins exist. Even collectors that know about them don’t know how inexpensive they can be. But when you go to a coin show and walk around, you see them. And then you think Ancient coins? This sort of thing exists!
Most people think they are very expensive, but what people don’t realize – what non-ancient coin collectors don’t realize – is that ancient coins were the currency of the world from 600 BCE to about 400 CE. So, for all of that time, the only money that existed was ancient coins, not paper.
Under the Greeks and Romans, millions of coins were issued and about one-tenth of one percent survive – but if you take one-tenth of one percent of all of the ancient coins struck, it’s still an immense amount.
CW: Do Hollywood films create ancient coin collectors?
HJB: People see a silly movie or read a book about ancient history, and then they want to buy a coin that’s related to what they saw in a movie or read about.
Of course, everything you see about ancient coins in movies is wrong. But it gets them interested. A coin of Nero, even if what you learned about him from popular culture or history class is completely or 90% wrong, it’s still interesting.
CW: What other factors create new collectors?
HJB: A lot of people come into our shop because they want to buy an ancient coin for their son or daughter from a certain date or period in history. When I bring out double row boxes of coins, they are shocked. “Well, I can’t pay much,” they say, so I ask “What’s your price range? We have over 5,000 attributed ancient coins in stock”.
Other people that come in are more sophisticated than we are. We know a lot, but we don’t know everything.
CW: Switching gears, it seems that the greatest threat to the hobby is the growing tide of legal and administrative restrictions on the collecting, importation, and trade in antiquities – usually in response to instability and warfare in different parts of the world. Is this reaction called for? How do collectors and dealers stay on the right side of the issue?
HJB: This is all the work of archaeologists. What they say sounds good, but it is not good. They say that all coins should go to the country of origin and no one should be able to collect them. But the fact is, all of the good books and articles about coins are written by numismatists.
Archaeologists don’t study or care much about coins. But collectors do. Plus coins circulated all over the world. They were not confined to one geographic space. Ancient coins traveled. They were money.
For antiquities, it’s different. I’ve never been offered anything that has come from ISIS. And if I was, I’d never buy it. One time, I was offered an antiquity that most certainly came out of a museum. I told the guy to never call me again and I sent a picture of the object to the feds. No coin or antiquity dealer wants to trade in that stuff.
As for the proposed laws, most are written by people who know nothing about coins… and they do this for attention.
CW: Encapsulation of ancient coins seems like another polarizing issue among collectors. For modern issues, coin capsules have become part of the culture and led to the commoditization of [collectible] coins. This seems to work well enough for machine-made coins, but does this one-size-fits-all approach work for ancient coins?
HJB: There’s only one company that, for their auctions, puts everything in a slab. They are trying to turn U.S. collectors into ancient collectors.
A lot of slabbed ancient coins go to people who sell coins over the phone to the unknowledgeable.
Slabs don’t bring premiums in the ancient coin market like they do for moderns… at least not from ancient coin collectors. They might bring more money in high-grade slabs from U.S. collectors who don’t understand ancients.
Here’s another thing about slabbed ancients. I talked to someone from a major American museum how they would like it if their entire numismatic collection [were encapsulated]. The answer: unnecessary.
Another thing about slabbing ancients… there’s no formal standard definition of grade. I hope that slabbing ancients will never become part of the collecting tradition. In fact, when we take consignments, unless the seller specifies, we break slabbed ancients out of the holder and sell it as a natural coin.
CW: You are known amongst collectors of ancient coins as being an extremely knowledgeable and honest dealer – but of also driving the hard bargain. Is it part of your nature to not get beat on a deal, or are you always willing to sell a coin for the right price?
HJB: Things always slip through the cracks. This is only my 52nd year in business. But there are people out there that know more about Roman coins than I do…
Funny story – not about Ancient coins, but about letting something slip through. When I got started, a doctor friend of mine would buy U.S. coins from me. I called him when I got a 1955 doubled die cent. “I got one, already,” he said, “you sold it to me!” “I did?” I asked, somewhat surprised. “Yeah, you sold me a leftover collection and there was one in there.”
So, it happens.
The truth is, there are a lot of people who know more than I do. The truly dedicated specialized collector should always have the edge over the dealer.
CW: So in that respect, it’s probably a bit harder to be a dealer of ancients, than, say, U.S. coins?
HJB: Both are complex. If you are dealing in Morgans, for instance, you have to know that a 1901 in Mint State is a very rare coin. If you are dealing in large cents, you have to know all of the varieties and qualities… but when you pick up a Washington quarter or a Standing Liberty quarter, you know it’s a quarter. If you pick up an ancient coin, you have to know what city or part of the world it comes from and when.
CW: In that light, there really isn’t anything resembling complete knowledge on where these coins come from, is there?
HJB: One of the dumbest statements I ever made… I was talking to Martin Price of the British Museum and I said to him, “I guess we know everything there is to know about Greek coins.” And there’s constantly new things being written. New books. Cathy Lorber is publishing a book on Egyptian coins under the Ptolemaic kings. The question for ancient coins is is it listed or not listed? So many coins were minted and for some issues so few survive. So there are rare varieties and we are always finding new varieties.
And sometimes even the experts get it wrong.
CW: Coin dealers across the country have seen an increasing need to innovate their approach and to adopt 21st-century methods of acquiring customers and building relationships. How does one maintain the core business model while experimenting with new approaches?
HJB: We rarely advertise in books or publications – we advertise and offer coins on the internet. We also publish print catalogs. Some people will buy on the internet after they read the printed catalog, so you have to do both. When I’m gone there may not be print catalogs.
CW: Are the days of the great walk-in retail coin shop numbered?
HJB: I don’t think so. People want to walk into a coin store and handle coins. If you go to a coin shop, you go for the experience of talking to people who own the coins or work directly with the owner. People at shops tend to be knowledgeable and collectors want to have a resource where they can get good information.
CW: But now with the internet, you have much more competition. Not only with big auction houses but with collectors themselves. Every collector can be a vest pocket dealer online.
HJB: It was always that way. Collectors were always selling to other collectors. They would just do it at coin club meetings.