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In this episode of the CoinWeek Podcast, CoinWeek Editor Charles Morgan talks to Aaron Berk and Mike Nottelmann about their excellent Ancient Coin Podcast.
Aaron is a noted antiquities dealer and expert in ancient coins. Mike is a specialist in U.S. coins and the longtime co-host of the Coin Show Podcast. Together with Aaron, he takes the listener on a journey into the ancient coin-collecting hobby from the perspective of a new collector.
The resulting mix of expert and neophyte is relatable to most collectors and the behind-the-scenes expertise that Aaron brings opens the door to a deeper and more sophisticated understanding of the complexities of the ancient coin market.
During our program, Charles asks Aaron to further discuss the controversial sale of the gold Eid Mar, a topic Aaron and Mike recently delved into on episode 26 of the Ancient Coin Podcast.
We recommend that you listen to Aaron and Mike’s podcast if you want to learn more about ancient coins and that you listen to this hour-long discussion with Aaron and Mike with CoinWeek.
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The CoinWeek Podcast is sponsored by PCGS.
At the Central States Numismatic Society’s (CSNS) , PCGS will offer an exclusive CSNS Show label. To take advantage of this exclusive label opportunity, stop by the PCGS booth and submit your coins for show grading.
Learn more about this unique event by visiting www.pcgs.com and plan to join the action in Schaumburg, Illinois starting April 26! Don’t miss out on the chance to see some of the finest collections compete side-by-side and take in one of the best coin shows in the country.
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The following is a transcript of Charles’ conversation with Aaron and Mike:
Charles Morgan: Aaron and Mike, thank you so much for joining me on the CoinWeek Podcast. It is a real pleasure actually not only to have you on, but to see the growth of the great Ancient Coin Podcast that you guys are doing. I have to admit, I don’t much listen to US coin podcasts. I check in and dabble on occasion, but I’m not really, what I would call, a listener or a reader of other people’s work product, and only because I like to read it when there’s some time between when they published it and when I get to it, because I don’t want to really influence my own work.
With Coin World, for instance, a competitor of CoinWeek’s, I have in my garage every Coin World from probably 1971 to 2018. I’m always amazed about how good it is, but I go through the back issues because there’s some historical distance. What you guys are doing with your podcast, it’s certainly an area I want to learn more about. It’s not something I regularly write about, but for the last couple of years, we’ve been promoting more Ancient Coin content. As the editor of a site, it’s been an enormous learning curve to go from new useless guy to having a basic familiarity of many of the concepts, but still feeling like there’s just a mountain of information that I don’t know.
In some respects, the program you guys are doing is you’re taking somebody who is savvy about coins, active in coin collecting, and introducing them to something new. In some respects, I imagine there’s some element of your own childhood, Aaron, in this because you and your sister grew up with your dad, who’s like this icon in the ancient coin market in the United States. I’m sure you went to coin shows before you wanted to, and then you went to coin shows because you wanted to, and you just were exposed to all of this. But to share that with somebody else has to be just a really thrilling experience. So, I just wanted to have you guys, tell you, first of all, how good a job you’re doing. And then, also just get your take on what this whole experience in this journey has been like.
Aaron Berk: Yeah. To answer your question about growing up in the coin business. I guess, I didn’t realize my dad was famous at all. He was just dad. But I think my first ANA [show], I’m told I was in a baby carrier under the table. So, that was my first ANA experience. Of course, I don’t remember, but I’m sure a coin maybe fell into my basket at the time. But yeah, my sister and I grew up going to the office in Joliet, Illinois, which is where were at the time, and putting stamps on catalogs, and helping with closings, and doing all kinds of fun stuff like that, and occasionally attributing a coin. But it’s definitely an interesting life growing up as far as that goes.
I think I can speak for my sister that we’re both really proud to have our father still, because he’s still going strong at 80, but also to follow in his footsteps and actually make our own pushes in the industry and making our mark. I think both of us have done that. And so, I feel very fortunate, humbled, and also proud to have done what we’ve done so far.
Charles: How about you, Mike? What’s this journey been like for you?
Mike Nottelmann: Well, it originally sounded like you were describing me when you were talking about somebody a little savvy about coins, but not really knowing much about it, because truthfully, what you see with me is what you get. I really knew nothing about them going into it. I looked forward to the opportunity to learn from two of the all-time greats. When you have opportunities like that, you really need to jump on them.
Charles: Well, I’ll say one thing. I’m relatively new to the industry. I’ve only been working in coins for like 10, 12 years maybe, which seems like a long time, but it’s not. I remember meeting Aaron, I think it was pretty much Aaron when you definitely had already come into your own, starting to be one of the leading bases, Harlan J. Berk, Ltd. I was just so impressed, not only to see somebody in my own age cohort running a major deal, but just knowing you, like you said, knowing your sister, it’s just amazing the amount of talent that exists beyond the coin thing. I feel like either of you would have been successful, whatever you decided to do. It just happens that you decided to do coins.
Just maybe for our viewers to understand this, this is not an indictment against US coin collecting and the market that exists, but you can sell a US coin fairly easily. If you have a nice coin, it’s in the right holder, has the right grade on it, you have the right price for it, you’ll probably sell it without being a rare coin expert. In fact, I can tell you from experience, I know people who are not rare coin experts who have convinced rich people to buy multimillion-dollar coins.
Charles: So, it doesn’t take any special expertise to do that. Now, the better US coin dealers, they have a lot of business acumen, they have a lot of salesmanship ability, but they typically also know a lot about coins, at least in that area. But you’re talking about a period of like 230 plus years of American coins. You’re talking about a handful of mints. Maybe if you’re really adventurous, like someone like John Kraljevic or something like that, you know all of the Americana angles. So, you’re knowing metals, tokens and all that kind of material.
Ancient coin dealer, you have thousands of years, tens of thousands of coins, like all sorts of civilizations that have come and gone. You have various qualities of pieces, depending if they are pulled out of the ground nine days ago or if they’ve been in historic collections for a period of time. Those historic collections are spread to the four corners of the Earth. The literature written about them is in all sorts of different languages. The coins themselves are written in different languages. It is a monumentally different thing. We’ve become so specialized, I think, in the American coin market, we fail to grasp the fact that the major coin collectors in the beginning of the century, they were collecting ancient coins and US Coins.
Charles: So, it has to be just an absolute testimony to how much work you’ve had to put into this to become an ancient coin expert.
Aaron: There’s a ton of osmosis that goes into this, and you really need to have a lot of time that goes into it over– I’ve been doing this now 31 years. I started in antiquities just to give a little background. When I came to work for my dad, he said, “What do you want to do?” And I said, “I don’t know. What do you want me to do?” And he said, “Nobody’s doing antiquities. Do that.” “Okay.” So, I jumped into that, which actually gave me an advantage in coins, I think, because once you develop a good artistic eye for antiquities, then that helps develop your eye for coins, because when I look at an ancient coin, I try to look at it artistically like it’s an antiquity. It is an antiquity. But I don’t look at it like some coin collectors and dealers might look at it. I look at it for, does this look like a Greek or Roman statue in the way the iconography has been cut, how the die has been cut?
So, there’s a lot that goes into that. Especially when you’re evaluating coins for collectors in auction, or buying stock for the company to sell, or when clients come to me and say, “Is this a good die?”, you really have to have that experience and knowhow. And so, antiquities did help me do that. I did that for the first 10 years, and I’ve done that for my whole 30-year career.
And then, I moved into ancient coins probably 20 years ago even though I was around it my whole life. So, it takes a good 15, 20 years before it really starts to stick and becomes easy. But even today, my dad will see things that he’s never seen before in his over 60 years of doing this. He says that’s what keeps him passionate about doing what we do, because we always see things that we’ve never seen before. An auction comes out, we’re like, “God, I didn’t even know that guy existed.” And so, that can keep you interested and passionate about what we do for a long time.
Charles: It’s funny you say that, Aaron. One of our ancient coin writers, Mike Markowitz, I’m sure you know who he is. I remember I was at the New York show with him three or four years ago, maybe two years before COVID. We walk up to your dad’s table and I’m filming a segment and Mike’s going to talk to your dad about something. Your dad has a coin. He’s telling a story. And then, Mike turns the camera, and he starts talking about it like that. Your dad says to me, he goes, “He really knows his stuff.” So, we’re walking away after the segment is over, we get the microphone back, I turn to Mike and I go, “Mike, you should take that home with you. That’s the most valuable thing you’re going to take home today from the show that Harlan Berk thinks you know your stuff.”
I know Mike has spent untold number of years really passionately thinking about it. So, Mike, I’m going to put you in a scenario. You’re walking along the bourse floor and you walk up to some tables of ancient coins. What is going through your head at this point? Are you still overwhelmed?
Mike: Overwhelmed? Well, when you take my experience of about a year, I still am such a newbie to it that there are whole parts of it that I still really don’t know about. So, for me, I’m looking for things that I either recognize or I’m looking for things that I have been taught to look for. I’m trying as hard as I can to identify probably the major ones. So, it’s like your shekels of Tyre and stuff like that. Aaron did a piece with me a couple of weeks ago where he decided that he was going to put different coins in front of me and see what I could tell him about them. One of them happened to be a shekel of Tyre. I couldn’t even get it. So, I was like, “I’m not going to get busted on that one again.” That was the first coin that we went over.
So, it’s one of those things where I’m super patient with myself. And as long as Aaron thinks that I’m doing okay as far as coming along, which I know he does, I’m not going to be intimidated by it and I’m just going to try and soak it in.
Aaron: Yeah. And just to give a little background on the podcast, Mike came to work for us–God, what was it, three years ago now?
Aaron: Mike has been doing a podcast with Matt Dinger for 12 years?
Aaron: Thirteen years. So, I knew he had that experience of doing podcasts. I had always kind of wanted to do a podcast. And so, I talked to him one of the first days and said, “We should do something together at some point on ancient coins.” But we needed to flesh out how we wanted to go about that. I’d been told, “Oh, you should write a book.” People are telling me, my dad did the 100 Greatest Ancient Coins. He’s actually working on Volume III now of Ancient Coin. Volume II actually is out of print now, if you can believe that. So, he’s working on Volume III.
I thought about it, about doing one on collecting, and then I was saying to myself, “You know what? A podcast is going to be a lot more dynamic, and I can change it and I can continue to do it.” Once I do it in print, it’s stuck there. That’s it. Where with the podcast, I can continually make changes and updates. So, our formula, the way we do the podcast is we introduce ourselves and then I go into talking about auctions that are going to be coming up. So, talking about auctions in Europe or in the United States and bringing up a specific couple of lots to get people familiar with other auction houses around the world and highlights of those auctions so we can then talk about individually those coins and give a little bit of history about them.
Sometimes, we have what’s called the “doofus purchase”, which is like somebody way overpaid for a coin, we kind of teach people what not to do, possibly, and why that was– [crosstalk]
Mike: Why it was unwise.
Aaron: Yeah. A lot of people do love it. Some people think that they don’t want to be the doofus guy, [chuckles] but it’s really the whole point of– One of the biggest reasons for doing the podcast was to teach people about ancient coins, because I saw a lot of people buying ancient coins improperly. Like you said, there are people out there who can sell anything at any price. And so, I felt like a lot of that was happening on the negative side. So, it was really important to me to start putting out information to new clients. So, I wanted to be like for beginners, but I also wanted to still be able to reach out to the advanced collectors as well. By talking about current auctions, we hit the advanced collector because they know quite a bit. And some collectors like Mike [Markowitz], they know more than I do about a certain area because that’s what they focused on.
So, then we get into the educational part of the podcast, and we pick out some subject and I do that. And then after that, sometimes, we’ve had little games like Mike mentioned, like I’ll have an image of a coin and he has to guess who it is, so to get clients familiar with what ancient coins look like.
All of this is based on the fact that Mike doesn’t know anything, and I’m supposed to be teaching him about ancient coins. And so, he is hitting it from the novice side, like a lot of our listeners and watchers are, and then still I can hit the advanced side as well. So, that’s the whole premise of the show.
Mike: Yeah. Then, we wrap it up with a little pearl of wisdom also, something to make you a better collector.
Charles: Well, to me, the great thing about it is– when we’ve published our own content about ancients, I allow our writers to go as deep into something as they want to because I think the Celator was a really great publication when it was going on, and writers actually wanted their material in there. It wasn’t really a profitable enterprise for anybody, except for the profit of actually growing the game, if you will. I felt like with that being gone, I just wanted to provide the platform. If somebody wanted to come to our site and we have really good material on it, then that’s great. If we had some introductory material, that was great too.
I really think with collecting– Although I think the Red Book is the most important book in all of numismatics, at least in this country, because it really sets a standard for how to see things, I think the quicker a collector is able to break the bonds, the shackles, if you will, of the Red Book and understand that, that organizes things so that you can use that organizational structure for whether you’re collecting trade tokens or whether you’re collecting assay metals, or German marks, or Greek coins, or whatever. Now, you understand how numismatists may organize something, but go on and explore the world and do it your own way, because not everyone’s going to be Louis Eliasberg and have every coin ever struck. So, the idea of using that book as your bible to all things numismatics is very limiting.
So, I always look at it like, what is the on ramp for other areas? With ancient coins, frankly, it’s intimidating and daunting. The first thing that made me feel like, “I can start to figure this out,” was a friend of mine had great collections of aes grave coinage from Rome. He did a really interesting presentation on it locally at one of our coin clubs. The thing I was blown away by it is I had seen Carthaginian coins from the same period, and I’d seen Greek coins from the same period. When you compare them side by side and you think about the great Roman Empire, Rome must have been just a total backwater at this period of time when you consider that they had basically these huge paperweights as coins.
Charles: So, it just started to make me think, “Well, if I could think of that and conceptualize the ancient world in such a way, then clearly, I can start to figure out other things.”
Charles: That was really the beginning of my journey, but I’m sure if you did the same quiz to me what you’ve done to Mike, if I haven’t done a coin illustration on a certain thing or published an article on a certain topic, I’d be completely at a loss.
Charles: Mike, you should do the same quiz– [crosstalk]
Aaron: Denominations and some of the denominations between periods can have the same name, but be a completely different coin. So, there’s so many nuances.
Mike: Everything is so different too. One of the things that really stood out of our last episode was, here you have an emperor who was emperor for a year, and then you have one that was an emperor for three years, and the guy who followed him was six months. So, stuff is changing all the time. Because it’s changing all the time, that makes it seem like a lot more time is passing than actually is.
Charles: Yeah. Mike, have you ever done the game on Aaron, where you pick the coins to see if you can stump the expert? Have you tried that?
Mike: Well, I do that every day at work. So, it’s like, “Here, Aaron, what is this? What is this?” I don’t think I’d want to do that mostly because he’s just too good. But also, if anybody knows me and my penchant for games, you have to know that there is going to be something coming somewhere.
Aaron: Right. Look, and I’m not perfect either. I always admit that on the podcast, because I’ll get done with the podcast and somebody will say, “Oh, you were wrong about this,” or whatever. We don’t edit any of the show. Only time we’ve ever edited, we’ve had my dad on once, we had David Hendin on once for interviews. So, we had to cut them in. But really, when we start the show, we just tape it. As soon as it’s done, Mike sends it to me and I post it. There’s no editing. So, it’s almost live in a sense, because we don’t make any changes to it and fix anything, unless it’s glaring like a huge mistake. In the beginning, we had some problems because Mike and I were getting used to each other as well.
Aaron: So, I would be talking about something and I couldn’t see his screen, and he’d have something up that I wasn’t talking about yet or vice versa. Now, we’ve got a really good system.
Mike: Yeah, now we’ve got it tight. It works.
Aaron: We’ve got it tight. There’s little nuances. Now, we just finished our 27th episode. So, we’ve got a pretty good track record of doing them. It’s been a learning experience, but it’s been fun as well. And also, it teaches me, because I have to go back and refresh myself on certain areas before I go into the podcast.
And so, it’s always good for me. I always learn something new every time I do that. Because a lot of times, if I’m looking up coins for a client, representing them in an auction, or I’m writing up a coin in our sale, or I’m trying to sell a coin, I’ll go and research it and figure out everything I need to know about that coin, if I don’t know anything. But if I never had that coin or that area, then maybe I don’t focus on it as much.
So, as a dealer, as soon as you start to get material in those areas, then you learn everything about it. So, by doing the podcast, sometimes I hit areas that I haven’t hit before, and so then I have got to brush up a little bit. Or, maybe I’ll go deeper into a subject I hadn’t really done before. So, it’s good for me too as a dealer, because I’m learning as well while doing these podcasts. So, it’s rewarding in that way.
Charles: Hey, can we talk about a topic that you brought up one of your recent episodes?
Charles: I want to know a little bit more, if you will, because you gave a really thorough and great breakdown of the controversy surrounding the gold Eid Mar, Roman numismatics was involved in. One of the things that something I’m always aware of is that knowledgeable dealers, it’s their business because the thing that they’re actually offering to a collector is basically very esoteric information. So, you would go to Dave Akers if you’re collecting gold coins, because you would assume that Dave Akers’ research in the 1970s and 1980s in the gold coins meant that you would have the upper hand on certain types of information when you’re making your purchase.
I would have to think when it comes to the great rarities of ancient coins that you, your father would have seen these coins, would have probably have notes on things. You’ve probably lot viewed this material before. It’s all in that head, right? But my working theory is that, going into any major discovery or sale or anything that if it’s something that’s an important property that you guys have an insight, whether you have a collector for that coin or whether you’re in the market for it at the time, you still have an insight, an opinion, or something.
I also understand some of these opinions are not publishable, printable, conveyable to the public, because some of it’s on the gossipy side, some of it may not be verifiable. You certainly don’t want to be responsible for any tortious interference or any of that. So, there’s a business reason, there’s a legal reason, there’s also a personal reason. So, there’s information that a dealer will know that he will not convey. Like I said, and there’s a reason.
You recently handled one, a hold example. We had this great video of you opening it when it came to your office. So, clearly, you have a sophisticated collector base who may be in the market for a coin like that.
Charles: Clearly, you knew the existence of this coin. How much of this controversy did you have an inkling about? Or, were you a major player, perhaps maybe a major player in a coin like this, but then this comes out and you’re shocked and chagrin by it? It just doesn’t seem like a gold Eid Mar with a made-up pedigree shows up out of nowhere. And the son of one of the most sophisticated ancient coin dealers has been in the industry for– you’re talking about decades and decades, just knows that it just popped out of nowhere.
Charles: It seems like an interesting situation at this point.
Aaron: So, first off, yes, I knew about– when Roma sold the gold Eid Mar in 2020, I was the underbidder on the coin. At the time, I took a lot of the pedigree with a grain of salt on some level, because I was being told by several collectors that were offered the coin five years earlier that there was no pedigree offered. But my client, who I was representing, the pedigree wasn’t as important as the coin itself. And so, in hindsight, I’m glad we didn’t buy it. But it’s also ironic, because that coin sold for $4.2 million and if we wouldn’t have bid, it probably would have sold for $3 million, because when we got into the bidding, we brought an extra million pounds hammer when we were bidding.
So, that drew the hold one, which was on display at the British Museum since 2010 off display. Who knows if the client would have taken it off display, if it didn’t sell for $4 million? And so, ironically, then we’re able to buy that coin for 2.2 million Swiss francs hammer. So, it’s about $2.5 million, $2.6 million all in something like that in dollars. That one has a pedigree going back to the 30s. So, I knew about that hold one because my dad actually bought it for Barry Feirstein, which is the collector way back when, in 2001 or 2002, and he paid 120,000 Swiss francs for it back then. Then in 2004, Barry Feirstein sold his clutching through NAC and it brought $430,000, something like that. And now the client got over $2 million.
I was involved with both scenarios on the public buying side of things. The one thing I have to say, and I like Richard Beale at Roma very much. So, I have toed the line a little bit as well, but the one thing I can say is you never lie about pedigrees. That’s a big no-no in the industry. I’m not afraid to say it, and most of the dealers in our industry in ancient coins feel the same way. Anybody who’s ever gone to jail, they’ve gone to jail historically for faking pedigrees. That’s just something you just do not do.
Charles: Let’s talk about that real quick to dissect it for people so they understand what’s the difference between the need for a pedigree on a coin like that and a pedigree for an 1804 dollar. The deal is that we don’t have cultural property laws, or export laws, or anything like that about any US coin. So, it doesn’t matter if something comes out of somebody’s antique cabinet. They got at a flea market and it’s a super rare US coin. There’s no restriction that exists that prohibits someone from trading it. On a coin like this, this completely falls in a different category, right?
Aaron: Right. And really, I’ve made this point on the podcast is that there are no laws that say you can’t own ancient coins. It’s a matter of what can flow in and out of countries freely. And so, most source countries, it’s illegal to export out of those source countries, except for England and Israel. Those are the two countries that you can actually export out of. You can also export out of Germany, but you have to have now a 20-year pedigree to be able to do so to get export papers. So really, what it comes down to is a passport for ancient coins so they can move in and out of countries.
If you have a pre-1970 pedigree, that means museum institutions can purchase. It was part of the UNESCO treaty (PDF link) that was signed back then to keep museums and institutions from buying looted material after 1970. And so, a lot of this material that comes up for auction that’s pre-1970 pedigree brings sometimes 2, 3, 10 times what the coin is worth, because the pedigree itself is worth as much as the coin can be in some cases. It definitely will add 30% to 50% to the value or more, like I just mentioned. So, on a coin like this, to get somebody to spend millions of dollars, you’re going to pull more people into the fold if you have a pedigree before 1970 than if you didn’t, because there are collectors now in the upper 1% and 2% collecting base that will only buy pre-1970 pedigree coins.
So, in fact, the Sheikh of Qatar, who was buying in 2010 through 2012, he was only buying pre-1970 pedigree coins. And so, there was a problem with a gentleman who was faking pedigrees in New York for a sale, and they were making up pedigrees just for the Sheikh. And so, a lot of times greed plays into that. So, you want to try to get clients that normally wouldn’t buy a coin like that, and they will only do it if it has a pedigree.
So, on a coin like this, he supposedly paid for a pedigree. He’s admitted to that. There’s going to be some major consequences from that. Because of that, the coin, my guess is– because this is all hearsay at this point, the court case isn’t finished yet. The owner of the coin, who was an American, nobody knows who it was, gave up the coin to New York, even though it was out of state, probably because New York had information about when and where the coin was looted from, which supposedly was Greece, which makes sense because Brutus was actually issuing coins in not only Greece but Turkey at the time. So, it could have very well been Turkey, but they may have had information that went back to Greece. So, based on that, they can say, “Well, it was recently looted. And so, now not only does it have a tainted pedigree, but now we know when it came out and it’s going to go back to Greece at this point.”
Charles: Essentially, in that case, basically, it becomes maybe the property of the state. It’s like a cultural artifact and it gets tied up. So, without this passport, these coins are subject to seizure, especially if they’re rare.
Aaron: Yeah, it depends on, for us, our laws, it has to do with what can come in and out through customs. And so, the laws that are created are just based on what customs and how customs looks at certain things. So, if there’s restriction on Italy, the restrictions are going to between a certain date. And so, if those coins come in without a pedigree before that restriction date, then it could be seized at that point. So, when we do importing in from Europe on any auction, we have to make sure that our Ts are crossed and our Is are dotted. As long as you tell the truth about everything, there’s usually never a problem. My dad has a great line, “If you don’t lie, you don’t have to remember what you said.”
Mike: Sound advice.
Aaron: Yeah, sound advice. That’s how we’ve tried to always run our business. Nobody’s perfect, but I feel like that helps out quite a bit in that regard. There’s coins that come to market all the time that you’re like, “Well, that has no pedigree and it’s a million-dollar coin and it must be recently looted.” But there’s no proof of it anywhere. And so, it’s better never to make up a pedigree on something and you don’t know one way or the other when the coin came out. The auction house will say, “Oh, it came from an old family,” or whatever, but there’s no actual physical proof of that.
One thing I always do with my clients is I always make sure that whatever we’re bidding on that we make sure that we’re not going to have a problem down the road. Like I said, luckily with the gold Eid Mar, we didn’t buy it, because that would have been a problem. But in hindsight now, my client now owns the only one in private hand. He has a hole in it. Yes, but it’s the only gold Eid Mar that’s available in the market, because the other two now are going to be stuck in museums and they’re never going to come out. So, maybe that’s increased the value of his, I think so. So, it worked out for me and my client, but it didn’t work out for the buyer and for Roma.
Charles: Well, can I ask you a question about the market then? Obviously, the gold Roma Eid Mar sells for a record price. And a coin like that gets picked up by all sorts of major news wires and you see like Daily Mail and maybe CNN, other places might have had a thing on it. That obviously has to have a positive impact on the ancient coin collecting market and the ability for people to become interested in it, reach out and try to get involved, or buy coins, or think that ancient coins are all valuable or whatever.
But then to turn around and have the situation where the coin gets seized and there’s this allegation of illegal activity, that has to then have a negative impact on the market and make people feel like, “Well, I don’t know if I want to buy that, because maybe they’re all illegal to own.” In your opinion, just spit balling it here, is it a net positive that it sold for $4.6 million and then was called back? Or is it a net negative, because this high-profile coin that set a record price, that sale is considered dubious and specious in a way?
Aaron: I think both. I think that the price itself and the sale itself happened in 2020, and that’s always going to be history made, and that’s a positive for the ancient coin industry. The negative side obviously is that gentleman, that Roma faked a pedigree when they shouldn’t have done that. And so, that actually tainted the coin. So, if they wouldn’t have lied about that, they probably would have been fine ultimately.
I think historically, we’ve had these problems come up before and have hit the press all over. It’s bad in the beginning because it gives a negative view of the coin industry. It gets the archaeologists, who are constantly trying to fight against people collecting anything, to have a reason to vilify all of us. But I can say just from history that the ancient coin market has survived and I believe it will survive this quite well.
In fact, Roma had their mail bid sale like a couple of weeks after this whole stuff came out, and their sale still did gangbusters. I had clients that were like, “Should I still bid?” And I said, “Yeah, but let’s just bid on things that are known pedigrees, just to be safe.” I still spend close to $100,000 for clients in their sale, and people ask me, “Did you bid?” And I’m like, “Yeah, I bid.” I still supported them, because coins are still coins and the collectors are still collectors. And so, will Roma survive this? I think they will, but that’s yet to be seen.
In general, I’ve seen prices still very, very, very strong. NAC is about to– their sale is now up online. I’m going to actually be traveling to Zurich for the auction and there’s some major coins in that sale that could break the record for the gold Eid Mar. Who knows? It’s hard to say. But I expect that sale to do amazing business. I know Heritage is getting ready to sell the Hunt specimen Eid Mar, again, which we actually own. This will give you an idea of history again. So, the Hunt specimen silver Eid Mar denarius, which represents the assassination of Julius Caesar. That’s what we’re talking about, this gold one. But there’s about 80 to 100 in silver. We own that coin, that Hunt specimen coin. We paid $100,000 for it in something like 2008, and it wasn’t a good time in the ancient coin market at all. We held that coin. Actually, published it in our catalog, didn’t sell it. We ended up selling it a year later for $112,000 or $113,000. So, we made $13 grand.
Then, a number of years later, Harrod sold it and it brought a half a million. And so, that was a crazy price at the time. Nobody was getting prices like that. It was totally two people fighting it out in an auction. But I know all the history of that coin because we actually owned it. In fact, our ancient coin database, when we create a new record, it’s the image of that coin. That was our original because that’s when we were building our databases out.
So, it’s really interesting to see how the ancient coin market has gone. Knowing all the history of these coins, and my dad’s owned a lot of these coins, and so he’ll tell me like, “I’m getting ready to bid on a coin that might bring $2 million or $3 million in the NAC sale.” And my dad could have bought the coin in the 1970s for $100 grand. So, it’s just interesting and to be able to give that information to collectors is fun.
Charles: Yeah. Talking about that silver Eid Mar, just for the viewers to have a little context on that, the “Hunt” is Nelson Bunker Hunt. He was the Texas billionaire who tried to corner the silver market in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He lost a fortune on it. He still died rich, not quite as rich, but he was ancient coin collector par excellence. He had just an amazing collection of coins that he assembled through his life. So, that is a very strong pedigree.
Mike, I wanted to put you up for a few minutes and ask you directly a question. I want you to give your rundown, if you will, for what you would recommend people do if they want to follow your journey, have their own version of your journey, and get into ancient coins from other areas of numismatics. What information that they have from collecting modern coins or slab coins, what have you on the American side, what information is transferable into ancient coins? What would you recommend they do in the first three to six months to get their feet wet in this?
Mike: There are several things that I would consider to be just absolutely canon between collecting coins, no matter which ones you’re collecting. It could be the ancient or US and modern. One is, do your research, buy the book before you buy the coin. Research what you’re looking at. Have an idea. It’s okay when you first start out to buy things just to buy them, because they interest you, because you want to look at them. But at some point, you have to start trying to figure out what you have, and where it comes from, and where it fits into the market. I think that’s where a lot of people make their early mistakes. It’s okay. You’re going to learn from those mistakes. That’s the tuition you’re going to pay.
But the biggest thing I think is just that knowledge is the key, that the person who knows the most at the end usually wins. It’s just as true for ancient coins as it is for the US. The things that appeal to ancient coin collectors very much are the same things that US collectors look for. They look for good specimens, a nice shape, something that has historical significance, or describes an area, or a period of time that they find romantic. So, it’s trying to figure out what the fakes are. And most importantly, I think, is finding somebody who you can rely on and you can trust to just guide you and help you a bit. You’re going to learn a lot from books, but it’s always good to have somebody to bounce an idea off of. Somebody to say, “Am I getting this right? Is this really what you’re talking about when you say fine style? Is this the right era for this type of coin?” Just things like that.
Charles: A lot of people tend to be self-conscious. When you’re having a hobby, something you’re trying to avoid is to feel bad about yourself. [laughs] So, how do you overcome that feeling of maybe inadequacy about what you know or maybe what you can afford when you’re dealing with something like this? Obviously, Aaron is a super nice guy. I’m pretty sure. I can tell you from experience, my son is showing a budding interest in ancient coins, and he put together a really nice assemblage of pieces. I’m sure he didn’t charge me the market rate for it, let me buy it for him. I’m sure you put up with a lot of new collectors in the industry. And I say put up with, you’re also putting up with a lot of advanced collectors, because everybody puts their own kind of BS forward sometimes.
But what I’m saying is, how do you overcome that feeling of not feeling like you know what you should know when you’re exploring a new area in the hobby? How would you recommend people overcome maybe that fear?
Mike: Well, I will say that humility really helps. In my particular case, I come from an area that I actually know quite a bit about. And so, to absolutely start over from scratch and more importantly to do it on tape in front of the world, I think that takes a little bit of extra. But I don’t mind. It’s never been an issue for me because I think of myself as an educator. I think of myself as somebody who is really trying to push knowledge. I’m doing it from the negative side. I’m pulling it from the vacuum. I’m trying to show people that it’s okay to be unsure, that it’s okay to still be learning, that nobody knows everything. That people start out sometimes with no information, and that that’s okay.
If as long as you are passionate about it, and that you keep going at it, and as long as you look for good information, because the information is really key, there’s a lot to learn. I think that most collectors are really, really– understanding of that and other people, and they tend to nurture those people a little bit better, and they’ll help them out as much as they can. I think everybody likes to think that they’ve helped somebody along in their journey. So, being at the bottom end of the spectrum, if that’s what you are, it’s really not a bad place to be. It’s really quite a nice, warm place where there’s a lot of people to help you and a lot of people that have advice.
Charles: How about you, Aaron? I guess maybe one working theory is that coin dealer probably makes more money off of a beginner collector than somebody who doesn’t collect coins at all, right?
Aaron: Typically, when a new collector comes in and they want to buy something, I try to talk them out of it honestly. That’s how I built a lot of good relationships with clients, because I feel like you shouldn’t just run into this right away. I tell them, “Here’s my dad’s book.” Sometimes, I’ll give him a free copy, depending on who they are. If it’s a kid, I always give it to them. I had one collector who I didn’t sell anything to him for almost a year and a half. And every time he would come in, he’d say, “What about this coin?” It was my coin, and I’d say, “No, it’s a piece of crap. Don’t buy that.” And so, now he’s one of my better clients, and I’ve sold him hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of coins. But in the beginning, I didn’t sell him anything because he wasn’t ready.
So, I have no problem telling a new collector to take their time and to really focus on what they want to do, because that first purchase will always be the worst one that they’ll make, typically. A lot of collectors come back to me like a couple of years later and they say, “I need to get rid of that coin.” Some say, “Well, it was my first coin, so I’ll keep it.” So, it had sentimental value. And some people say, “Well, it’s not even the area I’m collecting anymore,” because they realize that wasn’t where they were going to go.
Just to get back on the podcast a little bit, one thing that Mike and I always wanted to do was to not make it feel like an infomercial about our company. That was always a tough balance for us. So, I had a collector recently ask us like, “Why don’t you do more pricing and show off more coins in your buyer bid sales?” I will promote the sales when they come out and talk about them like I would any other news portion of that part of the podcast, but I don’t want to focus too much on my company, because I do want to make sure that I’m being neutral in what I’m putting out there. The whole point of it was to help the new collector and to give them the tools, whether they use us as a company or me as a dealer or another dealer to give them the tools to be able to feel comfortable buying ancient coins. That was the whole premise of the show to begin with.
I feel like we’ve done that with new collectors, teaching them on what to do and what not to do. I think that we’ve given something to the advanced collector who maybe doesn’t know a certain area, and so then they learn about something they didn’t know anything about.
Charles: Well, I think it’s a great premise. When we set out to do our podcast, my guiding thought was that coins are interesting things. I say coins, but I really mean every bit of it. They’re collected by interesting people. In some respects, the hobby in numismatics, the objects we collect kind of become the totem that allows us to have these great relationships and stories. I can’t tell you how many of my fondest memories about this industry don’t involve me buying or selling a coin or working on something. It’s like a conversation after dinner, after a show, or something, or going somewhere with somebody, going on vacation with somebody, lifelong friendships. In reality, the community is a subculture we’re all part of.
Then the other thing, I always thought, since I have the ability to publish and create things, because that’s what we do, why don’t I do the things that I want to consume? Like if I was a consumer. And so, when I was thinking about podcasting, well, I imagine stacks in the 50s and 40s where you had all the top New York collectors just hanging out like it was their clubhouse. I was just imagining the kinds of conversations that were happening over the counter. And so, I was like, “Well, just do those conversations and have that experience. Imagine that experience.”
What you guys have been doing on your podcast is very, very much in tune with the thing I would be looking for in the market. It’s like what I want to hear. I want to hear people talk about it. I want to hear that interesting, fascinating conversation over the counter about something. I think, like you said, Mike is bringing in a perspective of someone trying to learn. Frankly, that’s most people are collecting coins.
Like I said, one of my best friends is an ancient coin collector, he’s on the Board of Trustees at the ANS, and he goes, “Oh, they picked me because they wanted a southern cracker on the board.” Like, “They wanted diversity and represent the guy that didn’t know anything.” It’s just like, even like a guy at that level to feel like, “Oh, he’s still learning everything,” that is an experience that’s shared by many, many people. We can’t all be David Hendin and spend 30 years in the Levant. [crosstalk]
Aaron: Also, what’s really cool about our podcast is Mike knows a lot. He knows everything about US coins, and I don’t. And so, I’m kind of an idiot when it comes to US coins. So, a lot of times, I’ll bring up specific things about US coins and the US market, and Mike can give that perspective. And so, even though he doesn’t know anything about ancient coins, he can give this perspective from the US coin market. So, that’s helpful in bringing the two closer together and showing the differences between the two, which is really, really cool. It’s a lot of fun to have Mike there for that reason alone.
We do have one advertiser now. We have a winery that wanted to advertise with us, but we don’t– like NGC or Heritage or any of these people, they don’t pay us. So, we can talk about the difference between slabbing ancient coins and not slabbing ancient coins. I have a negative view about slabbing in some ways and positive other ways. People always think like, “Oh, Aaron, you hate slabs.” Well, no, I don’t hate slabs, but I talk about the negative sides of it and what to look out for. And so, I think that gives us an advantage over some of the news portals that don’t want to step on NGC’s toes because they’re advertisers. So, I think that gives us a great advantage to be able to speak candidly about certain things, but not to attack them because that’s not really my goal. My goal is not to attack, it’s to educate. And so, I think that gives us a unique perspective and a good place to be with our– [crosstalk]
Mike: We can be critical without being beholden to them.
Charles: Aaron, are you suggesting that perhaps the population report of the Athenian tetradrachm is not representative of the total overall market?
Aaron: Correct. [laughs]
Charles: Especially, when one brings $50,000, [laughs] which is what happened.
Charles: Give it 2,000 more years of time, folks, and then I think it’ll probably– [crosstalk]
Aaron: Yeah, it’s so funny. Yeah, the ignorance that can be out there– and there’s ignorance in anything. If you just don’t know, you shouldn’t be putting your money into it until you really know. I always say to people, if you don’t want to use me as a dealer or my company as a dealer, go find a dealer that’s legit and work with them, especially if you’re spending real money and make sure that that dealer is accountable for mistakes that happen as well. Because we talk about that on the podcast all the time, is that you always know whether it’s in the coin business or in life, that when the worst things happen, you really see the people’s personalities and what they are willing to do or not do at that point. So, having a good dealer standing behind their product and making sure that they’re there to fight for you when a problem occurs.
If you’re sitting there just screwing all your clients on what you sell them, then you’re not going to be very happy when you get those coins back. [chuckles] And so, I want to make sure that every collection that I get back from collectors that now want to sell, that I’m proud to resell them and find homes and hopefully do well for the client. If I didn’t screw them, then it’s going to be fine in that regard. It’s amazing to me when I see these multimillionaires spend money in places they should not be spending money in.
Charles: Absolutely. They want trophies. They don’t really care what kind of trophy it is.
Aaron: It’s not a good trophy.
Charles: Well, guys, I appreciate you guys taking the time out to come on. Again, good luck on what you’re doing. I think you’re doing a great job. It’s amazing. You’re almost at 30 episodes on this already and that you’re in for it for the long haul. A lot of people, they don’t commit the time and effort to do it for the long haul. So, I’m glad that you’re doing it. It’s a great program. I’m happy to help, support it, and get people aware of it. We’ll continue to repost them and accordingly. In fact, I think we need to catch up. I think we’re behind several episodes. But I do appreciate you talking to me about it and letting me experience it a little bit on the side here. You guys are welcome back on anytime you want. It’d actually be a hoot for me, Aaron, to get you and your sister on together one time.
Aaron: That would be fun.
Charles: Yeah, good luck, best of luck, and look forward to the next episode.
Mike: Thanks, Charles.
Aaron: Thanks, Charles, for everything you do. You put out great content. CoinWeek is wonderful. I always use CoinWeek all the time when promoting the industry and showing people where to get good content. And so, I really appreciate what you’ve done with CoinWeek since you’ve been there. I don’t think we mentioned it, but if you want to find our podcast, it’s the Ancient Coin podcast with Aaron Berk. All the episodes are on YouTube, and you can go to our website, and we have a tile on our homepage that will link you to all of them as well.
Charles: We’ll put a link in the description here too. All right, thanks, guys. Have a great rest of your week.
Aaron: Thank you.
Mike: Thanks a lot. Take care.
Charles: Thank you.
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