Advanced Guide to Buying Ancient Coins: What to look out for!
Courtesy of Classical Numismatics Group
What to look out for when buying ancient coins
Sourcing timepieces of antiquity is perhaps the most challenging part of ancient coin collecting. It is important to buy pieces that both reflect the character of the collector and exhibit a fine representation of history. Therefore, ancient coin collecting has often been associated with elitists. Faced with the challenges of acquiring coins and finding the right ownership history, many enthusiasts stick with the more simple modern issues offered in plastic slabs. Ancient coin collecting is different—and it is a field that is not reserved for the wealthy or elite like many project it out to be. Ancient coin collecting allows the collector to hold a time capsule of history. In the span of two thousand years, a coin can touch a million fingers and be spent in a million different ways. It is fun to often envision a runaway slave, carrying his life savings of coins in a small pocket, being captured by his masters and the coins spilling all over the ground: hidden away for millennia.
Most auction firms allow for the private purchase and bidding of ancient coins. When buying ancient coins as a novice, it is essential to purchase coins from reputable firms. A simple google search can allow the collector to pick a variety of firms that guarantee authenticity of their product. Although many firms guarantee such authenticity, many collectors decide to get their coins certified by a third-party authenticator such as NGC. The “old fashioned” and seasoned ancient collectors prefer coins raw (ungraded) in velvet coin trays. In more modern methods, a box or mylar flips can be a great alternative. Many auction houses will unknowingly sell counterfeit coins, which creates a negative stigma around the ancient field. It is important to be aware of which auction houses have poor reputations and avoid bidding on their platforms. There are many groups online that can give a second opinion regarding such practices.
With recent debates on the ownership history of ancient coins, an essential part of ancient collecting is the provenance of the coin. Legality for rare and expensive coins is important. There are many coins currently on the market that are illegal to own and are lacking proper documentation. Coins illegally sourced or dug out of countries such as Italy, Greece, and Turkey are prevalent. Italy, especially, has very strict laws regarding the exportation of ancient coins. Many Italian auction houses will only ship to residents of Italy. When bidding on coin auctions, know where the coins are being sent and the declaration policy of the auction firm. There are overseas coin dealers that will “smuggle” coins out of their source country, which is illegal. If these coins are not properly declared and imported, and consigned at auction, there may be a confiscation. It is common for homeland security to confiscate coins that have been illegally imported into countries.
Buying ancient coins from a private dealer is the most efficient method in sourcing rare pieces. Just like some auction houses, many dealers have a poor reputation for passing off fake coins or overpriced pieces. When buying from a dealer online, ask another dealer about their experiences. At coin shows, avoid dealers with messy cases and vague attributions for their ancient coins. Great sources for rare pieces that are not certified would be the large coin firms or large dealers with an established customer base and inventory. When a novice begins to buy ancient coins, he should do as much research on the piece as possible. Numismatic literature can be obtained everywhere online and is a key resource in knowing what authentic examples look like. The biggest concern in the current market of ancient coins is counterfeits. Weighing a coin and knowing its weight standard is the best deterrent for poor counterfeits. A great resource would be archive websites, where a plethora of authentic types can be shown for comparison. Rare types especially, were often only struck with one or two dies.
With counterfeiting being the most prevalent issue in ancient numismatics, modern counterfeiters have various tactics to produce convincing fake coins. However, it's crucial to differentiate between ancient counterfeits and modern ones since the former may hold more value than genuine coins. The primary aim of counterfeiters is to deceive collectors. Therefore, buyers should avoid purchasing from unfamiliar sites and have in-depth knowledge of the coin type, as well as the types and dies of the coin in question, to prevent any mistakes. Counterfeiters use several methods to replicate the original coins, with casting being the most common. This process involves creating a wax mold of the original coin, which is then replaced by molten metal. If done correctly, the coin comes out without any visible marks or micro-bubbles. However, if the process is not executed correctly, the coin will have small bubbles, less detail, and marks on the rim. To conceal these imperfections, some counterfeiters sand down the surface, resulting in an altered appearance. The comparison between a genuine coin and a counterfeit one below demonstrates the difference between the two. The fake coin has visible marks on the obverse and a casting line on the top right of the reverse, indicating that it is not a genuine coin.
Courtesy of Classical Numismatics Group
Counterfeiters often use false dies to replicate the most expensive ancient coins, aiming to make them indistinguishable from authentic ones. In more modern situations, lasers may be used for engraving the dies. However, despite the counterfeit coin's apparent perfection, there are usually major differences between it and the genuine one. To a trained eye, the planchet—the metal disk on which the design is stamped—will appear off. Genuine coins lose their "shimmer" over time as the metal oxidizes. Since the counterfeit coins are struck from false dies, they will almost always appear uncirculated. Some counterfeiters give their coins false wear by tumbling or sanding them down, but these can be identified using a loupe to spot small fractures instead of wear. In many cases, certification may be necessary to verify authenticity. Some counterfeiters manipulate genuine coins to match the appearance of rare ones. For instance, they may sand down the reverse of a genuine coin with a common design and replace it with a rarer one. Counterfeiters use various methods, such as changing the denomination and manipulating the dies, to achieve this. They may also add monograms or control marks to coins, even re-engraving parts of the portrait in a process called “tooling”. Buying ancient coins that may seem too perfect or look uneven on some fields may be tooled. Auction companies and dealers alike may not reference a tooled coin as being altered.
Images Courtesy of Classical Numismatics Group
A popular method of ancient coin collecting is purchasing coins that are supposedly “rare”. Although rare coins do exist, and a good amount of types too, it is essential to recognize which coins may be actually rare or just scarce. Auction companies and dealers may use these terms interchangeably, more often to deceive the collector. A genuinely rare coin is a coin that has been proven through thorough analysis to have been minted for a short period of time or to commemorate a certain event. Popular and expensive does not always mean rare, as the common Athenian Owl can be worth more than a coin of only a few dozen examples. An example of a rare coin are those issues minted under the Athenian democrats before the Peloponnesian war, a heraldic type called the Wappenmünzen. These coins were issued in an unknown number over a few decade period, and no notable hoards have been found. It is unlikely given the economy of the Athenian democracy during this time that a lot were minted. Therefore, these coins will always be “rare”. Scarcity, on the other hand, will detail a coin that there are not a lot of known issues. Electrum pieces, although minted in large amounts, may be labeled as scarce or “seldom seen.” Scarce coins can at any time be common. This phenomenon is seen with the Didrachms minted in Kyrenacia in the city state of Kyrene. These coins were popular for decades due to an extinct Silphium plant being depicted on the reverse. They were indeed scarce coins, until a hoard of more than ten thousand identical examples was found. Now, these coins are flooding the market with dozens being listed every day and auctioned off. They will soon become a common issue that will not reach high premiums like their preceding types. When buying a coin such as this, the smart collector will not pay high amounts for “scarce” coins, but will recognize coins that are genuinely rare.
Keeping the hobby of ancient coin collecting alive through honest practices and ethical integrity will ensure it is preserved for decades to come. It is an elegant way to own pieces of history, and there is no other hobby that can compare to such a variety. Through these practices we can grow the hobby and the circulation of the greatest coins ever minted.
Article By: Colby J. Abele