From the January 2005 issue

Get started collecting ancient coins

You can hold pieces of ancient history in your hands far more easily than you might think.
By | Published: January 24, 2005 | Last updated on May 18, 2023
Hand of God
A neat bronze minted to commemorate the death of Constantine the Great featuring the very hand of God reaching down to accept Constantine.

Weight: 2.8 grams
Size: 19.78 mm
Date of issue: Before 340 A.D.
Obverse description: DV CONSTANTINVUS PT AVGG, veiled bust of Constantine right
Reverse description: Constantine in quadriga hand of God reaching down to meet him
Reference location: RIC vol VIII Alecandria 4

The world is full of coin collectors. If everyone in the United States who has begun an album of state quarters counts, then tens of millions of Americans alone are coin collectors.

But how can you collect ancient coins? One noted antiquities scholar has said that collectors of ancient coins suffer from the “Robinson Crusoe syndrome.” That is, they feel isolated from others who know anything about ancient coins, and they are alone in a world fraught with danger. Counterfeit and replica ancient coins abound, and so, collecting genuine ones bought at a fair price can be a risky proposition — one that demands a little bit of expertise.

The first question to ask is, “Why collect coins?” The answer really needs to be because you love them, because they allow you to hold a piece of history in your hands. If you think you’re going to collect coins as an investment strategy, then you should think again. Coins certainly will rise in value over time, but they should not be thought of as a primary investment.

How do you know what a coin is worth, anyway? Most collectors of American coins are familiar with the annual work A Guide Book of United States Coins by R. S. Yeoman, the so-called Red Book. It includes photographs of all U.S. coin types and a detailed price guide based on condition, mintmarks, and years of issue. It’s essential for anyone evaluating United States coins.

With ancient coins, I suggest you check three books before making any purchases. It’s essential to knowing what you’re doing, what exists, and what you’re looking for, even if you already know you want to collect, say, astronomical-theme coins.

The first is Handbook of Ancient Greek and Roman Coins by Zander H. Klawans (Golden Books, 1995). This work provides a general introduction to the ancient-coin field.

To explore further, check the series of six books by Wayne G. Sayles that begins with Ancient Coin Collecting (Krause Publications, 1996). They document the various areas of ancient collecting in more detail, providing a glimpse into the various areas of coinage — Greek, Roman, Roman Provincial, Byzantine, and Neoclassical cultures (the last category including Persian, Baktrian, Parthian, Armenian, Sasanian, and Islamic cultures). The series presents numerous photos of fine examples of coins for each category.

If you become serious about what you’re looking for or find yourself really hooked on ancient-coin collecting, you’ll find several volumes by David R. Sear indispensable — Roman Coins and Their Values (Spink and Son, 2000), Greek Coins and Their Values (Spink and Son, 2000), and Byzantine Coins and Their Values (Spink and Son, 2000). These volumes are the equivalent of the Red Book price guide for ancient coins — the standard references that serious collectors can’t be without.

From the time of the very first coins, minted in Lydia (now western Turkey) about 650 B.C., a scourge has haunted coin collectors. Counterfeits have been struck since antiquity, and, for collectors of ancient coins, the problem has accelerated since the 1970s, when a spate of high-quality fakes flooded the market.

The best way to collect with confidence is to purchase coins from a reputable dealer who guarantees the items’ authenticity for life. A list of on-line dealers of ancient coins who have high character and great expertise in their evaluation of the authenticity of coins is below.

Always proceed with caution, realize that any deal that seems too good to be true probably is, and avoid buying from unpoliced on-line auctions that offer as a warning only the words, “caveat emptor!”

What you have working in your favor, however, is that ancient coins were produced in huge numbers — particularly bronze Roman coins — so genuine ancient coins are quite plentiful. They’re so plentiful, in fact, that low-grade Roman bronzes described by dealers as “uncleaned” (meaning they’ve just been dug out of the Earth) are often not saleable. That’s because so many examples of Roman coins in reasonably good grades exist.

Good Roman bronzes go for as little as $20 each, while silver and gold are correspondingly pricier. The most celebrated of all ancient coins, the Greek silver tetradrachm of Attica-Athens, goes for about $1000 in very-fine condition.

Before firing off an order, be sure to explore the world of ancient coins, both in the books cited above and on the web. An outstanding Internet reference site for Roman coins, in particular, should not be missed: The Virtual Catalog of Roman Coins, contains a wealth of information and images. Good hunting!

To see a variety of ancient coins, check out this gallery.