Coin Auction bidding, including web auctions

Return to the question on page 3.

1) eBay.    (Other Auctions[revised, Dec. 22, 2014]

The major on-line auction site for ancient coins is eBay. More sellers sell more coins there, and more buyers look for coins there. However, eBay has many major differences from "real" auctions conducted by actual auction firms.

Anyone can sell coins on eBay. Only some of the sellers are competent professionals. Many are competent amateurs. But many are incompetent amateurs and quite a few are criminals. "Buyer beware!" Don't think that eBay prohibits known criminals from bilking eBay customers--they don't. Many criminals continue selling on eBay even after they have been reported to eBay many times as sellers of fake coins.

US eBay may have started out as an auction site, but it has become mostly a fixed-price site. Only a small fraction of the ancient coins on US eBay are started below their typical value and sold at a level determined by competitive bidding like the word "auction" suggests.
Many coins are offered at fixed-prices, no different than in a store.

Many sellers on eBay list coins at high opening prices, often well above retail, at which the coins cannot be expected to sell and almost always there are no bids. Anyone who bids at the level (beginners and suckers who don't now what the coins are worth) will "win" (= buy) it. In real auctions the auction house has a reputation to protect and they want to sell almost all the coins they offer. But eBay charges nothing to the potential seller unless the coin sells, so there is no incentive to price it right. If it fails to sell at a ridiculously high price, the seller just chooses "relist" and offers the coin again. Maybe he lowers the price a few dollars. I have seen the same overpriced coin offered over 40 times without it selling!  The point is, do not trust opening levels on eBay as somehow related to the true value of the coin. Some are--many are not.

"Buy it Now or Make an offer" is one option sellers may select. When it is just "Buy it Now" (without "Make an Offer") the price is usually a little high but some of those prices are not bad. However, when "Buy it Now" is combined with "Make an Offer," you must know what you are doing. Often the "Buy it Now" price is far too high, triple or even (with one well-known dealer) ten (10!) times retail. They may accept an offer at a realistic price, but some dealers just wait for the big score. They hope that some sucker mistakenly figures that offering 40-50% would make a low price. Some of those dealers wait for that sucker. "There is a sucker born every minute."

Many "Buy it Now or Make an Offer" dealers know coins very well and will accept a realistic offer if the coin has remained unsold for some time. But, you must know what is realistic. There is no "auction" to fix the price. 

Opening bids tell you a lot. If the coin is genuine (see below about fakes) a low opening bid means you are participating in a real auction and you will end up paying only a small amount over whatever the second-highest bidder was willing to pay. There are very many low-quality ancient coins offered on eBay. Most open low, are not worth much, and don't sell for much. However, some good and very good coins are offered on eBay with low opening bids. Then again, many attractive fakes are offered with low opening bids. Fakes with 20 bids are not uncommon when a good-looking fake coin opens low.

If the opening level is substantial, it is often just a retail offering under the guise of an auction. Very many high opening bids are associated with coins offered again and again that do not sell. If you are a retail dealer there is little downside to putting good coins on eBay at retail prices, or even higher. eBay charges for selling, but not for just listing. Why not try to sell at a slightly high price?  If a coin opens at, say, $100, there is good chance it is just a retail offering. If it doesn't sell, they just "relist" it.

You might think a $200 coin would need to open at $100 or more to protect the seller from loss in case it doesn't attract many bidders. However, there is almost no chance of a good coin not attracting enough bidders. Many knowledgeable buyers put in many half-price bids every day hoping to find a bargain. It rarely happens. If you knew a coin was worth $200 and you sold coins for profit, would you be willing to pay $100 for it?  I thought so.

The point is, good coins may open at low prices and good coins that sellers really intend to auction (as opposed to sell retail) usually do.


Fakes in web auctions:  Let's face it, many eBay sellers do not know what they have. Also, some know they have fakes and hope a gullible buyer will pay for them. Fakes are a big problem with eBay auctions. Tourist fakes, museum replicas, and newly made fakes (many from Bulgaria and China) are common. This was not so a mere ten years ago, but it is now. The potential for profit is obvious. Take a $1 lousy coin replica bought in a museum gift shop in England or Germany, remove it from the holder, and sell it on eBay! You don't even have to claim it is genuine! You can claim it is from your grandfather and you don't know what it is! This is happening more and more. I am updating this and just today [now, that was written a few years ago] I told a new seller he was selling fakes. The auctions say they came from his grandfather. That part could be true, but they are fakes nevertheless. He declined to withdraw them. A budding criminal!


By the way, 100% feedback is far from a guarantee a seller does not sell fakes. The suckers who buy fakes rarely realize they just bought a fake and they give good feedback for the service and low price. Actually, the price was low because the coin was fake! And, eBay rarely removes criminal sellers. Many experts who formerly reported fakes when they noticed them have quit bothering to report them. eBay will shut down auctions of fake coins from new fakesellers when they are reported, but eBay lets old, established, fakesellers continue. Search the web for sites listing "ebay fakesellers ancient" and do not buy from those sellers. (There is a lot more to know about fakes than I will discuss here.)

It truly is "Caveat Emptor." Well over 10 percent of eBay ancient coins have serious problems of accidental or intentional mis-description. Almost all the difficulties with grades can be avoided if you closely inspect the scans -- you can decide on the grade yourself. But that leaves many misidentified. Be aware that the terms "reproduction" and "copy" mean "fake"! I wish I could say most of the reproductions were labeled as such. But, I can't. eBay is riddled with fakes presented as genuine. There is a way to report fake-sellers on eBay, but in the vast majority of cases eBay does nothing. They say it is "just a venue" and usually decline to remove even egregious fake-sellers.

There are some highly reputable dealers on eBay. Learn who they are and buy from them.

Bidding: Many bidders try to bid near the closing time so they do not inform other potential bidders just how much they value the coin. Some people want a coin, but do not have a strong opinion of what it is "worth" -- they learn what a coin is worth from the bids of others. If your bid is entered late, these people may not have time to enter a higher limit. However, if you do know what a coin is worth to you, you can enter that amount as your maximum limit and rest assured that you will not have to pay more than that for the coin. But competing bidders who are outbid by your limit will have longer to reconsider their own maximum limits. If they study the coin and bid higher, that might force you to pay more, or maybe you will be outbid. All experienced collectors arrange to bid in the last few seconds on coins they really want.

Buying from Overseas.  Some overseas sellers do not accept PayPal, in which case it can be very hard to pay. Wire transfers are free in the EU, so many European sellers prefer wire transfers. However, wire transfers from the US to Europe are very expensive and a hassle. Some European sellers won't ship to the US at all. Others charge substantial shipping. After all, there are customs forms and potential loss to worry about. If an eBay seller is located outside the US, before bidding check to make sure they take PayPal and that they ship to the US. Also, it can take so long for a coin to arrive that the time interval in which you can request a refund from PayPal expires before you know for sure it is not in the mail.
     By the way, there are honest sellers in Australia, but most sellers from Malaysia, the Philippines, or China are peddling fakes.

Estimates of value in eBay auctions. Unlike major public auctions by reputable firms, most eBay sellers grossly overestimate the values of their coins. If a description on, say, eBay, says "estimated value, $200," it is almost never true, but it is much more likely to be a big overestimate. Many web sellers have no reputation to protect by unwavering honesty. I have seen many $25 coins with "estimates" at $50 or $100 or much more. This type of lying is very common. One seller regularly marks $25 coins at $200 or more and crosses that out and reduces the price to, say, $120. Does this 40% reduction look like a bargain?  The 40% off might be good if it were not vastly overpriced to begin with.

Grades in web auctions. Many sellers on eBay do not know coins well and grossly overgrade their coins. One regularly says things like "Fantasic EF" when others would call it merely Fine. Look at the scans. Never expect a coin to be better than the scan or photo. Don't kid yourself.

    Do not believe claims of rarity in web auctions (except claims by major, established, dealers). It is outrageous how many sellers claim their coin is "rare" or "scarce" or "maybe unique?" when it is, in truth, one of the commonest types of coins. Some rare coins are sold on eBay, and they will probably be rightly labeled as "rare," but so many absolutely common coins are also called "rare" that the term can not be trusted. I'd estimate that eight of every ten coins listed with some indication of special rarity are in no sense rare. You will have to learn if a coin is rare from hours of study of coin catalogs and coin books (or, maybe years of watching eBay auctions) -- you won't learn it from most eBay sellers! [I added this paragraph on rarity when I saw the  most common Roman coin of all (Constantinian AE4 with GLORIA EXERCITVS reverse) touted as "rare!" Outrageous!]
    I have written an advanced article on rarity on this website. It was published in the Celator.

If you are thinking of buying an ancient coin or two, I'd recommend you first start watching or eBay. Watch a few coins sell of a type you like. Bookmark them and see what they sold for (or, even if they sold). You needn't worry that you are missing a good coin -- I assure you that you will see that type again! Very few coins on eBay are rare in some way that makes them desirable in some special way.  Then, when you know more about value, bid an amount you can definitely afford.

If you just want to know about eBay, you may quit here.  

Return to the question on page 3.


2)  Other on-line auctions

There are now many on-line auctions conducted by reputable firms. is one with auctions closing occasionally. CNG, the most prominent US firm, has one closing every two weeks. It is on the right side of their home page. It seems that every month some other firm is beginning to offer on-line auctions and I can't keep up with the list. Frank Robinson has a few each year on his web site.  Look at for a partial list of upcoming major auctions.

What you most need to know about auctions from major firms is that your winning bid is not what you would pay if you win. Auctions have a "Buyer's fee" of 12% or 15% even up to 20% which is added to the "hammer price."  This and shipping can add a lot to the price. One reputable German firm wants 36 euros for shipping even one coin to the US. (You can protest and they will ship another way for less.) There probably will be a 4% fee for using a credit card or PayPal. Remember to adjust your bid to take the fees into account.

With these auctions you need to register first. They want to know that a serious person is bidding. You can submit bid on-line in advance or sometimes even on-line live as the auction progresses. There can be a big difference in time zones you would need to pay attention to. Some bidders submit bids via e-mail well in advance. Unfortunately, most of these do not succeed. The bidders on site have advantages. They can adjust their bids at the last instant to the bid level and quality of the coin which they have actually seen.

Auctions used to be published in paper format, and many still are, but now most ancient-coin auctions have an on-line component. Many are listed at . Some are "mail bid" sales (now with an on-line component). "Mail-bid" just means it is not conduced in a public place with live with a gathering of bidders (called "floor" bidders). These always permit you to submit bids by phone, mail, or e-mail before the closing day (assuming they have cleared you in advance to bid).

Selling price is determined as just above what the second-highest bidder bids. "Just above" means a "normal" small advance on the order of 10-20%. Therefore, "mail bids" are not actually bids, but regarded as maximum limits, and, if highest, will be reduced to the amount needed to win the lot above the second-highest bidder.

About Estimates: At auctions of ancient coins, major, reputable, firms generally give reasonable, approximate, estimates. (This is rarely so about eBay auctions -- see above).  Many coins sell pretty close to the estimated value. But coins also, surprisingly often, sell for far above estimates. Sales at far below estimates are rare, but are theoretically possible in "unreserved" auctions (which are not the norm). Most auctions have "reserves" below which coins will not be sold, often 60% of the estimate in the US and 80% in Europe, depending upon the firm. Some major firms actually tend to underestimate their coins. CNG, the most prominent US firm, commonly far underestimates their coins. They know that their knowledgeable clientele will bid coins up to the the right price, or even higher, and the low estimates get the coins started.

Estimates in coin auctions are not at all like "values" in old stamp auctions where the lots were worth only a small fraction (one-tenth!) of the "estimate." Most major coin firms are proud that their coins actually sell, on average, at or above the estimates.

3) "Buy-or bid" sales. In these, the stated price is not an estimate, but a price for immediate sale. They were pioneered by Harlan J. Berk, a major US coin firm. If you want the coin at the stated price, you may buy it outright immediately if it is not already gone. If you would like the coin, but would prefer to pay less, you may take your chances and bid lower. At the closing date, if you are still the high bidder, you will get the coin at your bid. They usually do not have buyer's fees. (Most of these do not reduce bids -- check the sale conditions.)
    The "estimates" in these sales are prices at which the dealer is willing to sell the coin, not true estimates which could be exceeded. Therefore, they are probably somewhat higher than the coins would be in a fixed price list. But, many coins are hard to come by and the chance to get one now may prompt an eager collector to pay a bit more for the opportunity. Patient collectors who bid lower may miss the coin, but, on the other hand, may get it for less. But there are often good coins that sell at full price.

4)  Mail-bid auctions with bids not reduced. This type of auction is rare but used by Harlan J. Berk, a major US coin firm. In these auctions, if your bid is high you pay what you bid, even if no second bidder pushes you up to that amount. The auctioneer may be happy to take the extra money when you bid much higher than the second-highest bidder. Therefore, bidders often choose to bid lower, because their "bids" are not limits, but actual bids. They may fear paying more than necessary. Most of my friends do not like this type of auction. In these, bid what you are happy to pay, regardless of what others may or may not bid. Some people wait until the last day and call to ask what bid is necessary. Why bid $200 when the second high bid is only $120?  Berk auctions have no buyer's fee.

How to bid in major auctions: 

Now almost all major auctions of high-quality ancient coins can be found online. Go to
to see many listed. There are also sites with quality coins auctioned every few weeks:    (auctions closing occasionally) and     (electronic auctions in the right-hand column, closing every second Wednesday).

Those auctions above are reputable (unlike most eBay sellers). But, be careful and start slowly. Join a forum or e-mail list of fellow collectors, as discussed on the page that linked to this page. 

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