Buying Ancient Coins (Revised, April 3, 2023)
I am considering buying an ancient coin or two. But, I don't want to pay too much.
I'm glad you care about cost. It is easy to pay too much for any collectible. Coins are no exception.
Return to the question on page 3.
I hesitate to give advice about buying coins. This website (go to the main page) was up for a year before I added an answer about how to buy coins. Now it is many years later and buying wisely is still complicated.
Why do you say it is complicated?
Well, there are many ways to buy ancient coins, including eBay, two huge ancient-coin "malls," US auction firms, many European auction firms, auction consolidators, coin shows, and even, very occasionally, local coin stores. Where should you start?
I recommend buying from specialist ancient-coin dealers and ancient-coin auctions on-line.
Here is a list of dealers (including fixed-price coins and auctioneers).
There are numerous dealers in the US who specialize in ancient coins. The premier site for buying fixed-price ancient coins on the web is vcoins.com . It as an ancient coin "mall" with about 150 dealers. It has an excellent feature that allows you to "search all stores" and compare conditions and prices on over 200,000 (yes!) ancient coins. There are numerous other dealers on the web, but 150 dealers is enough to get you started! If you want to see more, there is also a large European site for ancient coin dealers called MA-Shops. It has a lot of overlap with vcoins because many dealers list coins on both sites. These two sites have the great advantage that their coins are almost certainly genuine. Any fakes that are spotted (and extremely few are fakes) are immediately removed.
eBay has many thousands of ancient coins for sale on any given day. Unfortunately, eBay has gone severely downhill. It is riddled with fakes offered by criminals. (eBay does not remove criminal sellers, no matter how often they are reported.) Many of the superficially attractive expensive pieces are actually fakes. (I have a page about avoiding fakes.) Also, you might think it is an auction site, but US eBay is mostly not. Most of the coins on US eBay have starting levels that are full retail or higher; they are not really being auctioned--they are being offered (but usually not actually sold) at fixed-prices in the guise of an auction. Before you buy on eBay, read this page about eBay auctions. Some reputable dealers on European eBay do actually auction good coins starting at low prices, but there only a few sellers like that on US eBay.
Is that all there is to know -- go vcoins.com, or MA-Shops, or eBay?
No, not by a long shot. High-end coins are offered by major dealers who have websites. For example, firms like Classical Numismatic Group (CNG) in Pennsylvania offer high-quality coins to serious collectors. Such coins are rarely offered on eBay (which primarily caters to the low end). Several other firms in Europe offer superb coins. (Ancient-coin collecting is much more popular in Europe than it is in the U.S. After all, ancient coins are found in European countries and are part of their national heritages.)
If you are willing to spend $30 or more on a single coin and willing to wait for it to appear, there are many on-line auctions to consider. (You can find them on my page listing dealers.) Almost all ancient coins will be a cheaper, or much cheaper, at auction, but shipping can be expensive. Many beginners want famous types that are actually quite common and frequently available at auctions. For example, if you want a so-called Tribute Penny of Tiberius, it is very common and many auctions have one or more. If you want the iconic "owl" from Athens, most auctions have a few. If you want a coin of Alexander the Great, most auctions have several. If you want a common late Roman coins, they will be cheaper at auction, but shipping might be 20 euros or more (so bid on numerous coins in one auction hoping to win several to reduce the shipping cost per coin).
Why do you say coins are cheaper at auctions?
Because it's true.
However, there are good reasons to buy fixed-price coins. You can be sure you will get it at that price (plus shipping). You can get it right away. You can browse and find something you like and immediately satisfy the desire to have it. Also, you won't have to deal with the substantial downsides of auctions. Auctions don't happen "right away". A coin you see and like might not close for weeks and you can't be sure your maximum bid level will be high enough to win it. Also, shipping can be 20 euros or maybe 35£ and that is a lot if the coin or coins you win are not worth hundreds (I inquire in advance and many firms agree to ship for only 10 at "my risk"). Many buyers are surprised that coins they won at auction cost much more than they expected because of the fees, different currency, and shipping cost. If you bid 100£ and win you might think "100" or "Ah, $124" (when the pound is $1.24), but no, it will cost a lot more. Add the 20% "buyer's fee" and maybe 25£ shipping to the US and it will be $180 even before PayPal fees or currency conversion charges. Auction bidders must learn to factor all that in.
On the other hand, it you have a "want list" you may find the coin you want is at auction, not fixed-price. Extremely nice coins are usually offered at auctions. Excellent coins of very common types, say, Roman emperor Constantine, are commonly auctioned. I am price sensitive and have a long want list, so I am not in a great hurry to get any particular type. That is reason to buy at auctions. Logically (and, I admit, bidding is not always logical), if two coins are comparable and one is on the web at a fixed-price of $X, there is no reason to bid higher than $X (fees included). You could just buy the coin instead. Therefore, in a rational world with highly-informed bidders and buyers, coins at auction should sell (fees included) for less than comparable coins at fixed-price. Usually, but not always, they do. The fixed-price sellers can make money off the collector's desire to get the coin right away, and profit from the collector's fear of the complications of dealing with auction firms, especially those firms in other countries.
One of my best collecting friends in the US only buys from CNG. I show him nice coins on his want list (by sending the links) that are being offered by foreign auction firms. Regardless of those opportunities, if CNG does not offer it, he doesn't bid on it. He's comfortable with CNG. Okay, but that's not the way to get the best price.
Why do sellers sell coins at auctions if fixed-price prices are higher? Well, at least they sell. And, they sell at a certain time. Owners often want to get their money out soon. Many fixed-price coins don't sell and linger unsold for years. Also, when older collectors are ready to sell their collections, they usually sell them "on consignment" which means they don't get the money until the coins sell. If they want their money within, say, six months, that can happen if coins are auctioned, but not if the dealer sells them fixed-price. If the dealer must buy the coins outright his offer will be lower. He needs to avoid paying too much for coins he might have difficulty selling, and if he has to buy them it would be a lot of borrowed money to tie up in stock.
I have a lot to say about bidding in auctions, both on eBay and on better coin auctions. It may be more than you want to know at this time. Continue with this page and come back and follow that link if you want to know more about auctions.
How can I know what a coin is worth?
This is much easier than it used to be, but still hard. "Worth" is a tricky term. There can be a large difference between retail (what you would have to pay) and wholesale (what a dealer would offer you). Do not expect to be able to sell a coin for what a similar coin costs on vcoins. There is a very substantial dealer markup.
Use on-line references. For any type, you can look it up. I will discuss several methods.
1) Look it up on vcoins.com . Use the search engine to look for similar coins using the usual descriptive terms (ruler's name, Greek city, etc.) You can sort your search results on "lowest priced first" to see how prices increase with better coins. Sometimes a very nice coin is priced lower than comparable coins, and you can spot that easily by sorting on price.
Remember that the prices you see are of coins that have not sold at those prices. Many fixed-price coins do not actually sell at their list prices. Often dealers find they have to lower the price to sell the coin.
2) Look it up at MA-Shops. Use the search engine to look for similar coins using the usual descriptive terms (ruler's name, Greek city, etc. Use German spelling if you know it.) As with vcoins, you can sort on price (Click the colum head labeled "price").
3) Look it up using the "Research" link (top center) at cngcoins.com . (CNG sells only high-quality coins and this won't work well for coins under $100.) The results will be auction prices realized which are more meaningful than dealers' fixed-price "ask" prices.
Some people use other sites:
4) Look it up on wildwinds.com . You can select "Roman" or "Greek" and search by the usual descriptive terms. This is most suitable for low-end and moderately priced coins. Many of the listings come from completed eBay auctions.
5) Look it up at CoinArchives.com . This site tracks prices at major auctions. It is suitable only for high-end coins and only covers the most-recent six months for free. For older offerings you must subscribe. Inexpensive coins will not be listed here.
6) A another way for serious buyers is to subscribe to (pay for) acsearch.info . This excellent site tracks prices at major auctions and will show you coins and descriptions for free, but requires membership before you can see the prices realized. Very inexpensive coins are less likely to be listed here.
Principles of Value. In general, cost is related to 1) issuing authority (ruler or city state), 2) denomination, and 3) condition. Note well: So-called "rarity" is NOT on this list. It plays a role, but that role is often misrepresented. Learn about the three major factors first.
Condition is the tricky factor. The same ruler in the same denomination can cost 10 or 50 times as much in super grade as in very worn or corroded condition. Here is another page of mine with a bit about "condition." Just be aware that "a coin of Nero" is NOT a description precise enough to say much about price. Even if you knew it was a silver denarius, it could still be worth from $20 to $2000, depending upon how nice it is. You need to study up on "condition" (which is a lot like "grade," but more encompassing. For example, irritating off-centering or ugly surfaces may drastically lower the condition without lowering the grade, because "grade" is defined to be a statement about wear alone).
I have a webpage (It is long -- it was a published article) on the (over-rated) importance of rarity.
Doug Smith has an excellent webpage illustrating the factors that affect condition. However, you must be aware that many dealers grade coins more loosely than Doug -- that is to say, his "Very Fine" will probably be nicer than the "Very Fine" of some coin on eBay. However, his grades are what the better dealers use--if they use grades at all. Now, with a good picture, there is little need to be concerned about the name given to the grade of a coin. You will see there are too many factors for a coin to be described by a single grade. Decide what YOU like.
Do you have any additional advice?
Yes. The above advice was for people at their computers at home. If you really get interested, you will want to experience a coin show.
A good place to learn what coins are like is at a major coin show that brings together (usually at a convention center) numerous dealers from across the world that specialize in ancient coins. There are occasionally such shows in NY, LA, San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, Denver, Dallas, and other major cities. Of course, getting out to a show can be expensive, and there may not be one near you soon (or ever). Also, it is not the case that buying at a show is automatically less expensive. Now, it is often possible to buy ancient coins for the best prices at auctions on the web without ever leaving home.
I saw an ad in a magazine.
If you see ancient coins offered for sale in a glossy mass-circulation magazine (maybe on archaeology or biblical studies) they are almost sure to be very overpriced.
What about investing in ancient coins?
Buy coins because you like them and because they interest you, but not because you think you will make money. Ancient coins are a great hobby, but not a great investment. If you get deeply involved, you will probably preserve your money, but most "investors" do not make money in coins. Here is a joke with a kernel of truth: "What is the best way to make a small fortune in rare coins? Answer: Start with a large fortune!"
But, I have heard about coins that increased in value a lot!
Read this to see how that happens.
Any more advice?
Yes! Please do not fall for hype! If you don't already know a coin, don't ever buy it because it is advertised as "scarce" or "rare" or "less than 10 known." Sellers on eBay regularly lie (yes, lie) about the rarity of their coins. Zillions (hyperbole) of ancient coins fall into those categories and their value is not based on rarity, but ruler, denomination, and condition.
Do not fall for hype! There are zillions of genuine ancient coins out there and the chances are nil that any one you see now is so special that you will not have an equal chance at another as good or better. I guarantee you another interesting coin will come along to tempt you to part with your money! Have patience! Do not let yourself feel pressure to buy any particular coin because of hype.
Do not assume that a coin marked way down is a good deal. I could take a $10 coin and mark it $125 (would you know it was a $10 coin?) and then mark it "way down" to $45. That doesn't make it a good deal. This type of pricing happens frequently. Learn a bit first, then buy. As I write this, Nov. 6, 2018, I saw a coin on eBay listed at $1795 marked down to $718 ("60% off! You save $1078.20"), with the option to "Make offer." Half of that would surely be a good deal, right? No. It is a $35 coin.
This week (when I wrote this paragraph in 2008) I found coin on eBay I wanted. The seller said a reference book listed its value as "up to $400." I won it. My cost? $16.21 including postage! Do not believe the price estimates on eBay!
I have more advice on my page about fakes.
See if any books on ancient topics are in your local library. Ask a local coin dealer if he can introduce you to anyone who already knows about ancient coins. The collector would have to be a specialist in ancient coins to be of much help in this subject. US coin collectors and ancient coin collectors have little in common.
Enjoy! Ancient coins are a GREAT hobby!
Now, go to a page on how auctions work and buying on eBay.
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