Buying Ancient Coins (Revised, November 6, 2018 with a comment about coins marked way down.)
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.
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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 years later, in 2017, and buying wisely is still complicated.
Why do you say it is complicated?
Well, eBay can be the cheapest place to buy, but it is riddled with fakes offered by criminals. Many of the superficially attractive expensive pieces are actually fakes. (I have a page about avoiding fakes.) On the other hand, many eBay coins are genuine and realize prices that are favorable for the buyer. Almost all their inexpensive (say, under $20) coins are genuine. Most experienced collectors still buy on eBay, but are somewhat worried about fakes. You can find common coins in excellent condition on eBay, and at good prices. However, 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-priced in the guise of an auction. Before you buy on eBay, read this page about eBay auctions.
The best alternative to eBay is buying from specialist ancient-coin dealers.
Here is a list of dealers.
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 I will not list them here. 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. These sites have the great advantage that their coins are almost certainly genuine. Any fakes that are spotted (and very few are fakes) are immediately removed.
Is that all there is to know -- go to eBay, vcoins.com, or MA-Shops?
Of course there are other alternatives that are better for some collectors. Where you buy will depend upon your circumstances.
High-end coins are offered by major dealers who have websites. 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.)
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 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 not all fixed-price coins actually sell at those prices. Sometimes 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 coin 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) Keep track of eBay prices of similar coins. This is much more difficult, because it requires bookmarking coins and coming back after they close to see what they sold for. eBay is so important I have written a page on eBay. Don't use eBay without reading my page.
6) 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. Inexpensive coins will not be listed here.
A seventh way for serious buyers is to subscribe to (pay for) acsearch.info . This 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. It is suitable only for high-end coins. Inexpensive coins will not 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. I suppose I could write a web page on "condition," but I won't now. 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). 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 got an unsolicited catalog in the mail.
If you got a glossy flyer in the mail from a mass marketer with a few ancient coins offered among many other coins or artifacts, buy from someone else. They are almost sure to be vastly overpriced. 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!
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!
Never buy from sellers on eBay who have "private auctions" to "protect the ID" (a lie!) of the buyer. These are part of a scam used by criminals to sell fake coins. Legimate sellers do not use private auctions. 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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