Collecting ancient coins in the old days. We've got it easy now!

I started collecting ancients in grad school. I had been a US coin collector (not very serious) in my childhood. In the academic year 1971/2 I was studying abroad and had lots of chances to go to shops with piles of unidentified ancient coins. Because I knew nothing about them I bought the cheap ones that looked relatively good (many of the bigger ones turned out to be common Byzantine folles). Now I'm pretty sure the dealers had better coins they didn't even show me--saving them for collectors who knew more than I did (which would have been everyone except the most ignorant tourists). I got an ancient-coin book or two and learned a bit and showed my coins to a local expert who told me which were fakes. I never got any money back for fakes because I always bought several coins at a time and the dealer would say that was included in the total because the coins were not individually priced (coins would be individually priced now, but those inexpensive ones were not at the time) and we had bargained a price for the whole group.

When I got back to the US I was living in Madison, Wisconsin, and local dealers (coin dealers were much more common in those days) had a few ancient coins now and then. I contacted dealers through their ads in Coin World and got on a few mailing lists. Many of the coins would be offered with only a grade to describe them. It is hard to credit now, but many collectors bought coins they had not seen at all--just from a description like "VF". In the 1970s only a fraction of coins offered were photographed. By the 1980s photographs were far more common.

Here is a page from a small-format Empire catalog from Fall, 1982. I bought coin 3201, a Trajan denarius. Look at the prices and you will see they would not cost much more in dollars today.

The overhead in putting out lists must have been huge. Dealers had to identify coins, work them up, photograph them and wait to get the film developed and photographs printed, clip the photographs around the coin photos and paste them on a sheet the right size, type the description in the right place, take it to the printer, wait to get copies back, paste the mailing labels on them, mail them, wait, and answer phone calls at all hours then deal with the irritation of no orders for some coins and five orders for others. Imagine getting an letter in the mail with an order and check for a coin already sold days before to someone else by phone.

We worried that if we didn't buy, we would be dropped from the mailing list (rightly so). Here is how it worked for me. A catalog would come in the mail. My wife would call me at work and say such-and-such a catalog came and did I want to see it right away. If it was Berk, the answer was "I can wait" because it was a buy-or-bid sale, but if it was an Empire fixed-price list, I wanted to see it so I could call and order if there was something I wanted. We were living in Montana then and mail got to the coasts a day earlier than it got to me, so many good coins were already gone. I remember calling Dennis Kroh (Empire, in Florida) and trying to order an Odovacer AE4 he had for $100. In irritation he responded that he had already had twenty orders for it! (Pricing coins "right" can be a challenge.) Now the electrons get to me as soon as they get to the east coast, so that disadvantage has disappeared.

Auctions are different than fixed-price lists. Some dealers sent out paper auction catalogs a month early and you could assemble your bids and mail them back to get there in time. A while after the auction, if you won anything, you would get a letter in the mail with an invoice, then mail a check back (there was no internet banking or PayPal), then when they got the check (plus time for it to clear if they didn't know you) they'd mail it to you. The turnaround was very long compared to now, but there was no alternative and it seemed natural. Times have changed.

I think the key to higher prices in those days was availability. In the supply and demand balance, the supply was so limited compared to now. Actually, I suppose there were a lot of coins out there, but how could I, in Montana, know about them and how could the seller, somewhere far away, know about me? Well, the internet has solved that, hasn't it?

Speaking of supply, the breakup of the Soviet Union in the 1990s increased the supply dramatically. Tons (literally) of coins formerly in Yugoslavia (which used to be a country), Bulgaria, etc. were released onto the market. Now attractive Roman provincial coins of Gordian III with vis-a-vis busts from Marcianopolis are common, but before 1990 they were rare and expensive. We in the west had no idea what was behind the Iron Curtain and didn't expect all those formerly rare coins to come to market. I just looked through a few old catalogs and coins from that region are hardly represented, and when they are they are more costly than now.

For decades I accumulated paper catalogs and used them as a "price guide." I took many notes on coins I would like and what they cost. Before the internet if you wanted to know what a "good VF" coin of some type cost, you had few resources other than your Sear "Coins and their Values" book and notes.

My wife and I traveled quite a bit in the summers and every time we visited a city I called all the coin stores and asked if they had any ancient coins. Most didn't, but some did. A store with a few ancient coins was worth a 20- or 30-minute drive, just to look. Sometimes a purchase resulted. My parents had moved to near LA , so I visited dealers like Malter, NFA (mostly over my head) and London Coin Galleries (near Disneyland) and sometimes the Long Beach show (over Spring Break). Usually purchases resulted.

I was on an academic calendar so the summer ANA, at that time usually near the beginning of August, was a show I could attend. If it was in Chicago or Denver I could go and every few years I did. In those days (but not anymore) there would be middle-eastern men with small suitcases full of hoard coins, selling wholesale to dealers. Rather than "work them up" many were put out for sale in "pick bins" for $x each depending upon quality. I loved sitting in front of boxes of coins searching for something that was worth more to me than, say, the requested $10 each. I bought a lot of 3rd and 4th century Roman coins at prices far below fixed-price list prices. However, for coin shows I was well aware that the cost of travel and hotel had to be factored in and the coins were not really cheaper when that was taken into account. But it sure was fun to see coins "live." Life-size photographs in 300 dpi are not great. With modern digital images far greater than life-size we are spoiled!

Pre-internet if you lived in a big city you might have belonged to a coin club and had collecting friends. Or, like me, you might have lived in a small city and collected alone. You appreciated your own coins and there was almost no one to show them to. I'm lucky my wife liked ancient history. There must have been US-coin collectors in my town, but they would not have cared about ancients. I read ancient history for fun (from paper books) and appreciated my meager holdings by myself.

I can probably see more images of coins, and more really good coins, on-line now, for sale fixed-price or at an upcoming auction today, than I saw in all my first twenty-five years of collecting via paper catalogs. Now, with CoinTalk and Numis Forums, you can learn more about ancient coins on-line than I could after buying many books and looking at articles in academic libraries. (Try joining, it's free, if you want to read academic articles on ancient coins.)

I worked hard and put many years and many hours and lots of travel learning about ancient coins. It is SO much easier now. Be grateful for ancient coins on the internet.


I posted a link to this page on Numis Forums and got many replies from other old-timers:

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