High prices for high-grade ancient coins

In May 2021 CoinTalk had a thread on recent high prices for some high-grade ancient coins at auction.


I agree with the comments in the thread that some prices have been far too high. I contributed the following in response to a post with the next image of a Magnentius that seemed very high priced. It is from a Heritage auction of Sunday, May 16, 2021. You should know that this coin of Magnentius (AD 350-353) is a lot like a coin that could sell for from $75 to $200. 


If lack of wear is your only criterion, that coin is exceptional. Lack of wear can bring exceptional prices. If one coin is "slightly" better than another, we cannot assume it will cost only "slightly" more. Here is a part of the PCGS price chart for some common US coins:

In the lower right we see that MS68 examples can worth very much more than MS67 examples, even though most of us could not reliably tell them apart. So, it is the case than a "slightly" better coin can be worth "very much" more.

Now, returning to first Magnentius coin. It is a very common type and not even a special variety. There are better mints (Amiens) and better varieties (e.g. with a chi-rho above the shield). Also, although the lack of wear gives it a high "grade," much of the legend is crowded or missing (which is a big detraction) and the flan is ragged, which is also a detraction. So, is it really one of the best of its type?

Here are two to think about.

This one has better legends, lovely earthen cover, and a bold chi-rho above the shield. However, it is more worn.

This one has better legends (although far from perfect), a cross-rho above the shield (which is desirable), and is from the Amiens mint (a mint that minted only for him and his brother, Decentius). It has a lovely green patina, which shows chipping at the edges. It has little wear, but the strike of the Heritage coin is deeper.

So, among the three coins, which is "best"? The best one might be worth far more than the others.

Well, if I didn't know the Heritage coin sold for so much money, I would prefer either of the other two. I collect early Christian symbols (and many other things) on coins and these two have good examples. The Amiens mint one is from the mint with interesting historical connections to Magnentius. Both have nice surfaces, if in much different ways. Now that I know the Heritage coin sold for so much money, I still prefer these two. I used them to illustrate early Christian symbols on coins on a website:  http://augustuscoins.com/ed/Christian/ChristianTable6.html .

The portraits are good and typical. They help tell the story of Magnentius.

Why might one prefer the Heritage coin? Lack of wear. Only lack of wear.

Serious ancient-coin collectors think that there is more to desirability than lack of wear. CoinTalk proves it. Note how many of our threads begin with a historical story that is connected to a coin.

My two coins were bought long ago (for $25 and $23), so their prices are not in 2021 dollars. If those two were less desirable that the Heritage coin I could not say the price multiple was wrong because "slightly" better can cost "much more." Maybe some think the Heritage coin is better. Not me. I think it sold for far more than it should have.

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