On Rarity
Rarity and the value of ancient Roman coins
(Information of special importance to eBay buyers)
by Warren Esty

"Rare," "scarce," "unlisted," "unpublished," -- words that make a collector's heart beat faster. Collectors of US coins tend to relate rarity and value so strongly that they think a "rare" ancient coin ought to be worth more, maybe much more, than its common counterpart. They have a lot to learn!

Musings on rarity and value.  First you need to know that there are on the order of 100,000 different common ancient coin types, and many more scarcer varieties. Therefore, collecting ancient coins is not at all like collecting a popular series (e.g Morgan dollars or Lincoln cents) where the number of types is so limited that you can hope to get them all, or almost all, and you are competing with many other collectors. These collectors want (or "need") one of each in the series. Then the rarer ones are in relatively high demand, which naturally drives up the price.

Note the sequence:
    1)  The perception of a limited "series" defines the types.
    2)  Then some are rarer than others.
    3)  If (and only if) there is enough demand for coins in that series, the rarer ones develop premium prices.

The history of US coin pricing shows that many "rare" and expensive "types" did not even exist decades ago. A hundred years ago when collectors were few and most of them wanted one of each design, rarer dates hardly mattered. When "types" evolved to include dates but not mintmarks, rarer mints hardly mattered [Added May 27, 2016: David Bowers, in Coin World, May 23, 2016, page 8, noted "So far as is known, not a single numismatist collected mint-marked coins in 1866! No one cared about coins minted in Charlotte, Dahlonega, New Orleans, or San Francisco!"]. When "types" of early American coins did not include die varieties, die varieties hardly mattered. As "types" become defined ever more finely, there comes a point when many coins are very rare "types," but demand is equally rare!

It is the perception of a series that defines types, and the rarity of subtypes within types does not have much affect on prices.

Some US collectors even care about nearly invisible differences, such as doubled dies, small versus large letters, and tilted numerals. It appears that modern US coins are so short of different interesting types to collect that collectors keep inventing new, and virtually meaningless, varieties so they can have something to care about. The supply of some type with a tilted numeral may be very small, but the number of coin collectors is declining and it is hard to imagine that many future collectors will choose to collect that "type."

Ancient coins are different. Ancient coins are common. However, the millions of ancient coins are divided into such a huge number of types that many, many, types are individually rare. Does that mean you should care about the "rare" varieties and pay more for them? No.

You should care about the interesting types. Interest and beauty (which is interesting) drive value. Rarity plays a much lesser role.

What makes a coin interesting?  Are you tempted to answer "rarity"?  Get over it!

Julius Caesar is interesting. Nero is interesting. Claudius is interesting (at least to people who have seen the great PBS series "I, Claudius," or who have read the book by Robert Graves). Constantine, the first emperor to support Christianity, and the subject of a dozen biographies, is interesting. Get the picture?

I'd like a portrait of each of those emperors. So would just about every other Roman coin collector. Here we have the components that create the supply-and-demand equation: the perception of a limited series and enough interest to create demand. The "portrait series" is, by far, the most commonly collected series of types of ancient coins.

The definition of a "series" defines its types (which might otherwise just be minor varieties, as US mintmarks used to be long ago). Without the perception of coins as belonging to a limited series, collectors cannot focus their demand on its types.

Within the portrait theme you can draw limits anywhere you like. Some collectors emphasize the "12 Caesars" (Julius Caesar through Domitian, up to AD 96), and many continue on to collect later emperors as well. The second century to AD 193 only adds about another 7 emperors, and they are inexpensive. So here is a limited list. You can aspire to one of each. That encourages demand, and that forces up the prices on the rarer ones. Collectors soon learn that Claudius is rare in silver, but very available in copper. Emperor Otho is rare in silver and unobtainable in copper (he didn't issue it). So Otho is expensive.

Do you want a coin of the emperor Florian (AD 276)?  I do, but primarily because he is one of that portrait series. Outside of belonging to the series, he isn't very interesting. At least 999 of every1000 people have never heard of Florian.

So rarity does matter!  I admit it. When a very limited series is well-defined and popular, relative rarity matters. However, when a series is not limited by tens or at most hundreds of types, then rarity hardly matters unless it is accompanied by exceptional, independent, interest.

Dealers have told me that a substantial majority of collectors work on the series of portraits on the obverses and don't emphasize a theme related to the reverse. Oh, they might slightly prefer an attractive reverse, but many will not pay much more for the reverse. The reason for this is twofold:
    1)  Their money is still flowing out working on the portrait series, and
    2)  They don't have any particular reverse "series" in mind.

Reverses.  It takes a pretty advanced Roman coin collector (and there aren't many of us) to care intensively about any series of reverse types. Interest is fungible. If the price of an interesting type is high, another thousand interesting types await at lesser cost. There are many interesting series, and they don't really need to be completed. However, if you claim to collect Lincoln cents, it won't be long before you "need" that "rare" 1914-D. No wonder the price is high.

The vast number of Roman coin types makes it clear to the beginner that he will not complete the series. How liberating! He can collect whatever he finds interesting! You don't need to ante up for that 1914-D after all!  You will never fill that last hole, so why bother with the second last?  Just go as far with any series as you want, and then switch to something else that interests you. As you study Roman coins, the field does not become exhausted. On the contrary, it expands to encompass reverses you have learned are interesting because you have read about them. When you are collecting some "series" and the holes become hard to fill because of rarity, most ancient coin collectors simply spend their money on coins outside that series. What a good solution!  The supply-and-demand equation may have rarity for some types on the one side, but the "need" that makes demand is much reduced on the other.

Some collectors care about reverses. Lions are beautiful animals. Lots of ancient coins display animals, which make a limited theme. Galleys bring ancient sea battles to mind. You can collect ships on coins. Ancient temples remind us of the ruins we associate with antiquity. There are books listing the architectural types of coins. Soldiers evoke thoughts of the Roman army. There are many articles about the types that are connected to wars. Interesting themes cause some types to belong to a limited series that can drive up prices. But, there are not a lot of theme collectors. Except for some "obviously" interesting types, most theme coins won't cost more than about double the commonest portrait type. [Added Oct. 2018: Here are some possibilities for theme collections.]

Roman Imperial coins of the third and fourth centuries:  Roman coins survive in such huge numbers and in so many reverse types that collectors cannot  hope to collect them all. So, collectors collect what interests them.

For example, consider coins of Constantine. They are, all together, extremely common. There are perhaps a hundred very different types, but most of the types come from numerous mints in numerous varieties each. Certainly the number of  "listed" or "published" varieties is in the many thousands. Many collectors would like a nice coin or two of Constantine (You can get one in nice shape for 10 or 20 dollars). Some would like more than one or two. But not many of us want to, or can afford to, collect by "variety."  Why should anyone pay more for a "very rare" variety (say, with a star in the left field instead of the right) when he can get an entirely new type for the same cost?  "It's rare," you say. Get over it!  [Go collect Lincoln cents!]

In the third and fourth centuries the number of coins is so vast and the numbers of types so large that it is not widely known, even approximately, how rare the "rare" varieties really are -- unless they are so interesting and expensive that they are collected and published enough to make a clear track record.  In 1966 when RIC VII (Roman Imperial Coinage, volume VII) came out, the type of Hanniballianus (a rare ruler of 335-337) was "r2" which means "very rare."  I have a lot of sale catalogs and I stopped taking notes on his coins long ago (before the internet existed) after seeing 50 for sale. In the grand scheme of things, he is a very rare portrait type and therefore worth a lot of money. There are many collectors who would like a nice example of his portrait, and within that limited series he is rare. But today (4/19/2001) I got in the mail a different type that is "r3" (extremely rare) in the same volume of RIC. It is in very high grade and cost, on eBay, with the scarcity remarked upon in the listing, all of $15.50. Yes, it is "r3", but there are similar coins from 8 workshops from that mint alone, and it was issued from lots of mints, not to mention that a very similar type was issued in the next time period too. Not to mention that the same reverse was issued by co-rulers as well. The precise variety is rare (Who cares?); the type is not at all rare. Furthermore, the coin is of Licinius II, not the favorite emperor of anyone I know. If you want his portrait, you don't need this type or variety. A Hanniballianus in similar condition is listed as more common, but it is worth 30 times as much, and rightly so.

The point is:  Do not confuse rarity within a popular series with rarity of some minor variety. Sellers often try to obscure this point. They want to sell their coins for the highest price possible, and many new collectors (who haven't read this page) are ignorant of just how unimportant rarity is when it is not somehow connected to interest and a limited series.

The next point is that many of the rarity ratings are simply wrong. Given ten thousand varieties in one volume, who could know just how rare each and every one is? I have seen half a dozen examples of some of the "r5" ("Unique") types. I have seen a hundred (I am not exaggerating) of some $200 "very rare" types of the tetrarchy. Other types, merely "rare," but equally valuable and equally worthy of being recorded in sale-catalog photographs, have appeared but two or three times in the same library of catalogs. Some "scarce" types are not in all those catalogs at all. Is that because they are really rare? Or is it because they are only listed as "scarce" and therefore thought to be (erroneously) not worthy of printed photographs?  [Note: This was written before the internet provided search engines for finding coins of any given type.] 

Some experienced collectors take notes on all the types they collect. After 20 years they have a pretty good idea of what is rare and what is not. But, mostly it doesn't matter. They are competing with almost no one for these self-discovered rarities. It is a free market and rarity can not sell a coin by itself. Beginners who think rarity is (or "should be") important tend to buy interesting types first. They seem better value for money. They are! By the time new collectors have collected long enough to think about buying obscure rarities, they are no longer so inclined to value rarity (unless it is essential to a limited series, like the portrait series).

Think of "rarity" in terms of supply and demand. You and I may love ancient coins, but the supply is really quite large, and the total number of serious collectors not large. These serious collectors, and all beginners, have a vast array of interesting types to select from. It takes years of collecting to assemble most of the common types they want. In the process, they will certainly stumble across and buy numerous "rare" types, usually at about the same cost as the common ones (except for portrait rarities and wildly unusual types). After a few years they know what I am telling you here.

Value depends primarily upon
    1) issuing authority (ruler),
    2) denomination, and
    3) condition.

So-called "rarity" is not on this list independent of the other factors.

    Take my advice. Read a lot so you know what is interesting. Then collect what you find interesting. You will get the most value for your money if you don't pay much of a premium for rarity.

    I hope you found my ranting and raving interesting. Feel free to write me with your comments. Also, I solicit additions to my glossary of eBay terms, below.
    --  Warren Esty        Copyright (c) 2001

    posted 4/28/01

P.S. Posted 4/30/01:

Some comments I received were:
1)  But personally I would be thrilled to discover a never-before-seen ancient of any flavor just as I delight in discovering new coins I didn't know about.
2)  I agree with your assessment, and yet there is something nice about owning a very rare or unpublished type or variant that is missing from the standard catalogues and most or all of the great public collections!  So my advice to new collectors, if they appreciate rarity, would not be "Get over it!", but rather "Educate yourself, specialize if necessary, and begin to take advantage of the very low premiums most rarities fetch in today's market!"
3)  I agree that there is a certain 'pride' (if you can call it that) about owning a unique coin, but I don't get too worked up about it myself. I have a 'unique' as of Faustina Junior, but to be honest, I derive little pleasure from it.

My response:  There is a thrill in discovering and owning a never-before-seen type. You can feel a strong sense of  "belonging to the club" of serious collectors when you know you have something unique. Other serious collectors will definitely be interested and laud your acumen.
    However, a beginner can not know what is unique (or, even "very rare") from reading eBay descriptions which are often erroneous when it comes to rarity. It takes years of immersion in the subject and an extensive book and catalog library to begin to be able to know what might be unpublished, or even genuinely "very rare."  However, if you persevere, buy the books, and keep your eyes peeled, you will eventually find occasional minor treasures about which you can say, with assurance, "This is a very rare type." Then you will doubtless enjoy a great and lasting feeling. However, unless the type is really distinctive, don't expect your rarity to bring a great premium.
    --  Warren

One more comment of a friend of mine (added in 2020): "The only thing rarer than Tongo coins is Tongo Coin collectors." The point is, if the "rare" coin you are considering is not in the collection goal of other collectors, don't think it should command a premium. 

Glossary of eBay terms (tongue in cheek):
term                       eBay seller's meaning

"r2" or "very rare"   Overall, the type is common but this minor variety is listed in RIC as "r2" [which is close to meaningless for late Roman coins.]

"Unlisted"               I have only one book and its not in it.

"The first one I've seen"       I've been collecting for a year, have almost no reference works, and have not yet seen
                                            this [although experienced collectors have seen 50 examples].

"unpublished"         I have several of the major references and its not in them. [But most of them are 20 or more years
                             old and who knows what has been published since then?]


An article (not mine) about US-coin rarity and "condition rarity."

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