Important advice about bidding and comments on estimates and grading are included below.
The classic type of auction is the public auction.
1) Public auctions are conducted live with a gathering of bidders (called "floor" bidders). These always permit you to not attend and instead submit bids by mail before the closing day.
Selling price is determined as just above what the second-highest bidder bids. "Just above" means a "normal" 5% or 10% advance. Therefore, "mail bids" are not actually bids, but regarded as maximum limits, and, if highest, will be reduced to the amount needed to win the lot above the second-highest bidder. The mail bids are collectively called the "book."
Example: For a certain coin you submit a maximum limit of $200 and the second highest mail bid is $100. The normal advance is to $110, so the lot "opens" at $110. You will get it at $110 if no one on the floor bids. The auctioneer asks if anyone on the floor is willing to bid $110. If a floor bidder bids $110, the auctioneer notes that the coin still belongs to the book and asks for the next advance. The floor bidders do not know how high they would have to go to exceed the book. If the floor bidder quits after agreeing to bid $140 and finding out the coin still belongs to the book, then you get it at $150, a normal advance over the second-highest bid, $140.
Note: Many (most) auctions now have a "buyer's fee" of 15%.
these the winner does not pay the "hammer price" that is called out,
an additional 15%. So, when you get a coin at a bid of $150, you
pay $150 plus 15%, for an actual price of $172.50, plus postage.
if the auction is in a foreign country, there may be substantial
for converting dollars into their currency. Remember to adjust your bid
to take the buyer's fee into account. For example, if $200 is the
you are happy to pay, bid only $175 so that addition of 15% keeps you
Other types of Auctions: There are three basic types of mail-bid auctions (mail bid auctions are auctions with no gathering of people who bid live from the floor).
2) Mail-bid with maximum limits reduced to a normal advance above the second highest mail-bid. When you submit a mail "bid" it is really something different from a "bid" in a live auction. It is really a maximum limit. If your "limit" is high enough, you may get the coin for less, so your "bid" would not have actually occurred as a bid at a live auction because no one would have forced you to go that high.
Auctioneers will say you are "safe" submitting high bids in this type of auction because they will be reduced unless you have a competitor who will go high, too, and extend your bids to your limit. So you can submit a "bid" which is really your "limit." The amount you actually pay will be reduced if possible.
This type of mail-bid sale is intended to reproduce the conditions of the classic public auction except for having no floor bidders.
Example: You submit a limit of $200 and the next highest mail-bidder
submits a limit of $140. You get it at $150. There usually will be an
additional buyer's fee. Look at the auction terms and adust your
About Estimates: At auctions of ancient coins, major, reputable, firms generally give reasonable, approximate, estimates. (This is often not so about web auctions -- see below under number 5). Most coins do sell pretty close to the estimated value. But coins do, surprisingly often, sell for far above estimates. Sales at far below estimates are rare, but are theoretically possible in "unreserved" auctions (which are not the norm). Most auctions have "reserves" below which coins will not be sold, often 60% of the estimate in the US and 80% in Europe, depending upon the firm.
Estimates in coin auctions are not at all like "values" in old stamp auctions where the lots were worth only a small fraction (one-tenth!) of the "estimate." Most major coin firms are proud that their coins actually sell, on average, for about the estimates, or even above.
Unfortunately, through ignorance or deception, some firms will
overestimate the value of a coin, perhaps hoping that someone bidding
will give them a big profit while thinking he is getting a bargain. It
is very important to have some idea of the value of a coin before
3) Mail-bid auctions with bids not reduced. In these auctions, if your bid is high you pay what you bid.
In these, you pay what you bid, even if no second bidder pushes you up to that amount.
The auctioneer may be happy to take the extra money when you bid
higher than the second-highest bidder. Therefore, bidders often choose
to bid lower, because their "bids" are not limits, but actual bids.
may fear paying more than necessary. If everyone thinks this way, coins
may get lower bids than in a mail-bid auction of type 2. Most of my
do not like this type of auction. In these, bid what you are happy to
regardless of what others may or may not bid. Many people wait until
last day and call to ask what bid is necessary. Why bid $100 when the
high bid is only $60?
4) "Buy-or bid" sales. In these, the stated price is not an estimate, but a price for immediate sale. If you want the coin at the stated price, you may buy it outright immediately (if it is not already gone). If you would like the coin, but would prefer to pay less, you may take your chances and bid lower. At the closing date, if you are still the high bidder, you will get the coin at your bid. (I don't think most of these reduce bids -- check the sale conditions.)
The "estimates" in these sales are prices at which the dealer is willing to sell the coin, not true estimates which could be exceeded. Therefore, they are probably somewhat higher than the coins would be in a fixed price list. But, many coins are hard to come by and the chance to get one now may prompt an eager collector to pay a bit more for the opportunity. Patient collectors who bid lower may miss the coin, but, on the other hand, may get it for less.
I consider myself a patient collector, but I will "buy" at
sales when I want the coin at the stated price. It happens often
The major on-line auction site is eBay. More sellers sell more coins there, and more buyers look for coins there. Prices tend to be realistic, but some are high and some low (probably like any other auction).
Fakes in web auctions: Let's face it, many eBay sellers do not know what they have. Also, some know they have fakes and hope a gullible buyer will pay for them. Fakes are a growing problem with on-line auctions. Tourist fakes, museum replicas, and newly made fakes (many from Bulgaria) are common. This was not so a mere four years ago, but it is now. The potential for profit is obvious. Take a $1 lousy coin replica bought in a museum gift shop in England or Germany, remove it from the holder, and sell it on eBay! You don't even have to claim it is genuine! You can claim it is from your grandfather and you don't know what it is! This is happening more and more. (I am updating this and just today I told a new seller he was selling fakes. The auctions say they came from his grandfather. That part could be true, but they are fakes nevertheless. He declined to withdraw them. A budding criminal!)
It truly is "Caveat Emptor." I'd say well over 10 percent of eBay, Yahoo!, and Amazon "ancient" coins have serious problems of accidental or intentional misdescription. Almost all the difficulties with grades can be avoided if you closely inspect the scans -- you can decide on the grade yourself. But that leaves many misidentified. Be aware that the terms "reproduction" and "copy" mean "fake"! I wish I could say most of the reproductions were labeled as such. But, I can't.
There are many highly reputable dealers on eBay. Learn who they are and buy from them.
Bidding: Many bidders try to bid near the closing time so they do not inform other potential bidders just how much they value the coin. Some people want a coin, but do not have a strong opinion of what it is "worth" -- they learn what a coin is worth from the bids of others. If your bid is entered late, these people may not have time to enter a higher limit. However, if you do know what a coin is worth to you, you can enter that amount as your maximum limit and rest assured that you will not have to pay more than that for the coin. But competing bidders who are outbid by your limit will have longer to reconsider their own maximum limits. If they study the coin and bid higher, that might force you to pay more, or maybe you will be outbid.
Estimates of value in web auctions. Unlike major public auctions by reputable firms, many web auction sellers grossly overestimate the values of their coins. If a description on, say, eBay, says "estimated value, $100," it might be true, but it is much more likely to be an overestimate. Many web sellers have no reputation to protect by unwavering honesty. I have seen many $25 coins with "estimates" at $50 or $100 or much more. This type of lying is very common.
Grades in web auctions. Many sellers on eBay do not know coins well and grossly overgrade their coins. One regularly says things like "Fantasic EF" when others would call it merely Fine. Look at the scans. Never expect a coin to be better than the scan. Don't kid yourself. Also, no experienced collector I know would ever buy an unscanned coin, no matter the description. Buying on eBay from who-knows-who, you cannot tell what you will be getting. With scanners costing under $100 and free websites to post images, why would anyone sell a coin without a scan? Maybe because it has "problems"? Take some advice from me and don't bid on unscanned coins, or coins with only one side scanned (the other side will be terrible!) unless you expect junk.
Rarity in web auctions. Do not believe claims of rarity in
auctions (except claims by major, established, dealers). It is
how many sellers claim their coin is "rare" or "scarce" or "maybe
when it is, in truth, one of the commonest types of coins. Some rare
are sold on eBay, and they will probably be rightly labeled as "rare,"
but so many absolutely common coins are also called "rare" that the
can not be trusted. I'd estimate that two of every three coins
with some indication of special rarity are in no sense rare. You will
to learn if a coin is rare from hours of study of coin catalogs and
books (or, maybe years of watching eBay auctions) -- you won't learn it
from most eBay sellers! [I added this paragraph on rarity when I saw the absolutely most common Roman coin of all
AE4 with GLORIA EXERCITVS reverse) touted as "rare!" Outrageous!]
I have written an advanced article on rarity on this website. It was published in the Celator.
If you are thinking of buying an ancient coin or two, I'd recommend you start with eBay. Watch a few coins sell of a type you like (You needn't worry that you are missing a good coin -- I assure you that you will see that type again! Very few coins on eBay are rare in some way that makes them desirable in some special way.) Then bid an amount you can definetly afford.
In summary, I'd say that the majority of major ancient coin
try to estimate coins realistically, but that there will always be some
estimated much too high (they probably won't sell) and others estimated
much too low (they will go far over estimate). Knowledge, or advice
an experienced advisor, is the only way to know which coins will be
Be careful and start slowly.
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