Ancient coins (unlike modern coins) are very closely related to history. Most collectors feel that by reading about history they are learning interesting things about coins as well. For example, when you read that Constantine the Great (Roman emperor from 307 to 337 AD) was the first emperor to promote Christianity, you might wish to buy a coin he minted. You can buy a clear copper piece the size of a cent with his portrait for $10, and get it in even better condition for $30 or less.
I meant, how can I find out more about the coins?
There are lots of ways, from books to people to dealer's lists
It is wonderful if you can find a collector or a dealer who will help
get started, but many collectors do not know any other local collectors
continue to collect alone. They begin simply by buying a coin or two,
A great deal about ancient coins is posted on the web. Later on this page I will recommend other websites.
Libraries often have a few beginners books specifically about ancient coins. Big public libraries and libraries at universities may have many books about ancient coins -- there are hundreds! Remember, in Europe archaeology and history of the ancient world is a big deal -- much bigger than here. Over there you can take university courses in ancient coins. And lots of books have been written in English about them.
Will you recommend some books?
An excellent beginner's book about both Greek and Roman coins
combines two volumes in one: Reading and Dating Roman
and An Outline of Ancient Greek Coins by Zander
costs about $12 plus
postage. But it is not a price guide. Unfortunately, the most popular
price guide to Roman coins, Roman Coins and Their Values
Sear, in (so far) four volumes (from the Republic to 337 AD)
that cost about $80 each (volume V, the later empire, will not be out
anytime soon as of April 2011). It is published
For beginners, I strongly recommend the previous one-volume fourth
edition for much less ($45 or so used on eBay, $80 new), and it
very useful. (I still use mine.) It is just not such a thorough list of
all the possible coin types. There is a similar Seaby guide to
Greek coins, Greek
and Their Values, also by David Sear, published in two
well-illustrated volumes. It costs about $120. There are other price
to other series of ancient
coins, including Guide to Biblical Coins by David
$75. To get started, you can find David van Meter's good book, The
of Roman Imperial Coins, with 8000 Roman imperial types
commentary at the beginning, offered on eBay and usually sold for about
$35 or less. Many collectors love that book.
All these books come up on eBay occasionally.
To learn about the coins and their place in the ancient world I recommend the Seaby books, Coinage in the Roman World (168 pages, 187 photos) by Andrew Burnett (former keeper of coins in the British Museum) and Coinage in the Greek World (154 pages, 304 photos) by Ian Carradice and Martin Price, at about $30-50 each. However, they are hard to find (which is too bad, because they are both excellent). Both are up-to-date and well-written by fine scholars. There are many other excellent books covering these and other series of ancient coins.
If you are past the "beginner" stage, I have posted a page with book reviews of books on Roman coins.
Where can I buy books on ancient coins?
When I want an ancient-coin book, I search vcoins.com
it or wait for it to appear on eBay. I buy many books from the
vcoins dealers Charles Davis and ANE. MNS on vcoins is another good source.
Aren't coins in hard-copy auctions expensive?
Lists deliver by the Post Office are disappearing in favor of on-line catalogs. Coins pictured in postal lists tend to be rather expensive, say $50 to $200 or more for the cheap ones, and many firms put out lists where most coins cost hundreds of dollars. After all, there is quite a bit of expense involved in photographing coins, writing up their descriptions, having the list printed, and mailing it. It's not worth it to photograph $20 coins that are all one-of-a-kind! But there are many other, more common, coins that can be purchased on eBay or vcoins.com or at a coin show for much less (Some $10-$20 coins). Most dealer who send out hard-copy lists also have the entire auction with images on-line. Inexpensive coins are readily available on the web and at major coin shows.
I've never been to a coin show.
I love coin shows and I highly recommend them. There are so many coins to see and so much to learn about what is available. And, shows are a cheap place to buy common coins, but now so is eBay. Lists and auctions tend to emphasize higher priced coins (because of list overhead), but there are many interesting types that come in extremely fine quality for less than $50 that are readily available at shows and on eBay. Shows usually occur in big cities.
How about buying on the web?
Most collectors buy regularly on the web. Many
in ancient-coin auctions on eBay. However, before you buy from eBay, read this. It has many very important things to say that you will want to know. There are many large and
dealers with fixed-price sites. I can
looking at the ancient coin mall, vcoins.com.
use the search engine in the upper right to search all
mall dealers at once!
Can I buy a coin of Alexander the Great?
A silver coin of Alexander the Great.
Certainly! One of the nice things about ancients is that the famous rulers who ruled a long time minted lots of coins. Large (bigger than a quarter, and twice as thick) silver coins of Alexander are very available today. By the way, the portrait is of Hercules, not Alexander, although these coins often have seem to have his features.
I've heard of Julius Caesar and Nero. Can I buy coins of theirs?
Yes. Large portrait coins of Nero minted in Egypt are
fine condition for $70 or less. Here is one of them -- worn, but cheap.
It is a
base silver tetradrachm.
Nero / Head of Alexandria (the city in Egypt where it was minted)
Much better portraits are also available, but will cost more.
Portrait pieces of Julius Caesar are rare and expensive, but he also minted attractive silver coins without his portrait that say "CAESAR" boldly, and those can be bought in very fine condition for $400-$800 or less in lesser condition.
I don't want to spend $400!
Many collectors don't buy expensive coins like that. There are many very interesting emperors who minted attractive coins that have been found in hoards so large that even high-grade pieces are not expensive.
Coins as attractive as this Roman coin of emperor Probus might be found for $30-$40 on ebay.
This lower-grade Probus might sell on eBay for
Inexpensive coins would, of course, be copper or silver, not gold.
What can I buy for $25?
A very wide variety of excellent ancient coins sell for $25 or less. You can buy, in very nice grade, a nickle-sized base silver coin of any of a dozen third century AD emperors (200 - 300 AD), or a copper coin the size of a quarter from any of a half dozen early fourth century AD emperors, or a dime sized copper coins of any of a dozen fourth century (300 - 400 AD) rulers. You can buy attractive silver coins in worn but legible condition of most of the second century AD (100 -200 AD) emperors. You can buy attractive but worn Greek copper coins from dozens (really!) of different mint cities. Also available are many other types issued by rulers and ancient kingdoms too numerous to mention.
It's pretty confusing!
Anything new is confusing at first. Perhaps that is why most collectors buy Roman imperial coins -- the straightforward run of emperors is easy to organize and understand. But many branch out into other areas, for example Greek, Jewish, Parthian (Vologases III, 105 -147 AD), or pre-Roman British after they get started and know a bit more.
What about older coins -- coins from the time of Christ?
There are lots of them available, too. Roman coins from the
emperors Augustus and Tiberius are popular. They ruled from 27 BC to 37
when Christ preached and died. The Roman Republic minted silver coins
over two hundred years before Christ, and most types are available for
than $100 in high grade and much less if quite worn.
Coins were invented about 600 BC (2600 years ago!) and caught on quickly. Greek coins from before 300 BC are very available and some are among the most beautiful coins ever minted (Tarentum, horseman / dolphin, Corinth, Pegasus / Athena, Larissa, facing head / horse). Big silver coins in very nice condition will cost a lot, say $200 or more, but interesting copper and smaller Greek silver coins cost much less, down to $10 or $20 or $30 if worn and not unusual.
There are other ancient coins in addition to Greek and Roman coins. The Gauls in France minted coins before the Romans came, the Jews in Israel minted coins, the Parthians in Iraq and Iran had their own coins, and a host of smaller kingdoms around the Mediterranean sea minted coins.
This is a large (32 mm) Byzantine copper coin of Basil II ("the Bulgar Slayer")
Constantine VIII, AD 976 - 1028. Similar coins sell for $10-$40.
The Byzantine empire is the name of the eastern Roman empire after the west fell (The fall is traditionally dated to 476 AD). Large Byzantine copper coins are plentiful and even cheaper than most ancient coins (but some would call them ugly). However, this note will concentrate on Roman coins and earlier coins.
Are there women on coins?
Yes. Many emperors issued coins portraying their wives, some of whom were powerful in their own right. Julia Domna is one. Julia Maesa, Herennia Etruscilla and many others appear too.
What about grading?
Grading is not the same problem it is with modern U.S. coins.
were struck by hand on irregular flans from dies engraved by hand. No
expects ancient coins to be fully described by a single "grade," so
play less of a role. At a coin show, very few ancient coins will be
at all. So many factors enter into the condition that dealers
coins for lists and collectors judge each coin on its own merits, which
include style, depth of strike, centering, patina, color, size of flan,
surface condition in addition to a judgement about wear.
Doug Smith has an informative and well-illustrated website about grading ancient coins and the factors that affect condition and value. The Calgary Coin Gallery also has a good site on grading. Just be aware that sellers on eBay often exaggerate the quality of their coins, which may not live up to the professional standards described by these two sites.
Can I see some typical coins, with typical prices?
Sure. Go to http://www.vcoins.com/en/coins/Ancient.aspx
"search" for any key word you like, or just see what has been offered in the last week. It is a great
way to find out retail values.
Another way is to go to the ancient
coin section of eBay.com
ancient") and note a few coins that interest you.
prices you see are of no relevance. But, bookmark them and go back after they close and you will
for. The prices on eBay mean nothing
Many buyers bid only in the last few seconds and prices may double,
or quadruple at the last instant. Also, many coins have opening prices
that are higher than retail and they will not sell except to an
There is a website, wildwinds.com, that lists and illustrates coins that have sold on the web (mostly on eBay). You can find out what coins look like and what they cost at a web auction with this excellent site.
You can search the web under "ancient Roman coin" or
something similar, but most (not all) of the good dealers have moved to
vcoins.com. However, most (not
"fixed price" coins on the web cost more than they would on
eBay (if you can find those types).
The web is great, but it is not as good as seeing coins "live." The best way to learn about coins and prices is to go to a large coin show. Web photos, good as they are, are not as good as seeing the real coin.
Do I have to worry about fakes?
Yes, if you buy on eBay. eBay has very many fakes and abused coins. But you don't have to worry about fakes if you deal with a professional ancient coin dealer. They are knowledgeable and separate out any fakes they happen to run across. Furthermore, they guarantee what they sell.
My answer to whether fakes are a problem has changed from "no" to "yes" in the last ten years. When coins are bought from coin dealers at a real store, few fakes are found. It is extremely rare to see fakes offered at the websites of the major US ancient coin dealers. Major dealers, and dealers with a physical store, have a reputation to uphold and are careful with what they sell. But, everything has changed with web selling. Now many eBay sellers are touting obvious fakes and getting away with it. eBay has a policy that their site is "just a venue" and they apparently take almost no action to cut off sellers of fakes. And, even if they wanted to, it would be hard, since anyone anywhere can log in with a new user name and start selling fakes.
A lot of fakes and "reproductions" have been made (especially in the Middle East and Bulgaria) and "coins" sold to innocent tourists abroad are often fake. Even major museums sell packets of imitation ancient "coins" in their gift shops. This gives crooks an easy way to make an illegitimate buck on eBay, and they have not missed the opportunity! Coins brought back from, say, Greece or Syria, may or may not be genuine. Fakes do not have to be of expensive coins; I have seen tourist fakes from Egypt where the genuine original would cost only $3! Now I am seeing tourist fakes offered on eBay. Some experts say a majority of "antiquities" offered in on-line auctions are fake. With coins, the real ones still outnumber the fakes by a large margin. But the problem is getting worse.
Because of this website, sometimes people send me a scan and ask me about the identification and value of some coin they claim they got from their father or grandfather. No more than half the time the coins are genuine. Sometimes the story of where they got it is an obvious lie. Twice in one month alone I have condemned coins as modern fakes only to see them appear on eBay a bit later as if they were genuine. It is infuriating! (I no longer accept scans for valuations.)Good eBay feedback is no guarantee the seller is honest. Two days ago (as of when I wrote this paragraph years ago, 12/10/08) I reported to eBay a seller with 832 positive feedbacks and a rating of 100% who had four moderately expensive fakes for sale. eBay will do nothing. He will sell them and hundreds of dollars will be lost by innocent buyers.
By the way, the e-mail list called the CoinForgeryDiscussionList often has inquiries from potential bidders about the authenticity of ancient coins for sale, and the questioners get good answers. Many experts belong and report fakes even before people ask. I also recommend forgerynetwork.com at which you can search to see if I coin you see is a published fake (but it may take a trained eye to see the difference between coins there and genuine coins.) You can also find a list of many eBay dealers who are known to sell fakes.
Another problem on auction sites is that there are many misdescribed and overestimated coins. (See my pages about buying and my page about auctions.)
Coin dealers who do not specialize in ancients rarely have the
expertise to authenticate ancient coins. If you buy an ancient coin
from such a dealer, you might ask for a money-back guarantee written on
the receipt. But, remember, ancient coins are common and not
necessarily expensive. My experience has been that many "ancient" coins
owned by individuals who do not collect ancient
coins are fake, however, a large majority of "ancient" coins carried by
who specialize in U.S. coins are genuinely ancient, and virtually all
coins carried by dealers who specialize in ancients are ancient. Here
links to the best sites on fakes.
Here is some
very good advice that
will help you avoid fakes. Most fakes are sold by criminal
dealers with one or more of these techniques. Unfortunately, there are
several criminal dealers with high feedback numbers and good percentage
satisfaction that eBay declines to remove.
If a dealer has any one of these, avoid him!
2) Always look at the "seller's other items." If they include fakes, don't bid. If the other items are all very inexpensive coins and the one you want is worth far more, don't bid. (They sell $5 coins to build up a good reputation and sell worthless fakes that look like $300 coins to "bargain" hunters to make a big profit.)
3) Do not bid on "private" auctions.
4) Also, do not bid on extremely nice coins that are closing soon very inexpensively. If it is too good to be true, ... . The reason they are going so low is those of us who know about fakes are not bidding on those fakes!
5) Worry about dealers from eastern Europe with low feedback. There are lots of fakes floating around Eastern Europe and even an honest, but ignorant, seller can try to make a buck selling on eBay what he can buy cheaply in the marketplace over there.
Always remember: Tomorrow another thousand ancient coins, most genuine, will be offered on eBay and vcoins.com, so you don't need to bid on a doubtful coin today.
Can you give me some advice about buying ancient coins and not paying too much?
Yes. Here is a link to page of advice about buying ancient coins
What about buying at major-firm auctions?
Here is a link to a page about coin auctions.
I have ancient coins and I wonder what they are worth and how to sell them. Can you help?
Yes, some. See a page about selling ancient coins.
interested. Is there an e-mail
list or forum on ancient coins that I can join?
Yes. Many beginners post at "Coin Community" in their ancient-coin section:
Many (some the same people who use Coin Community) post at "Coin Talk" in their ancient and foreign section:
of the site of my page has a forum for asking questions and discussing ancient coins.
Forum ancient coins has an active forum:
Participation at the sites above has overtaken participation on e-mail lists. Start there.
An e-mail list, the "Moneta" list, is for discussion about anything related to ancient coins. The list-owner describes Moneta at his site. Some members are outstanding experts on ancient coins and many are rank beginners. E-mails lists can keep you pretty busy. Moneta members post 10 messages a day (fewer in the summer doldrums, and much fewer than a few years ago before all those well-designed sites above were invented), but I get them all consolidated into only one or two because I signed up for "digest" form. Beginners will want to begin with "Coin Community Family" or CoinTalk."
To see what list messages are like, check out the messages at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Moneta-L/
Another e-mail list is for announcements about buying and selling. It is called the "Ancient Coin Market."
Want to Buy or Sell?
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I have written an annotated list of my favorite educational sites on Roman coins.Are there sites on how to clean ancient coins?
Yes, but I strongly recommend you do not try to clean ancient silver coins that have toned dark, or copper coins that show many details under smooth dark or green surfaces. Collectors love untouched and uncleaned old coins, so you risk lowering the value a huge amount if you make a copper coin look like copper, or make a silver coin look bright and shiny. However, if you are buying very cheap low-grade coins in bulk (hundreds at a time) you may need to clean them. But, I strongly encourage you not to clean any coins you have inherited or gotten from a friend. Leave cleaning for the experts!
Where can I buy large batches of cheap uncleaned coins? I'd like to get them before they get to eBay.
I do not recommend buying uncleaned coins. But, I get this question a lot so I am answering it here (Rather than every week via separate e-mails). If you are already buying lousy unidentified coins, I can recommend the best book for learning to identify them.
Can you recommend dealers?
My favorite dealer site is vcoins.com , "the on-line coin show" and ancient-coin shopping mall. As of early 2012, NumisMall is growing. Some of the top US dealers have their own websites. If you want to see superb ancient coins, try Classical Numismatic Group, Harlan J. Berk, or Edward J. Waddell.
What about eBay auctions?
Many fine ancient coins are sold on eBay. Many terrible coins are sold on eBay. But, without doubt, eBay is the best of the on-line auction sites because more sellers sell there and more buyers look there. However, many of the coin descriptions on eBay are incorrect. It truly is "buyer beware." See my linked page for more comments on auctions, especially traditional auctions.
I have some ancient coins. How should I store them?
Every ancient coin collector I know wants to be able to touch his/her coins. Unlike U.S. coins, they can be handled. Most collectors use either paper 2x2 envelopes or non-PVC "flips". If your home is very very dry (where I live it is dry like a desert), PVC flips will not cause a problem for many years, if ever. But the "soft" PVC flips will interact with water in the air and form acid which eats coins and leaves a horrible green deposit. People who live in humid places really have to worry about that. But non-PVC flips are very cheap (compared to coins) and worth it. You can put identification in one side and the coin in the other, and slip out the coin (carefully, since the edge of non-PVC flips can be sharp enough to scratch a coin) when you want to handle it. You can buy them lots of places, including vcoins.com (search for "flips"). There are at least two brands and you can get good flips from other dealers, too. But, if it doesn't mention "Safe" or "Safety," don't buy them.
With only a limited number of high-quality coins, some people put them in the splendid "Abafil" cases (available at coin.com) and never put them in flips at all. But most put coins in the bank in non-PVC flips which go into boxes designed for holding 2x2's. Some of my friends have a small Abafil case for taking a few coins home.
Do many people collect ancient coins?
In the U.S., collectors are few and far between. There may be 10,000 or so, with a couple thousand very serious collectors. But, in Europe, every coin shop has some ancients and collectors are more common. But, the web has made the world much smaller and you don't have to collect alone, even if you are many miles from anyone else who collects. My five best collecting friends are in five different states, and we correspond all the time! We have great fun enjoying our hobby.
Thank you for the introduction!
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