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Collections / Numismatics / Ancient Coins - Fakes
Ancient Coins - Fakes

Collecting Bank Notes
How to Identify & Value Your Coin
Ancient Coins - Fakes
Coin Cleaning
Scripophily: An Introduction
Coins Collection

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People say that there are a lot of fakes in ancient coins. Actually, there are far more phony 1916-D dimes and 1877 cents. And it only takes a little experience to spot one, once you know what to look for. So it is with ancients. If you aren`t sure, ask the seller to have it authenticated by a recognized expert, such as David Sear. The cost is typically under $50.

Ancient coins are a very broad study that spans over 2100 years on three continents: 650 BC to 1450 AD, from the first coins, to the fall of Constantinople. "Ancients" includes Greek, Roman and Byzantine. Greek coins could be archaic, classic or Hellenistic. "Greek" coins could also be Celtic or Spanish, Indian satrap, Sassanian, Carthagenian or Judean. Roman coins are usually Republican or Imperial, but there are "imperatorial" coins from the Anthony-Brutus-Octavian triumvirate. Also, "Greek Imperial" coins were issued by Hellenic cities during the Roman empire.

You can see why a collector who is a recognized expert in one field will be eager to learn in many other areas. Yet you meet dealers who can`t even identify the coins they sell. Dealers who don`t know their coins assign wide dates to them. An Athenian coin labeled "480 to 420 BC" is like a modern coin dated "1800s". Weak dealers will also slide by with tags like "Roman" or "Ionian". (Imagine a modern coin labeled "North America".) Nationally-recognized dealers in moderns will often drop the ball when it comes to ancients. Ancients take a lot of work and knowledge.

One way to judge a seller is by their library of books and catalogs. Books are expensive and we`d all rather own the coin than the book, but if you want to know your business, you practice your trade, unless you are just in it for the fast buck. Does the seller read Latin or Greek?

We never clean modern coins. However, after 2000 years in the ground, ancients often need cleaning. But soap and water or even an industrial degreaser won`t do to a silver coin what a buffing wheel or a night in Dip will. If a silver coin looks too shiny, it was abused.

Cost is another reason that people find bad bargains in ancient coins. Without a "Greysheet" it is easy to pay too much for a coin that is truly old and yet not truly rare. From 450 to 420 BC, Athens struck over nine million "Owls." They are by no means rare. With this coin, the key is not its mere grade, though grade counts, but its centering and position. Cheap Owls are crowded, with no extra metal around Athena. A lot of them have test cuts.

If you aren`t actively collecting ancients, don`t buy a coin that isn`t attributed. "Attribution" is more than giving a coin a name and a date. It has to have a catalog number, preferably from Sear or the British Museum. SGC means "Sear: Greek Coins and Their Values". SRC is the Roman Coins volume. BMC stands for the British Museum Catalog of Roman or Greek (or whatever) coins. In addition, there is SNG: Sylloge Nummorum Graecorum, an ambitious project to catalog every major collection of Greek coins. SNG`s have been issued for the Copenhagen Museum, Oxford, and Cambridge, the Von Aulock and American Numismatic Society collections. Finally, there are standard volumes of special issues, such as the book by May on The Coinage of Abdera. (Abdera is in Thrace and was the home of Democritos who first publicized an atomic theory of matter. Carl Sagan called it "the Brooklyn of its day".) Barron`s The Silver Coinage of Samos or Svoronos` Corpus of Athenian Coins are other special references from which an attribution may be given.

Identifying a coin can be a challenge because many different towns honored gods such as Athena or Apollo. On a 15 mm bronze that has been in the ground 2000 years, it can be a challenge to differentiate the nymph Rhodos in a laurel garland from the god Helios with a crown. Consider that two different Roman emperors struck coins in the name Marcus Aurelius and the emperor Titus called himself Vespasian. You can see why attribution is everything.

Probably the most embarrassing transaction is the sale of the phony "Coin from the Time of Jesus". The "tribute penny" and the "30 pieces of silver" sell well at Christmas and Easter. But a lot of guys were named "Caesar" and the Bible says nothing about the coins that paid Judas. The "Widow`s Mite" was the smallest, least desirable coin of local issue. If you find a cute copper in VG+, it isn`t a "Widow`s Mite". The coin you seek is an ugly little bit of metal that only a Christian could love and only a specialist could attribute.

And yet, for all of this, there is no branch of numismatics that is as rewarding as ancient coins. America`s Liberty is patently copied from the many goddesses and nymphs of Greece. Imagine Athena, about 17 years old, her helmet pushed back, her bangs falling forward, as she appears on a Thessalanian League issue. Washington and his Eagle were patterned directly after Ptolemy and his Eagle. The Saint Gaudens $20 and the 50 c Walker are but flat shadows of the coins common to the Hellenic world. The artistry of the coins of Sicily and Southern Italy completely eclipse anything produced since. Modern commemoratives are left behind by the Roman Imperials whose reverses commemorate Felicity, Justice, Hilarity, Chastity, Victory, Piety, World Peace, a Happy World, Liberty and Liberality, to name just a few. What is an MPC compared to a Legionary denarius stuck to pay the troops of Mark Antony before the battles of Phillipi or Actium? Trade dollars are certainly as honest as government money ever gets, but the Rhodian drachma was issued for over 200 years by town that prospered on a voluntary 2% harbor fee.

When you hold a half dollar from 1850, you know that Lincoln or Calhoun, Bell or Morse might have carried it. When you hold an Owl, you can imagine it in the hand of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, or a dozen others whose ideas still form the basis of our civilization. A litra of Syracuse may have bought dinner for Archimedes. For $20, you can own a bronze from Pergamum, the town whose library gave "parchment" its name. Every ancient coin is a story.

And if you love historical research, ancients are an always-unexplored world. Very few coins, no matter from what seller, come fully attributed. You can always add a BMC or SGC number, find a coin in an SNG or special volume. Minor oversights abound. World-leading sellers let go of unusual bargains, not knowing what they owned.

In terms of price-to-rarity, ancients can be exceptional bargains. Nine million Owls is not a lot by modern standards. Most coins were struck in much smaller numbers. Varieties abound. Die-matching is an important part of ancient numismatics, as the reverse dies tended to break much sooner than the obverse, perhaps 5 to 35 thousand to an obverse and 2 to 15 thousand for a reverse.

In short, if you rely on other people`s opinions, ancient coins are a flat out rip-off. If you take the time to do your research, you can find ancient coins to be thoroughly rewarding in many ways.

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