Getting Started with Ancient Coins

This page gives a quick overview of some of the questions you might have about collecting Ancient Coins.

What are Ancient Coins?

Ancient coins are handmade coins that were made from 650 BC to the fall of Rome in 476 AD. Coins minted by the Byzantine Empire after this date (until 1453 AD) are also considered to be Ancient, even though they are technically Medieval coins, because the Byzantine Empire was just a continuation of the Roman Empire.

The three most accessible producers of ancient coins were the Greeks, the Romans, and the Byzantines, so beginners normally start with one of these. Other cultures such as the Celts, Persians, Barbarian tribes, and Jews also minted coins. Despite falling into the same timescale, coins of China, India and the Far East from the same timeframe are not generally considered as ancient coins.

How were they made?

Ancient coins were made by placing a disc of metal (called a flan) between two metal dies and hammering the top one so that the pictures on the dies were imprinted onto the flan. This video gives a good overview of the process.

Making coins this way led to massive variability in the final product, which is part of the charm of ancient coins. We’re used to our modern coins being identical, but no two ancient coins were the same, even ones of the same type. The centering of the flan in the dies, the rotation of the dies, the strength of the strike, the shape of the flan and the wear on the dies can all be different, even for two coins minted directly one after the other. Dies wore and degraded until they had to be replaced with new ones hand carved by die engravers. Despite trying to replicate the same image, each die ended up being subtly different from all the others.

Four Celtic Hampshire Thunderbolts. Notice that the designs, shapes and centerings are different despite all four being the same type of coin. It’s not even clear if the one on the left is upside down!

Copyright Collecting Ancient Coins

What does this word mean? Some terminology

Like most things, coin collecting has its own language that can make it hard for people to get involved. Here are some of the basic terms you’ll encounter.

AEBase metal, or base metal alloy, such as copper, brass or bronze
AU or AVGold
BillonDebased silver; An alloy of silver mixed with a base metal (bronze or copper) where the base metal makes up more than 50% of the alloy
BrockageA brockage is mistruck coin where one side is normal and the other is an incuse reversed version of the normal side. They occured when a coin stuck to the die after striking, and wasn’t removed before striking the next coin (the brockage coin). The stuck coin became a new die until it was removed. You can see some examples here

Centered/CenteringHow well the flan is aligned with the dies before striking. Because the flan and the dies were not mechanically held together during the striking process, they could be laterally offset from each other. A well centered coin will have all of the design centered on the flan. A badly centered coin may only show half of the design, with the other half of the coin left blank
DevicesThe features on the coin. Basically, the bits of the design that aren’t fields
DieA piece of hardened metal (bronze or iron) used to impress the design into a flan. Each side of a coin needed its own die. There were three ways to get an image onto the die:

  1. Engraving
  2. Hubbing (see below)
  3. Casting. The dies had to be cast anyway to form the shape, so it was feasible to cast the design at the same time

Regardless of which method was used to get the image onto the die, someone had to engrave something. It is thought that engraving the die directly was the most common method used

Die BreaksRepeated hits with a hammer caused the dies to break. These generally started small, but would grow as the die kept being used. You can trace how they progressed by looking at different coins minted with the same die.

A die break is usually a piece of metal breaking off of the edge of a device or the edge of the die, but could form anywhere. Die breaks will leave a raised area on the struck coin.

Die WearRepeated hits with a hammer caused the dies to wear. The devices (raised areas on the coins) were sunk into the die creating an incuse image. As the die was used, these wore away and became wider. Coins struck with these dies had wider devices, and this could eventually cause devices to merge and small detail to be lost
Double struckA double (or more) struck coin occured when multiple strikes were used, and the flan moved between strikes. This caused the image to appear multiple times on the coin.

See “Overstruck/Understruck/Undertype”

FieldThe blank and flat areas on either side of a coin; the parts of a coin’s surface not used for the design or the text
FlanThe blank disk which is struck to produce a coin
Flan DefectsA flan defect is a problem with the flan itself. They can be caused during the flan moulding process, or during striking. Defects caused during the moulding process were likely to be voids. The striking process could cause the flan to crack, chip, split (a v-shaped hole at the edge) or even change shape.

Lamination, where a bad alloy mix caused part of the surface to flake away, could happen before or after minting.

Flan defects are a great way of detecting fake coins. No two coins should ever have the same defects

Flow LinesThese are lines radiating out from the center of the coin. As the flan was struck, the metal in the flan deformed under pressure and flowed into the holes in the die, which is what created the devices (the raised areas on the coin). Some flow lines appear below the surface of the coin, and these are unique to each coin. Others sit above the surface of the coin, and are caused by the die. The flowing metal would eventually mark the die, and these marks would start to appear as raised lines on subsequent coins.

FourreA coin with a core made of a lesser metal, and plated in a precious metal. For example, a bronze core coated in gold. While most fourres were made by counterfeiters, some may have been official issues intended to decieve:

analysis has shown that such forgeries were being produced in official Macedonian mints specifically for trade with the ‘barbarians’, i.e. there existed an official policy on behalf of the Macedonian authorities to systematically defraud their trading partners
GradeA subjective rating used to describe the condition of a coin.

Machine made modern coins are all identical, differing only in the amount of circulation wear they have. This can be described by a single value. Ancient coins, on the other hand, became unique the moment they were struck, varying by the artistic quality of the die, the wear on the die, the strength of the strike, the centring of the flan between the dies, the shape of the flan, and cracks and other deformities that formed when the flan was struck. A grading system has to take all of this into account, as well as circulation wear, what happened to it when it was in the ground for a couple of millennia, and the fact that the obverse and reverse dies could vary independently, so you could have an excellent, mint-state, reverse, and a worn and flawed obverse.

This makes ancient coins much harder to grade than machine made modern coins. Representing all of that variability with just one grade is very subjective, and without seeing a photo of the coin, you can’t really guess what you’re getting. Of course, if you have a photo (and almost all coins are bought today after seeing good quality photos), then the grade isn’t that important.

It’s possible to grade each of these aspects individually, but most ancient-coin collectors don’t bother. Instead, they use an unquantifiable metric called “eye appeal” which basically boils down to a two grade system – “Coins I like” and “Coins I don’t like”

HubbingHubbing is the process of creating a new die from a positive stamp rather than cutting it by hand. The “positive stamp” could be a real coin, or a special die that looked like a coin (called a matrix). The die would have been heated to make it soft, and then the coin or matrix would have been hammered into it to transfer the image

Hubbing was done to either save time or to create forgeries. Dies hubbed from coins can be detected because the full design won’t transfer unless the coin was perfectly centered. When new coins are made from this die, the design will stop a distance from the edge because that part of the design wasn’t present on the original coin

LegendThe words engraved around the outside of the obverse and/or reverse
NumismaticsThe study of coins
NumismatistSomeone who studies coins
ObverseThe “head” side of the coin which shows the portrait. However, many ancient coins either had no portraits on them, or they had one on each side, so techically, the obverse is the side that was face down when the coin was struck. As the obverse die wasn’t constantly being hit with a hammer, it lasted longer, so the more important design was put on this side
Test cutsA test cut is where someone in antiquity cut the coin open to check that the coin was made from the same metal all the way through. It was used to detect counterfeits which were made from copper, bronze or lead, and just plated with gold or silver
Overstruck/Understruck/UndertypeAn overstruck coin is one that has been struck more than once and shows multiple designs. When this occured because the die moved during striking, we tend to say it was double struck (see above). Overstruck is generally used for the case where a a pre-existing coin was used as the flan. This was an easy way to make sure the value of the new coin matched an existing coin, and it also cut out the flan preparation time. Coins minted this way are called overstruck coins. The coin that was used as the flan is called the undertype.

The overstrike is the image that appears on top (the last one formed), and the understrike is all the other images that appear. For example, if a coin was struck three times and the die moved each time, the last image laid down is the overstrike, and the first two images laid down are the understrikes

PatinaA layer of oxidized metal that can coat bronze and copper coins. Patina can form in many colours, but green is the most common. A good patina can increase the value of a coin
PlanchetSee Flan
ProvenanceThe history of ownership of the coin. A complete provenance records where and how the coin was found, and every sale and owner since that point. The provenance can increase the value of a coin if it has been in famous collections, or passed through the hands of respected dealer
ReverseThe “tail” side of the coin. The reverse is the side that was face up when the coin was struck. The reverse die was the one hit with the hammer
SlugA coin that’s so worn that there’s almost no detail left
StrikeThe process of imprinting the design onto the flan by striking the reverse die with a hammer. Strike is also used by some as an attribute in grading ancient coins, and it accounts for all factors that were in effect at the moment of striking such as centering, strength of strike, evenness of strike (were the dies parallel), die state, etc.
Aren’t they too rare/expensive to collect?

That really depends on what you want to collect. While it’s certainly true that some ancient coins sell for truly astronomical prices, you can buy them delivered for less than £10 ($10). For example:

A 1,600 year old coin for less than £10 delivered.

One common misconception that newcomers to ancient coin collecting have is that rare means expensive. It doesn’t. There are so many ancient coin that are rare, that rare ancient coins are quite common. Rarity only leads to an expensive coin if the coin is in demand for other reasons.

“There are only two of these coins in the world. The problem is that the only guy who cares already has the other one”

What makes a coin expensive is demand, and there are several reasons why a coin might be in demand:

  1. It has an interesting historical context. A classic example is the “Eid Mar” denarius which was minted by Brutus to celebrate the assasination of Julius Caeser. That coin is connected to two of the most famous people from history, and to one of the most famous historical events. It’s interesting and many people would like to own it. Although there are over 100 of them known (which in ancient coins terms, is almost common), the number of people who want them is much larger, making this a six figure coin
  2. It has eye appeal. Some ancient coins stand head and shoulders above others in terms of style, size, material, strike, etc., and people are prepared to pay large sums to own the very best quality ones
  3. It is a “key coin” that’s needed to complete a popular set. This can make an otherwise uninteresting coin expensive just because it is needed to complete a collection. For example, let’s take the coins of emperor Otho. Ask around and you’ll find that almost no one has heard of him. He was emperor for three months in 69AD and didn’t produce many coins. His coins are rare, but as they aren’t associated with any interesting historical context, they should be relatively cheap. However, he’s one of the “Twelve Caesars” (Julius Caesar to Domitian) which is a very popular collecting theme, so all those collectors need an Otho coin. All the collectors trying to get portraits of all of the emperors also need Othos coins as well, so he becomes key to those people too. This drives up the price

This all becomes important later when you decide what you want to collect, but for now the take away points are:

  1. There are ancient coins available at all price points so money doesn’t need to be a barrier to collecting
  2. Rarity isn’t important unless there’s also demand
  3. Beware of sellers making a big deal out of the fact that their coin is rare. Most ancient coins are rare!
What should I collect?

Buy something you like. Learn about it. Repeat

This is a tricky question to answer. There are many thousands of ancient coins, from many places, times and cultures, so the opportunities to put together your own collecting theme are endless. There are some popular themes, such as the “Twelve Emperors” mentioned above, but be aware that collecting a popular theme makes coin rarity important, and it could become expensive.

The best advice for chosing what to collect is to collect what appeals to you. Take the time to browse through ancient coins (online or in the flesh if you can) and make a note of the ones that stand out and catch your eye. Try and work out what caused that. Was it the art? Was it the historical context? Was it the story behind the coin? One of the easiest ways to do this is to download an auction catalogue and just flick through it. Auction catalogues not only have great photos, but they also contain information about the coins as well, so can be very cheap reference guides.

This may take you in unexpected directions, so have an open mind and try not to spend too much money until you are sure. Here are some random bits of advice to guide you while you are getting started.

If you like:

Decide if you want to be be:

  • a completist who makes a list of coins that form a set, and then tries to get them all
  • a generalist who just buys what interests you
  • a researcher who buys coins for research, such as doing a die study or to publish a book
  • an curator whose goal is to carefully craft a collection that’s more important than the coins within it

Be aware that popular collecting themes can be expensive because of the increased demand.

Once you have decided what you want to collect, do some research to find out:

  • How much the coins will cost
  • How often they come available for sale

My first collecting theme turned out to have a number of coins that were impossible to get (one was only known from a drawing in a 19th century book) and many of the ones you could get were both very sought after and very rare, making them prohibitively expensive. Finding this out before buying any coins or books was useful.

How do I buy ancient coins?

Buying ancient coins is easy as there are a many online shops and auctions. VCoins and MA-Shops are the best places to start for fixed-priced coins, and Numisbids and Sixbid being the best place for auctions. Note that buying from coin auctions can be very different from buying from ebay, so take some time to understand them before getting involved (in particular, you have to get pre-approval to bid, there will be a fee, that fee might attract tax, shipping can be more than you expect, and some have a soft-close so sniping isn’t possible).

If you are lucky enough to have a coin shop or a coin show near you, then they are fantastic places to buy as well.

Wherever you buy from, make sure the shop has a policy of lifetime refunds for coins that turn out to be fake. While rare, even the best dealer can pass on a forged coin by mistake, so check out what they will do if it does happen.

Don’t buy from ebay until you know what you are doing as there are far too many fakes for sale. However, once you do know what you are doing, ebay is an excellent place to buy directly from the metal detectorists who are finding the coins.

How do I store ancient coins

There are a number of ways to store your coins, such as 2×2 cardboard holders with mylar windows, plastic capsules and slabs, coin trays, plastic flips, albums, and custom made wooden cabinets. Which one to use is a trade off between cost, space, security and aesthetics. Trays and cabinets are better for displaying coins, but cardboard holders and plastic flips are most space efficient. Albums are a common compromise as you can get a double page display of coins, and lock the album away in a safe.

You’ll see lots of moderns coins for sale permanently encased in slabs, but this isn’t so common for ancient coins. This is for two reasons:

  1. Ancient coins don’t need the same level of protection as modern coins. They’ve been circulated and then buried for over a thousand years, so there’s very little damage you can do just by handling them
  2. Part of the joy of ancient coins is that you can hold something in your hand that someone else held in antiquity. You lose that quality when you permanently encase the coin

Whatever you buy, make sure it’s of archival quality and isn’t going to damage your coins. When you buy plastic flips, or plastic sheets to go in your album, take care to get non-PVC versions. PVC flips and sheets are softer and less brittle than the non-PVC versions, but the chemicals will leach out and eat your coins.

Are ancient coins a good investment?

For most coins, probably not. The only reason a coin would go up in value is if demand relative to availability increases for it. That means a coin would either have to become rarer, or more people would suddenly want to buy that coin. Think for a minute what either of these would mean.

  • For the former, coins would have to be destroyed. This tends not to happen. What does tend to happen is that coins become less rare as more are dug out of the ground.
  • For the latter, a coin would have to become more desirable. As a coin is unlikely to become more beautiful, a coin would only become more desirable if the historical context became more interesting, which is doubtful, because history happened a long time ago and we already know all about it. If a particular period/place/event was going to be interesting, it would already be interesting.

For most coins, all that will happen is that the price will increase with inflation.

There are a few ways you could get good returns on a coin:

  1. The coin is a “super-coin”. These are coins that are exceptionally rare, exceptionally in demand, and in exceptional condition. These are the top 0.1% of coins and at auction all it would take are two collectors with very deep pockets to push the price up. Here’s an example of the sale of such a coin. It opened at £40,000 with an estimate of £50,000 but sold for £190,000 (actually, £224,200 when the fee and tax are included). On that day, two very rich collectors just had to have it.
  2. The coin is rare (or the best example of its type) but wasn’t particularly in demand when you got it. If a new collector with sufficient funds enters that area of collecting, they can significantly drive up prices for everyone for a while.

So if most coins aren’t going to grow in price, will they at least hold their value?

In most cases yes. An ancient coin is a tangable object that isn’t going to become obsolete like a bike or a smart-phone will. Fifty years from now, if will still be an ancient coin with the same desirability it had when you bought it.

So I can’t lose money then?

Ahh, not so fast. There are a few ways you can lose money on an ancient coin.

Firstly, you can lose money if you paid a premium because the coin was rare and then more were found. For example, pre-1991, Celtic “Norfolk Wolf Left Type” gold staters were very rare, with only seventeen recorded. Then a hoard of them were found and there were hundreds available on the market.

Secondly, you can lose money when fees are taken into account.

  • If you sell to a dealer, you may only get 45% to 50% of the retail price.
  • If you sell on consignment through an auction house, you may be charged up to 20% of the hammer price as a fee.
  • If you bought at an auction, you would have been charged over 20% of the hammer price as a fee.

Let’s take a £100 coin as an example. If you bought from a dealer at £100 and sold immediately to another dealer, you would get around £50 back. If you bought the £100 coin at auction (hammer price) and immediately sold it at another auction where it achieved the same hammer price, you would have paid £120 but only got £80 back.

Thirdly, you can lose money if you time the sale badly. This is especially true for coins that are not very collectable because there’s a small potential market with limited money. If you sell your coin in proximity to a large sale that your buyers will be involved in, you may find that they have already spent, or have commited to spend, their money so they can’t buy your coin. A similar effect may occur if you sell your entire collection in one go. There may be plenty of willing buyers, but you might swamp their ability to buy your coins.

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