Sunday, May 6, 2007

A Newbie's Article And Observations

I extend a great big thank you to Jon Moller for the following article. Jon is a member of Ancient Peddler and he also serves as a Moderator on CoinZappers. Please view Jon's portrait on the ancient coin in upper left of article. Jerry

A Canadian Newb in Caracalla’s Court

Jerry asked me to write a "few" words on "what to collect" - for Newbies... and being a "newb" (which, being over 40 is my preferred term), I am untainted by long years of cleaning toil and market experience. Perhaps, in addition to "what to collect" I will also comment on "how to collect", or rather, attempt to provide some guidance to lead towards safe buying.

I haven't really been in the ancient coin hobby long enough to develop a true focus - though I have only Romans - mostly imperial portraits. Examples of many different faces is a drive right now, but my approach has been through study of history, then keying in on the individuals that I know something about... I have a lot to learn, both about history and the coins of the times. As time goes on I will likely use up that focus and either move to more of a specialist collection, or broaden to other areas - maybe Greeks, as the artistry is fantastic and inspiring. Though I have a special interest in the bronzes I do find the quality of the silver portraits attractive. I have also been drawn to the more masterly celator work - Nero especially, but I can't afford his really nice coins. Finally, the apparent psychopaths and weirdoes intrigue me - particularly Caracalla, Elagabalus (and Nero). Caracalla's and Elagabalus's coins are artful enough to please me, and inexpensive enough to buy.

As you may recognize from the above, my collection is somewhat controlled by availability/affordability, focused within those parameters by my interest and knowledge. So it should be no surprise that I am also collecting the later imperial era common bronzes, so readily available in uncleaned lots these days. I understand I missed the better days of uncleansed, after the fall of the Soviet Union and the flood of new material from the former eastern block countries. Oh well, like many other newbs, I am probably here because of this recent history....

Which brings me to buying advice:
Study the market - look around and allow yourself to be attracted. The narrower your focus, the faster you'll feel comfortable, attaining a holistic sense of that market segment. Look at,,,, eBay and others that you can find by searching.

Besides studying enough history or coins to know what coins you want, study forging techniques, as well as evidence of tooling, smoothing, and modern patinas. I have struggled somewhat to decide what I feel is acceptable regarding smoothing and fake patinas, and it is because I have some coins that I'm not quite comfortable with that I know where I draw my lines. I find it most satisfying to be extremely demanding in all respects. Generally, and I agree, the ancient coin collecting community recognizes that many ancient coins must be cleaned to some degree, depending on what has happened to them over the centuries. Obviously something must be done to liberate a coin that has become encased in concrete-like dirt after centuries of compaction in the ground. Hopefully we can remove the dirt and leave the natural patina, especially in those cases where a thick patina has formed from such excessive oxidation that the detail is all in the patina, and removing it leaves only a pitted coin core. In less extreme cases, I have noticed that coins cleaned by electrolysis (zapped) which have had the patina stripped often show noticeable pitting, which likely would not have been apparent had I taken the years to clean the coin without zapping....
Anyway, regarding the purchase of cleaned coins, when it comes to repatination, my acceptance comes down to 3 things:
1. Did the vendor tell me, or is it obvious it has been repatinated?
2. Does it improve or conserve the coin?
3. Is it the best example I'm likely to come across in the time I am willing to wait?

Smoothing, which is what is done to remove or lessen corrosion in the fields, and often is accompanied by tooling "conservation"/enhancement/out-and-out recarving is another area where we must draw our own limits. Though it can be argued that smoothing only returns the surface back to its original, it always removes the authentic patina from the areas smoothed, so a disturbed patina can be a sign of smoothing. And the fact is that if the metal was corroded, and then smoothed, it is not the original surface anymore, but a smoother's guess at what the original surface was like. Also, on more heavily smoothed coins, the machinist is faced with the problem of how to blend the smoothed fields into the devices. The bust and other central elements may be relatively easy with resulting increased sharpness and definition around their edges, but the legends pose special difficulties – the machinists seem to often be either unable or unwilling to make the effort required to smooth adequately between and within the letters. We must be careful in making judgment on each coin however, as it has been suggested that celators would re-carve their dies with new busts or reverse designs, which would leave noticeable raised fields around the legends. Some reputable dealers offer smoothed coins, with full disclosure. Ok, I personally don't want these coins, but many find them desirable.

Tooling is the term applied to the process of carving features on a coin. Like smoothing, it is often seen on coins that have surface corrosion, where the machinist has tried to “conserve” the coin back to its original form. Not limited to misguided yet good-faith conservation intentions, tooling can be used to sharpen worn lettering and device details such as hair, laurels, facial features et cetera. In its extreme, worn slugs may be completely re-carved with little or none of the original remaining. Considering how I feel about smoothing, I think you can guess how I feel about tooling "conservation"/enhancement/out-and-out recarving!

Finally, research what is known about how the authentic coins were made and get to know the forging techniques and how to detect fakes. It is unfortunate that many new ancient coin collectors are stung by forgeries on eBay, get turned off and leave the hobby. Indeed, my first eBay purchase was a cast fake Trajan denarius. I discovered that it was a fake before it was delivered to me, since I was so excited by my impulse purchase that I researched all that I could on it and found it listed among the Forum site fakes ( So study... as much as you can. Wayne Sayles' book "Classical Deception" is an excellent introduction to authentic production methods, forgery methods and forgeries through history. I intend to read Alan Van Arsdale's "Roman Coin Forgery", available on eBay. is an excellent site. The Yahoo group CFDL CoinForgeryDiscussionList will respond to specific posts and has excellent link resources related to forgeries, tooling and smoothing.

When considering a coin purchase, especially on eBay, research the coin to see if there are fake examples. See if you can find authentic examples on or Scrutinize the dealer - are they an ancient coin dealer or collector/hobbyist? Avoid estate liquidators and those who claim they don't know much about coins. Avoid 3 day auctions that limit the time to do adequate research. Avoid dealers who don't accept Paypal. Look at the eBay feedback rating. eBay feedback is set up to promote positive feedback, since the dealer can withhold feedback until the buyer gives theirs - essentially extorting good feedback... so make sure there are repeat customers - a feedback rating of 100 with 300 total is a seller who gets repeat customers. Have a look at the other auctions offered by a dealer - if it looks like all the coins came from the same "shop" well.... If you see something suspicious offered by an eBay dealer, don't consider any of their other offerings - consider that well poisoned and don't drink.
While doing all this research and taking such care it can be easy to become skewed in your view. Keep in mind that if you buy from reputable dealers, then probably 99% of the coins are authentic. If you buy on eBay, you can get some great deals, without the reputable dealer middleman, directly from wholesalers or other hobbyists, and if you do your homework you will significantly decrease the risk.

Above all, make this hobby your own and enjoy it in your own way. You make your own rules, for what you collect - be it a specialization like a single emperor, or all portraits, or reverses, or specific mints, or campgates, or animals, gold, silver, bronze, or whatever you want. You will hold history in your hand, and imagine why it was buried or how it was lost. You can consider the political and economic times they came from and gain understanding of the ancient and modern world, and perhaps gain insight I into how to make positive change for our future.

No comments: