Editor’s Note: Columnist Michael Bugeja collects ancient coins because of the art and history and challenge of identifying rulers and countries. He also is aware of counterfeits and so slabs all his finds. In this two-part article, he shares his methods.
Bidding in auctions is fun when you know something that sellers do not, because of numismatic education, thereby adding coins to your collection with low bids and high expectations.
One of my favorite pastimes is finding ancient coins online and using knowledge to discern genuine from counterfeit lots (the market is flooded with them) and then bidding accordingly.
This column focuses on a recent lot of ancients that I won with a bid of $75 in an online auction. With buyer’s fee and shipping, the total cost was about $100. In Part II, forthcoming in Coin Update, I will let you know if they slabbed or were deemed counterfeit, which often occurs with raw ancient coins.
Above is the lot in question, which the auctioneer simply described as “ancient coins.”
Perfect. Now the rest is up to me.
Take a look at the Greek coin in the upper-right corner, with the mythical horse Pegasus. There was no reverse photo, but it looked very much like a 400-375 B.C. Corinth silver stater. These go for several hundred dollars.
Here’s one in my collection:
I also saw three even older coins (the three smallest ones); they are “sigloi” of the Achaemenid Empire, B.C. 490, Persia. These are among the oldest coins in numismatic history and are always in demand because of that distinction. Moreover, they are reasonably priced because so many have survived the millennia.
One in good condition like these with a punch mark, part of the minting process, costs about $80-100, or more than I paid for the entire lot.
The middle coin in the auction photo (second, second row) was distinctly Roman. I was not sure which kind, because the obverse with the portrait of the ruler was missing. I could not immediately identify the other coins.
Winning the coins is one thing; identifying them is another.
You can find tutorials online to help in the identification process. One nifty site is “Doug Smith’s Ancient Coins,” formerly “Ancient Greek and Roman Coins.” I love his “My Favorite Coins” page with thumbnails of ancient coinage. Click on an image, and you get a description.
The site has a four-part series on the vocabulary used in ancient coins, which is indispensable for a coin hunter like me. For instance, on this page dedicated to Greek coins, he describes the Corinthian stater and explains how to tell heads from tails:
“Our example shows the winged horse Pegasus on the obverse (anvil side of the die) and the head of Athena on the reverse (punch side). Some collectors simplify the definition of obverse and reverse into ‘heads’ and ‘tails,’ in which case this coin’s sides would be given the opposite identities. This is a minor point not really worth the arguments that it has caused among collectors. In most cases, the more important type was placed on the obverse, and given the anvil position (anvil dies lasted longer than punch dies).”
When I received the coins from the auctioneer, I was pleased. They all looked authentic. (Fakes and artisan reproductions are common on eBay and in other online auctions, especially those from international sellers — a topic for an upcoming column.)
Using Doug Smith’s and other online sites, such as this “Illustrated Ancient Coin Glossary” and “All Your Coins” ancient database, I identified these coins in my submission to NGC Ancients: three silgoi (B.C. 420-375), Roman Empire Philip I double denarius (A.D. 244-249), Corinth AR stater (B.C. 345-307), Maximian Follis (A.D. 286-310) and Ptolemaic Kingdom Ptolemy III (B.C. 246-222).
After NGC received my submission, it posted these descriptions:
c. 5th Century CB Achaemenid Empire Siglos
Trebonianus Gallus, Roman emperor (AD 251-253)
Epirus, Ambracia Stater (BC 4th Century)
Maximian aka “Marcus Aurelius Valerius Maximianus Herculius,” Roman emperor (AD 286-305)
Ptolemy III, third king, Ptolemaic dynasty, Egypt (BC 246-222).
As you can see, I correctly identified all but two of the auction lot. I mistook Treb Gallus for Philip I and a Corinth for an Ambracia stater. Ambracia is another Greek city, and its coins typically are rarer than ones from Corinth.
You can see the similarity between Philip I and Gallus.
I always learn from my submissions. In the future, I should note subtle differences such as beard, nose, and crown. It is also advisable to check numismatic books to detect these similar but finer features on ancients. My favorite is Ancient Greek and Roman Coins by Zander H. Klawans.
In my next column, I will let you know whether NGC deemed these as authentic, slabbing them, or returning them as counterfeit. If authentic, I will consign all but the Ambracia stater, adding it to my ancient collection, and also let you know of the total profit, if any.
Finally, if you are interested in learning more about ancient and medieval coins, there are useful Facebook groups–Ancient and Medieval Coins and Ancient Coin Collectors Society–with users sharing images and information about their finds and love of the hobby.