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XXI

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Uncleaned Roman Coins – For Fun and (not) for Profit

by Michael Kurinsky

I began collecting uncleaned Roman coins about six months ago. All I was really trying to do was find an interesting coin for my wife. She collects coins, and I thought this would make a very unique gift and that it would work out well for all concerned if I could get something out of the experience even if it was just the feeling of playing amateur archeologist. So I settled on some uncleaned coins. That decision, combined with all the offerings on E-bay led me into one of the most interesting and addictive hobbies I have ever had.

The description for the Dutch auction informed me that I was bidding per piece, but given that the price of the coins was only a buck, I pretty much had that figured out. This wasn’t rocket science (yet). My first batch arrived in the mail shortly after the auction ended and I immediately went to work with an old toothbrush and some soap and water to uncover something that had traveled through time almost 2,000 years to end up in my hands. What I did not anticipate was that these things were almost all covered in rock.

I slowly scrubbed all the coins. One made my heart quicken. A small coin had revealed a face starting to show through all the grime and suds. This was it! I had found a coin with detail left. I was amazed. For the next few weeks, this coin took primary focus in my spare time. When I had a free moment at work, I was on the Internet looking for cleaning tips. Many were available from all over the net. I found what they had in common and used it. Slowly the coin started to show even more detail. After several cleaning sessions with a toothpick and sometimes a small dull needle, I had a completely cleaned coin. Unfortunately, I had no idea what or who it was…but the patina was still intact. That had to count for something after everything I had read.

Filled with new motivation and a little more information, I decided to go up a notch in the quality of the coins. My second shipment arrived (20 coins this time) and I was all set to find something good. I was lucky. Many of the coins showed some detail, but there were a couple that cleaned up without anything more than a couple days of soaking and my trusty toothbrush.

About this time, I decided that I really needed some way to identify the coins. That is the wonderful thing about the internet. If you need information it is out there. All you have to do is find it. I found the Dirty Roman Bath Society at www.militaria.com/coins. They are a group of people that only collect uncleaned Roman coins and they were a wonderful place for me to start to learn more about my newfound hobby. Their website also contains useful links to dealers and recently added information on creating your own set of brass cleaning tools so you will not damage your bronze coins. I also found two groups on Yahoo called Coincom and Moneta-L. Both are fantastic sources of information and the members are very helpful as well as patient with what I am sure were some stupid questions. These groups are also in part responsible for further infecting me with collection interest. I was now looking into other Roman coins as well.

An interesting link at the Dirty Roman Bath site is to Joviel’s page with uncleaned and cleaned photos, a percentage of emperors he has received, the “keeper” percentage per batch and the dollar value per coin per vendor that he has used. When you are just starting out, this page can give you some added confidence in the vendor or in your own work.

After reading the messages in the groups, it became apparent that one of the most valuable sources of information for identifying coins is a book called The Handbook of Roman Imperial Coins by Van Meter. He breaks things down very easily, and with it I was able to find out that my first little coin was from Constantius II and that the back had two soldiers, one on each side of a standard and at one time said Gloria Exercitus. It was my first step into cracking the code. I was further emboldened.

I have to agree that the Van Meter book is incredibly helpful. I was able to get mine through Forvm coins. With my order I also purchased a single bronze coin. You see, I wanted to see what they should look like cleaned so I would have a point of reference. I also learned that Forvm has an attribution assistance program that is very helpful. I had reason to use it several months later when I got a huge uncleaned coin that cleaned up to show nothing but a figure in patina on the reverse, but the front showed someone’s head and I was able to make out enough of the writing for the program to inform me that this was a coin from Agrippa. This is my oldest coin, and for some reason one of my favorites.

I have learned many things over the past months, the first being that you should not expect anything when you buy an uncleaned lot. This way the excitement will be greater when you do make a discovery. Second, join the coin groups. They are a great bunch of people and will help you along the learning curve a lot faster than going it alone. Third, Van Meter and the Forum attribution assist program are great tools. Use them. Finally, and most important, patience is key. There are many different ways to clean a coin, but all the ones that will leave you with a nice end product all require patience. Sometimes when I have a coin that I can’t wait to finish, the hardest thing to do is to walk away and let it soak in oil again. As a last resort, if I have a coin that just won’t clean up or show any detail, I will use electrolysis as a last step to see if there is anything there. This will strip the coin down to the bronze itself.