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Ancient Greek Coin Collecting 101

A CABINET OF GREEK COINS

(by Frank Sherman Benson?)

 

BEHOLD portrayed in miniature, yet clear,
The changing seasons of Hellenic art;
Fair spring-time, when dim haunting visions start
Forth into life, and forms divine appear;
Full, radiant summer, when a heaven-born skill
Achieves such height as man ne'ermore can gain;
Dear autumn of decay, wherein remain
Mere phantoms which a glimmering twilight fill.
Here too the Olympic pantheon displays
Pure, grand ideals of each dreaded god,
Or cherished goddess, or loved nymph enshrined.
With likeness too of many a king whose nod
Could empires shake.  Thus various-hued we find
A rich emblazonry of ancient days.


Coin collecting has been popular since the time of the Romans. It's sometimes called the hobby of Kings. As of the time of this writing, th “King of Siam” set was recently sold, for example. Royalty collected coins during the Renaissance period – the coins of the Roman and Byzantine emperors were quite popular at the time, on account of the portraits.

Ancient Greek coin collectors seem to fall into three categories: Those who appreciate the exceptional art on many of the coins, those that find the shear age of the coins fascinating, and those who find rarity appealing. (Note 1)

SicilianArt on Greek coins can be exceptionally beautiful. Collectors of Greek coins most often fit into this category. The standard of the art has never been replicated since. Herein lies the great attraction for many collectors and numismatists alike. Most scholars of ancient Greek coinage point to the Sicilian coinage of the fifth through third century BC as an artistic high point, while others look to the coinage of the Hellenistic monarchs.

The age of ancient Greek coins is also a great attraction, with some coins being minted over 2,600 years ago! Tied into this attraction is the historical and economic import of the coins. The first lumps of electrum were “minted” in Asia Minor, and these were actually stamped with a mark of value and/or ownership and not commonly circulated. Then the Lydians discovered how to separate the gold and silver that comprises electrum. Shortly after that silver coinage spread throughout the Greek world.

Rarity is sought by many collectors, and Greek coins offer many rarities along with art and age. For this reason many collectors find ancient Greek coinage a much more interesting way to collect their rarities.

earlyAncient Greek coin collecting is an absorbing and rewarding hobby. A collector wishing to delve into ancient Greek coinage is met with a few surprises when compared to collecting contemporary coins: There usually are no dates or mint marks on the coins, there's more rarity in general and therefore the prices are higher, and there's no set schemes or patterns to collect by, ie: to collect all Lincoln cents in an album designed for the purpose.

Unlike collecting modern day coins, no set plan is actually needed. A field of interest is more important. Some examples would be: Archaic period (or the very oldest coins), coins with portraits on the obverse, gold and electrum coinage, bronze coinage, coins from a certain region or city, rarities, etc. I would suggest, therefore, that you find something that interests you, and then read on that subject. Also, you may find your dealer or numismatist very valuable: to help you avoid pratfalls and suggest reading materials. Take your time and enjoy the experience of learning and collecting some of the most interesting coins ever produced!

Most of the coins you will collect or examine may be handled! I know this seems very wrong but there's little possibility of damaging a 2,000 year old bronze coin. It's already been through a lot, and you can hold it in your hand and examine it closely (just be careful not to scratch it, etc.). Also, be aware that nearly all ancient Greek coins are either still buried or have been excavated and cleaned! Cleaning is an accepted practice and does not, in and of itself, ruin the value of the coin. That said, it's obvious that a bad cleaning will leave its mark, and that some collectors prefer toned coins (many also prefer recently cleaned ones).

Since the coins are expensive, it seems obvious a beginner should start with bronze issues, which are normally lower in price, and this practice is advocated by many. I don't agree with this way of thinking. I'll restate the obvious: collect coins that interest you! If you find the coins you like too expensive, you have some options: Use layaway plans (for example, Forum Ancient Coins offers up to four months to pay for a coin on layaway), select coins of a lower grade or condition, and start with the least expensive coins in the area that interests you. It would be better to have one coin that you really like and are proud to own, than to have several coins that you care little for!

The beginner would therefore be well advised to read a few books. There's a saying, “buy the book before the coin,” that is generally considered an axiom.
Recommended Reading (get at least one of the two below as an introduction):

Jenkins, G., Ancient Greek Coins, Putnam, New York

Carradice, I, Greek Coins, British Museum Press, London

Note 1: Age does not determine rarity. Certain ancient Greek coins are not rare in general (even though admittedly desirable, and far rarer than modern coins in general), whereas certain early American coins are unique, and worth considerably more, even though minted more than two thousand years later! Numismatic rarity is primarily based on known specimens of a particular coin, and secondarily upon finely preserved coins where few excellent specimens exist.

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