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What I Like About Ancient Coins
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XXI

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New Collector - From Philadelphia to Constantinople

It’s a little embarrassing to have to admit that 25 years ago I could not have told you anything about Byzantium. I had never even heard that word. My travels into the world of ancient numismatics began late and in perhaps an unusual way.  I never could have guessed that I would have come to this place via the route that my path took.

As a child in the 1970’s I was not an outstanding student in school.  My main extracurricular occupation was fishing although I collected Ike dollars and U.S. bicentennial quarters, half dollars, wheat cents, and such.  I filled a Whitman penny folder—less the key dates, of course. One Christmas or birthday I was given a U.S. stamp folio and I proceeded to fill it up as well, but I never pursued it beyond that.

Neither my parents nor grandparents were coin collectors, so I turned to the local libraries for resources (we had no internet in those days). Unfortunately, the primary texts consisted mostly of the annual Red Books. These are consistently “good” but not anything approaching a primary resource for any serious numismatist.  So without any support in the endeavor, I lost interest about 1980 and my coins went into the cigar box; the Red Books I had bought lost to some future yard sale.

Fast forward to 1995.  The U.S. Mint was about to give the U.S. quarter a face lift.  The new statehood quarters suddenly motivated me to once again revisit numismatics. I was really excited to hear they would be offered in silver proofs.  I joined the local coin club and enjoyed my all too short time at our monthly meetings. I had started collecting again. I was into silver issues of all U.S. denominations, and most 20th century date periods.  A peace dollar here, Morgan dollar there, BU Franklin halves, and so on. Before too long, I had assembled all the non-key Morgan dollars in MS-60 to MS-63., and it was a magnificent sight.

I had never given much thought to ancients. None of the local collectors seemed to either. Why would we?  Ancients are in many ways the complete opposite of U.S. coinage. Ancients are foreign, often found dirty, cracked, unevenly struck and heavily worn. Their metallurgy is not consistent and neither were the dies. The grading and values of these issues is more subjective than with any U.S. series. And one would need to learn Latin or Greek to be able to read their inscriptions.  If you brought up ancients at any coin club meeting you were in for a smirk and a laugh.

The local coin dealer in my town was the late Albert Gaskill, and upon meeting him I was informed that everything in town was “U.S. and nothing else.”  There was no market for ancient coins locally. I accepted this lay of the land and was happy to move forward into the modern world of numismatics. Albert's shop was only a few short blocks away from my office, and most days I would grab a sandwich and head over to the shop to eat, visit, learn, and drool over coins I could not afford.  I sat in the corner on a bar stool, using my lap for my table, ever mindful of my manners.  Albert was always glad to see me and apparently was good with me using his shop as a break room. I bought most of my collection from this one shop over the course of several years.

One lunch hour I noticed something I had not paid much attention to before. In the far corner of the display case was an unusual looking coin.  I had seen these in some books, but never had paid any attention to them.  It was an 1840 U.S. silver dollar in XF-40 condition. Albert could tell I was looking at it hard and he picked it out and laid it on the counter in front of me.  It was the first Seated Liberty coin I had ever seen up close. I was captivated. I had to have it. I had suddenly discovered my focus.

It was not long before I abandoned all modern U.S. coins and exclusively sought Seated Liberty issues in all its denominations. I sold off my Morgans and most of my other accumulations, using the funds to acquire these issues.  I bought Walter Breen's book and joined the Liberty Seated Collector’s Club.  I picked up other specialty books on the Seated Liberty series and began collecting die varieties of the coins.  I even visited the old New Orleans mint, and what remains of the Dahlonega and Charlotte mints. As a diversion, I assembled an entire 1853 year set from cent through double eagle just because that particular year’s issues seemed to me to have such a grand appeal.

In school, history was my worst subject behind chemistry and foreign languages.  I was an average student at best. Rote memorization of places, dates, and people I could not do. But as a result of the Seated Liberty pieces, I began to take an interest in American history.  I wanted to understand the origins and evolution of our nation, our Founders, and government. This was to be an intense self-study in far greater depth than any high school or even undergraduate class. So I began to read.  Suddenly, I had no problems remembering places, dates, and people of history--probably because it was now important to me.

My local coin club soon elected me as their vice president, and later, president. As president of the coin club, it was my duty to coordinate the annual coin show, which put me into direct contact with dozens of dealers who were to attend our show. It was the beginning of the end for me.  I found myself spending more time coordinating and arguing with coin dealers than I was collecting coins and doing research.  It was like herding cats with these guys and some of the attitudes and egos became a real put off to me.  I saw a side of numismatics I didn’t want to know existed.

I thought about resigning as president to relieve me of these duties, but I understood that the members truly wanted me to serve and I did not want to let them down. Finally, I accepted a new job in another town about an hour away, and that brought about the change I needed to get away from interaction with the dealers.  But the damage was done. I was frustrated now, and separated from Albert and his shop, all my friends in the club, and pretty much everything else.  Albert passed away and I put away all my coins in probably 2002.

I continued my study in American history though, for about five years or more. I was reading primary texts of our Founders rather than modern biographies. I felt like I was accomplishing my goal until I kept seeing the references to Rome and the Roman Empire by our Founding Fathers. Apparently they knew something of the ancient world when they framed our government.  This was not a surprising revelation to me, but curiosity led me to continue to dig further back in history—back to the Roman Republic.

Soon, I was reading Edward Gibbons’ “History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” and John Julius Norwich's three book series on Byzantium. Then there were other books. I added texts on Byzantine art and Roman architecture to my library. I was faced with the daunting thought that I might try to absorb the details of centuries of Roman history in the few decades I have left on earth.

In addition to Hagia Sophia, the city gate at Triers, and the remnants and ruins of Roman architecture strewn across most of Europe and North Africa, we are fortunate to have a generous supply of more portable and accessible Roman artifacts to study.  The evidence left for us by the ancient world includes those lowly scraps of metal we call coins. The wonderfully mis-struck, out of shape, haggard old bits of gold, silver, and bronze that can tell us so much about their past--and in many respects serve as a mirror of our own.  These pieces are the same ones unjustly maligned by my club members years ago. Only now, with new eyes, I was able to understand these amazing remnants in the light of their true context.

Originally, numismatics eventually drove me to study history.  Now, years later, history drove me right back to numismatics. I was now poring over ancient coin offerings online. I bought several good reference texts first, including the Sears books and the monstrous volume, ERIC II.  I started carefully selecting coins and building a small, meaningful collection. This was world history unfolding before me. After a few years at it now, it still staggers my imagination that any of these issues survived to make their way into my hands.

Just as the ancient world is separated and distinctly different than the modern world, so is the approach to numismatics. For me it meant I no longer had to labor over the endless minutiae of whether a Morgan dollar grades a MS-63 or MS-65, or whether a proof coin might be considered “full cameo.” None of this really matters with ancients. The ancients survived to tell their story and that ought to be enough reason to like them.  Of course numismatists will still seek attractive pieces--and I do. But what is gained is a far greater in terms of character and historical drama.  Every ancient coin has a story to tell if one is willing to take the time to discover it.

In retrospect, perhaps my path here was not that unusual at all.

Dan

North Carolina

Recommended follow-on reading for the new collector: Ancient Coin Collecting 101