A Visit to a Coin Show

Three Different People; Three Different Techniques

A couple times a year, two friends and I carpool to Baltimore to attend one of the big coin shows held at the Convention Center down by the Inner Harbor. Similar (or better!) shows are held in most major cities. Carpooling gives us a chance to talk over the state of our hobby and compare notes on what we saw at the show. It also allows us to split the expenses of driving up and the $10 it costs to park in a garage near the Convention Center. On the way up to this particular show we decided to have a little contest and see who could do best adding to our collections but not spending over $100. After all, none of us are what you would call 'well-to-do' and all of us want to save some of our collecting budget for our online shopping habits. All three of us collect ancient coins but we have very different ideas about what makes a good collection and how is the best way to build it.

Frank (the names are changed to protect ...) is retired military and specializes in coins with a military theme. He takes pride in the quality of his coins and has a relatively small collection in terms of numbers but nicer coins than either of his companions. Limiting his spending to $100 will be a problem for Frank. Most of his coins cost several times that amount. To make matters worse, Frank has decided to search the show for an example of a rather narrow specialty. He wants a coin showing a gladiator. Yes, as a matter of fact, Frank did see the movie but, more significantly, he read the recent discussion on Moneta-L mentioning the April, 1997, Celator Magazine article by Warren Esty on coins showing gladiators. The article describes three Roman Republican denarii that are believed to show gladiators (there is some question about this interpretation in two of the cases). For Frank to be successful he will need a little luck. We wish him well when we get to the door and go our separate ways.

Paul, on the other hand, is a bargain hunter. Paul never met a cheap coin he didn't like and has built a 2000 coin collection out of what chance has brought his way in the under $25 per coin bracket. Make no mistake, Paul's collection is not junk. Most of his coins are quite presentable, if not exceptional, Late Roman bronzes. He does not buy randomly from junk boxes but seeks out sleepers resting with thousands of lesser coins. Collecting Paul's way requires the expenditure of a lot of time, effort and study. Today, he will handle well over 1000 coins. Most will be pushed aside quickly but a few finalists will be set out for possible purchase. Going through the door, Paul has no idea what kind of coins he will be buying. Chances are good that they will be Late Roman but if a good deal on Greek bronzes is found, he will be willing. Since he collects everything, the chance of his finding coins that he will like is 100%.

I, Doug, fall somewhere between my friends. I can't limit myself to the strict discipline of Frank but I am not quite so bargain oriented as Paul. I buy coins that "speak" to me. Many of these are coins that I find pleasing in style or coins that show some point of interest that would make good illustrations for my web page. Like Paul, I collect generally and often buy coins that seem to be bargains. Like Frank, I have a specialty. Actually I have several specialties. Once I concentrated on Eastern mint denarii of Septimius Severus but, as finding new and different coins became difficult, I expanded my interests. Now I seek 3rd century Roman coins of branch mints. I always appreciated technically odd coins and coins that illustrate some feature of the minting process. Sometimes I fall into little mini-specialties. Currently I am gathering coins with mintmarks of some special interest. All these interests make it hard to answer a dealer who asks what he can show me. I need to see everything and see which coins speak up and demand to follow me home. Like Paul, I am virtually certain to spend my $100. I have enough interests that someone will have something for me.

Limited by our budgets, Paul and I will be concentrating on dealers who handle lower priced coins. This will exclude some of the big name dealers attending the show. They will be of great value to those who can spend several hundred (or several thousand!) dollars per coin. We do not, and can not, expect the same level of service, identification and catalogue references for our $5 to $50 coins that we would expect were we buying coins costing $500. Our budget also limits us when selecting the areas of our collecting interest. A specialized collection of Greek tetradrachms or sestertii of the Twelve Caesars is simply not possible for a collector of very limited means. This, however, does not restrict our enjoyment of the hobby or this show. Vast areas of classical numismatics can be represented by modestly priced coins. Most obvious are the 3rd and 4th Century AD Roman issues but Greek bronzes and Roman Provincial issues are also available for our consideration. Budget will also steer us away from dealers whose strength is providing information and advice to beginning collectors. Some dealers cater to new collectors showing an amazing amount of patience in answering questions and guiding their first purchases. Unfortunately, to make a living, they usually must charge a slightly higher price for relatively common coins. While they are of extreme value to beginners, we tend to prefer dealers offering fewer services and lower prices. We will spend a good part of our day sorting through bags of unidentified coins from newly found hoards or boxes of individual coins that are identified only to ruler or city but lacking extensive cataloging.

Frank, on the other hand, is limited to $100 only by the terms of our game but will also be considering coins in a higher bracket. Since he is looking for a rather specific item, Frank will be able to make more efficient use of the "full service" dealers. Frank will approach dealers and ask what they have for his military collection and, specifically, showing a gladiator. Dealers of unsorted bulk coins are not likely to know exactly what is in each bag. If he has time, Frank may look through some of the higher priced pickout bags but his main technique will rely on the expectation that dealers will know what they have in stock. Certainly most higher priced coins at the show will be identified and catalogued but I have seen bags marked 'Your Choice $500' so a collector needs to be watchful not to miss any opportunity to find the wanted coins.

As we pass through the door, a major difference in our show techniques becomes apparent. Both Frank and Paul hightailed it to the far side of the hall where a banner proclaims "Ancient and Foreign Section". I hesitated and scanned the list of dealers attending this show. I saw several familiar names including one favorite who also sells U.S. coins (this, I forgive him) and buys high traffic table space near the front door. I went there first. Experience has shown he will have something I will like and it will be reasonably priced. I would not want to spend my $100 before seeing what he has to offer. I sat down and asked to see the 3rd century items.

Frank arrived in the Ancients section and went from table to table asking dealers what they had to show in Gladiator coins. Some responded with a blank stare; some with 'nothing today'. Most showed him something with a soldier but nothing Frank was willing to classify as a Gladiator let alone one of the specific coins he was seeking. While he saw some coins of interest for his 'Military' collection, Frank was set on finding exactly what he wanted and would not hear of a compromise of the day's announced mission.

Paul's dream came true. A dealer attended this show with bags and bags (and boxes and crates!) of uncleaned coins. There must have been 20,000 of them! The coins were sorted by price per coin. Paul started with one of the $15 a pick bag and was fully planning to move on to the $10 bags and then to the $6 ones. This dealer was no fool, the coins had been sorted by appearance and the lower priced ones were smaller and harder to see what was under the dirt. Chances of finding a great rarity was slim but there were thousands of collectable coins in these bags ...and a ton of dirt. Paul is reasonably skilled at cleaning coins and selected coins that he thought would respond well to a bath. Paul wore old clothes to the show. For his style of collecting, a supply of handi-wipes is an important accessory.

As I had feared, my first stop could have produced more that my allotted $100 worth of coins. I could have left them all and gone on to the rest of the show hoping they would be there when I returned. I could have imposed on the dealer and asked him to hold my selections for a little while. Even if he were willing, this strikes me as terribly inappropriate since the man was there to sell coins not to play games. Instead, I limited my purchases to a pair of certainly wanted coins and moved along to join my friends in the Ancients Section. There I visited the tables of two other 'favorite' dealers and bought three more coins to finish off my $100. One came from a box marked 50% off. This "full service" dealer marks down stock that he has failed to move in a reasonable time. Odd how something that seems uninteresting at $35 becomes attractive at $17.50! A denarius I needed for my Eastern Severan collection struck me as a bargain even at full price. Part of me wanted to ask if the dealer would take less. The fact remained that I would have paid even more so I paid the man his full price and took my prize. Finished with the game portion of the day, I decided to look 'off the record' at the offerings of all the other dealers. Maybe I won't be buying so much on eBay in the near future. This show was too great an opportunity to let go by.

While Frank continued table hopping in vain, Paul selected a pile of ten $6 to $15 coins and spent his entire $100 at the first table he visited. The two of us got together and admitted the intent to go 'just looking' at the rest of the show but agreed to use those first purchases for our contest. When we saw Frank, our friend's disappointment was obvious. He had asked at every table in the Ancient Section and failed to find his coin. Recalling the first dealer I visited had a bag of Republican denarii, I asked if Frank had checked them. Since it was not located in the separate Ancient Section, he had not. The three of us walked back to the front so Frank could look for his denarius. Having looked through two 'better item' boxes and two 'pick out' bags of denarii, Frank's face lit up. He found one of the denarii mentioned in Warren Esty's article. The bag was marked, 'Your Choice: $100.' Baltimore, we have a problem: The coin was not perfectly centered. Worse yet, the coin was new hoard material and was brightly cleaned. Simply put, the coin was not up to Frank's standards. Not wanting to leave the show empty handed, Frank reluctantly bought the denarius to serve as a space filler until he could replace it with a better specimen.

As this is being written, several weeks after the show, Frank is still kicking himself for having bought that faulted coin. He hasn't found a replacement yet but I am looking forward to the opportunity to buy this 'space filler' from him very soon (at a discount?). In my collection, it would be a high end item; to Frank it is embarrassing. This is the nature of collecting ancient coins. There are many ways to approach the hobby. Each of us must decide on our standards and the focus of the collection. There is no right or wrong as long as we enjoy our hobby. Certainly, someday, Frank's collection will sell for the most money and there will probably be a pretty auction catalog published with his name on the cover. Paul and I will leave coins that are harder for the kids to market. I hope they are working on their eBay skills so they will be able to recover something from their inheritance.

The three images on this page shows the coins we each bought with our $100 'contest' money. Who won? Paul and I each think we did. Frank doesn't like his coin but still thinks it is better than the 'piles of junk' that we bought. Who won? What do you think? We had a fun day in Baltimore. We bought some pleasing coins and got to see several friends including the dealers who have done so much to help us build our collections. All treated us well even though we were not their most wealthy customers. To some degree we are fairly described as cheapskates. But after all, what did you expect? Guys with thousands to spend at a show don't carpool to save $10 on parking! ;)

This page was updated ten years later: Coinshow 2011 - An Update

Captions to the photos:

Doug's selections:
Julia Domna denarius, Emesa mint, Bona Spes reverse (Fits my Severan collection)
Probus antoninianus, Rome mint, Horseman reverse (Nice example of mintmark with digamma)
Constantine II Augustus AE4, Alexandria mint, 2 soldiers/1 standard (Not easy to find as Augustus)
Persian Empire siglos, running archer (Very off center but several nice countermarks on reverse)
Gallienus antoninianus, Asia mint, Trophy and captive reverse ('Branch' mint mark)

Paul's selections (cleaned by Paul except as noted):
$15 section:
Constans AE2, Heraclea mint, Hut reverse
Constantius II AE2, Antioch mint, Soldier and 2 captives reverse
Constantius II AE3, Constantinople mint, Phoenix on globe reverse
$10 section:
Constantine I AE3, Trier mint, Campgate reverse
Helena AE3, Thessalonica mint, Helena standing reverse
Diocletian post abdication AE1, Alexandria mint, Providentia/Quies (poorly cleaned and thrown in uncleaned box by dealer)
$6 section:
Constantine I AE3, Rome mint, Vota wreath (Very common coin but still too nice for $6!)
Constantine I AE3, Siscia mint, 2 Victories/shield/altar reverse
Honorius AE3/4, Antioch mint, Concordia reverse
Licinius II Caesar, Antioch mint, Jupiter with captive reverse

Frank's selection:
Cn. Domitius Ahenobarbus denarius, (Under horses on reverse a Gladiator spears a lion - some people see a soldier and a dog but I accept the identification of this as one of the Gladiator coins)

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(c) 2001 Doug Smith