Ancient Greek & Roman Coins

Grading and Describing Ancient Coins

Conditions of Preservation

Other than wear, which is addressed by the currently popular grading standards, many things could happen to an ancient coin on its travels into our collections. Some of these things are positive. Burial under the right conditions sometimes produced a controlled surface corrosion that collectors consider beautiful: the patina. Most, however, of the situations discussed below describe faults that coins show in reaction to the stresses of burial in the earth and handling by people both ancient and modern. It is quite possible that these factors could continue to change with time. Careful cleaning can greatly improve the appearance of some coins. Amateur efforts at cleaning can reduce the value of a coin substantially. Brightly cleaned surfaces can retone attractively but corrosion can eat away coins stored improperly. Coins are hard to improve and easy to ruin while in the hands of modern collectors.

Conditions of Preservation

aVF Darkly toned
Julia Maesa denarius
Silver coins can take on a dark tone (natural or chemically induced) that collectors tend to prefer over bright silver.

VF Rainbow toning
C. Naevius Balbus denarius
Victory in triga rx.
Silver coins also can take on a multicolored hue. This also can be chemically induced.

EF Fully Cleaned
Septimius Severus denarius
SPQR rx. Emesa mint
Many recently found ancient coins ("hoard material") have fully clean, smooth, shiny surfaces.
ALL ANCIENT COINS HAVE BEEN CLEANED! (The ones with an inch of dirt on the surface used to have two inches.) Some are severely damaged in cleaning; some are done very professionally.

VF Green Patina
Septimius Severus sestertius
This coin has a hard even (but slightly multicolored and textured) surface corrosion or patina. Patinas can be found in a range of colors. Green is common and popular.

F Smoothed Green Patina
Nero dupondius
Frequently, as on this coin, patinas are smoothed or polished as a part of the cleaning process.

VF Olive Patina
Julia Domna as
Green patinas come in a range of shades from light olive to almost black.

F Black Patina
Domitian sestertius
Black is a commonly found patina color and often looks better on the coin in hand than on a photo.

F Red Patina
Tiberius as altar rx.
Red patina is often seen as spots but sometimes covers enough of the coin to be classified separately.

gF Blue Patina
Dionysopolis, Phrygia AE 19
Blue is a less common color but still popular. Certain soils tend to produce certain color patinas so some issues are commonly found with a particular color and rarely found with others.

VF Earthen/Sand Patina
Maximianus post reform radiate
Patina can be combined with hard soil deposits that produce an attractive contrast. This is prefered to patina worn away from the high points.

aVF Contrasting surfaces
Commodus sestertius
This contrasting tone is from wear on high spots through the patina to the metal below. This example also shows scratches on the portrait.

aVF Thick Patina
Carausius antoninianus
Felicitas rx.
Too much of a good thing can cause detail to be lost under an overly thick surface coating.

F Chippy Patina
Julia Domna sestertius
A hard even patina can be ruined by chipping or wear around the edges. Collectors prefer patinas that are solid and stable.

VF Uneven, patchy patina
Decentius centenionalis
Partial, uneven patina can look worse than no patina at all!

EF Patchy silver wash
Probus antoninianus
Horseman spearing rx.
Coins that were originally covered with a thin silver wash can lose part of the coating leaving a very uneven and unattractive mix of colors.

VF Fingerprint
Septimius Severus denarius
Mars rx.
Ridges at the upper right of this coin could be the result of etching by an ancient fingerprint over the centuries or handing by a modern coin cleaner with strong chemicals on his hands.

VF Porous
Trajan as
Coins without patina on the surface can show a fine texture or porosity. This is common on coins found in rivers but can also be the result of cleaning with harsh chemicals.

F Surface pitting
Clodius Albinus sestertius
Minor pitting or heavily porous surfaces obscure detail on many bronze coins.

G Patchy, rough surfaces
Septimius Severus as
Minerva rx.
Uneven, patchy and ugly surfaces ruins the appearance of many coins.

F Severe pitting
Caligula as
Heavy pitting leaves major areas of erosion and severe defacement. The coin is ugly despite having considerable detail.

F Eroded and tooled
Titus sestertius
Spes rx.
This coin shows the removal of diseased metal. Ugly coin! The other side is shown as "Well Centered".

F Crystalization
Corinth trihemiobol
Over the millenia, many silver coins show formation of a crystaline pattern in the metal.

F Lamination
Syracuse hexas
Surface enhanced metal compressed in striking can peel away from the more porous core metal.

VG Unnaturally polished
Galba sestertius
This coin was obviously polished and possibly tooled to restore lost detail. If a coin is tooled, details restored must belong to the original coin.

"Pescennius Niger" as
This coin was tooled into an as of Pescennius Niger (who produced no Roman bronzes). It is a BAD fake. This photo was sent to me forty years ago. Where is this coin today?

F Graffiti
Pharsalos, Thessaly drachm
Scratches (here K) on some coins appear to be have made intentionally.

VG Holes
Nerva Restoration of Augustus as
Holes in coins were made for many reasons both in ancient and modern times.

G Holed and cracked
Septimius Severus denarius
Legion XXII PRI rx.
The example has a bad crack near the hole and is in danger of breaking.

F Chip
Julius Caesar denarius
Priestly implements rx.
Most ancients have irregular edges but chips that happened after the coin left the mint are considered serious flaws. This could be ancient damage or a result of modern handling.

aVF Broken edge
Commodus AE 28
Flaviopolis, Cilicia, Isis-Serapis rx
The ragged edge on this coin may result from bad flan preparation or later damage. The scar is patinated over so the damage is ancient.

F Scratched
Julia Domna sestertius Venus rx.
Fine scratching is usually not noted unless excessive. This coin has two heavy scratches right of the figure. The line at the far left is a flan flaw rather than a scratch.

F Intentional damage
Septimius Severus/Julia Domna AE35
Stratonicaea, Caria
A small countermark (Geta?) was removed from the coin in antiquity.

F Halved coin
Augustus and Agrippa AE26
Nemausus, Gaul
Small change was made by cutting a larger coin. (Both sides shown)

VG Countermark F
Nero Claudius Drusus sestertius
NCAPR in the countermark was stamped into this coin under Nero to certify the coin as valid. Stamping frequently left a flat spot on the opposite side of the coin. Dealers often state a separate grade for a countermark on a more worn coin.

VF Test Cut
Athens tetradrachm owl rx.
Many silver coins were cut to see if they were solid silver. This one was.

VF Test Cut Fourree
Athens tetradrachm owl rx.
However, this cut revealed the coin was silver plated with a copper core or fourree.

F Worn Fourree
Otho denarius
Many plated coins were revealed not by cuts but when their silver layer peeled off or wore through showing the copper core below.

F Surface deposits
Julia Domna denarius Moneta rx.
Spots of metal from other coins or chemicals in soil can form raised lumps on surfaces.

F Copper deposits
Domitian denarius
Copper on top of silver is from deposits not a sign of the coin being fourree. This coin probably was hoarded with copper coins.

VF Clipped
Charles I halfcrown
Silver coin edges were often trimmed by persons building a supply of the metal. The illegal practice was common and many coins are missing legends. This reduces the coin's value.

F Ex Jewelry
Theodosius II solidus Roma rx.
Many gold coins were once used in jewelry and show marks from the removal of the mount. This coin shows clear scars (12, 3, 6 and 9 o'clock) from mounting prongs.

These are by no means all of the factors to consider when grading ancient coins. Please let me know what conditions I should add to this list. It is hoped that these examples will make you think about what makes a coin appealing, attractive or desirable and cause you to lighten up a bit when criticising dealers who have to grade using the woefully inadequate current system.

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