Two Dupondii of Nero

An exercise in selecting coins for our collections

This page was created to offer one person's opinions about the two coins shown on this page, the circumstances of their purchase, the dealers who sold them and the differences between the two in each of these categories. Many words have been posted on Moneta-L and other Internet mailing lists offering opinions as to the collectability of some coins and the desirability of dealing with certain dealers in finding coins for our collections. This page is a posting of a detailed description of two coins and my opinions as to the importance, or lack of importance of those differences. Some readers of this page may learn from the descriptions but differ greatly with my opinions. That is perfectly fine with me. In selecting coins for our collections, the most important point is that we should be armed with the facts needed to make the decision on whether a coin is to be purchased or not. Whether either, neither or both of these examples is what each of us would collect is not important. The decision process is important and being able to approach it in a rational manner is a skill that must be developed if we are to enjoy the hobby of collecting ancient coins.

Ask an non-historian, non-numismatist and non-intellectual to name an Emperor of Rome. Chances are you will get no answer or one of very few names. In a wholly unscientific and ridiculously small survey of people I met one day, I determined that more people knew the name Nero than any other Emperor. Augustus, Caligula, Constantine and "that guy in Gladiator" received mention but Nero won the top prize. Not all of us collect First Century bronze coins (I can't afford many of them) but most collectors would not mind having a decent looking Nero. Both of our examples below are 'decent' but far from perfect. Nicer coins sell every day; cheaper examples appear regularly. These were selected as middle of the road coins. Both coins are the middle bronze denomination called the dupondius (two asses or half a sestertius) in keeping with our desire to keep to the middle of the road. Both sold at auction for one advance over the bid of the second highest bidder so it is fair to say that no one was willing to pay the price realized except for the actual purchaser. Whether this means that buyers got 'a deal' or was 'a fool' is somewhat a matter of opinion.

Nero, 54-68 AD, Dupondius, Rome Mint, Victory walking reverse, 15.0g. Invert (6 o'clock) axis

Our first coin is a nice dupondius that really screams "dupondius". The metal is toned orichalcum showing the yellow color that separates this denomination from the red copper as. The portrait wears a radiate crown which later would become a regular feature of the dupondius. When this coin was issued, the mint was not consistent in the use of the crown and very similar coins with a radiate head will be found. Just in case the color and the crown left you wondering about the denomination, the Roman numeral II (2 asses) appears in the reverse exergue. The obverse legend is quite clear NERO CLAVDIVS CAESAR AVG GER PM TRP IMP PP. My page on abbreviations will assist any who are not familiar with any of these letters. The reverse legend VICTORIA AVGVSTI II SC is all there but not quite as bold due to competition from the surface roughness and motley color. Those of you with the new Sear Millennium Edition Roman Coins and their Values might want to compare this coin to the illustrated number 1969 (a minor legend variant). The condition is probably fairly described as aVF (about Very Fine). The break in the crown and missing top of the ear keeps the coin from being a full VF. The reverse figure has good detail on the body and shows flattening only on the high point of the leg. While the coin has wear, both of these areas of missing detail may be as much from a flat strike as from honest wear. Style is quite typical for the Rome mint but not exceptional for this period which produced some of the finest portrait work found on ancient coins. Nero is not pretty but not really all that brutal either. Were I selling the coin, I would not feel it necessary to comment on the style beyond 'typical'. The surfaces suffer from light pitting and bear no patina. They are toned naturally (or done well enough to look natural to me).

The seller was a U.S. dealer of the highest reputation for knowledge and honesty. He described the coin as "VF, perfectly centered with full legends , toned orichalcum tan with only minimal graininess on rev. Choice portrait, a nice coin." Other than my opinion that full VF coins need to show unbroken headgear, I consider this a very fair listing. The lot was illustrated by a decent black and white photograph (if poorly reproduced on the composite plate) that showed the (undescribed) minor flan lamination behind the head and mottled color as well as does the color image on this page. The coin is rather photogenic requiring no special techniques to get a fair image.

Had the buyer not been happy with the coin, this dealer is deservedly famous for grace in accepting no-questions-asked returns of coins found disappointing by buyers. He probably gets abused by some buyers but that exact return policy always made me feel comfortable buying coins from his sales. A few went back; most did not. I recommended his sales to enough people that most of his coins sell for more than I want to pay. Still, you can not beat a full service dealer willing and able to answer your questions and offering a liberal return policy. Those new to the hobby should be happy to get so much added value for their auction dollar.

Nero, 54-68 AD, Dupondius, Lugdunum Mint, Securitas seated reverse, 13.2g. Invert (6 o'clock) axis

Our second example is a very different coin. The portrait is head left. Nero issued many coins both ways. While left may be a little rarer or a little more popular, this is hardly a reason to prefer one coin over the other. The obverse legend is quite clear NERO CLAVD CAESAR AVG GER PM TRP IMP PP. This is a minor variation of what we saw above shortening only the name Claudius. There is a bit of flatness at the obverse left weakening a few letters. The coin is still attractive and fully legible. The reverse is another common type SECVRITAS AVGVSTI SC but is bold on this coin. Wear removes detail from the head and reverse figure and reverse centering is less than perfect. The coin is still a dupondius but is much less obvious about it when compared to the first coin. The orichalcum metal is covered with a bright green patina requiring us to scratch a spot if we must see the yellow below. Adding to the stealth, the portrait has a laureate head rather than the radiate crown seen before and generally associated with the dupondius. Finally the reverse exergue is bare lacking the value numeral. The portrait shows a ball on the point of the bust that served as the mintmark of the Lugdunum mint. I believe a collection needs a coin from each of the two mints. The style, again, is typical but shows Nero a couple years later and a few pounds heavier. Since Nero is a 'bad guy', collectors pay more for his ugly portraits than for the flattering ones. This is more evil looking than the first coin but still not noteworthy for the series. To get the highest quality brutal portraits, collectors will need to buy the larger sestertius.

This coin looks better 'in hand' than in my photo. It is difficult to shoot a good color image of a shiny patina. Millenium Sear illustrates a similar (but much higher grade) coin with glossy surfaces as number 1968. This can be effective in black and white but usually fails in color. I needed to photograph this coin several times before I got it right. This tale is told on a separate page dedicated to photos of this coin.

The green patina is beautiful 'in hand' but examination under a microscope shows polishing scratches that do not show in the photos or with the naked eye. All ancient coins have been cleaned. Few have patinas that are perfectly smooth and glossy. This one was 'helped'. The coin is genuine and, I believe, the patina is original. The metal of the coin surfaces and the lettering were not tooled, recut or otherwise 'improved'. The excess thick patina was removed and surface irregularities were polished away. In a few places, the polishing broke through to the metal below and a few tell tale scratches give away the smoothing that has occurred. No claim was made by the seller that the coin was 'untouched' and the image that accompanied the auction showed smoothness more consistent with polishing than with untouched 'natural' surfaces. Certainly purists will declare this coin is uncollectable and damaged goods. I prefer it to what (I imagine) originally was a thick and rough patina.

The seller (an online source much covered on Internet discussion lists) offered a 14 day refund for any reason. He described the coin as VF with no further description but provided an excellent image that portrayed the coin very much as it appears. Due to the missing laurel wreath and reverse figure detail, I believe the correct grade for the coin is Fine. Many people would insist the polishing should have been described. While I agree mention of the degree of cleaning would be desirable, I believe any collector advanced enough to be bothered by the process should be able to spot the signs of it from the photo and avoid the lot. Of the pair, the second coin's bold types and even color make it more attractive in hand but it is less detailed and lower grade due to wear. It has the left facing portrait, slightly better style and slightly more interesting reverse but lacks the triple indicators of denomination that make the first coin educational. Which is the better coin? The first would be selected by 90% of collectors. That probably explains why the first coin sold for nearly double the price of the second. Both coins are genuine dupondii of an official mint of Nero. Both were guaranteed to be genuine by their sellers. Many buyers are a bit hesitant to bid online fearing they will get a bad coin. Some would include this last, polished, coin in the definition of 'bad' due to the smoothed surfaces. I do not. Many collectors feel more comfortable buying from a printed catalog complete with a detailed description. I do not. Many prefer a seller with a reputation of helping new collectors to a somewhat sterile listing in an online auction even if accompanied by a good color photo and excellent 'feedback' rating. I wonder what these two coins would bring if offered in a glossy auction catalog by an "name" dealer? (We must ignore the fact that relatively few coins this common and this low grade make it into such catalogs.) Would the difference prove to be the coin or the seller? Would the smoothing/polishing be mentioned? Should it be? Do you care? Would this coin be more acceptable if the smoothing had been done with greater skill making it harder to detect under a microscope or does, in your opinion, any smoothing ruin a coin? Answers to these questions will determine where you will be happiest buying coins and how much you should expect to pay for them.

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