Oct 16, 2011

The most expensive Roman Coin

In December 2008, Numismatica Genevensis held a spectacular auction with many lots of unique quality and rarity. A beautiful sestertius of Hadrian broke then all records for the price paid for a Roman coin at auction, changing hands for 2,300,000 CHF, including the 15 percent buyer’s fee. (2,561,530.74 USD).

This is a completely exceptional coin. The obverse presents an extraordinary portrait of Emperor Hadrian, the work of a master die-engraver dubbed the "Alphaeus Master" by C.T. Seltman ("Greek Sculpture and Some Festival Coins," Hesperia 17, 1948, 71-85). Many Scholars believe this engraver may in fact be the great sculptor Antoninianus of Aphrodisias whose superb style epitomized the Hadrianic revival of Greek classicism, but it is only speculation. The coin auctioned by Numismatica Genevensis is one of the best preserved of these sesterces.

On the obverse we see a striking portrait of the emperor and on the reverse the goddess of peace (Pax) standing and holding a branch and a cornucopia. This Sestertius was probably coined in 135 to mark the celebration of Hadrian Vicennalia (the 20th anniversary of his ascension to the throne). The selection of Pax for the reverse may well be a reference to the hope of the emperor to put a quick end to the Bar Kochba revolt in Judaea, a traumatic event that marred the last years of the emperor’s life.

Oct 1, 2011

The value of ancient coins -10 key factors

The value of ancient coins exerts a special fascination among both experts and beginners. In this post I want to consider some of the key factors affecting coin value.

There is not a precise guide to the value of ancient coins and there never will be. Each ancient coin is unique, and therefore its value is also unique. The asking price for any coin can vary considerable from dealer to dealer. The best way to form an idea of the value of a coin type is to check the price list of various dealers and also auction estimates and prices realized.

The following simple list of 10 key factors affecting coin value can be of great help in judging and comparing prices (they are not listed in order of priority)

Factors affecting the value of ancient coins

1) Grade: it refers to the extent of wear experienced by a coin compared to its newly minted state. The same is in direct relation to the time it remained in circulation. Most of the coins that have reached us from the ancient world remained in circulation for some time and their wear processes were variable. Coins preserved in their original mint state or close to it are rare and coveted. Scratches or cuts can significantly affect the grade of a coin.

2) Mintage: today, coins are produced on mechanical presses with high quality and complete uniformity. In ancient times, however, coins were minted by hand striking the metal blank between two dies with a hammer. Although this work was carried out by teams of professional craftsmen (the so called moneyers), the results were not always perfect. In many cases ancient coins are not well centered or were produced wit worn or broken dies. If for any of these reasons elements of design are not visible, the value of the coin drops
 Athenian obol with irregular shape

3) Shape: the blanks were produced using traditional methods, which resulted in significant variations in weight and shape. Broken blanks or well below the expected weight average affect negatively the value of a coin. The same happens if the form is too irregular.

4) Metal: The metal quality has an effect on value, as collectors prefer coins of high metal quality over debased coins.

5) Patina: a patina is a film that forms on the surface of copper or its alloys as a result of the oxidation process. The patina is a reflection of the antiquity of a coin and it adds aesthetic appeal and value when the tone is smooth and pleasant.
 Sesterce of Septimius Severus with spectacular green patina

6) Relevance to collectors: The physical characteristics of each coin are very important and affect its value, but depending on how they are perceived by collectors. This is the key factor and the one most difficult to assess, because the interests of those who collect coins can be very different and change over time. There are periods and cultures that are more collected than others and that affects demand and, consequently, value.

7) Rarity: There has never been a complete census of ancient coins in private collections, so that no one knows with absolute certainty how many copies exist of a certain type. For the coins of the Roman Empire we have the indications of rarity in the Roman Imperial Coinage, based on a survey of European museum collections at the time of drafting of the different volumes. In many cases, however, the findings of recent decades have dramatically altered the situation. The rarity of ancient coins today reflects, obviously, though not exactly, the rarity of coins in their time, so that the study of the composition of ancient hoards can help to estimate the rarity of certain types for some periods. Beyond all this, it is necessary to note that a new discovery may completely alter the situation and make a rare coin much more common, as happened, for example, with these coins of Arsinoe II.

8) Historic Significance: When a coin is associated with events, places, buildings or figures of historical relevance, then its value goes up, because this attracts the interest of collectors.

9) Aesthetic appeal: Ancient coins have, in comparison with modern ones, a far greater variety of types and designs, some quite elaborate. As a result, there are coins that can be considered true works of art, whose dies were engraved by true masters. These coins are very attractive to collectors, so their value rises.

10) Provenance: We do not know where the vast majority of ancient coins come from, so that the few ones that can be traced to a famous hoard may be more coveted than similar ones for which we do not have that information. The same goes for those coins that have been sold at important auctions and have been part of famous collections. Collectors are always willing to pay a little more for them, especially because this background is seen, deceivingly, as a guarantee of authenticity.

I could have made a longer list, but I think those mentioned are the most important factors to have in mind. Judging the value of ancient coins is not a science, and it can only be learned by experience.