I love collecting ancient coins, but some people have some strange ideas about them. Here are a few I've encountered over the years:
Myth #1: Ancient coins are all extremely rare, and all the
real ones are in museums.
Truth: Many ancient coins are indeed rare and valuable and coins issued by many famous people like Julius Caesar and Nero are highly sought after, but many other types of ancient coins are very common. For example, bronze coins of the late Roman Empire period, the time of Constantine the Great, are extremely common and cheap. They were made in the millions, and people in Britain and Europe are still digging up bucketfuls of the things, 1700 years later. While some historians and archaeologists would prefer that collectors didn't exist and believe that all ancient artefacts belong in museums, the truth is that there are so many of these common coins that the museums can have as many of them as they have space for, with still plenty left over for collectors. Raw, unidentified ancient coins can be bought for a few dollars each (see Myth #3).
Myth #2: The best way to make sure you only buy genuine ancient coins is to go to Greece, Italy, Turkey, Lebanon (or wherever) and buy them there.
Truth: While it may seem commonsense to travel to the ancient lands to acquire ancient coins, this is the worst possible way to go about it, for two reasons:
1. In most of these countries, buying, selling, looking for or even owning ancient artefacts is either illegal or strictly controlled. These countries have endured centuries of rich, arrogant foreigners coming and hauling away their cultural heritage, and now that the colonial powers are gone they've enacted strict anti-plundering laws. And ancient coins are classified as ancient artefacts as far as these laws are concerned. While criminal gangs and/or desperately poor locals sometimes sell ancient coins they happen to find, be aware that their doing so is illegal. It's something to also keep in mind when considering buying ancient coins on eBay from sellers in these countries.
2. It may seem ironic, but these countries which basically make it illegal to buy or sell
genuine ancient artefacts usually have no problem at all with people buying or selling
fakes. Besides the predictable gaudy reproductions in the airport gift ship and the street hawkers with bucketfuls of "coins", there's another common tourist trap the locals have used for centuries: for a fee (of course), a tourist is taken out to an "old ruin nobody else knows about", where there are ancient coins just lying all over the ground for you to pick up. Such coins are, of course, modern fakes; the locals probably made them last week and scattered them at their "old ruin" that morning. These "tourist fakes" are easy for an expert to detect, and people who get all keen and enthusiastic after "being taken" like this usually end up being bitterly disillusioned with the whole ancient coins thing when they get back home and find their relics are duds.
Myth #3: I found a gold coin among a bunch of "unsorted, unidentified, uncleaned ancient coins" I bought on eBay! Yippee! I'm rich!
Truth: There's quite a growing market on eBay (and elsewhere) in the buying and selling of hoards of "raw" ancient coins - with a bit of tender loving care, such coins can sometimes turn out to be quite beautiful under the dirt and corrosion. It's an excellent way to acquire some of those "cheap ancient coins" I mentioned in Myth 1. But buying such coins, cleaning them up and then selling them is an extremely poor way to get rich quick.
You'll sometimes hear about people finding gold coins in such lots - and some unscrupulous sellers make bold pronouncements about "GOLD FOUND!!!" in their auctions. But it just doesn't happen, for four reasons:
1. Ancient people knew gold was valuable, and rarely buried or lost it alongside their "small change" copper coins. You just don't find hoards of ancient coins where the copper, silver and gold are all mixed up together.
2. Ignore the claims about the coins being "unsearched" - the truth is that in between you and the hole in the ground the coins came from, there's going to be a long chain of people who look at the coin, many of them experts at picking out anything interesting or valuable. While a scarce variety or type may elude them, a real gold coin would stand out like a blazing beacon.
3. If you find a "gold coin" in a lot of uncleaneds, it's most likely to be brass. Contrary to popular belief, the ancients did know how to make brass and other gold-coloured alloys, and polished up they can look confusingly similar to the modern eye. But an ancient brass coin will be tarnished (black is a common colour) and probably corroded; gold doesn't corrode, oxidize or tarnish.
4. For ancient gold coins, Myth 1 is generally true; they're rare and expensive. Do you really believe that someone couldn't care less that they were selling a $1000-plus gold coin for a pittance? The regular eBay axiom should not be forgotten: if it
sounds too good to be true, it most probably
Ancient Coins for Beginners: Three Myths Demystified
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23 June 2007
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