Collecting is a somewhat puzzling activity. Much of the world's population seems not to care at all about acquiring some elusive, essentially non-utilitarian, object, while others may be totally obsessed with the prospect. It seems that collecting must stem from some innate drive - one that is shared by enough people to result in competition for certain collectables. Out of this competition arises an incentive to supply and that incentive creates a market.
One of the peculiar things about the market, at least for ancient coins, is that the demand always seems to adjust itself to the supply. When a coin is very rare, and seldom seen, it does not always find a receptive market. Yet, that same coin may become extremely popular if quantities are found in a fairly large hoard. There have been cases where the discovery of a hoard actually improved the marketability and thereby the price obtainable for certain coins. From this observation one might infer that rarity is not the primary determinant of price, nor is it the criteria for acquisition in many collections. Indeed, if it were the criteria, we would all be collecting the same thing - nothing!
Does supply and demand dictate price? Not, I think, as much as some would have us believe. There are, for example, countless numbers of Alexander tetradrachms, Athenian Owls, Tarentine and Corinthian staters, Byzantine Solidi and the like. Still, the price of these perennial favorites remains fairly strong and stable. There are infinitely fewer Greek Imperials, Late Roman and Byzantine silver, or Oanishmendid coins; but the prices on these seldom exceed those of the coins mentioned previously.
What it all boils down to, at least as far as ancients are concerned, is emotional appeal. Coins with emotional appeal tend to sell well, those without appeal tend to languish in a dealer's tray.
So? Within this not so startling revelation lies a moral and an opportunity. We have heard ad nauseum about "true collectors" and "serious collectors" as well as "speculators" and "investors", but what it all comes down to is appeal. Either a coin appeals to the buyer or it doesn't - and that goes for every class of collector. We have very little control over the offerings in the market, but we do have some control over what appeals to us. Two years ago, I would not have looked twice at an Islamic bronze coin, today I am fascinated by them. I doubt that the coins changed any in the past two years, but suddenly I became aware of a place and time that was only a shadow in my vaguest memories from World History class. The emotional appeal did indeed change, for me, and therein lies the moral. A coin is nothing more than what we see in it.
Now, I also said there was an opportunity. If we are open minded enough to see in a coin something more than its perceived value, we are the discoverers of a real treasure. For some that might mean learning about obscure civilizations, for others it might suggest the interpretation of undeciphered mint markings. The study piece might be a $5 junk box purchase or a $25,000 Syracusan Decadrachm - it matters little.
The basic collecting urge is obviously not tied to dollar value of the collectible. Many people derive immense pleasure out of collecting matchbooks, leaves, and rocks.
The collecting of ancient coins offers so much diversity and can open up so many new horizons that it is easy to see why it was considered the hobby of kings during the Renaissance. Fortunately, one does not need to be a king to thoroughly enjoy it. If you have had some problems understanding market prices and trying to cope with price changes, try relying on that old emotional appeal. If everything that appeals to you is still outside of your budget, then think about some new vistas - the rewards will be about the same.
This summer is going to be a very busy time for us, so we are limiting our travel to the Washington C.N.B. in June and the A.N.A. at Pittsburgh. Hope to see some of you there. It was nice meeting a number of our readers in New York last month. The subscriber list keeps growing and the support and encouragement is tremendous. Enjoy your vacations and keep in touch with your point of view!