In our mailbag this month was a letter from a newcomer to the field of collecting ancient coins. We receive many such letters, with a broad range of questions, but this one raised a point that we feel is too seldom made and too often misunderstood.
The reader, who preferred to remain anonymous, questioned the difference between the "British" and the "ANA" grading systems and how they relate to published prices. What standard, he asked, does the American dealer follow?
The question implies that ancient coins may be graded on a clearly definable scale, and that congruity of the scales used will result in a sort of "translatability" in determined value.
This concept is one which has arisen from the sterile world of modem numismatics, where every machine-made coin is measurable against a preset standard. It is, of course, necessary to be able to grade ancient coins if we are to maintain an orderly market, but the process of grading is much more complex than it is with modem coins.
There are many conditions that affect the "value" of ancient coins other than the amount of wear exhibited on the coins surface. Since modern coins are rather generic in all other aspects, their grading has become essentially a measurement of wear. If a coin has flaws, the detracting elements are mentioned but the grade is still determined by wear.
It is ludicrous to apply the same criteria to coins struck over 2,000 years ago, by hand. under great technological disadvantage.
The main purpose in grading is to be able to affix a price to the graded coin. Therefore, a coin graded Extremely Fine, should command a higher price than one of the same type graded Very Fine. When the reverse is true, the first impulse of the buyer is to question the propriety of the price assigned.
There are a multitude of factors that influence the desirability of an ancient coin as a collectible. Lack of wear is one of these, but equally important are such elements as surface condition, centering, boldness of the strike, style of the representation, uniformity of the planchet, condition of the metal and others. A coin that grades EF to point of wear may in fact be an ugly coin. Conversely, a coin struck from a superbly executed die may be of less value if important detail is lost to excessive wear.
As a practical matter, the price of a coin may double with the improvement in condition of just one grade. Does that mean that the ugly EF example is worth twice as much as the lovely but worn VF coin? Not logically, it isn't, and neither is it in practical terms. The appealing coin will undoubtedly outperform the less appealing one.
In trying to cope with the "grade by wear" mindset, dealers in ancient coins have devised a plethora of descriptors which modify the impact of the grade assigned. One will find such adjectives as superb, choice, good, nice, attractive, appealing, gem, desirable, etc. etc. If a series usually contains recognizable defects, such as weakly struck reverses or poor metal, the cataloguer will often comment that a coin is "typical for the series, or "nice for one of these".
In reality, the grade does change by series. For· example, a cast Roman Republican bronze graded VF would never stand up to the VF aureus of Septimius Severus in terms of preservation of detail. We become accustomed to seeing coins of a particular type, in the conditions that they are normally found, and within that context grades develop. This of course has nothing to do with price, unless you are trying to compare apples with oranges. What it does have to do with is flexibility and compromise.
Dealers who grade coins day in and day out will inevitably become more flexible in their grading determinations, perhaps favoring the coin with slightly more wear but nicer in all other respects to that one graded a technical EF. Is that wrong? Is that misleading?
Moreso than in any other field of numismatics, the buyer of ancient coins is reliant upon the judgement, veracity, and trustworthiness of the dealer. It is impossible to look. up the value of an Athenian tetradrachm in David Sear's catalog and then walk down the aisle of a coin show and pick out the ones that are underpriced or overpriced. The real value of any ancient coin is exactly the amount a knowledgeable buyer is willing to pay for the coin, regardless of grade. This may be dictated by the number of coins of that type available, and the amount a dealer had to pay to obtain an example, but it still boils down to "How much am I, the collector, willing to pay?"
We regard very highly the reference works which assign relative values to ancient coins. For the most part, they are useful guides. There are, however, too many market and individual coin variations to base one's acquisitions solely on the "values" indicated. We advise collectors to think. about the direction of their pursuits, look for specific items of interest and learn what the market should bear for typical examples. In simple terms, be a smart shopper and don't get caught in the grading trap.
We sincerely appreciate the feedback: from readers about the articles we have run in recent issues. We repeatedly hear from those claiming to read The Celator from cover to cover and take that as a real compliment these days in which all of us are challenged with so many demands on our time. If you have a spare moment, drop us a line and let us hear your point of view!