It was bound to happen sooner or later. The one element that has separated the field of ancient numismatics from that of U.S. and modem coinage has been the individuality of each coin from antiquity. The intrigue and romance of holding in one's hand a coin that might have been held by a Roman soldier, or a gladiator, perhaps by Alexander the Great or by one of Christ's disciples, has set this field aside from all others. The very essence of collecting ancient coins reflects a sensitivity that is vanishing at an all too alarming rate. Virtually everyone that I have come into contact with in the five years that we have been publishing The Celator has at some time opposed the slabbing of ancient coins, yet today that feared possibility is a reality. With Numismatic Guaranty Corporation's recent announcement of an authenticating, grading and slabbing service for ancient coins we are witnessing what surely will be a milestone in this hobby.
It is not likely that slabbing ancients will destroy the market, or result in anything nearly so morose, but the subtle changes could bring long tern negative effects. In fact, the process may actually stimulate sales of certain types of generic coinage in a market that is clearly, saturated at the moment. No one will care too awfully much about the slabbing of antoniniani or Alexander tetradrachms; there will always be enough of these coins around to satisfy collectors and accumulators alike. After all, it wasn't too long ago that William Herbert Hunt seemed to be well on the way to depleting the market of Byzantine gold coins. Well, Mr. Hunt didn't, and Byzantine gold prices haven't risen in ages.
The concern is really more personal than economic. Most collectors of ancient coins actually come to love the wretched little beggars. They steal our time, empty our wallets, and tum us into compulsive creatures, but we find life rather dull without them. Many feel, and I must echo the sentiment, that the slabbing of ancient coins is merely one more example of our changing values as a society. The technological era is supplanting the age of enlightenment, and even our most precious traditions and institutions are being devoured by the fast-paced hi-tech world around us.
My first experiences with an ancient coin dealer were in 1966, at the office of Dr. Busso Peus in Frankfurt. The firm was operated in those days out of a lovely residential building on Neuhaus Strasse. To this day, I remember my visits and the young men who welcomed me, Peter Schulten and Dieter Raab. None of us are quite so young anymore! The most memorable feature of those visits was the opportunity to browse through their considerable array of coin trays which were housed in a magnificent old wooden cabinet. Each coin was nested on felt in a circular cutout - no flips or 2x2s - and was accompanied by tags brown with age and written in the most delightful hand. It saddens me to think of all the incredible old tags that have been swapped for heat-sealed plastic holders in the auction prep rooms of the last decade.
What I really fear, is that someday there will not be a Peter Schulten or a Dieter Raab for the next generation. Something pure and good will be lost, I think to the detriment not only of our hobby but to all of mankind. The world has seen similar episodes, where classical ideals were abandoned for more "progressive" thinking. In the end, humanism and classicism have always prevailed. The great revivals of classicism in the days of Charlemagne, in the Arab and Byzantine worlds of the 12th century, of the Italian Renaissance some 300 years later, and of European Neo-classicism in the 19th century were all prompted by interludes of darkness. It seems that we are again entering such an interlude and perhaps ancient coin collectors will be the "monks" of the 21st century who silently preserve a worthy ideal. If that is to happen, we must be careful to pass the torch and not snuff it in plastic.
Perhaps this admittedly emotional reaction is unwarranted, perhaps it is unnecessarily cynical, and perhaps there isn't any threat to the old ideals and institutions. Perhaps education in this country is better than some of us perceive and perhaps the Golden Age is before us and not behind us. Let us hope for those who follow that it is so.
As for slabbing ancient coins - it is a fact of life. It is probably not going to go away, regardless of the feelings of those who will protest the loudest. We operate in a free market and must accept the fact that we will not always agree with the policies and practices of others. As long as those practices are legal and ethical, we should try to be tolerant and exercise our own freedom of choice while others do the same.
Although CNG will probably take some "heat" initially for agreeing to lend credibility to the slabbing, it is probably better that a firm like theirs is involved than not involved. Without some rather substantial expertise making the inevitable judgements, chaos could reign. We must say that this is a very bold move on their part, and we sincerely wish them well.
Time to run, drop us a line with your point of view about slabbing!