There are certain aspects about the hobby of collecting ancient coins that always seem to cause a degree of consternation, not only to collectors, but to dealers as well. The issues of grading, authentication, and pricing arc among the most commonly questioned or debated. We received a request this month from a dealer who wanted copies of any previous Celator articles about these subjects. Not surprisingly, the pantry was rather bare.
We have printed a fair amount of information about forgeries, and we have discussed pricing and grading in our editorials and "Just for Beginners" feature, but the reason that we do not receive more articles about grading and pricing is simply that no one has come up with a standard that works on every coin. The very nature of ancient coins precludes any success in devising neat categories. Every collector has seen coins with exceptional detail that were "plug ugly", and others with heavy wear that were like precious gems. The difference, of course, is in surface condition - which equates to eye-appeal. If one dealer assigns a grade based upon de tail, and another assigns a grade based upon eye-appeal, someone is going to be confused or misled. If one assigns a grade based upon some combination of the two aspects, the level of subjectivity becomes an insurmountable barrier in itself. Actually, the grade of the coin means nothing until one attempts to equate price with grade.
Herein lies the "rub". Is price driven by degree of wear, or is it driven by eye-appeal? Well, the practical answer is that it is driven by both, and also by rarity. Because of that, and the inability to fix precise objective parameters, one finds that prices for ancient coins sometimes vary to the extreme. Unfortunately, one will also find that two coins of equivalent eye appeal and degree of wear may also differ dramatically in price.
Why is this? Simply because there aren't precise quantifiers, and dealers, being hu man, tend to weigh different factors in different ways. Even perceptions of rarity can differ greatly. A collector (or dealer) who turns to Roman Imperial Coins, the "bible" for Roman coins, and finds a rarity factor of "4" (2-3 known specimens) applied to a coin, may be astonished to learn that the type regularly appears for sale at auction. Mainly this is due to the sampling method used by the authors of RIC, and partly it is due to finds which have entered into the market subsequent to publication of the work. Just how rare is the coin? Often, nobody knows for sure. Perceptions are based upon how often the coin appears for sale, or how many published collections might be lacking the type. These are understandably and admittedly vague criteria.
Combine the subjectivity of grading with the uncertainty of rarity and one can readily see why there is a certain lack of consistency in pricing for anything less than very common types. How does the collector deal with such vagaries? For that matter, how does the dealer avoid overpaying for a coin that might be very attractive emotionally, but difficult to justify objectively? If we had the answer to this question, we could certainly dominate the market - unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, we do not have the answer, nor does anyone else. In the final analysis, the value of a particular ancient coin is no more nor less than what the seller will accept for it and what the buyer will pay for it. While this may be a distasteful condition to some, it does factor into the equation all of the variables. Subconsciously, the buyer and seller jointly determine the coin's merits and short comings. Thai having been done, every sale is a good sale, and every purchase is a good purchase.
So, we've handed over our cash and walked down the aisle only to find a nicer example of the same coin for less money. Did we fall victim to a scam? Hardly. We could have waited, and perhaps should have, for a better deal to come along. It is certainly advisable to check the market carefully before making a selection, but this is, after all, a hobby, and we indulge ourselves by buying coins to add to our collections. Why spoil the fun by lamenting that we didn't find the bottom of the market to play in. Over time, these price variations tend to even themselves out
To sum things up, pricing and grading are very subjective elements of the ancient coin market. They are variable for understandable reasons, and the situation is unlikely to change. The best thing that a buyer can do to maximize his or her buying power is to learn a series well, stay with a fairly well de fined objective, and spend a lot of time absorbing price trends and making price/ condition comparisons. When the right price attaches itself to the condition of preference, don't hesitate for even an instant. In 35 years as a collector and 28 years as a dealer, I have long forgotten the coins that I paid too much for. I will never forget the coins that I foolishly passed on! Let us hear your point of view!