The New York International Numismatic Convention has come and gone, and the eyes of the hobby will turn now to Chicago to measure the long-awaited rebound in the economy and in the ancient coin market. Dealers and collectors use shows as a gauge of market prices and availability by simply observing the asking and selling prices on the bourse floor, or the prices realized at auction. Therefore, the regular show attendee develops a sense of what a coin should be worth on the current market. This unwritten "sense" is a floating perception more than a fixed value, since the prices of coins are affected by so many intangible factors. Nevertheless, one does over a period of time develop a "feel" for value. The collector who buys coins strictly through mailed lists or auctions can also develop a sense of value, but it is not always the same as that acquired at shows. It is hard to judge through lists whether the appearance of a normally scarce type is related to a hoard find. If it is, how many coins are there in the hoard? Is it still scarce? The bourse floor may be inundated with coins from some particular site, but they will probably appear as singles on mail lists. Conversely, a mail list might contain the only three available examples of a rare type-making it seem relatively common. Most dealers know better than to do something this foolish (from a marketing perspective), but the point should be clear. To be able to develop a sense of value, one must be exposed to as many offerings as possible. Furthermore, those offerings-whether by mail or at shows-must be real competitive offerings, not artificial or isolated situations.
We have received a number of letters over the past few years in which the writer asked where to find a good price guide to ancient coins. We have tried to explain the seemingly mystical nature of ancient coin pricing, both in this column and in our "Just for Beginners" column, but it is still a perennial question. As collectors switch from modem to ancient coins, they are often put off by the vagueness of the pricing and grading disparities in this field. They are used to picking up the Krause catalog or Coin World and finding the "standard" catalog price. This is simply not possible for ancient coins-or is it?
Readers have undoubtedly noticed that we have been running a market capsule, contributed by Numismatic Archives (Tom Simmons), along with our Coin File each month. This market capsule is the result of a computer database query, and it reflects the results of major auctions over the past several years. The database has now been made accessible in printed form by Numismatic Archives and is available through The Celator. We heard a report at the NYlNC that a price guide or compendium of prices is also being developed from the Mail Bid Sale results of a very active dealer who specializes in "discount" ancient coins. If this transpires, the information should prove useful as a basic guide to coins not often found in major auctions. Still, the very nature of ancient coins will stymie the creation of any firm price guide equivalent to those used for modem coinage. When it comes to the pricing of ancient coins, we can only reiterate what we have said many times before. If you really love the coin, if you can afford it, and if you are buying from a reputable source, let your heart make the decision. More often than not you will find that your first impulse is the right choice.
Another subject of perennial interest, closely related to price, is that of investment in ancient coins as a Profit-Making Venture. Are ancient coins a good investment? Certainly! If you buy the right ones. Choosing the right coins is, unfortunately, not as easy as one might think. Buying high priced rarities in superb condition is not always a recipe for profit, as some have discovered in the past few years. Buying generic Byzantine gold, because it's CHEAP, doesn't seem to work either. Certainly, there isn't much profit potential in buying low grade common bronzes of 4th century Rome (although Dan Clark might argue the point). One thing that does seem to work fairly well is to buy coins that are beautiful in terms of composition, production, and preservation. These coins generally increase in value faster than the average, simply because they are rare and desirable. Even the ubiquitous Constantine bronze- when skillfully engraved, perfectly struck, and beautifully reserved~ an become a rarity. If you want to buy coins for investment, buy coins of this nature. Some people hire connoisseurs to make value judgements for them. In the 17th and 18th centuries, Europe was fill ed with connoisseurs who served the nouveau riche in their quest for grand collections of the finest works of numismatic art. Today, collectors tend to make their own choices. Some do so with exceptional skill-some don't. The difference between investing and collecting is that the investor can I afford to gamble on his or her own taste. Some advice to investors is hire a top-notch connoisseur and listen. My advice to collectors is- follow your heart, have fun, and expect to pay something for your entertainment.
Until next month, we'll be watching the mailbox for a note sharing your point of view.