What is one to believe? I can't think of another hobby where the signals are so mixed or confusing as in this pastime of collecting ancient coins. For example, Eric McFadden- who writes an insightful column about the ancient coin marker for Minerva magazine- recently pointed out that, adjusted for inflation, ancient coins are selling at 1960s prices. That would mean, by most capitalist standards, that there is either a shortage of buyers or there is a surplus of product. There can hardly be a shortage of buyers- the ancient coin market has benefitted in the past few years from massive defections from the U.S. and modem coin collector ranks. It may be true that certain types of coins are not selling as well as they did in the pre-recession days, but there are plenty of new buyers for the brand of stock generally referred to in the trade as "collector coins". Are there so many of these "collector coins" around that their sheer mass holds prices down? Well, apparently not. Dealers from coast to coast are bemoaning the fact that attractive stock is getting hard to replace. What then is the cause of this apparently undervalued market?
I think that a good share of the blame-or the credit, depending on your point of view-goes to that old nemesis of all businesses: Cash Flow! As a group, dealers have been tightening their belts for the past few years. When sales fall off, and the overhead doesn't, the first thing to feel the pinch is replacement stock. Of course, the nicest coins disappear first. The remaining stock becomes stagnant, and the dealer is forced into a buying pattern that is limited to coins which will "turn" quickly. Coins which sell quickly fall into two basic categories: those coins that everyone covets and those coins that a few collectors with very deep pockets covet. In either case, dealer activity centers on these issues because this is the area where sufficient quantities of cash will flow. The remainder of the market is virtually abandoned, and dealers will often sell older stock at cost or below simply to raise capital so they can buy more quick-turn stock
The net result of this subtle but insidious trend is that the real wealth of the hobby, the art and history of these ancient treasures, is left untended and unnurtured. Rare is the dealer that did not begin as a collector, and rarer yet is the dealer that did not originally specialize in "co1lector coins". Many of the prestigious firms in business today should well remember the day when mint was not a condition but a place; and ancient coins didn't come with "original luster". Isn't it ironic that those were the days when ancient coins were really worth something? Sure, we have our $million decadrachms today, but at what price?
Since this is a forum where I get to exercise my editorial license, here's my opinion about why ancient coin prices, on the whole, remain low.
Ancient coins come in myriad varieties and the vast majority of them have never been studied in depth. This is especially true of certain general categories like Greek bronzes; late Roman issues; Byzantine and Islamic coins. Regardless of rarity, many of these coins are treated by a growing number of "upscale" dealers as junk box coins. Aside from the occasional cherry-picking col lector who happens to take a fancy to a particular series of coins, these accumulations are generally sold as curiosities.
Once someone takes the time and effort to make a series accessible, prices jump dramatically because the supply is understandably far short of demand. This accessibility might come in the form of a publication, or a notable collection, or even in the form of a hoard. I recall not too awfully long ago that folies of the tetrarchy were a dead horse. They were visually unsellable. Along came a nice hoard and the whole series came to life. Stock that sat in dealers' trays for years suddenly vanished overnight. A little closer to home, have you seen any $5 Turkoman bronzes lately? $10.00? How about $20.00? The Sassanian dirhams that used to go for $2 a piece is history (pardon the pun) and Parthian drachms are no longer treated like intermission at the big auctions.
The prices that coins bring are definitely related to popularity, but aside from the ubiquitous Owl and the Alexander tetradrachm, popularity can dry up the supply pretty quickly. It is obvious that the market needs a broader popularity base. The broader the base, the better for both dealers and collectors. Consequently, it behooves all of us to learn more about the coins we sell and collect. If we continue to focus strictly on a few "hot" issues, the hobby will become boring and lose favor with its many new converts.
One of our objectives in The Celator is to present a broad variety of information about ancient coins. We are dependent, however, on the submissions from our cadre of authors. If there is an area that you see lacking in our coverage, send us an article. If you're a little intimidated by the prospect, call or write and ask for our help. We're pretty easy to deal with- most of the time! If you won't write an article, at least take a moment and send us your point of view.