NGC Ancients: With Ancients, Rarity Is Common

Posted on 8/11/2015

Rare ancient coins aren’t necessarily expensive.

If one thing can be said of ancient coins it’s that “rarity is common”. This may sound like a misstatement, a contradiction, or even something that Yogi Berra might have said, but it is a truthful declaration.

The reason?: there are so many types of ancient coins, and often so many varieties within each type, that the field of ancient coins is rife with rarities. Indeed, rarity is so common within our field that the only way it can significantly impact market value is if the rarity has meaningful context.

For example, if you want an ‘Eid Mar’ denarius that Brutus struck in 42 B.C. in celebration of his murder of Julius Caesar, you will have to part with more than $100,000 to get an attractive example in Choice Very Fine or better. The example shown above brought about $275,000 at public auction in 2007.

That is a strong price for an ancient coin of which more than 100 examples are known. By comparison, for less than $100 you can routinely acquire ancient Greek or Roman coins in silver or bronze of which ten or fewer examples are known. Some of these coins may even be unrecorded or unique, yet many such coins still have a low price tag.

Below are six ancient coins of great rarity–all seemingly unpublished in any standard reference. Every one of them has sold during this year for less than $100 at well-publicized auctions held by a major firm.

This silver obol of an uncertain mint in Cilicia, struck in the 4th century B.C., bears the finely styled heads of the gods Zeus and Apollo.

Struck for the city of Metropolis in Ionia, this bronze shows the portrait of the Roman Empress Otacilia Severa (A.D. 244-249) and the seated figure of Magna Mater (Cybele) with a lion at her feet.

This silver hemidrachm from the Thracian Chersonesus, struck in the 4th Century B.C., depicts a lion; the symbols on its reverse are perhaps unpublished for the issue.

The portrait of the Roman Emperor Caracalla and the seated figure of the goddess Demeter appear on this bronze coin from the city of Nicaea in Bithynia.

This silver obol was struck in the 5th Century B.C. at an uncertain mint in Asia Minor. It shows on its obverse the facing head of an animal—seemingly a lion or a wolf.

Struck for the city of Damascus in Syria during the reign of the Roman Emperor Volusian (A.D. 251-253), this bronze coin bears the emperor’s portrait and a temple containing the bust of the goddess Tyche and a leaping ram.

The stark difference in value is easy to explain: so many people dream of owning an ‘Eid Mar’ denarius, yet relatively few people seek out unrecorded variants of the many thousands of different types of ancient Greek and Roman coins that exist.

Another extremely rare ancient coin is worth showing (below) because it fetched more than $50,000 at auction in May of 2014, despite its modest condition. In this case rarity is a factor in its high price because it has context: the coin bears on its reverse the portrait of the Biblical-era figure Salome. She is infamous for demanding the severed head of John the Baptist from King Herod Antipas in return for performing a risqué dance.

Does this mean collectors, dealers and scholars who specialize in ancient coins don’t care about rarity unless it is accompanied by a spectacular story? Not at all. It just means that rarities are so commonly encountered that rarity, alone, does not translate into meaningfully higher values. Simply put: collectors of ancients do not prize rarity just for rarity’s sake.

The same can be said for some modern world coins. For example, a 1976 proof gold coin of the Bahamas of the $200 denomination, for which a mintage of just 168 is recorded—a rare coin by most any standard!—sold this year at auction for just 12% over melt value. Why?: There is low demand for such coins, almost no matter how rare they are.

By contrast, any regular-issue US coin with a mintage of just a few hundred pieces will be quite valuable. No matter how obscure the series, it will be a ‘key’ coin. Since so many people collect US coins—and they do so systematically, wanting to build ‘complete’ sets—there is bound to be strong competition for any such coin.

Even if ancient coins are daily becoming more popular, the vastness of the field assures that almost no matter how many people take up the pursuit, relatively obscure rarities in modest condition will never command very strong prices.

If anything, the opposite is the trend of recent times. By no means are rarities ignored, yet it is normal nowadays for common—yet popular—types in high grade to bring increasingly higher prices. This is quite different than the focus of collectors a century ago, for whom rarity was king and condition was of secondary importance.

A perfect example (shown above) is a ‘legionary denarius’ of Marc Antony—a classic coin type of which many tens of thousands of examples have survived the ravages of time. In low grade they can readily be obtained for less than $100. This piece, however, brought more than $4,600 because it is beautifully struck and is well preserved.

Interested in reading more articles on Ancient coins? Click here

Images courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group and Numismatica Ars Classica.

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