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Ancient Coin Collecting
Book Review by Jan M. Dyroff.
Wayne G. Sayles. Iola: Krause Publications, 2003. Price $29.99
This is exactly the sort of book you would wish for if you were just thinking about or were just getting started collecting ancient coins. If there were a universal topic of Frequently Asked Questions about this major subset of numismatics, then this offering would give the answers to those questions. Mr. Sayles has set himself a formidable task, and he has succeeded in meeting it.

The goals of the book are clearly defined, i.e. to inform the reader on making wise transactions when buying ancient coins, on avoiding the pitfalls which hinder beginning collectors, on determining authentic and avoiding false coins, on finding two-thousand-year-old coins for less than five dollars, and on interpreting images and legends on ancient coins.

The first objective is to consider the question of what constitutes an ancient coin. The answer is a broad one but one which generally points to the coins of Greece (beginning around 500 BC) and Rome – republican, imperatorial, Roman (after 27 BC), and provincial. These are the major categories for classical, but there are also ancient non-classical issues, from Byzantium and other venues before AD 1258 (the date of Mongol conquests).

Clearly with Greece and Rome a lot of ground is covered, but the true vastness of ancient coin collecting hits home when the scope of the non-classical areas from Africa to India – Aksumite, Armenian, Celtic, Chinese, Himyarite, Indo-Scythian, Islamic, Judaean, Kushan, Parthian, Sabaean, and Turkoman – are considered. Whatever your interest turns out to be, it surely can be addressed by one of these series.

Mr. Sayles welcomes the beginner to the community of ancient coin collectors and provides a comprehensive list of clubs, societies and institutions, which embrace the field. He particularly notes the American Numismatic Association and the American Numismatic Society (both with libraries, museums and other resources), and the Royal Numismatic Society (in London with ties to the resources of the British Museum). He also gives a nod to the Boston-based Society Historia Numorum (membership by invitation only meeting monthly with a presentation in the homes of Regular Members).

Today we are fortunate to have a wide range of Internet resources. Most major dealers have their own web sites dedicated to their sales and auction. Also there are web sites and interest groups devoted to ancient coin specialties, such as Parthia-L (Parthian coins) and SASAN-L (Sasanian coins), both on Yahoo as are the Islamic Coin Group and the Sikh Coin Group. Then there are the on-line resources of institutions like the American Numismatic Association, the American Numismatic Society, the British Museum, the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, the Hermitage in St. Petersburg (Russia), and our own Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

In addition to a review of electronic resources, Mr. Sayles also flags most of the major introductory books and standard reference sources for the entire universe of coin issuing cities and states covered in this volume. Clearly, this ties in with the ancient but apt adage, “First buy the Book!” If nothing else, the data on electronic resources and printed references makes this book an invaluable addition to your numismatic library.

Attention is also paid to the coins themselves, addressing the perennial concern “What is this coin worth?” Mr. Sayles suggests a consideration of three governing factors affecting the value. The first is the positive factor (which includes rarity, provenance, and eye appeal); the second is neutral (which includes such qualities as surface, metal and shape); and the third is negative (including features like die-breaks, and weak strikes). A concise definition with cited examples is given for each factor.

Aligned with the consideration of worth is the matter of ancient coins as an investment. A distinction is drawn between a collector, who chooses coins on personal criteria and who is not necessarily looking to profit, and an investor, who buys to resell at a gain. The advice given to the potential investor is, in short, don’t count on it. The vagaries with investment are many – it takes time to turn coins around, it costs money, and there is a fair chance that items from newly discovered hoards might reduce the rarity (population and grade) of a coin and hence the value of an item socked away for future reward.

The working heart of this book has to do with identifying and attributing coins. To facilitate this endeavor we are given a lot of tools – ancient alphabets, a listing of divisions and dynasties in the Greek world, and Greek denominations (with a nice delineation of the Attic and Corinthian standards).

To aid in attributing Roman coins, an overview of denominations, methods of dating and mints is provided, along with useful tables of data (all the Roman emperors and the associated titles and abbreviations) as well as the mythology and designs found on reverses. Included in this discussion are the issues of the provinces as well as Roman Egypt.

Lastly, the book touches on such notions as storing, slabbing, cleaning (very interesting and thought provoking), authenticating, and grading. A table of commonly found grades (i.e. in reference works, sale and auction catalogs, and so forth) is presented with short but pointed definition of each grade.

In conclusion, the information found in this book is quite accurate and very helpful. I would consider it absolutely mandatory reading for a newcomer to the world of ancient coin collecting – and even for a seasoned collector it is a good aid to the memory. The bottom line is that if you have a coin that you suspect is ancient but don’t know what it is then the information in this book will probably point you in the right direction for pinning it down.
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