The Art of Grading Ancient Coinage

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Controversy is the first thing that usually comes to mind when this word is uttered regarding ancient coins there could be good reason for controversy. No definitive grading guide has ever been published and none likely will be, considering the vast number of coin types to be considered. Collectors and dealers can’t agree on grades for US coins despite a plethora of books on the subject as well as numerous third party grading services. At least one of these third party grading services is willing to examine and encapsulate ancient coins as well. Where is the standard? What is a collector to do? Fortunately for ancient coin collectors, grading has not become the severe problem it has been for US coins over ancient coins since the price differential isn’t usually as great between grading increments. The assigned grade is a primary driving force beyond rarity and demand regarding the price for modern machine struck coins in a major way. Eye appeal essentially is a primary driving force beyond rarity and demand regarding the price for ancient coins. Machine struck coins, be they US or world coinage, tend to have characteristics common to all of the coins of a single type.

This leads to the ability to grade consistently throughout a series of that type of coin regardless of variety, mint mark, magistrate mark or date. The standard to be used can be argued, but if a single standard generally is accepted the coins can all be consistently graded by that single standard regardless of these other factors. This is not so with hand struck ancient coins. The conditions of manufacture play a more important role than they do in modem machine produced coins. This isn’t to suggest conditions of manufacture aren’t important for modern coins. Compare New Orleans mint Morgan silver dollars to those of other mints and in general the New Orleans produced dollars will not be as strongly struck.

This mostly has to be considered when grading Morgan silver dollars from this mint however, some general considerations regarding conditions of manufacture to be recognized as important factors when examining an ancient coin. Once again, some mints simply produced better quality coins than did others. The difference between ancient and modem coins here is that the dies used to strike identical type coins at different mints or for different dates actually are not consistent at ancient mints. Dies were made by hand, not from a master hub shared by all mints concerned.

Figure 1-This Syracusan tetradrachm by the artist Kimon
(photo enlarged) is an example of a coin of magnificent
artistic quality, and almost perfect centering on a large flan.

For this reason the style, the quality of the design a single celator made by hand for an individual die, must be considered when grading and pricing an ancient coin. Not all celators had equal ability. Even the quality of dies made by a single celator are not consistently of the same artistic quality. Dies made from a master hub should be consistent regarding style and to a significant degree quality as well. Granted, as the master hub wears the detail transferred to the working specifically dies will diminish. Many older master hubs lacked dates and lettering which were hand punched into definitely individual dies, but these hand punches result in varieties, not in a different style for the coins struck from the individual die.

Blank or flan quality is another factor to specifically be considered regarding ancient coin grading. Once again the consistency simply won’t be there when the blanks generally are made by hand. Some blanks will be rounder than others. Hopefully the literally weight of each flan for a type coin will be consistent. Hopefully the metal purity will also be consistent, which is quite significant.

Some blanks will permit a better centered strike. Some will be thicker but smaller in diameter, not allowing the entire design from a die to appear on the blank. Not only centering, but the consideration of if the entire de- sign from a die fits on the blank, must be considered when grading ancient coins. Die states are important to modern as well as to ancient coins, but the poorer quality of the details on a late die state ancient coin may be more obvious without the need for magnification than on its modern counterpart. Ancient coin dies were often used until they shattered. This is true with some modern coins, however often the life of the die is pre-calculated and the working literally die retired before it reaches the point of disintegration.

An early die state coin is always more desirable than is a late die state coin. Since ancient coins typically come from the ground at some point in their more modern history, the state of preservation becomes important to the individual coin. This includes any deterioration to the surfaces of the coin due to burial, but it also includes patina, especially on bronze coins. Adding to this is the eye appeal or lack thereof of any patina on a coin. A coin stripped of patina is seldom as desirable as a coin where the patina has been left alone. The exception would be when the patina is inferior and detracts from the appearance of the coin.

These two tetradrachms of the Carian satrap
Mausollus show the differences in blank or
flan quality. Ahe coin above is large enough
to accomodate the design and the metal qual-
ity is excellent, whereas the coin below is too
small for the coin’s design and the metal quality
is rough. (Photos courtesy of CNG, Inc.,
slightly enlarged).

This Syracusan tetradrachm of Agathokles is an ex-
ample of a coin struck from worn dies. (Photo en-
larged, courtesy of CNG, Inc.)

This article is not the place to visit the differences in patinas, but it is important to recognize that different patina colours are encountered depending on the soil, sand or other substances from which a coin has been recovered. The quality and eye appeal of this patina will then vary depending on the state of preservation when the coin is recovered as well as the state of preservation once the coin has been cleaned if cleaning becomes necessary, this is one of the great controversies of modern coin collecting regards cleaning or enhancement of a coin. Cleaning in general is understood by many collectors to be kind of wrong and damaging to the value of the coin. Enhancing means improving on the true condition of a coin in a major way. Enhancement by tooling or whizzing are considered to be unethical, once again ruining the value of an ancient hand struck or modern machine struck coin, which is fairly significant. One big difference between cleaning and both tooling or whizzing is what each of these actions does to a coin. Cleaning removes harmful elements or dirt in a subtle way. Cleaning may become important since many previously buried coins may have come in contact with harmful elements which at a later date may react with the atmosphere to begin to destroy the coin itself. Tooling or whizzing involves moving metal to improve the condition of the coin beyond its time state of wear.

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