In collaboration with Willem Knapen - Ancient Coins Expert
Holding a 2000 year old Roman coin is holding a piece of history in your hand. As you examine an ancient coin, remember that the coin you hold has survived the dark ages, the golden age and both world wars. Roman coins reveal just a fraction of ancient culture, but there is another good reason to start collecting Roman coins: they can be very valuable and a good investment. Our expert has shared the top 10 features to pay attention to when buying a Roman coin.
Gold is always a good investment. Roman gold coins have become even more valuable over the past decades. At Catawiki different kinds of aurei in medium and high grades have sold for thousands of euros. Some silver and bronze coins with an intact silver wash can be very valuable as well. Whether these silver, silvered, or bronze/copper alloy coins are a good investment depends on other features, such as the ones below.
The Romans used various types of coins, some more common than others. The most important denominations issued during the Imperial period are as follows.
Quinarius Aureus (value of 1/2 Aureus)
Denarius (value of 1/25 Aureus)
Quinarius (value of 1/50 Aureus)
Sestertius (value of 1/100 Aureus)
Dupondius (value of 1/200 Aureus)
As (value of 1/400 Aureus)
Semis (value of 1/800 Aureus)
Quadrans (value of 1/1600 Aureus)
Some of these types, not necessarily the larger denominations, were rarely struck and therefore these can be valuable. Others, such as many of the late Roman small bronze coins, were issued in large numbers and therefore generally of low value.
Each coin is graded in order to determine its condition. The better a coin is preserved, the more valuable it is – although this naturally depends on other features like whether the coin is rare and made of gold or bronze. A coin is Mint State if it shows virtually no wear, meaning 100% of the design remains, the coin shows the luster approaching the state of the coin at the mint and should be graded UNC/uncirculated (or MS 60 to 65). If the coin shows no wear at all, 100% of the design is remaining and the coin shows the full luster, it should be graded FDC/Fleur de Coin (or MS 66-70), which is rarely the case with Roman coins. Extremely Fine (EF) is about the highest grade you can hope for when it comes to Roman coins; 90% of the design is remaining, the coin is well-centered and looks almost as though it were struck that very day. Next come very fine, fine,very good, good and fair, the last grade describing a coin that is so worn inscriptions are mostly gone and it is hard to identify.
Roman coins are organised by emperor. Coins of certain emperors, often short-reigning ones such as Didius Julianus or Pertinax are rare and desirable. A portrait of the emperor, generally on the obverse of the coin, is combined with a legend that states the name of the emperor and often his titles. Some of these legends, not necessarily the ones belonging to short-reigning emperors, are hard to find and highly sought after; some even contain spelling errors. Portrait specifications tell whether it is a portrait of the bust or just the head, which side the emperor faces, whether the emperor wears a laurel wreath, and, in case of a bust, whether it concerns a cuirass or a draped one. As with the portraits and legends, some of these specifications are less common and therefore more valuable than others.
It is important to look for well centred coins without many striking irregularities. Since ancient coins were struck with handheld dies, not every coin will be perfectly centred, unlike coins minted in the 21st century.
6. Ancient Forgeries
Fake Roman coins can be pretty valuable and collectable. We don’t mean ones that were made in the 21st century, but rather the ones made by Roman counterfeiters and by Celtic tribes imitating the Roman issues. In fact, these coins should not to be called fakes, but rather imitative or barbarous issues. A significant collectable “fake” is the fourree coin. Struck with a base metal core and plated with a precious metal to imitate an official solid metal issue, this kind of fake can be recognised by the fact that it is generally lighter than the official issue and often shows an unofficial style. Furthermore a plating break sometimes exposes the base metal core, indicating that it concerns a fourree.
7. Reverse Design
There are various reverse designs, some more sought after than others. Often the reverse shows one or more allegorical figures or personifications surrounded by attributes. Commemorative issues were struck to commemorate deified emperors/empresses or specific events such as victories or the anniversary of a city. The reverses of these coins usually depict symbolic elements, animals or buildings that can be associated with the deified emperor/empress or the specific event.
Although it is usually the case that the less common reverses are more valuable, there are common coins with “aesthetically pleasing” reverses or reverses showing important historical events that are highly sought after. For example, the IVDAEA CAPTA commemorative series of Vespasianus (struck to celebrate the Roman defeat of Judaea, the capture of Jerusalem, and the destruction of the Jewish Second Temple during the First Jewish War) are quite valuable even though they aren't exceptionally rare.
It helps to know the story behind a coin. Who sold it? Which collection is it from? Where was it found? What can be said about the historical value of the coin? The provenance often helps determine the value.
Patina is the green or brown layer that appears on bronze when it oxidises. It is seen as a sign of authenticity for ancient bronze/copper alloy coins and when the layer of patina is intact it often adds value to the coin. But be careful, because while some layers of patina are highly sought after, others lower the value of a coin.
10. Mint Marks
Mint marks on a coin inform us where the coin was minted. Official mints like Rome often increase the value of a coin, compared to a coin minted in the province.
Fascinated by the history of Roman coins? Ready to start investing? Take a look at our Ancient Coins auctions and experience the beauty of Roman coins for yourself!