If one thing is consistent in the world of art and collectibles, it
is that tastes are always changing.
Things that were all the rage 50 years ago may be out of fashion
at the moment, and coins that once were scornfully overlooked might
now be on everyone’s “want list.”
The high grade Julius Caesar “elephant denarius” that today is so
prized was not so admired a century ago because it was a common,
“generic” coin. Far more attention would have been lavished on a rare
but unattractive Roman provincial coin that today is only in minimal
demand even though only a handful may exist.
Sometimes these evolutions in taste are impossible to explain, and
other times they are the result of changes in supply or even in how
the coins are studied.
Such evolutions can be documented in many ways. One way is to
compare the current market with the views of Barclay Head (1844 to
1914), who served as keeper of the Department of Coins and Medals at
the British Museum from 1893 to 1906.
Head was an extraordinary numismatist who wrote (or co-wrote) 11
of the British Museum’s catalogs of Greek coins, and in 1887 released
Historia Numorum, which to this day remains the best single-volume
book devoted to ancient Greek coins.
Sometime in the late 19th century, in a collector’s handbook, he
wrote: “The prices which Greek coins fetch at sales depend upon their
rarity, their state of preservation, and their size, not much upon the
artistic or the historical interest, or upon the metal of which they
In his commentary, Head lists six aspects that are liable to
affect price of a collectible ancient coin. He describes rarity,
condition and size as active factors, yet he did not consider
artistry, historical interest or metal composition to be of much
significance in motivating collector interest.
Each of Head’s aspects is worth closer examination in helping us
to understand how collectors’ tastes have changed over some 125 years.
Head lists rarity as one of the factors that contribute to value.
The same is true today, with rare pieces typically commanding more
than common ones. However, rarity is no longer valued as greatly as it
was in Head’s day.
In modern times rarity is not important in any absolute sense —
rarity must have context for it to spark collector interest. Rarity
greatly increases price when a coin is important or interesting, but
it has virtually no effect if the coin is otherwise uninspiring.
Size and metal
All other aspects being equal, a larger coin will be more valuable
than a smaller one. This is just as true today as it was in the late
It is especially interesting that Head considered an ancient Greek
coin’s size to be a factor in price determination, yet not the metal
in which it was struck. In doing so he suggests that, all else being
equal, a collector would not necessarily value a gold coin more than
one of silver or copper.
In case there was any doubt in the reader’s mind, he clarifies:
“Thus, a gold coin of Alexander the Great, being common, may be
obtained almost at metal value, while a rare copper coin of some
obscure town in the heart of Phrygia may cost almost as many pounds as
the gold coin of Alexander does shillings.”
There is no reason to doubt what Head reports, for he was among
the most experienced numismatists of his day. That being the case, we
can appreciate just how much the times have changed: Today, it would
have to be an astonishing Phrygian bronze to fetch nearly 20 times the
price of a gold stater of Alexander.
Artistry and historical interest
As Head’s own work as an academic shows, quality of artistry and
historical importance were points of interest in his day, though he
did not consider them to be significant forces in price determination.
Nothing could be further from the truth today. Artistry is
arguably the principal reason ancient Greek coins are collected now,
and the better the art, the stronger the demand. All else being equal,
a Greek coin of superb style will bring a significant premium over a
coin of average style.
It is more difficult to interpret Head’s comment on historical
interest being unimportant to collector demand, for it certainly is
today. Even in the 19th century it was important for Roman coins, for
which so many historical types are known. However, he may have said
this because — unlike Roman coins — it is unusual for Greek coins to
have any precise historical context.
Head identifies condition as one of the aspects affecting the
price of a Greek coin to collectors. This is equally true today, if
not more so. Especially in the last few decades, condition has become
an all-important factor. People will often collect coins that don’t
especially interest them simply because they are affordable in top grade.
This trend — far more pronounced now than in Head’s time — has
driven up prices on high-grade ancient coins across the board, leaving
very few specialties in which a collector of modest means can compete
for top-quality material. These areas still exist, though, and it is
the task (and the triumph) of a resourceful collector to discover them.
We may end our brief survey with another of Head’s observations
that remains true to this day: “A coin from a well-known cabinet will
always fetch more when sold than an equally fine specimen of which the
antecedents are unknown.”
Coins with good pedigrees still fetch a premium over “anonymous”
ones of equal quality because we prize the idea that some
distinguished collector in the past was equally beguiled by a coin
from which we derive such profound joy. ■