What does "rare" mean, for an ancient coin?

Discussion in 'Ancient Coins' started by GinoLR, Sep 20, 2022.

  1. GinoLR

    GinoLR Well-Known Member

    I wonder if there are strict rules for telling if an ancient coin will be called rare, scarce, common... For a sirloin steak it is clear : blue rare, rare, medium rare, etc... to well done, depends which color it is inside, from purple, red, rose, light or dark brown... But for an ancient coin? Old 19th c. or early 20th c. coin catalogues mentioned the level of rarity: rare, scarce, common... on which ground exactly?

    Some coins are said "unique", which is clear: it is like God for the believers, only one authentic specimen is known to exist. For ex. the aureus of Aurelian and Vabalathus (if authentic) is unique. The obscure and short lived Gallic emperor Domitian II (c. 271 CE) is known only thanks to two little AE antoniniani found in France and UK (perhaps a 3rd one in Bulgaria, but it is unclear): these antoninani are almost unique too. We are still well above the very notion of "rare"...

    What about decadrachms of Alexander? Before 1849 no one was known. From 1849 to 1973, 5 or 6 only. From 1973 to 2013 15 specimens were known, and today at least 49 specimens... In 2014 a very good one (though a little outcentered) sold for EUR 325,000, but in 2021 a similar one, very nice and with a real provenance too, sold for CHF 38,000 only. What is the level of rarity of an ancient coin of which almost 50 specimens are known? Maybe they were "extremely rare" before 2013, and only "rare" since...

    But this is only about the most desirable coins: large, heavy, beautiful, minted by a superstar of history or of historical importance. For some other coins, even if very few specimens are known, nobody will give a damn.

    A good example is this AE 31 mm of Volusian, minted in Perge (Pamphilia):

    Perga Volusien.jpg

    Volusian (251-253), Perge (Pamphilia) AE 31 mm, 19.81 g.
    Obv.: Α Κ Γ ΟΥ ΑΦ ΓΑΛ ΟΥΟΛΟΥCΙΑΝΟΝ, laureate, draped and cuirassed bust of Volusian, r., seen from rear; below, eagle, spreading wings
    Rev.: ΠЄΡΓΑΙΩΝ, Tyche (?), standing r., wearing chiton facing another Tyche (?), seating l., holding cornucopia; a bull in the background
    RPC IX, 1117A

    I bought this coin from a Paris bouquiniste in the 1970s when still a teenager. Not expensive at all, one may easily figure. I never found it in any catalogue. In 2019, at last, another specimen from the same pair of dies was auctioned by Leu Numismatik with this mention : "Unpublished and unique, and a very interesting issue." Estimated CHF 350, sold CHF 550. That's a sum, but not stratospheric, for a coin that is "unique"...

    It was not actually "unique" for I had another one (less beautiful) too! I took a picture with my smartphone, edited it and sent it to the Roman Provincial Coinage team, for their online catalogue. This coin can be said "extremely rare", only 2 known in the whole world, but does it really matter? If my heirs wanted to sell it some day (over my dead body of course), I don't think they would get much of it...
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  3. Mat

    Mat Ancient Coincoholic

    That's what makes ancient coins fun. You can have something unique, very rare, or just rare and it doesn't have to break the bank.

    If this were a U.S. coin, it would a $even figure coin, not counting the slab paperwork adding more $, just because.

    It's a cool coin and I would I would have probably skimmed right by it if it was listed on ebay or a dealers page listing.
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  4. David@PCC

    David@PCC allcoinage.com

    Nothing more common than a rare ancient coin.
  5. johnmilton

    johnmilton Well-Known Member

    For me, it's very limited. If it's an emperor like Caligula or Gordian I or II, any coin is rare. If it's rare because it's a different variety with a certain deity or symbol, it's off my radar for the most part. I'd buy an Octavian with a comet on it for Julius Caesar, but since those don't come up enough, I probably will never get one.
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  6. Cherd

    Cherd Junior Member Supporter

    Words like this obviously have general meaning in ancient coins, like Gordian III is "Common" while Gordian II is "Rare". These things also apply to individual coin types, however, the meaning isn't definitive unless somebody defines it in a manner that's universally accepted. So far as I know, these two things in combination have not happened. But, obviously, regardless of definition, if only 1 is known then it would qualify as rare at a minimum.

    I'd say that the reason that these things aren't standardized, heavily publicized, or expensive is because most collectors aren't all that concerned about it. For instance, when it comes to Volusian, I simply want the most aesthetically pleasing example that I can afford. While a "unique" example would be cool in a secondary sense, that kind of thing doesn't override the primary objectives.

    Rarity of a specific type would matter to people with highly focused collections, like those of an individual emperor for instance. Then, like you said, it comes down to the person that's on the coin. If you had a unique variety of Augustus or Caesar, then that would be a big deal because there are a large number of collectors with that focus. Volusian, not so much.
  7. philologus_1

    philologus_1 Supporter! Supporter

    Absolutely!!! :)

    Two related pet peeves:

    Those who assume that if a coin is rare it must be highly valuable. :-o

    Those who list coins as "Rare!" when at any given time there are 5-10 available on VCoins, and 5-10 available on eBay, plus others currently in auctions. :-o
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  8. medoraman

    medoraman Supporter! Supporter

    In a lot of ways, "rare" for ancients should always be used in context, and understood in context. A Caligula, (as referenced by @johnmilton above), is only rare in context with other Roman emperors. I own a number of them, and they are usually one at least in every major auction, so as a coin type cannot be considered "rare" unless considered in context of other Roman emperors. Its a lot like US collectors consider a 1893 S silver dollar "rare". Its only rare in relation to other Morgans.

    Now, in context of a specific provincial coin, rare could mean its not been published really and there might be 15 around at most. "Unique" always bothers me, since there are massive amounts of ancients that have never been sold in photographed auctions, so I discount the idea highly. However, such a few number of coins in existence makes it truly rare, yet what is the demand? Where prices go through the roof is where these intercept, like a gold Eide Mar, which is truly rare, and demand being extremely high. That is how you get 7 figure ancients. Otherwise, you can own truly rare coins for not very much money, since almost no one collects to that level of detail, so demand also very "rare".
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  9. dltsrq

    dltsrq Grumpy Old Man

    Most references that utilize rarity scales include an explanation in the introduction. Rarity scales vary from author to author. Some are more useful than others.

    RIC, for example, relies on museum collections which by their selective nature tend to make rare coins appear more common and common coins appear more rare.

    Perhaps the most useful is the market-based scale employed by Steve Album in his Checklist of Islamic Coins (3rd ed., p. 3):

    Last edited: Sep 20, 2022
  10. robinjojo

    robinjojo Well-Known Member

    Rarity, while at least in theory a measure of surviving examples of a given coin type. At least that is the case with modern coins. Other parameters, such as date, condition, mint, die varieties, errors, etcetera often also apply.

    However the caveat for ancients as far as rarity applies is the wildcard of hoards. What is very scarce or rare can change almost over night if a hoard appears on the market. Auction records and private sales can be useful guide, insofar that they reflect a high percent of sales for a given coin type.

    But there are other factors when it comes to ancient coins: metal quality, style, centering, flan, toning (for silvers coins) and in the case of bronze coins, patina and surface conditions. In other words a coin could be quite common, but possesses unusually beautiful die style, or is struck on a large flan for the type allowing most or all detail to be present.

    So I see rarity in the context of ancient coins as being driven not only by a coin's census, but also by more intangible aspects that make a coin desirable irrespective of numbers available on the market at any given time. This factor of desirability is really quite subjective, and while an ancient might be fortunate to have this factor, it does not necessarily translate into a higher value.

    It seems, based on my experience, that coins with a reputation for beauty, such as Syracusan coinage, generally bring high bids at auction, regardless of the number of examples that appear over the years on dealers' lists and through auctions.
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  11. romismatist

    romismatist Well-Known Member

    I think we need to decouple rarity and price in this discussion. Just because a coin may be rare (which I think implies that there are very few in existence) doesn't mean it is automatically expensive. Price is driven by demand and supply, but in the case of ancient coins, demand and higher prices is not always driven by low supply, or rarity, but many other factors including condition, historical appeal, provenance, etc. as was mentioned earlier in this thread.

    I think that as you get into more specialized factors like specific mint officinas, errors, magistrate symbols or provincial rarities, the demand narrows to specialist collectors rather than the broader collecting base. There are many such collectors on this forum, and I enjoy the knowledge they share with this community tremendously as I always learn something interesting and new. There are probably only a handful of collectors which would appreciate some of the more obscure provincial rarities such as this one, because the knowledge base and interest is so specialized. However, like @Mat said, that's what makes ancient coin collecting fun... it's a "treasure hunt" where you can often find and collect overlooked rarities within your collecting budget. Hopefully, over time, more people will learn about and become more interested in them, and their value will grow.

    Pricing often goes the other way too, as was mentioned. A coin that was historically seen as rare and expensive can have its value diminished significantly through the discovery of new hoards, such as what happened with recent hoards of Athenian tetradrachms which have come onto the market. That's why rarity by itself should never be taken as the only indication of a coin's value. If you buy popular, historical coins in great condition and with solid provenance, the coins will often retain or increase their value. Buying obscure rarities is often like rolling the dice in terms of value over time, but in this hobby, it's the satisfaction gained through research and the thrill of having discovered something scarce or unique that's more important.
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  12. Suarez

    Suarez Well-Known Member

    I agree with the sentiment here that rarity is only meaningful in context.

    I wrote a blog post on this subject a few years ago where I outlined an approach to add consistency in the term. There's a distinction between absolute rarity and "market" rarity, which I believe to be much more useful.


  13. Curtis

    Curtis Well-Known Member

    Thanks for sharing the blogpost again Ras -- that was an interesting one, well worth reading and thinking about.
    Another that I highly recommend is the article by @Valentinian :

    In my view, two dimensions of context matter very much for the application of rarity labels: Demand and the Categorization Process (or "granularity").

    Demand has a better-recognized relationship to rarity: We call EID MAR Denarii "rare" even though there are 85-100+ known, while we describe many Roman Provincial Coins as common if half that many are known.

    More importantly...

    The Categorization Process plays a much more fundamental role, but less recognized. Even when trying to apply the most "objective" and strictly quantitative standards (e.g., "unique," "seventeen such specimens in the Reka Devnia Hoard," "10-30 specimens known"), we cannot escape the qualitative process of defining the category.

    Consider an Example:
    My Electrum Hekte (1/6 Stater) of Bithynia, Herakleia Pontika. (Formerly considered to be from Ionia, Erythrai, before Fischer-Bossert 2020.)

    There are many ways to describe its category and rarity. Interestingly, 2 years ago, this coin went from being "scarce/common" to "unique" as new categories became available:

    Hekte Electrum Erythrai Heraklea Fischer-Bossert 10 Triptych.jpg

    If I use Wolfgang Fischer-Bossert's (2020) most granular-level of category -- Type 10 (V5’’/O9) -- then this coin is "unique" or close to it, since it was the only example he could find of this die pair in his study of all known examples (including auctions).

    However, if we don't really care so much about the specific dies, and we want a category that captures something distinctive but slightly more general (such as "this design from about the same period, same mint, same size"), we might call it a Fischer-Bossert Group 2, of which there are at least dozens.

    Using older references, a few years ago we might have described it as a "von Aulock 1942" or "BMFA 1804," which are usually taken to apply to all of the Ionia, Erythrai (as it was traditionally identified) Hektes with Herakles and Quadratum Incusum. Using that category there are at least hundreds known, if not thousands.

    To someone who is only interested in the coin as, say, "an Archaic Electrum Hekte," we would say there are tens or hundreds of thousands of examples. More if we apply more general categories such as "Archaic coin," "small Greek coin of Herakles," etc.

    The fact that categories are socially shaped -- not intrinsic to the objects themselves -- tends to be most apparent in two places.

    In the history of scholarship, there is a tendency for the numismatic labels to move from a few general groupings to a multiplicity of narrow categories (it's always instructive to see how your coins were defined by Eckhel or 19th century numismatists through to the present). Of course, this is a general phenomenon of descriptive sciences, not limited to numismatic.

    Individual collectors (or dealers or scholars) will have a different interest in any given coin. For Hellenistic coins, e.g., lots of collectors just wanted an "Alexander the Great" tetradrachm; or an "early posthumous Alexander III tetradrachm"; or an "early ... tetradrachm from Babylon." Which of the dozens of M.J.Price categories the coin's monograms fall into matters not -- they may have no idea that there are "only 2 examples" known of their coin; in fact, probably only a few people in the world would recognize it or care.

    Or, as I like to think of it, "Which 'what' is that?"
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  14. red_spork

    red_spork Triumvir monetalis

    This is always really hard to quantify too, at least for me. I collect a pretty popular series of coins(the Roman Republic). The Eid Mar is an extreme example, virtually everyone who collects Roman coins at all knows what the type is and wants one, and certainly every RR collector. On the other hand, even dedicated RR collectors don't care that much about every minor rare-as-hens-teeth variety. The coin below is statistically extremely rare, known from 4 examples, only 2 of which are in private hands. It's even been published a few times. That said I only know of 2 others who really want it. They'd perhaps pay quite a bit for it or another example of the type but if 3 new examples came on the market demand may suddenly decrease to near nothing. I am occasionally reminded of that when I'm bidding in an auction and I can tell myself "[Collector1], [Collector2] and [Collector3] all have an example of this type, I bet there won't be much competition".
    Roman Republic AR Denarius(4.83g, 21mm, 10h). Anonymous. After 211 B.C. Uncertain mint. Helmeted head of Roma right; behind, X. Border of dots / Dioscuri galloping right; in linear frame, ROMA. Line border. Crawford -; Brinkman-Debernardi website 46(a)/1, example 2(this coin); Numismatic Chronicle 174(2014), "The Orzivecchi Hoard and the Beginnings of the Denarius", p. 85, fig 5.b(this coin)

    Ex Harlan J Berk Buy or Bid Sale 210, 6 February 2020, lot 116, ex Harlan J Berk Buy or Bid Sale 121, 10 July 2001, lot 266

    This rule doesn't apply quite as much in 2022 with the influx of new collectors, but in 2019 and earlier the pool of collectors of some of these types was so small that you could make some inferences and usually have a good idea how tough bidding would be just knowing what the other guys had and also I could know I probably wouldn't have a shot if no one had the type(which unsurprisingly is why most of these super-rarities I do own were bought via retail). I really wish I knew who all these new collectors are that care about obscure anonymous denarius or victoriatus varieties the way I do but I have yet to actually meet anyone who both cares about this stuff enough to be outbidding me at auctions and started collecting recently.
    Last edited: Sep 28, 2022
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  15. Valentinian

    Valentinian Well-Known Member

    I have rewritten that article about rarity in HTML on this easily accessible page:

    For other, related, pages about how to regard the value of ancient coins, see my main page:
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  16. Valentinian

    Valentinian Well-Known Member

    Rarity of Roman provincial coins is especially difficult to describe. Any particular type may exist in very few examples, but demand is often equally rare.

    This is so true and very important to understand. For example, RPC on-line is assigning distinct ID numbers to extremely similar coins that I would call the same "type" but which each yield a frequency of their own. Different "ID numbers" may indicate one or two letters different in a long legend, or maybe that the view of the bust is from slightly the front instead of slightly from the rear, or with drapery on the far shoulder, or not. To me, the frequency of the type is best represented by adding the individual frequencies of similar types together because to me they are all one "type", but a seller will want to categorize it finely so that he can call it rarer ("Only three known!")

    The term "rare" is used by sellers to trigger a response in you ("It is worth more!") rather than to describe something meaningful.

    Right. The concept of "rarity" is much overrated. @Curtis's hecte example is excellent. Read it.

    If you have learned how important rarity is in the context of US-coin collecting, you need to unlearn that lesson for ancients.


    This coin is large. It is sestertius-sized, 34-32 mm and 27.08 grams.
    Aegeae, Cilicia, under Antoninus Pius (138-161).
    Now it has the RPC IV.3 ID number 17511 and only 1 specimen (this one, mine, illustrated) is known.

    Large. Unique! (Who cares?)
  17. Factor

    Factor Well-Known Member

    Yes, rarity scale of provincial coins is very different from that of republican or imperial. For example in the book of Rachel Barkay on Nysa Skythopolis coins types with 10 or more known specimens are considered common.
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