As someone who has collected ancient coins for almost 20 years and who occasionally buys and sells them on eBay, I get the distinct impression that many people come to this fascinating hobby for the first time via this auction site. This guide is therefore intended for new or relatively inexperienced collectors of modest to moderate means who are perhaps fascinated by the classical world but who are as yet not totally sure as to how and what they should be collecting. I have chosen Roman coins of the empire because this period appears to fire the popular imagination more than any other and thanks to the sheer size of the empire and the huge quantity of coins produced there is a wide selection to choose from.This is not a guide to Roman history nor to the history of Roman coinage, otherwise you and I would be here all day. I assume that you have a a basic knowledge of both and know the difference between a sestertius and a dupondius (if not, see item 3 below.) It is rather a guide as to what, in my opinion, eBay does well and what it does badly with suggestions as to where the budget collector should be looking for quality and value.
1. First, what eBay does badly and this entails a word of caution for the financially well-endowed. If you have big bucks to spend and are minded to put together a top- flight collection of high grade sestertii, or Roman gold such as aureii and solidii, or rare and super-rare emperors and their consorts, then I don't think eBay is the place to do it. I have lost count of the number of times I have seen heavily tooled sestertii on eBay of emperors such as Trajan and Hadrian (often from the better class of sellers) where the hair or other details have been blatantly re-engraved in modern times in an attempt to convert a middle grade coin into something sexier so that the coin sells for more than it's worth. Much of the gold offered on eBay is suspect and likewise most of the rare and super-rare coins. Frankly, you'd be better advised to take your business to a major specialist auction house like Spink or CNG (Classical Numismatic Group). Yes, you'll pay a bit more but at the end of the day you won't be sitting, all unsuspecting, on a pile of overtooled sestertii (which Spink and GNG probably wouldn't touch) or a pile of Bulgarian forgeries.
2. This brings me on to the subject of fakes which are numerous on eBay and which as a novice collector you're likely to fall prey to. So please take a look at my other guide HOW TO AVOID BUYING FAKE ANCIENT COINS ON EBAY, which should help you to steer clear (well, most of the time) of the nasties that lurk all too often in the listings of eBay.
It also brings me on to the subject of sellers who don't know what they're doing because they simply don't know enough. Let's face it, anyone can set themselves up as an ancient coin seller on eBay. One prolifiic UK seller of ancient coins frequently misattributes his coins, for example he automatically assumes that if the names Antoninus and Pius appear on a coin that it must be one of Antoninus Pius when this is not necessarily so (in fact this is the commonest misattribution I see on eBay). He recently listed a Trajan denarius as a Nerva and then described it as "the well-known tribute penny" (ie a coin of Tiberius.) but this didn't stop eBayers from placing strong bids, so it's not just sellers who don't know what they're doing. This seller frequently has fakes mixed up with his good stuff perhaps because he can't tell the difference. So let me draw your attention to the valuable guide maintained by fellow eBayer keith040_0 in which he lists reliable and knowledgable sellers of ancient coins, many of whom I've bought from myself. If you're a novice collector stick to the list until you've acquired a bit of know-how.
3. If you don't have a single reference work on Roman coins then collect no more until you have acquired David Sear's ROMAN COINS AND THEIR VALUES. There's the old single volume edition, last revised in 1988, which covers the whole gamut of Roman coinage from its beginning in the 3rd cent. BC down to the fall of the western empire in AD476. The book manages to cram in 700 years and so is of necessity selective with many coin issues not included and the values are now a bit out of date. The new 3 volume millenium edition is preferable, far more complete and superbly illustrated but extends only to AD 285 ( volume 4 is keenly awaited.) Clearly much will depend on which coins you decide to collect but I find it useful to have both editions.
Another book I highly recommend to novice collectors is The Encyclopedia of Roman Imperial Coins ("ERIC") by Rasiel Suarez, first published in 2005. This large lavishly illustrated work catalogues the main issues of the Roman emperors, reign by reign, and the style is informal rather than scholarly. ERIC is not as easy to come by as the Sear books but copies do crop up on eBay.
An old favourite of mine is Seth W.Stevenson's Dictionary of Roman Coins. This big fat tome was first published in 1889 but the contents have dated surprisingly little (apart from the terms used for certain denominations and the auction prices which will make you sigh for times gone by.) I guarantee once you open this book you will spend many happy hours browsing through it. Reprints are fairly easy to come by. As a modern counterweight there's the Dictionary of Ancient Roman Coins by John Melville Jones, a much leaner production.
4.Go for quality every time, go for the best you can afford and don't make getting a bargain your overriding priority. If you can afford to spend £500 ($900) in a year then better to acquire 10 high grade coins at £50 each or 20 medium grade at £25 rather than a mass of low grade coins which may give you diversity but no aesthetic pleasure and which are unlikely to increase in value (indeed the opposite is more likely.) This brings us on to the grading system for ancient coins which is the same for all coins old and new but is not, in my opinion, ideal for the grading of struck coins. At the top end you have mint or "as struck" which is not impossible with Roman coins as these are often found in hoards, then you have EF (extremely fine) showing little or no wear or circulation, and then, showing progressive degrees of wear, NEF (near extremely fine), GVF (good very fine), VF (very fine), NVF (near very fine), GF (good fine) , F (fine) and NF (near fine). With this last grade you would expect to see a coin worn virtually smooth but with the general outline of the devices still clear. Personally I would not contemplate a coin below VF grade unless it's exceptionally attractive or scarce,
Ebay presents the novice collector with a problem when trying to assess the grade of a Roman coin. All auction houses and major dealers will grade their coins but on eBay hardly anyone bothers and when they do the coin is likely to be overgraded. I'd say less than 5% of listings on eBay give accurate grading (and top marks to those sellers from me.) Simply avoid ,then, coins showing excesive wear, corrosion, pitting, flaking, scratches or bits missing. If the details and surfaces have a melted appearance or look granular or wooly then this is probably a sign of overcleaning and the coin is best avoided. Minor porosity I would deem acceptable, likewise fine hairline cracks, minor flan raggedness, minor smoothing of fields and strikes that are slightly off-centre (few ancient coins are absolutely perfect.)
5.Whilst there's nothing wrong with a broad based collection if you can afford it, a focussed or themed collection is likely to be more affordable for the budget collector. Here are some reverse types always popular with collectors:
(i) Architectural reverses. Can be pricey and in general not well-represented on eBay.
(ii) Geographical types which commemmorate provinces of the empire, a particular favourite with collectors of Hadrian.
(iii)Nautical types depicting galleys. A superb collection was recently auctioned by CNG , however these reverses do not crop up too often on eBay.
(iv)Roman gods and godesses, one of the easiest to collect.
(v)Posthumous divo or divus issues struck after the death of (usually) good emperors commemmorating their deification.
(vi) Animals. 3rd century AD issues are especially abundant, particularly for the reign of Gallienus.
The collector can of course simply focus on one emperor (I notice Probus seems to be popular on eBay and superb and affordable coins of his are always on offer.) Or you could ignore the gents and go for the ladies - most Roman empresses from Hadrian 's reign onwards are quite affordable.
6.If you're more interested in collecting particular periods or coin types, then the following are well represented on eBay and can offer quality and value:
(i) Denarius. Silver denarii of the Severan dynasty and other emperors of the first half of the 3rd cent. AD (Septimius Severus, Caracalla, Geta, Elagabalus, Maximinus, Severus Alexander, Gordian III.) High grade, lustrous examples are often to be had on eBay, the coins are often carefully struck and the portraiture superb and incisive ( I particularly like the charming juvenile portraits of Geta and Caracalla.) Expect to pay £25-60 for good examples.
(ii) The antoninianus or double denarius. This coin was something of a fiscal con trick introduced by Caracalla in the early 3rd century AD. The coin was tariffed at 2 denarii and was supposed to be twice the weight and have twice the silver content of the denarius but in practice rarely achieved either and after the mid 3rd century was pretty much a base metal coin with a silver coating. Still lustrous high grade examples with good portraits can be found on eBay, with Gordian III, Philip the Arab, his son Philip II,and Trajan Decius being particularly abundant and usually fetching around £20-40. These mid-3rd century issues often have a sharp portrait of the emperor but reverses that look blurry or "melted" due to the policy of frequently renewing the obverse dies but continuing to use the reverse dies until they wore out. So you should keep an eye out for specimens that indicate the use of fresh dies for both obverse and reverse (ie sharp details on both sides.) Expect to pay a bit more for Caracalla and much more for genuine Macrinus, Pupienus and Balbinus. If you go for the later issues (Gallienus,Probus, Aurelian, Tacitus) then try to get examples which still have their silver coating intact.
(iii) The follis. This was a large base metal coin with a silver coating introduced by Diocletian at the end of the 3rd cent AD as part of his currency reforms which swept away the antoninianus and all the other older coin types. These are usually carefully struck coins with powerful if rather stylized portraits and there are a large number of emperors and a wide range of mints to choose from (including London). The reverses can be a tad monotonous, usually the Genius of the Roman people or the goddess Juno Moneta but there are scarcer ones to aim for such as the personification of Carthage, Hercules and the Dioscuri. The post-abdication issues for Diocletian and Maximianus are particularly interesting. You should be able to pick up outstanding examples of the follis for about £25-50.
(iv) The House of Constantine (Constantine the Great, his sons Crispus, Constantine II, Constans, Constantius II, his nephew Delmatius, his mother Helena, his wife Fausta. You could also add brother-in-law Licinius and the last blood relative of the line Julian II , the Apostate.) For the collector on a tight budget who wants a quality collection, this is one of the best areas to focus on. The small coins usually designated as AE2, AE3 and AE3/4 often have superb miniature portraits, sometimes displaying a degree of naturalism surprising for this late period. These coins, many of which display a campgate or laurel wreath reverse are quite common so go for the highest quality. You should be able to pick up EF or NEF examples for £10-20 ( for that sort of money you'd only get a mediocre denarius) and perhaps double that for Delmatius and the ladies. Keep an eye out for unlisted coins (ie common coins with slight variations not listed in the major references) as these can add a sprinkling of rarities to your collection.
(v) Roman provincial coins, also known, somewhat misleadingly in my opinion, as Greek Imperials. These coins were issued mostly by the Greek-speaking towns and provinces of the eastern empire for a period of about 300 years until swept away by the currency reforms of Diocletian. Until about 15 years ago they were pretty much the wall flowers of Roman coin collecting, not terribly popular and hence very affordable. Perhaps the reason for this neglect was that the coins were often carelessly struck, rarely seen in high grade and, rather surprisingly for the Greek world, the portraiture was often quite crude. But fashions change and they're certainly more popular now and still affordable, not least perhaps because they have interesting reverses (often mythological) and because they often depict rare emperors or members of their family. I have in my collection a small coin issued by the town of Clazomenae in Ionia depicting on one side the empress Livia and on the other Antonia the mother of Germanicus. I paid a dealer £50 for it and have never seen another specimen for sale. Try and get Livia or Antonia on a western imperial issue for £50! The coinage of Alexandria has always enjoyed a certain vogue, especially the tetradrachms, and these are well-represented on eBay. If Roman provicials interest you then the book to get is Sear's GREEK IMPERIAL COINS AND THEIR VALUES.
(vi) Syro-phoenician tetradrachms. This is a sub-section of the Roman provincial coinage. These large silver coins were a continuation under the Roman empire of the tetradrachms issued by the Seleukid monarchs who followed in the wake of Alexander the Great. Most, but not quite all, emperors are represented from Augustus down to the middle of the 3rd century AD, most were struck in Antioch (there are other scarcer eastern mints but Antioch has the best portraiture in my opinion) and most depict an eagle on the reverse. The portraiture is normally of fine style and usually you can acquire a rare emperor such as Galba or Otho for a fraction of what you would pay for a decent denarius. Nero and Vespasian tets are particularly well-represented on eBay (the Judaean war no doubt resulted in plenty of hoards) with good examples selling for about £60-100. Try and get a decent Nero denarius for that sort of money! The 3rd century is also well-represented on eBay, especially Caracalla, Elagabalus, Philip the Arab and his son, and Trajan Decius. By this time the coins were considerably debased but lustrous high grade examples can be had for about £40-60. Expect to pay more for early emperors and scarce ones like Galba, Otho, Macrinus etc. The standard work is Prieur's SYR0-PHOENICIAN TETRADRACHMS and is a must-have for the serious collector of this series. Specimens unlisted in Prieur occasionally appear especially for the 3rd cent. and these rarities can add a bit of spice to your collection
I'm sorry I don't have the time as yet to illustrate the coin types discussed above but if you type them into the eBay search you should see masses of examples. I hope this guide has been of interest to you.