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Surface Quality Rated on Ancient Coins
By Richard Giedroyc, NN Express
March 13, 2014

This article was originally printed in Numismatic News.
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Uncirculated U.S. copper coins are usually described as Red, Red-Brown, or Brown. Is there any descriptive standard for describing the patina on ancient bronze coins?

All ancient bronze coins have been recovered after a long burial, and their surface conditions are so varied that no formal designation would be practical. Instead, we take into account every aspect of the surface condition to arrive at a rating on a five-point scale, which provides an accurate and helpful analysis of the surface quality.

I saw David Vagi of Numismatic Guaranty Corporation discussing the surprisingly low value of a Byzantine gold coin on the television program “Pawn Stars” recently (“Cold hard cash” episode). The low value on a thousand-year old coin intrigues me. What general information can you give me about collecting Byzantine coins?

The Byzantine Empire was actually the Eastern Roman Empire. This entity survived for about another thousand years (until 1453) following the collapse of the Roman Empire (in C.E. 476). Copper and gold coins drove the Byzantine economy, while silver coins were issued in significantly smaller amounts. Any Byzantine copper coin in higher grades as well as all silver coins command significant premiums, while the better gold coins will be those from short-reigning monarchs. Likely the best book on the subject is Seaby’s “Byzantine Coins and Their Values.”

**David Vagi is a well-known columnist as well as the head of the ancient coin department for Numismatic Guaranty Corporation. I was able to pose the following important questions to him regarding the certification of ancient coins by NGC. There are other third-party certification services that examine ancient coins as well – RG.

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The major certification services have sample grading sets and published standards for US coins. What standards are followed when ancient coins are being examined?

Because the field of ancient coinage is so incredibly varied, grading sets are a practical impossibility. Therefore, we [Numismatic Guaranty Corporation] pattern our grading after the established standards for modern coins, while taking into consideration the individual characteristics of ancient coins. One major difference is that instead of using the 70-point Sheldon scale, we use the adjectival equivalents of that scale (Very Fine instead of VF-20-25, Mint State instead of MS-60-62, etc.). Furthermore, we supplement the wear-grade with evaluations of strike and surface quality, each on a five-point scale. When applicable, we also note “fine style.” For a thorough description of NGC’s grading system and standards, please visit

Is eye appeal considered when assigning a grade to an ancient coin?

Eye appeal is not considered when arriving at the three technical aspects of our analysis – grade, strike and surface. However, it plays a role in the evaluation of style (as eye appeal is often a key by-product of fine style), and it usually is the most significant factor of a “star” designation.

Are there any ancient coins that can’t be encapsulated due to their size?

Yes, but there are not as many as you might think. It is limited to some very large struck bronzes and the smallest gold, electrum and silver fractions. However, 99 percent or more of all ancient coins that NGC grades are eligible for encapsulation.

Are common foreign silver coins being scrapped as are common U.S. silver coins?

The same market forces are at work around the world. Silver coins may be hoarded in quantities in their country of origin, but in the United States they are likely to be encountered as part of a mix including non-silver coins dealers purchase from the general public. The coins may be scrapped if the U.S. dealer accumulates enough of them to make it worth his time, but it is more challenging to find sufficient quantities since the coins vary in weight and fineness.

Are the many world silver coin purities a problem when the coins are being melted?

It is difficult to sort world coins by their silver fineness. Many times there aren’t enough coins of a consistent purity to batch a quantity to resell or to melt. There is significant labor involved in sorting these coins. For this reason dealers often weigh all the foreign silver coins brought to them by non-collectors, then quote them a conservative price based on assuming the coins are all a very low grade silver.

Is anyone keeping track of the silver world coins being melted?

It is unlikely anyone could keep track of the world silver coins being melted simply due to the lack of a central clearinghouse. It is challenging enough to estimate the number of silver U.S. coins being melted. One personal observation – I am seeing significantly less silver world coins in miscellaneous non-collector hoards than in the past.

Since the style is rated on an ancient coin slab, is there a standard from which this is determined, or is the rating based on the experience of the staff?

Style is often a matter of personal taste. However, within the field of ancient coins there is a reasonably consistent idea of what constitutes “fine style.” This has been achieved over a very long period – ever since the Renaissance – by the comparison of ancient coins to one another and to other forms of ancient art. Thus, the “standard” is one that has been passed down through successive generations of collectors, dealers and scholars, and which has been reasonably well defined in literature. For the record, NGC Ancients does not rate style on a scale, but assigns the status of “fine style” only to coins struck with dies of fine style. Furthermore, it only assigns “fine style” to coins on which fine artistry is not obscured by the state of preservation, etc.

Email inquiries to Because of space limitations, we are unable to publish all questions.

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