When I started out as a coin dealer, I was desirous to know how I should price coins. I wondered if there was a trade secret. I knew that for American coin dealers, it was easy. You had "Red Book" (Retail) and "Blue Book" (Wholesale) and "Graysheet" which was sort of an up-to-the-minute price guide published weekly. For Ancient and World coins - the rules are not so cut and dry.
One friend, a long time seller, told me, "Mark everything up 100%..." I think that line was followed with the words "...or you will never eat." In the world of ancient coins, the books of David Sear are the most widely consulted. Since 2000, he has written several up to date guides on Roman Republican and Imperial coins but his books on Byzantine, Greek and Roman Provincial (Greek Imperial) are about 20 years out of date - that said, they are also the best general attribution, grade & price guides to those series out there.
There are a few books out there that are Roman coin price guides which are based upon actual realized prices but they tend to reflect prices paid in mainly European and large "High End" market auctions - little help for a person who wants to know what an EF Constantine GLORIA EXERCITVS bronze from Cyzicus is worth as opposed to an EF one from the London Mint. The RIC (Roman Imperial Coins) multivolume set has a rarity scale which is sometimes still correct but in many cases not. The series was done in the late 1800s and early 1900s primarily and with the advent of the internet, the fall of communism, the opening up of eastern block countries, etc., etc., there are just a lot more Late Roman bronzes and Ptolemaic bronzes and Seleukid bronzes and and and... well, some coins just are not as "rare" as they used to be.
In a sense, source country wholesalers set the base price and it goes up and up from there. Your average American, Canadian or European buyer does not want to buy 100, 200 or 500 antoninianii of Gordianus III just so he can only pay $12 each. Likewise he does not want to buy 200 Prutahs or 400 Nabataean bronzes so he can get the one coin coin he or she desires cheaply. There is also the question of overseas postage costs and risks with customs, postal theft, etc. When you send $300, $500, $1000, $5000 overseas - it requires quite a bit of trust and nerve.
So what goes into a coin's price? Well, some think it is just what a price guide says plus postage, to them I can only reply, "Hahahahahahaha!" somewhat maniacally. No, not quite. If I buy a group of coins for $10 each, you are not going to acquire them for $12 each. Since I fully document each coin with it's size, weight, grade, catalog number, related history, details including defects, rarity (or lack thereof) and any other pertinent information, you are paying for my time. You pay at least $5.15 (probably more) an hour for a kid to flip your burgers and flash fry your fries - what is the time of a person who can read classical/foreign languages and who owns (has their $$$ invested in) expensive reference books worth? $5 an hour? $10 an hour? $20 an hour?
Some sellers photograph their own coins, others send the coins out and pay someone else to do that. Either way the seller either expends his/her own time or pays another to do it for them. Then there is the time to create a listing. Whether it is on a self published website, Vcoins© or eBay©, it still takes time. It can be especially time consuming if the seller takes the time to type out legends rendered in Greek, Hebrew or some other font using a foreign character set. Also, what is it worth to you to have the legends properly translated?
Some people have jumped in with both feet, determined to sell ancient coins but also determined to "not buy any pricey books". They say they will just use the web. OK, but what if the web contains errors? In my early days of collecting I recall a group of ancient coin people who commented on errors in Sear, errors in Van Meter, errors in RIC... I thought, "Who are these know-it-alls?" "How do they know all this?" Then over time I began to find them and note them myself. Further on I noted errors on websites. Wildwinds provides a great service but it does not take too long to find coins improperly attributed there. Often they are "close" errors like someone mistaking an Alpha for a Delta on a Late Roman bronze or it is an error of replication. Drachms of Azes I and II are indistiguishable to someone unfamiliar with the series and there were few online references and books were hard to come by so quite a few are attributed "Mitch 2418" because one collector who had Mitchiner put up a website with a nice picture of the common Azes II drachm and now, regardless of the control marks, mint marks, there are people selling drachms of Azes I and II advertized as Azes II Mitch 2418.
The lesson - BUY THE BOOK BEFORE YOU ATTRIBUTE THE COIN! Or at least buy from the seller who owns the book. Interesting enough, some dealers play an attribution game in reverse. They only own Sear's books, Sear quotes other references like RIC, BMC or Cohen. They know a lot of collctors own Sear's books so they quote the reference within Sear from RIC or BMC or some other reference that a casual collector is less likely to own, thus hiding the catalog value (at least according to Sear) from the buyer. Clever, but what if the reference is a mistake? OR what if, as is the case with Roman silver coins that it is a variety within RSC (Roman Silver Coins) for a certain type? You could have a silver denarius of Severus Alexander with an Annona reverse with or without a modius at Annona's feet. Did the dealer double check the BMC, RIC, RSC or Cohen reference to make sure it was correct? Before I had RIC, I just posted the Sear number alone. I did not want the disectors of reference errors to be picking apart my listings on ebay with elitist sniffs of "amateur" abounding on discussion lists.
Apart from all these considerations, I use a formula. I look at actual prices realized at places like coinarchives, wildwinds, CNG, old auction catalogues and fixed price lists and "asking prices" when and where available on eBay and Vcoins. I try to stick to examples of the same grade and/or quality. sometimes a certain coin, like a Bar Kochba middle bronze I just sold has only a few other coins out there in books or cyber space to be compared to. Here is where you have to make a determination and say to yourself, "What would I pay?" and "What would my friend _____ pay?"
Auctions get tricky - I once offered a coin for $25 and nobody bit. I reoffered it at $15 and it sold for... $30. How did that happen? Bidder competition. Both probably started wanting a bargain but once interested, neither wanted to let go.
In other cases, you find yourself up against a popular, reliable overseas seller who has decided rather than sell as a wholesaler, wishes to sell as a retailer but still sells much more cheaply than an American or European could afford to. What then? I don't think anybody knows the answer to that one but from watching the uptick in prices the answer seems to be to just keep marking upwards. Without a doubt, eBay has become a buyer's paradise in some respects because some dealers that would have been relegated to a strictly "wholesaler" status have now become direct sellers thanks to the convenience of the internet and the newfound reliability of international mail services. To take the bite out of higher postage or the risk of loss, sellers in source countries will still have prices lower than U.S. retail often but as confidence grows in their ability to get things delivered, their prices move upwards - and so does the prices here at home.
All that said, how does one price a coin? OK, lets take certain factors into account again:
- Professionalism of seller, their knowledge.
- Work time, taking photos, looking up things in books and/or online.
- Purchase cost, what they paid for it.
- Price guides / rarity guides.
- Market prices for comparable coins.
But the MARKET is a great guide. It is really common sense. Some people use Wildwinds for that and I'd caution against that approach - at least narrowly. Wildwinds is a great tool but it is top heavy with eBay sales and many of them are documented from "Volume Sellers" who sell a handful of high grade coins and a truckload of lower grade coins. So the end result is if you use Wildwinds in a vaccuum, that is by itself, you will end up a frustrated buyer because you will never be paying enough for better coins. In it's inception, eBay also was used a as a bit of a dumping ground or as a baiting pool. Dealers took their junk box coins and liquidated them on eBay and put links to their personal websites where the "good stuff" was. This was a pretty efficient method for simultaneously dumping old junk and attracting new sales until eBay got wise to it and came up with their "no links" rule.
The aforementioned and a variety of other factors led to the creation of Vcoins. Vcoins is in many ways superior to eBay as a venue for purchasing coins. The ethics code makes buyers feel good about their purchase and the lack of being whittled on every sale makes sellers feel good. Vcoins has also become a useful tool for determining market value. If you search for a certain type of coin, you might get over 100 for sale for a really common coin and maybe 5 to 20 for a "rare" coin. You can check the prices and grades, average out the prices against an average of prices realized on Wildwinds and Coinarchives and come up with a realistic price for a certain coin of a certain grade. Hence:
Ebay sold coins
Ebay store coins
Recent Auction Catalogues
sum divided by number of comparable samples = Realistic Price
You may also wish to throw out highest and lowest prices that appear to be "anomalies". This is something we all have experienced if you have been collecting a few years. Back when California was experiencing rolling power blackouts a few years ago, I won some good VF and EF silver denarii for about $7 to $11 each from a popular eBay seller that would have normally sold them for at least $25 to $60 each. Likewise, if you are doing research to buy a common Ptolemy II tetradrachm and you mostly get hits for results in the $200 to $600 price range, you toss out the one being offered as "one of the finest known" for $12,500. It is just common sense. If you get a result for it for $95 or $125 and it seems to be in nice shape and the dealer has a decent return policy - BUY IT and don't wait to get luckier!
There is a certain school of thought that says, "I won't buy coins from anyone who won't offer them for a $0.99 opening bid." That person is not just interested in buying coins, nor are they concerned about paying a realistic price. That person either wants "something for nothing" or is hooked on the adrenaline rush of competitive bidding. There is great emotional satisfaction in finding out your sniper bid won by $0.01 or $1 more than the other guy. I recently auctioned off a AR tetradrachm that was lost by a penny. It is a great high for the winner and likely a great woe for the loser - but only momentarily. This is a trap. If this is the only way you buy, then you are either buying quite a few coins for more than they are worth or you may only be buying junk box coins. Now there are dealers who will put up a rare EF coin for $0.99 but these are sellers who are confident that on any given day of the week, they have hundreds of people regularly watching their auctions and these coins are usually put up for 10 days and usually close on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday night when the greatest number of bidders are on eBay. It is also usually done by volume sellers who know that all their other coins are like tiny ads leading to the "big fish" that ultimately realizes the price the seller expected. A new seller will lose their shirt doing this sort of thing. because they do not have the following of return customers yet.
That is about all I have to say on this topic, just for review:
Ebay sold coins
Ebay store coins
Recent Auction Catalogues
sum divided by number of comparable samples = realistic price
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