November 22, 2021

Last week I went to the Baltimore coin show. Normally thrice yearly, it hadn’t been held for two years, due to Covid. Southwest has a one-hour early flight, then light rail (very cheap) got me to my first appointment before 8 AM — with dealer Nick Economopoulos in his hotel room.

He’s a good guy whom I’ve bought from for over thirty years. We go through his entire stock, and he shoots me his best rock-bottom price on every coin. Occasionally I might deliberate for a few seconds; usually not. No song-and-dance. And I buy enough to make it worthwhile for us both.

Then on to another dealer in his hotel room, before the show itself opens, a bourse with many tables. Mostly I seek ancient coins to sell in my online auctions. (The current one closes Dec. 7; here’s a link: But I do still buy an occasional item destined for my own collection.

One in the latter category, from Nick, was a dollar-sized Byzantine bronze of Emperor Tiberius Constantine (578–82 AD). The big M signifies the denomination (follis); the “u” the regnal year (fifth). CON is the mint, Constantinople; the Gamma after it, the “officina” or division in the mint. It was $200, actually the most I ever paid for a Byzantine bronze; but the quality is great. I was very glad to get it.

Quality is the name of the game. The U.S. coin market has gone nuts on that, with 11 hairsplitting grades of uncirculated. The “slabbing” companies, who evaluate coins and encapsulate them, for a fee, came up with something diabolical — “registry sets,” recording who owns the highest grade coins. With associated bragging rights (it’s a man thing). So, recently a 1957 Lincoln — cent, not car — sold at auction for $13,800. An extremely common coin, but uncommonly graded “67+.” Okay — but a 66 would go for about $35. As if the one is hundreds of times better than the other. Actually they’re virtually indistinguishable.

Fortunately the ancient coin market is more sane, but quality is still crucial; and it’s a more complex issue, with a lot of variables to consider. While value is a more open question too, absent price guides. All making this a challenging game. And the pandemic seems to have turbocharged demand, so it’s ever harder to buy at reasonable prices. I’ve always considered myself a “bottom feeder,” looking for “bargains.” Yet it’s remarkable what great coins I’ve been able to acquire — albeit with a lot of effort. But that effort is the fun. There’d be no sport in it if I wasn’t so price conscious. However, now rather than a “bargain,” my criterion for buying is a price at least making some sense to me.

That Byzantine coin is a case in point. Not so long ago $200 would have seemed unthinkable; now it feels cheap. (I’ve seen ones not as good selling for twice as much in auctions.)

I worked the show, going from table to table, until the 6 PM closing. And after a long productive fun day, buying many goodies, and a nice dinner, I got home before midnight, picked up at the airport by the best wife in the world. What a life.