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The Reality of Uncleaned Coins for Beginners
by Scott M. Head

I've had several people over the course of the years ask me if it really is worthwhile to get into ancient coin cleaning. My answer is alwaysyes, with some 'ifs' attached. While cleaning ancient coins is in fact fun and somewhat adventurous, it requires a frank look at the reality of the hobby and the pitfalls that often thwart the new coin cleaner.

If you buy from a reputable dealer, indeed you will get real, 100% authentic ancient coins, usually 99% of them are Roman. I have been asked many times "Is this for real, are they REALLY 1700-2000 years old? Yes, indeed they are, but they are not rare, there are millions and millions of Roman coins. The biggest downer with ancient coins however, is not their authenticity, but their condition. These coins have laid in the ground since the time of Constantine or thereabouts, and have corroded, degraded, and otherwise decayed. The pretty images of museum-quality ancient coins on the boxed coin cleaning sets and on webpages of uncleaned coin dealers are generally not what one will end up with (it happens, just very rarely). Likewise, gold is never going to show up in an uncleaned lot, and silver very rarely. Most of the coins will be small bronze coins encrusted in dirt, corrosion and clay, and usually they are about the size of a US dime or smaller. Anything larger, these days at least, count it a bonus. That is not to say that these coins are junk, far from it. A reputable dealer will supply late Roman bronze coins that are quite fun and educational, and success can come with proper cleaning. 
I have also found that people who have never seen Roman money expect the coinsthey receive to be larger, like a US silver dollar or half dollar. I remember when I received my first batch of uncleaned Roman coins I was sorely disappointed, but have learned that reality is that these coins generally average 15-20mm in diameter, with some being as small as 11mm. If you set your expectations properly, you will avoid this disappointment.

Another roadblock that deters some beginners is the time element. It takes time to clean two thousand years of crud off a coin, while preserving its protective patina. There are a few quick methods, but these methods require lots of dangerous chemicals, and volumes of good quality coins - lower quality coins do not make it through a chemical cleaning process intact. The nature of chemical cleaning rules out almost all but the volume wholesaler who has a dedicated cleaning area for vats and heaters and ventillation. So for the rest of us, we have slow, methodical cleaning. Some use electrolysis (I do too, on occasion), but even with the 
many good folks working actively to promote and perfect "zapping", I have not embraced the method as a primary cleaning strategy yet. Besides, I like a coin cleaned the old fashioned way and do not believe beginners should first experiment with electrolysis until they have mastered and understand the nature of ancient coin metals, corrosion and preservation, along with mastering the basic soak/scrub/pick method. This basic method teaches patience, which is one of the primary ingredients of successful coin cleaning (and the one most often left out of the mix). It took centuries to put that dirt, crust and cement there, it doesn't come off quickly with excellent result very often.

When speaking of the time element, let me relate some of my own experiences. I have had uncleaned coins come out of the bag, receive a brush of the finger, and be done. That is rare. I have had coins that came out of the initial boil and were ready to be placed in the collection. This too is not common, but happens. I have also had, on the other end of the spectrum, coins that have been in the soak-scrub-pick cycle for years and still are not clean. They show progress, which is good, and I have learned to be in no rush. These of course are the extreme cases. Most of my coins are clean in a matter of two to three weeks if I am dilligent to tend to them every other day or so, which is rare. Usually my coins take longer because I do not scrub them as frequently as I could.

Once the coins are in hand and being cleaned, one more reality of the situation must be anticipated. Coin quality is almost always less than we think it should be. This means that the resulting coin, while free of dirt and corrosion, may not be very pretty or might even be so corroded that little is identifiable. If you get a 60% attribution rate (attribution means you are able to positively identify the coin) from most late Roman bronze coin lots sold today, you will be doing well. If you get more than 6 out of 10, you did better than my average at least. With premium coins (more money up front), you ought to get a 100% attribution rate. Low grade coins (the cheapest ones, usually advertised as lower grade coins by reputable dealers) give a significantly lower rate, like 10%. Those coins found in the pre-packaged coin cleaning starter sets on the market are average coins, neither premium, nor low grade, so if you get 10 coins, you should be able to walk away with 6 identifiable.

Now the final reality - condition after cleaning., or your perceived success rate. Many coins may be cleaned of dirt and corrosion, but still be rather poor looking. Perfect coins rarely result (though some can be stunning in their beauty), more common are coins that display identifiable letters and images, but may have significant wear, pitting, chips or damage. This is OK. My personal opinion is that if you can identify a coin and give it a full attribution, it is clean enough. A near mint ondition is nice, but if the coin is ugly yet can be attributed fully, it is a success because you can know the coin's place in history.

Here is an example of a lower grade coin that I cleaned that has all the hallmarks of disappointment for a new cleaner, yet is a worthy coin to collect due to the fact that there is enough information to identify the coin. It came in a lot that sold for $1.50 per coin, and most of them were small, low grade coins. It is nearly 13mm in diameter so its very, very small, and add to that the huge flan crack that detracts from its appearance. But what can one tell from such a low grade, tiny coin? Well, first it is Roman, because I can see the bust of an emperor wearing a pearl diadem on the one side and a brick-like structure on the other side. Though the photo doesn't show the words (the 'legends') around the coin, in good light and with a magnifier, I can see key letterforms that tell me what the coin used to say. It turns out that the emperor is Arcadius who reigned from 384-388 in the eastern empire, and it was minted in Thessalonica. It has a "camp gate" on the reverse along with the mint mark TES, and with this info I can consult references and see that this coin is known, listed in catalogs, and has a standard reference number of "RIC IX Thessalonica 62c", and is actually rather scarce. In this lowly condition, I'd sell it for $8 (that's $6.50 profit if you don't count time, and no hobbyist does), in better condition it could fetch upwards of $75 or so. That's a lot of info from a low grade coin, and the sleuth work is half the pleasure.

Arcadius (Augustus)
AE 1.13g / 13mm / -
Ob: DN ARCADIVS PF AVG - Pearl diademed, draped, cuirassed bust right
Rv: GLORIA REI-PVBLICE - 2 turreted, 6 layer campgate
Mint: Thessalonica (384-388 AD)
Ref: RIC IX Thessalonica 62c var R3

This particular coin is on the lower end of the spectrum, but it is identifiable! The only worse situations are coins that are partially identifiable, damaged, or are completely corroded.

The realities of cleaning uncleaned ancient coins are usually sufficient to turn away someone who is not willing to invest some time cleaning coins carefully. Likewise, those whos expectations are unrealistic will be discouraged. At the same time, learning how to clean coins well will result in a nice collection of ancient coins, and who else on your block has coins that are 2000 years old? If you stick with it, you will be able to clean coins that far exceed the meager low grade coin shown in this post, like this one:

Constantius II (Caesar) 

AE 2.43g / 17mm / -

Ob: FL IVL CONSTANTIVS NOB C - Laureate, cuirassed bust right
Rv: GLOR-IA EXERC-ITVS - Two soliders with two standards between
Mint: Antioch (330-335)
Ref: RIC VII Antioch 88 C1


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