|My favorite part of the ancient coin
hobby. Uncleaned coins are those that are dug from the ground
(either through accidental finds by farmers or constructions workers or by
intentional gathering using metal detectors) and sold "as is".
Currently, the majority of the coins are arriving from the area of
Yugoslavia, which was formerly the province of Moesia Inferior of the
Roman Empire. Many of the coins are found in small "hoardes" since
soldiers would frequently bury their coins and jewelry prior to battle. Of
course, if the poor soul did not survive the battle, his goods remained
buried, until now. Coins and artifacts are also being found
throughout Europe and Britain, but for now the major supply is from
Yugoslavia. Once you, the restorer, have worked through the years of dirt
and mineral deposits, you are exposing a surface which no human has seen
since that long dead soldier buried it. The coins from this area
usually date from the 3rd to late 4th century, but I have found stray
Greek coins which date to B.C.E. as well as a 1902 Canadian cent of King
Finding a good source for uncleaned coins is the hobbyists first great challenge. When I first began, there were fewer sources, the costs were lower and the quality of the coins I received were quite good (on average) after restoration. Unfortunately, a recent trend has formed which makes purchasing "uncleaned" coins a bit more difficult. Believe it or not, the picture at the top of this page is not of true uncleaned ancient coins. While these appear quite "dirty" they have have already been through the first stage or two of the restoration process. If I received these as a batch I had purchased, I'd be rather unpleased. Why do I want the extra work? Well, the rougher and dirtier the coin, the less likely it is that your batch has been "cherry-picked", that is, the dealer, or his supplier, or his suppliers' supplier has cleaned them just well enough to look for the real good pieces. An experienced eye can pick out coins of greater or lesser value even though there is still a fair amount of dirt and encrustation, such as exists in the above photo. The odds of you finding a pleasant surprise is much reduced. Batches of true uncleaned coins, fresh from the ground, will arrive in a package with quite a bit of loose dirt which has fallen loose during shipping, and the coins themselves will appear to be round featureless dirt chunks. In the photo above, details and patina are plainly visible and this will not be the case if you get a good batch. Some dealers actually do a bit of pre-cleaning with the best of intentions; to divide the coins into different categories and then offering the less desirable ones for lower prices. I can see the logic of this, but I, personally, find that half the joy of the hobby is sitting down to work with a lump of crud and slowly discovering it's true nature. I do not want to know what type of coin it is, and only have the task of cleaning the harder deposits to pretty it up.
Another advantage of the "true" uncleaned coins is that the occasional silver coin will be found beneath the dirt, which is something I've not seen in recent, preprocessed batches. While never a common experience, it was not terribly rare either. In partially cleaned batches, you can be sure the silver will have been cherry-picked. Gold? To be blunt, forget about it. Gold is easily spotted fresh out of the ground since it does not even tarnish, and the odds of a gold aureus making it from the farmer's field all the way to your work table is probably about the same as being hit by lightning while winning the lottery while being eaten by a shark in your bathtub, despite certain dealers' claims to the contrary.
Now, let us deal with the dark side. Many fine dealers distribute their wares on EBay and other online auction sites, but there are others of a more insidious nature (someday, the computer will be able to scan the pupil to determine that you are reading at this point, and insert spooky music.) There are many who will purchase uncleaned coins, partially process them, pick and choose those that they want, and dump blank slugs on such auction sites. Photographs accompanying the auction item usually show EXTREMELY promising groups of uncleaned coins. What is received is someone else's trash. Please be careful..
Take heart that you are not alone in your quest for quality coins, however. While this is certainly what would be considered an esoteric hobby, there are hobbiest groups, mailing lists, and web sites available to you. One outstanding site shows a comparison of coin quality from different dealers and shows the lots in their original condition and restored conditions. Each lot is appraised in a value versus cost equation, and the dealers are ranked accordingly. Extremely useful and hopefully this site will never stop being updated. A very active mail list is the Uncleanedcoins group on Yahoo. Here you will find dealers and hobbiests of all levels of expertise.
Your job, should you choose to accept it, is to restore this lump of dirt to as near it's original condition as possible, while not removing the patina (a colored layer of corroded brass or copper which has prevented further deterioration of the coins' metal.) Boiling the coin in acid would be easy enough and would fairly easily turn the coin into a patinaless, shiny new looking coin, but from a collectors view, it's worthless. Ahhh, there's the rub. Digging through rock-hard dirt and mineral deposits while not damaging the patina beneath. I prefer to refer to the "cleaning" process as restoration rather than cleaning, since the coins truly are works of art and, as you will soon find after starting the detail-work involved, the term "cleaning" just sounds too menial and lacking of skill. Once you have your first perfect restoration, you will see what I mean.
Once the restoration process is finished, or at least advanced far enough that the coins' legends can be read, the process of attribution can be begun. Necessary tools: Either exceptional close range eye-sight or some form of magnification, as many reference books and web-sites as you can lay hands on, a source of strong light which can be directed at the coins, and a mind so desirous of solving mysteries that it would put Sherlock Holmes' to shame.
|Uncleaned Ancient Coins|
ACE (Ancient Coins for
At this point, I'd like to bring to your attention a very worthwhile project which began in 2001 and is quickly becoming a major force in educating children about ancient Rome and her coinage. The project is called ACE (Ancient Coins for Education.) Headed up by a gentleman named Mike Dalka, ACE distributes (at no charge) ancient coins, reference materials and restoration/attribution instructions to schools which wish to engage their students in this activity. Please visit their web site if you'd care to donate coins or materials or if you are a teacher who would be interested in starting this project at your school.