I should begin by stating that this essay is aimed at beginning collectors with an addiction, but with limited income. If you are wealthy, go ahead and buy anything you like in the finest grades. If you are not in the upper 5% of incomes, then read on.
If you are anything like me, you stumbled onto the ancient coin collecting world by accident. I inherited an American coin collection from my father and was trying to add to it. While scanning Ebay and Yahoo, I noticed the "ancient" catagory and like Dorothy and the twister I was sucked in and off to Oz. Fifty years of pent up interest in ancient history, culture, origins of language, etc. was unleashed. I began buying on the internet auctions and then spread to online dealers and mail order dealers/auctions. What amazed me was the fact that I could put together a collection of small Constantine bronze coins for less than the priceof Buffalo Nickels. It boggled the mind. I also wanted coins from Parthia, China, Greece, Elymais, India, and every other geopolitical region that played a role in history. At first, I was not interested in the grade of the coin whatsoever: I just wanted to hold history. It was my wife (Glenda the good witch of the North) who made me click my heels twice and return to Kansas (actually, Tennessee).
I am now into my 20th year of collecting. I have made mistakes, got some wonderful treasures, and learned much. I still have that internal and sometimes external gasp when an interesting new coin arrives in the mail. One of the nice things for the boy in me is that Christmas lasts all year. I have even developed a fond relationship with the mail lady who constantly brings those insured and registered packages to the door. What follows are some suggestions for keeping the fun in collecting.
Suggestion 1 is to involve your spouse or someone close to you in your hobby. Even if the interest shown by this person is cursory it will be important for several reasons. First, you want to share your treasures and the knowledge gained from this new hobby. Most people will not be that interested and you will find that hard to believe. Sadly, many Americans have little knowledge of cultural and historical heritage. Don't be surprised if someone thinks that Alexander the Great is a professional wrestler or that Trajan had something to do with a wooden horse (or contraception). Getting your spouse/partner involved will also aid in another important issue: money.
My second suggestion is to work from a budget and not to deviate from it. My wife and I sat down and agreed upon a monthly expenditure that was within our means. In my case this put many of the nicer coins out of reach if I spent my budget monthly. If there is a coin I must have that is beyond my budget, I can borrow against my next month's budget. A pitfall to avoid or be wary of is the addiction to Ebay and Yahoo! shopping. Every day hundreds of auctions end. It is enticing to just buy and buy cheaper coins. The "hunt" may become more a part of your life then the coins themselves. I have to fight this urge akin to treasure hunting. It can grab you. I have found ways to supplement my budget by selling coins and taking on contract work (a second job, so to speak). The coin selling is time consuming and laborious, but I have learned as much from doing this as any other activity. The contract work adds to our income as I take only a percentage of this to apply to coin purchases.
My third suggestion is one that most collectors would rank as number one: read, read, read! Invest in the books like David Sear's series and/or Wayne Sayles' series on ancient coin collecting. Many specialty books have a limited printing and can be quite expensive. Sources on the internet are expanding and becoming very respectable sources in their own right. Wildwinds.com has more coins cataloged than in all the Sear books. The prices realized are embedded in the text descriptions. One thing a new collector should do is get on the mailing lists for coin catalogs. Request them from dealers and your name will get spread around. Getting catalogs is second only to receiving coins in excitement. You will need to make some bids to be maintained by some dealers. The internet is loaded with information. Please check my links page for some wonderful resources.
What to collect??? As Joseph Campbell advised, "follow your bliss". However, factor your budget into that advice. If your budget is very limited, you might start with 4th century bronze coins. Coins of Constantine and his sons, Valentinian, Diocletian, Valens, and others can be had in reasonable condition for under $15! The urge to collect one of each emperor may hit you. Many collectors argue against this, but I don't think it is a bad way to start. You will get an eclectic view of Roman coins this way. I believe I have around 70 emperors and I have examples of each of these for under $20 except for Augustus ($36). Granted the coins will not be in the highest grade (Fine is OK by me), but holding coins from different periods and understanding who might have held these is part of the thrill. Some dealers scoff at the "junk" offered on Ebay, but I believe this venue is what has opened up ancient coin collecting to the masses. We all can't own Syracuse dekadrachms. Some elitists also consider purchasing uncleaned coins as pointless. I know many who enjoy the thrill of discovery offered by these pieces of history. I rarely purchase these anymore, but occasionally i just have to buy some just for the fun of it. Sometimes I get mostly slugs, but sometimes you can find some neat stuff. If you are interested in accumulating a nice collection, I would advise going the uncleaned coin route only occasionally to satisfy your archaeology fantasies.
Eventually you will probably want to narrow your collection down to a specialty. I have chosen to specialize in coins of the emperor Trajan for several reasons. The primary reason is that I find him fascinating. (I had to chose between Trajan and Hadrian, so I of course - flipped a coin.) His denarii, asses and dupondii are also within my price range. I have to make special arrangements to buy the Sestertii - they can be quite expensive. Others collect campgates, coins with animals, personifications (I would like to do a mini-collection of Pax reverses some day.), coins with females, coins from specific mints, countermarks - the possibilities are almost endless. And, one need not get stuck in the Roman imperial rut. Provinical bronze coins are fascinating and are typically less expensive than imperial coins. Greek bronzes especially, of Macedon, Maroneia, and the Seleukids are also fairly inexpensive. Whatever you decide to specialize in, make sure to acquire associated reading and attribution materials.
Another bit of advice is to network. Join ancient coin chat lists (listed on my links page) and/or find others with the ancient coin bug. Urban settings often have ancient coin clubs. Not only will you gain priceless information, you will also have someone to share the excitement with. My dog Spanky has heard me prattle on about about a coin commemorating one of the first welfare programs, or a temple that is now a ruin. He wags his tail, but I don't think he really gets it. Collecting can be a lonely business. As I stated earlier, it is nice to have someone in your family who shares this collecting passion. Don't push it on them though.
Some other common sense ideas are: a) insure your collection (join ANA or ANS for many benefits including insurance); b) Keep it somewhere safe - like at the bank. It may be hard to separate yourself from them, so keep a photo database (my website serves that purpose.); and c) plan for disposing your collection. This may sound harsh, but leaving a collection to your heirs is frought with problems, not least of which is that they won't know what to do with it. I have often heard that coin collecting is not a very good way to invest. Values just don't appreciate enough. Well given today's markets, anything you do that doesn't lose money is a plus. My plan is based on my website. It would only take a day to add prices to my coins and offer them for sale. My wife and daughter have been briefed on the procedure. At worst I hope that my family can get back what I paid for the coins. This would be like getting years of enjoyment for free, or almost free.
Well, I hope you have as much fun as I have had with this new hobby. Don't forget to stretch often and work out. A Winter of online shopping can wreak havoc on your conditioning. When the kids move out and your income soars, you can start purchasing some really nice coins :-}