Once known as the “hobby of kings”, coin collecting is slowly becoming as passé as monarchy itself. From casual collectors to career professionals, and all levels of dedication in between, numismatics is experiencing a steady decline. Traditionally, the collective membership of those who study and/or collect coins had been fueled by younger generations being exposed to the discipline at home, school or the media. That pool, unfortunately, has rapidly dwindled in the face of competition from industries that did not exist a generation or two ago; namely, the irresistible pull of video gaming and social media.
In the “olden days” of our parent’s generation, there were far fewer entertainment avenues compared to today. The circle of interaction most people experienced on a day to day basis was largely limited to those in their immediate proximity and rare was the contact with distant friends or relatives (and then typically only through mail as even long distance calls were a costly luxury). We were more or less isolated as individuals and hobbies gave us solo entertainment to feed the introvert in us. Sure TV, then video games and finally the advent of the internet eroded that need but, in my opinion, it was social media that put the exclamation mark on the trend since now you could count on a far vaster number of people with whom you may be in contact virtually round the clock irrespective of their geographical distance. That isn't merely a distraction sapping away at the collector's drive. It fundamentally rewrites that wiring that edges out the need for something to do when the usual forms of engagement with others and entertainment are unavailable. Not only are these new forms of entertainment available 24/7 they also happen to be of far higher quality - at least in terms of their ability to thrill and amuse. Even reading, the ultimate me-time hobby, seems to be trending south according to research by Pew. Where does that leave collecting?
Finding relevant data seems tricky. There's certainly no shortage of rosy op ed pieces from auctioneers and trade analysts (https://www.invaluable.com/blog/specialists-speak-2017-trends-and-predictions/) but this is doubly miselading because for one its demographic is largely made up of older and wealthier clients and, of course, there’s also the fact they have a vested interest in portraying the market they serve in the most bullish terms possible. But when you read more neutral sources the tone is much less enthusiastic. An article in the New York Times reported a year ago that interest in run of the mill antiques has tanked. Christie's mention that “There’s no denying that there’s been, in the last 10 to 15 years, something of a sea change in taste and collecting habits." has a defeatist tone that's barely disguised for a spokesman of the world's No. 1 auction house. Another NY Times article, this time on stamp collecting, our closest kin you could say, reads like an obituary.
The most accurate barometer in interest of ancient numismatics is eBay. Love it or hate it (and irrespective of the fact that a lot of us hate a lot about it) eBay is far and away the starting point for most collectors looking to add whatever to their collection - as well as to sell. For the ancient coin market in particular the numbers are despairing. This is excluding sales of fakes, which could be blamed for turning off buyers, and it also excludes data from multi-coin lots and low-value coins that can distort the picture. Privately, many dealers admit to seeing less business than even just a few years ago and more have left the field entirely than new ones entered the fray. The silver lining? Ebay's average price for sold lots is holding steady. This is significant. While the cream of the crop can always be counted on to appreciate in any art form, it's the Gordian III ants and Constantine AE3s that signal overall health in the buy-and-sell community.
However, if common coin prices are stable it could simply mean that the remaining active community is hungrily soaking up anything perceived as a bargain which, in turn, of course, keeps a check on supply. But if one considers that each passing year fewer new coins are found (given that the detectorists repeatedly scour over the same fixed number of archeologically fertile locations) the only logical conclusion is that the bulk of those new coins found on eBay comes from the holdings of recent retirees or their estates. This, obviously, creates an inverse bubble. When it bursts coin prices may well rise from the lower supply but it also has a depressive effect on demand. Newer collectors may abandon the hobby in despair over its poor affordability while established collectors may wait until the market cools - a period that may well be indefinite. The bottom line in this scenario is that fewer coins will trade hands both from price and lack of availability (and possibly also harsher global policies that could restrict the commerce in ancient collectibles) all of which results in a progressively less compelling proposition for newcomer and seasoned old-timer alike.
Uncleaned coins, the longtime gateway for many into ancient coin collecting, might well be the canary in the mine. From the heady days of twenty years ago, following the disintegration of the Soviet Bloc along with its stringent laws limiting personal freedoms (such as owning and using a metal detector, for example), when there was a positive oversupply of new coins entering the market, we see now only an anemic trickle. Quality, quantity and even average size per module have steadily decreased forcing many dealers out of business and newer hobbyists to gripe. A handful of uncleaned coins which may have yielded an interesting variety of copper coinage spanning several centuries is now largely restricted to a narrow selection of coins from the Constantinian, Valentinian and Theodosian dynasties from the 4th century. Fewer neat additions translate into a corresponding decrease in customers looking to place followup orders.
The outlook we are left with sees a bleak future for ancient numismatics with a much sparser field of dealers, auctioneers and scholars that serve an ever smaller community with a median age that ticks up year after year. If the trend were to continue unabated one could expect the eventual death of commercial numismatics altogether. If that’s a gloomy assessment there’s some respite in noting that the emerging economies in Asia and Latin America will serve to prop up the declining ranks of aficionados - for some time at least. While the lion’s share of their interest will naturally lie with local coinages, historically a fair number branch out and discover ancients. But - and this but is beyond debate - the number of countries still minting small metal discs meant for currency dwindles annually because it is truly an obsolescent practice out of step in the digital millennium. The day, therefore, will not be very far in coming when the very concept of coins will be history. We should all hope that there will be, at least, some competent custodians left to curate that history.