Question: I hear alot about overstrikes and see different types of Bar Kochba coins with prices all over the place. Can you advise me on how to buy these wisely? R. P. Manhattan Beach, NY
Answer: This is a very good question but a very broad question. Since it is quite worthy of an answer I shall attempt to do so. I do want to emphasize though, that my reply is subjective and my opinion only.
You probably already realize that all Bar Kochba coins were struck over previously minted coins. Silver and bronze underwent different methods of preparation. To remove the existing motifs and inscriptions the silver was hammered down and also hammered on the rims whereas the bronze, not being of precious metal, was filed down.
Collectors generally look for different features on these coins and their value is propelled by both fascination and rarity.
When looking at the Bar Kochba silver coins (Sela and Zuz), because they were only hammered, most coins will show at least slight remains of the understrike (e.g. the coin that the Bar Kockba mint overstruck). Being that this is typically the case, sharpness and eye appeal will be the key determinants of value for these coins.
The rarer types in the silver are the ones that are complete; that is, they have full legends and motifs, and do not show any remnants of the understrike at all. These coins will fetch a high premium. The other type which commands a premium with collectors, is where the understrike can be clearly identified. Enough will remain of either the portrait or the legend or both, to allow for identification of the coin. In very rare cases I have been able to accurately identify the exact type, even as far as the date the understrike was minted. Identifiable understrikes will command somewhat of a premium, but how much of a premium will be controlled by two factors.
1. How rare is the underlying emperor? Thus a Nerva understrike will command a considerable premium over a Trajan understrike (the most common).
2. How clear is the portrait or the legend? The more that can be seen the better. Of course, if much of the portrait or legend is visible, but most of the Bar Kochba addition to the coin is obliterated, this too can lower coin value. Eye appeal always matters.
Another thing to consider is whether the coins are dated. Undated coins are far more common and a coin with a date should command a premium of about ten percent. The great majority of dated coins are of year two (133/134 C.E.) If the date is year one, you are holding a VERY valuable treasure and each coin would need serious evaluation of its merits and flaws. Coins that have hybrid dies (a combination of year one and year two) can also be quite valuable.
One must also be cognizant of unusual types. For instance the most common reverses on the silver zuz are the juglet and palm branch, large palm branch, and the lyre. Other types or variations are rare and will cost substantially more. You can read books, peruse coin catalogs and view the coins at coins shows to get an idea of what is common and what is unusual.
Unlike the silver issues which were hammered, the bronze issues were filed down. This was due to the fact that the bronze metal unlike the silver was not precious and there was little concern about a minor loss of metal. Oftentimes the original file marks can still be seen on the coins. Because the bronze coins were filed, the understrike is rarely seen. Sometimes minor evidence of overstriking can be seen, but only very infrequently can one accurately attribute the underlying type.
There are coins with varying degrees of rarity, from the large Abu Jara to the common palm tree / grape vine type. Crude varieties are also much more common with the Bar Kochba bronze especially for the latter type.
David Hendin's "Guide to Biblical Coins" is a good place to start to learn about Bar Kochba coinage. Advanced collectors will want to own "The Coinage of the Bar Kochba War" by Leo Mildenberg which is a die by die study. The book is out of print but still availble at various booksellers. Hendin's book provides values which are based on Fine and Very Fine grades for the bronze coins. One must bear in mind that these are for typical specimens in this grade and were also current only at the time the book was compiled and published. Coins with full inscriptions, perfect centering and striking appearance can fetch several multiples of the listed prices, while coins that are off center and have surface problems may fetch far less. In general a good rule of thumb is to buy the highest quality specimen you can afford rather than multiples of poor quality coins. That is, unless you are collecting by type and do not plan to sell them.
One final note: There have been many high quality forgeries produced over the last few years of Bar Kochba coins, so it is important to buy from reliable sources. Should you be tempted to pick up a "bargain", make sure that the seller accepts returns and keep all receipts should the coin turn out to be not right.
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