People collect for various reasons and with many differing objectives. Most collectors of ancient coins started out collecting something else. Perhaps it was modern coinage, or stamps, or beanie babies. In most cases, the collector knew the parameters of the collectable field pretty well. Upon discovering ancients, they knew only that they were captivated by the antiquity, the artistry or the historical presence of these artifacts. Typically, their first purchases were based upon visual impact or emotional appeal. A coin that was struck during the reign of Alexander the Great is hard for most to pass up, and most of us do indeed make that purchase.
There comes a day, however, when the collector is less novice and the acquisitions of those early days may clash. The fact that they had nothing particular in common with each other made little difference in the beginning, but it is now becoming problematic. As one looks at an assemblage of antiquities that form a collection, one tends to seek an underlying theme which incorporates not only objects, but objects that serve to illustrate a point. This is the essence of collecting as opposed to accumulating.
Within the field of ancient coin collecting, there are myriad themes which may spark the imagination of a collector. Some people collect topically with a focus on things that they enjoy in the here and now. For example, some collect coins with representations of dogs or cats on them, some with horses. Others collect coins with Biblical reference or coins with portraits of famous people. Some collect coins which reflect monetary history or social conditions. Some collect coins from cities that they find interesting.
One collector suggested to me recently that he would like to build an “important” collection. Now this is a question that requires some thought. What makes a collection important? Some might subscribe to the philosophy “collect whatever you enjoy, because the joy of collecting is what is important”. In fact, I have probably said something like this myself at one time or another. But, truthfully, an important collection is not one that can be measured solely in the mind of the collector. Importance requires more than self-satisfaction. Usually, importance implies the earning of respect for having accomplished something of purpose and value. So, how does one build an important collection that earns respect and is of value to the numismatic fraternity?
Almost any theme can result in an important collection if it adds to our overall knowledge and appreciation of numismatics as an art and science. Or, on the other hand, a collection might provide insights that enrich the understanding of other disciplines. It is not as much the value or scope of a collection that makes it important as it is the purpose. The difference between a satisfying accumulation of pretty coins and an important collection is that the latter will serve as a catalyst for some thing useful to others. If a collector, for example, assembled one coin of each major Greek city-state and used that collection to teach school children about the ancient world, it would be an exceedingly important collection. The same assemblage of coins left stored in a bank vault would not be of great importance to anyone but the owner. A collection by die of the entire output of one city or state would constitute an assembly of significant importance—only if the resulting information were published. The Spengler-Sayles collections of Turkoman coins were relatively inexpensive to assemble, but became important through the fact that they inspired the new standard reference to that series.
The most difficult task for many is to narrow the parameters to a point where they will serve a unity of purpose. This is not something that others can or should do for you as it goes right to the very core of why we collect. Of course, there is no rule which says that every collector must form an important collection. Many people will enjoy collecting without the slightest care as to how others perceive their effort. It is certainly not this author's intent to suggest any particular approach, nor to criticize those who might not seek any approach at all. First and foremost, collecting is a hobby and a recreational activity. But if one harbors the inner desire to build a collection of importance, it may be helpful to evaluate the overall purpose before acquiring a wealth of material that might not have a place in the ultimate plan.