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How have ancient coins been preserved so you can collect them?

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Uncleaned Roman Coins

In antiquity there were few banks and no savings accounts. Those who could save invested money in property, deposited it at a temple, or buried it as soldiers often did before a battle. Of course, people sometimes lost coins.

Ancient coins are usually found buried, and most unearthed coins look like these: covered with dirt and corrosion products so that few can be identified. Turning these dirty lumps into collectible coins is a job for conservators, who use various careful processes to remove dirt and corrosion products without damaging the actual surface of the coin.

The dirt cannot just be washed away, so the first task is to loosen and remove it so that the conservator can assess whether further cleaning is indicated. Most unearthed bronze coins are in fairly rough condition, not worth further processing. These find their way into dealer "junk boxes."


Removing Encrustation

Collectible bronze coins normally develop a desirable patina, which the conservator will not disturb. Silver coins often develop a dark patina which will be treated to reveal a clean silver surface. Professionals can accomplish this without loss of detail. Ancient coins often suffer from encrustation or deposits, which are firmly attached to the coin and cannot easily be removed. This is common in legends and detail such as hair curls. Removing or minimizing encrustation involves highly skilled, delicate hand work under a stereo microscope.

Surface Treatment

Beware of Bronze Disease

Once the coin has been cleaned, its surface may be chemically reactive, and chemically stabilizing the surface is very important. After this, the conservator may add a protective coating to prevent changes. Classical Coins uses a coating developed at the British Museum. Properly stabilized coins will not deteriorate after cleaning, although they may tone or darken somewhat over many years. Bronze ancient coins - any ancient bronze object - can suffer from a corrosion process known as "bronze disease," which every collector should beware of. Its symptom is spots of powdery greenish-blue deposits on the coin. If left untreated this condition can destroy the coin. If you suspect a coin has developed bronze disease, consult a professional. To prevent it from developing, keep your coins in a low humidity environment.

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