Your quick guide to Celtic coins

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13 January 2019
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Discover more about Celtic coins, their growing popularity with collectors, and how you can add some examples to your own coin collection with our introductory guide

Back in the late 1960s, when our hobby enjoyed a surge in popularity thanks to the loudly heralded conversion to decimal currency scheduled to hit us in 1971, the notion that amateur coin collectors might see, handle, even own Celtic coins belonged to the realms of fantasy.

Rarity and cost placed them firmly in the hands of academic numismatists and top echelon museum curators.

The few examples that had come to light in hoards, burial mounds and excavated ancient temples were not, we were assured, money in any circulating, buying, exchanging sense.

Rather, they were the private wealth of tribal leaders who gave and received them to and from other tribal leaders as tributes, gifts, dowries and rewards for supporting the right side in wars. 

How metal detecting helped the cause for Celtic coins

Then came the 1970s and the use of metal detectors in the British countryside.

They and their accomplished operators soon brought to light substantial numbers of gold, silver and bronze alloy pieces decorated with astonishing abstract designs; some obviously inspired by galloping horses and the head of an heroic figure reminiscent of the Greek god Apollo.

Others depicted wild boars, horseback warriors brandishing spears, ears of barley, bulls, eagles, chariot wheels; all accompanied by puzzling symbols, and on some examples clearly struck Latin legends spelling out or abbreviating unfamiliar names.  

During the next decade, as increasing numbers of the finds caught the attention of professional numismatists, it became clear that thriving monetary economies had flourished for almost a century before any attempt at Roman invasion of Britannia.

A vibrant Celtic monetary economy

Further study and more finds examined resulted in books and academic papers that now told of a vibrant Celtic monetary economy in the hands of perhaps a dozen tribes spread across lowland Britain.

They bought and traded cattle, horses, corn, precious metals, slaves and imported Continental luxuries. They also acquired bullion to strike more coins by hiring their mercenary skills to anyone in need of fighting men. 

Over time it became possible to identify specific tribes; to demarcate their territories; to locate markets; to sort coins by date and denomination; to assign modern names to different sizes and weights; even to pinpoint tribal mints, though some Celtic numismatic puzzles must remain unsolved until more of these fascinating coins are brought to light.  

What is the best way to make a start at Celtic coin collecting?

You must first teach yourself to recognise the coins issued by each of the dozen independent tribes. This is easily accomplished in our image overloaded modern world:

  • Read Coin Collector magazine and check advertisers’ announcements about forthcoming online auctions that will feature Celtic lots.
  • Start downloading Celtic coin images and grouping them by tribe. If you can get to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford; or the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, you will find astonishing varieties of British Celtic coins on display.
  • If you live in, or regularly visit, a county where Celtic coins come to light as detectorists’ finds, get to know any local detectorists’ clubs and the dates of their meetings. Attendance as a guest might lead to meeting someone with duplicates for sale. Even if you don’t make a purchase you will have the opportunity to see, perhaps hold, a few Celtic coins as they looked when initially found. You will also be able to compare asking prices, always useful if planning to bid in online auctions.

Image: Atrebates and Regni gold quarter stater found by an Essex detectorist. It became a coin lot in a recent TimeLine Auctions sale with an estimated hammer price of £1,000.

Visit our growing archive of coin guides to read more about British coins