US Coins

The Joys of Collecting: Test your numismatic knowledge

Answer this: Why does this 1874-S Seated Liberty quarter dollar have arrowheads at the date? Why is the Wells Fargo Bank tied into 1908 Saint-Gaudens, No Motto gold $20 double eagles? Why is “Liberty” in script on modern Jefferson 5-cent coins? On what coin series is this E PLURIBUS UNUM reverse found?

Images courtesy of Q. David Bowers.

I like challenges, and probably you do as well. At the same time there are good challenges and bad challenges.

When I was associated with General Mills in the 1970s — when that company was also in the stamp business (H.E. Harris), the game business (Parker Brothers), and two dozen diversified others, I enjoyed talking with company executives.

I learned that a Betty Crocker cake mix had been perfected to the point that all a buyer had to do was to add water, stir and bake. This innovation did not fly, for it was soon learned that those who baked and served cake wanted to feel they helped create it. So, the formula was reworked so that the buyer had to add milk, eggs and do a few other things.

Some challenges, granted, none of us like: recovering data from a computer crash, taking a car in for the third time for an unrepaired problem or doing year-end accounting.

This brings me to numismatics — proper for a Coin World column.

I have heard it said, and it seems logical, that to be a collector forever, one has to stay with the game for at least five years. After then, there is no going back. I would like you to do this!

In contrast, the vast majority of newcomers jump into buying coins as quickly as possible, then either use up their money or their enthusiasm, or both, and exit within two years. There is no challenge in this at all.

Here is a challenge for you, and it may make a big difference in your success and longevity in numismatics:

Do what I did when I first started: Read every word in A Guide Book of United States Coins up to where half cents begin. Don’t rush. Ask yourself: Do I understand this? Why is it important? If asked, could I now explain it to someone else? It will take several hours to do this if you read carefully and perhaps do some rereading as well.

Then look through the rest of the Guide Book and read the section introductions, look at the pictures, and glance at the mintages and prices in a casual manner. All of this may take a week of spending an hour or two each evening.

When you finish, if you retain what you read, you’ll have earned yourself a Certificate of Numismatic Accomplishment. You will be better prepared to be a smart buyer and to understand what you are doing. I guarantee it! And, you’ll have a good time as well.

P.S. Answers to the questions posed in the caption are found in the Guide Book (of which I am research editor, for disclosure).

Q. David Bowers is chairman emeritus of Stack’s Bowers Galleries and numismatic director of Whitman Publishing LLC. He can be reached at his private email,, or at Q. David Bowers LLC, Box 1804, Wolfeboro, NH 03894.

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