Getting started in numismatics

Young or old, affluent or not, all sorts of people find coin collecting an accessible hobby. Many famous collectors started as children or young adults, and this is also the kind of hobby and vocation that gets passed to generations within families and shared with friends. Because studying numismatics also involves learning about history, politics, art and much more, this hobby has educational value. Of course, coin collectors also find this hobby exciting and sometimes, profitable. The first step for novice coin collectors usually includes learning the language of coin collecting. Special terms describe a coin's condition, type and appearance. Mastery of basic terms opens the door to gaining more knowledge.


collectionStart Your Collection

Learning coin terminology and acquiring basic collecting knowledge are important first steps for those entering the numismatic hobby.




historyCoin History

From the U.S. Mint’s first facilities, to the discovery of the Saddle Ridge Hoard, read about the historical places, people and events that have shaped numismatics.




metalsPrecious Metals

Bullion investing and coin collecting go hand in hand. Learn all about the basics of investing and the many different bullion coins available.




coinsKnow Your U.S. Coins

What’s so special about the Morgan dollar? How many different types of Lincoln cents have there been? Get familiar with all U.S. coins, past and present.



Making coins come alive

The very first American colonists had little need for coins in the wilderness. They bartered with trade goods, Native American wampumand tobacco. As civilization grew, the British did not always give the Americans permission to mint their own coins, but the colonists found alternative sources of coins and on occasion, struck coins without royal authority. For example, the Massachusetts Bay Colony set up its own mint in Boston in 1652 during a period when England lacked a king and continued striking 1652-dated silver coins for decades. Thus, early examples of U.S. Colonial coins were born. In April of 1792, the U.S. Mint was established in Philadelphia, the nation's capital at the time.

Numismatics, the studying of coins, and the collecting of coins both stand apart from investing in coins for their bullion value. Still, the bullion value of most collectible coins still needs to get considered. Even today, the U.S. Mint and mints of other nations’ produce bullion coins that are different from regular coins intended for currency. Through much of history, coins derived most of their value from their metal content. While people used coins as currency for thousands of years, the practice might have been closer to trading small bits of copper, silver, gold and other precious metals. However, as gold and silver rose in value, the intrinsic worth of the precious metals in the coins began to exceed their face value. In the U.S., for example, the replacement of 90 percent silver coins with base metal coins began in 1965.

Learning about U.S. coins means learning about the history of the country. Very often, decisions about a coin's content, value and design were made because of political, economic or social events of the time that they were minted. In some cases, political figures or mint executives even made decisions because of favoritism, nepotism or personal competitions — and learning these details makes old coins come alive.


Know your U.S. coins: Gobrecht dollars

This may trouble some people, but the Gobrecht dollar really should be renamed to something a bit more accurate – perhaps the Seated Liberty, Flying Eagle dollar.

The Gobrecht dollar is named after Christian Gobrecht, an engraver at the United States Mint in 1836 when the coin made its debut. However, unlike the similarly named Morgan dollar, the Gobrecht dollar was not designed solely by the man whose name it bears. Credit for the designs used by Gobrecht properly should be shared with others, which is why a name change is appropriate for accuracy's sake.

We're not going to delve into which Seated Liberty, Flying Eagle dollars are patterns, which are circulation issues and which are restrikes. Modern researchers are still debating those points and publication of one person's view is generally a rallying call for a contrarian viewpoint from someone else.

Instead, we'll focus on how the coin came to be, and why the Gobrecht dollar is singularly misnamed.

COIN VALUES: See how much Gobrecht dollars are worth today

Silver dollar production had ceased in 1804 with the production of 19,750 Draped Bust dollars dated 1803. The silver dollar had too much silver when compared to the Spanish 8-real coin, and most were exported rather than circulating in the United States. Except for some 1804-dated dollars struck about 1834 as diplomatic gifts, no silver dollars were struck from 1804 through 1835. It was determined by the mid-1830s, however, that a silver dollar was necessary, and plans were made for a coin of new standards and designs.

The new silver dollar, rather than being designed by one man, was designed virtually by committee. Robert Maskell Patterson was one of them. He was named Mint director on May 26, 1835, effective upon the resignation of Director Samuel Moore July 1.

One of Moore's last acts as director was to recommend the hiring of Christian Gobrecht as an assistant engraver, made necessary by the expected increased need for dies with the opening of the new Branch Mints. Before Gobrecht could be hired, William Kneass, the engraver, suffered a stroke.

Patterson hired Gobrecht. He also hired two Philadelphia artists, Thomas Sully and Titian Peale, to create new designs for various denominations, including the dollar.

All four men (and others) would play key roles in creating the silver dollar that today bears the name of just one of them.

Patterson deserves much of the credit. He conceived the obverse design as an American variation of Britannia, Britain's allegorical icon, and advised his artists and engravers on fine points of design modifications. Credit should also go to Kneass, who produced a sketch of an Americanized Britannia before he suffered the stroke. Both Peale and Sully produced their own versions of a Seated Liberty as well, and deserve credit. Gobrecht, using sketches provided him, made a copper-plate impression for presentation to Secretary of Treasury Levi Woodbury, and thus should share the credit. Early in 1836, Patterson sent impressions from a study die to Woodbury and President Jackson. Both officials approved the design, although Woodbury expressed a desire to see the foot of the Liberty pole held by Liberty (replacing the trident held by Britannia).

Patterson replied that this would be impossible on a seated figure. Patterson also recommended further refinements of the design (including to her right arm, her cheeks, the drapery and her index finger), and in April submitted an improved obverse die, as well as a sketch of the Flying Eagle reverse.

Patterson referred to this eagle as being "true to nature," avoiding the "absurdity of the shield sticking to the breast of a bird." He noted in a letter to Woodbury that some 30 sketches for the eagle had been rejected before an acceptable Flying Eagle design was created.

Gobrecht claimed credit early. At one point, he placed his name in the field beneath the image of Liberty on one die. Then his name was moved to a less prominent place on the base upon which Liberty sits. One can imagine the reaction of the others who worked on the designs, to receive no credit. However, his bold signature presaged the day when collectors would ignore the contributions of Woodbury, of Patterson, of Peale and Sully, and call the coin by just his name – the Gobrecht dollar.

It hasn't always been that way. Collectors at one time referred to the coin by its designs, not the engraver. This practice makes sense. We call the silver dollar that followed the Seated Liberty dollar, with an obverse based on that used from 1836 to 1839. However, Patterson's natural eagle did not survive, being replaced by an eagle with a shield absurdly sticking to its breast.

At some point, collectors and dealers began calling the dollar of 1836 to 1839 the Gobrecht dollar, probably because Gobrecht's name appears on some specimens. That practice continues.

However, it's neither fair nor completely accurate to do so. Whether the collecting community will change its practice is questionable.

Keep reading from our "Know Your U.S. Coins" series:

Cents and half cents:

2- and 3-cent coins:


Dimes and half dimes:


Half dollars:


Gold coins:

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