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.


U.S. Mint's American Eagle bullion coins: Precious metals basics

The United States gold and silver bullion coin program began with the release of the American Eagle gold bullion coins on Oct. 20, 1986.

The American Eagle gold coins are produced in sizes and denominations of 1-ounce, $50; half-ounce, $25; quarter-ounce, $10; and tenth-ounce, $5.

The gold bullion coins are composed of .917 fine gold. The 1-ounce pieces are produced with guaranteed weight planch­ets, each containing a full ounce of gold. The fractional pieces are produced with average weight planchets.

Designs on the gold bullion coins include a modified Saint-Gaudens Striding Liberty design on the obverse and the Family of Eagles design by Dallas sculptor Miley Busiek (now Miley Frost) on the reverse.

In addition to the Uncirculated gold bullion coins, a Proof 1-ounce version was issued starting in 1986. Proof versions of fractional American Eagle gold coins (half-ounce, quarter-ounce, tenth-ounce) were offered in subsequent years.

MORE:'s precious metals basics

The American Eagle 1-ounce silver bullion coin, with a $1 face value, was issued during first-strike ceremonies Oct. 29, 1986. The silver coins contain 1 troy ounce of .999 fine silver. The design has Adolph A. Weinman’s Walking Liberty design on the obverse and the Heraldic Eagle design of John Mercanti on the reverse. A Proof version was also offered starting in 1986. 

Originally, the American Eagle silver bullion coins were minted exclusively from silver held by the Strategic and Critical Materials Stockpile formerly maintained by the Defense Logistics Agency under the direction of the Defense National Stockpile Center (termed the “National Strategic Stockpile,” for short). By the early 2000s, though, this supply of silver was running short. Congress enacted legislation in 2002 allowing the Secretary of the Treasury to purchase silver on the open market.

Authorizing legislation for the American Eagle gold coins specified that its gold must come from newly mined U.S. gold, unless it is not available. The Treasury Department used gold reserves for the program start-up and purchases gold on the open market when available in the United States and from countries that are signatories to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.

Congress authorized a third American Eagle bullion coin program a decade after the silver and gold coins were introduced. On Sept. 30, 1996, President Clinton signed into the law the authorization for the U.S. Mint to begin striking platinum coins. The first American Eagle platinum coins were struck in 1997. At that time, countries including China, Russia, Australia, Isle of Man and Canada, among others, had already been striking platinum coins for many years.

The U.S. platinum coins went on sale June 6, 1997, in denominations of $10, $25, $50 and $100—the latter being the highest denomination coin ever struck by the U.S. Mint. All of the platinum coins to date have been struck at the U.S. Mint at West Point; Proof versions therefore bear the W Mint mark. Platinum coins, because of the hardness of the metal, must be struck several times in order for their designs to strike up properly.

All American Eagle silver, gold and platinum coins are sold by the U.S. Mint to a select number of authorized purchasers, who buy the bullion pieces from the Mint at the cost of the metal in each coin plus a premium, and then sell the coins to dealers and collectors at an additional premium. The Mint sells the collector versions of the coins directly to the public.

The Mint added a new type of collector American Eagle silver, gold and platinum coin to the mix when it struck Uncirculated versions bearing the W Mint mark in 2006 and sold the coins at premiums above their bullion value. The Mint termed these as “Uncirculated” coins and at the same time stopped using the word “Uncirculated” in reference to its bullion coins, which had previously always been marketed as “Uncirculated” (the bullion versions simply became “American Eagle bullion coins”).

Hobbyists frequently termed these new collector Uncirculated American Eagle coins as “Burnished Uncirculated” due to their method of manufacture and to differentiate them from the previously struck Uncirculated bullion coins. Burnished Uncirculated strikes were produced from 2006 to 2008.

The American Eagle bullion coin program underwent a number of changes in 2009, most of them unwelcomed by collectors. High demand for precious metals, deriving from fears over an economic downturn in the United States and elsewhere, led to record sales for the American Eagle silver bullion coin and recent highs for the gold coin.

Since the American Eagle silver and gold programs’ debut in 1986, the Mint had been required to meet the demand for the bullion versions of the coin. No such requirement existed for the collector versions.

In order to meet demand for the American Eagle gold and silver coins, the United States Mint focused its attention on the 1-ounce versions and diverted all planchets to the bullion program. This latter decision led the Mint to suspend Proof strikes in 2009 in favor of bullion-only strikes. The Mint also suspended the collector Uncirculated program. Late in 2009, the United States Mint did strike small numbers of the fractional gold bullion coins; they sold out quickly.

Many collectors of Proof American Eagle silver and gold coins were angered with the decision to suspend Proof production in 2009. Some vowed to stop collecting the Proof coins if and when the Mint resumed production. The Mint did resume when Proof strikes for the American Eagles silver and gold coins in 2010. When this book went to press, sales figures for the 2010 coins were incomplete, making it difficult to judge whether collectors had kept their vows against buying the Proof coins.

For American Eagle platinum coins, the situation in 2009 was reversed, with the Mint ceasing production of bullion and Uncirculated platinum pieces, but continuing with Proof platinum strikes. In fact, the Mint went further, discontinuing fractional platinum coins in both 2009 and 2010. As of early 2011, no American Eagle platinum bullion coins of any size had been sold since late 2008; Mint officials were noncommittal on whether the program would be resumed.

The above is an excerpt from the eighth edition of the Coin World Almanac, published by Amos Media Company in 2011.

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