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: "Buffalo" Indian Head 5 cent

Renowned sculptor James Earle Fraser was fascinated by the American Indian, so much so that it was no surprise he chose an Indian motif for the 5-cent coin design. And the bison design for the reverse made a perfect companion image.

It is arguably the most "American" of all United States coins and is a collector favorite.

COIN VALUES: See how much Buffalo nickels are worth today

Fraser's artistic prowess earned the undying respect of a dying Augustus Saint-Gaudens, who recommended Fraser to President Theodore Roosevelt to sculpture the official presidential bust. Roosevelt and Fraser became quick friends.

Despite the fact that William Howard Taft was president in 1912, Roosevelt recommended that Fraser be chosen to design the copper-nickel 5-cent coin, overdue by five years for a design change. In the early 20th century, coin designs were automatically changed every 25 years.

The obverse design for the Indian Head 5-cent coin, commonly called the "Buffalo nickel," depicts a large, powerful portrait of an Indian, facing right. The appearance is rough-hewn, unlike the smooth cheeks and other facial features that characterize innumerable Liberty renditions.

The portrait is purported to be a composite of three Indians, although the identities of the models have been disputed. A few Native Americans laid claim to be the model for the coin. Frazer identified the models as Iron Tail, a Sioux; Big Tree, a Kiowa; and Two Moons, a Cheyenne. All three visited Roosevelt while in New York City, according to Fraser, who studied and photographed them during their stay.

Fraser's designer initial, F, appears incuse below the date on the obverse.

More is known about the American bison that served as the model for the reverse design.

It was Black Diamond, an inhabitant of the New York Zoological Park. Fraser employed a little artistic license to portray the bison as though he were living free on the Great Plains. The stuffed head of Black Diamond was displayed at a major coin convention during the 1980s.

During the inaugural 1913 year, two distinct subtypes were produced at the Philadelphia, Denver and San Francisco Mints: the Bison on Mound and the Bison on Plain.

Because of the fear that the five cents denomination legend on the reverse would wear off quickly in circulation, Chief Engraver Charles E. Barber modified the reverse hub. Barber placed five cents within an exergue to protect it from excessive wear, and smoothing down the roughened fields, reducing the mound to level ground.

Among the challenging dates to find are the 1916 Doubled Die, of which approximately 100 pieces in all grades are believed to exist. The 1918/7-D coin was created during a die shortage when a 1917 working die was impressed with that of a hub dated 1918.

The 1937-D Three-Legged Bison coin resulted from a Mint technician over polishing a reverse die, taking away a portion of one of the two forelegs.

The Indian Head 5-cent coin is a popular series with collectors. High-quality collections offered for sale at coin shows are quickly gobbled up to meet market demand.

After its legislated 25-year run, the Indian Head 5-cent coin was replaced in 1938 by a new design depicting the third president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson.

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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