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.


What is a die break and are coins that feature them more valuable?

A small number of 1888-O Morgan dollars feature a die crack that has led to variety's "Scarface" nickname.

Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions

Editor's note: The following post is part of's 'Collecting Basics' series, which provides novice readers with an introduction into the numismatic hobby.

A marginal die break, or cud, occurs when a coin is struck from a die that is missing a piece that is adjacent to the rim, and a “featureless, raised glob of metal,” as William T. Gibbs noted in a Coin World column from the Nov. 8, 1993, issue, is left on the coin as the more pliable coin material, such as gold or silver, fills the hole in the die left by the missing piece.

The closely related die crack error results from a fracture in the die though no piece of the die actually breaks away, at least immediately after the crack forms. Metal can flow up into the crack, forming a raised line on the coin.

"Broken dies result from a tendency of some metals, particularly certain alloys of steel, to become incredibly hard, to the point of becoming brittle,” Gibbs wrote.

"While such hard metals can be used to shape and form softer metals, their lack of pliability can be their downfall if they begin to crack and break under pressure.”

Bill Fivaz explained in a Collectors’ Clearinghouse column from the July 6, 2009, issue of Coin World that a die break is “progressive in nature”; it begins as a die crack, then grows to a break as the damaged die continues to be used.

“The longer the die is in use, the larger the die break becomes until it is retired from service or completely breaks,” Fivaz writes.

The value of a coin with a die break or a die crack often depends on the size and severity of the fracture in the die. In general, die breaks or cuds are worth more than die cracks.

A popular type of major die break error on the Lincoln cent is nicknamed the “atheist cent” because the break or cud affects the motto IN GOD WE TRUST, obscuring portions or all of the inscription. Recent eBay transactions included pieces of different dates and Mint marks selling in a range from $22 to $65.

Most die crack errors are minor and are of low value, but there are some exceptions.

One of the more famous die cracks appears on a small number of 1888-O Morgan dollars, which are also affectionately referred to by collectors as the Scarface variety.

The crack starts at the rim between E and P of PLURIBUS on the obverse and runs in toward the center of the coin, under Liberty's eye and across her cheek to her neck. The variety is considered scarce in all grades.

For example, at an Aug. 7, 2014, Heritage auction an example of the variety graded Mint State 62 with a green Certified Acceptance Corp. sticker indicating quality within the grade sold for $7,637.50. The price of a normal 1888-O Morgan dollar in this grade: around $60.

Keep up with's 'Collecting Basics' series by signing up for our free eNewslettersliking us on Facebook, and following us on Twitter. We're also on Instagram!

Community Comments