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.


Early gold coinage: Precious metals basics

A 32 to 29 B.C. gold aureus of Octavian (Augustus) marks the beginning of the Roman Empire, and was a sharp departure from coins issued in the late republic.

Gold, the precious and magical yellow metal, has been known and valued by men and women since the dawn of civilization. Egyptian, Etruscan, Assyrian and Minoan cultures all valued gold. Production of gold coinage began in Lydia (modern-day Turkey) in 700 B.C.

Early gold coinage

The first gold coins were not struck from pure gold, but from a gold and silver alloy called electrum, found in Lydia. In addition to hosting the earliest gold coins made from electrum in 700 B.C., Lydia was also the site of the first pure gold coinage, struck during the sixth century B.C. Lydia was followed in the same century by gold pieces created by Persian rulers. These were called darics, after King Darius I.

Other rulers of the ancient world, such as Philip and Alexander the Great of Macedon, as well as Lysimachus of Thrace issued widely circulating gold coins. The Romans issued gold coinage, the aurei, beginning about 83 B.C.

After the fall of Rome, the Byzantine Empire became the important outlet for gold coins. The Byzantines struck their coins in more than 10 mints throughout the empire.

MORE:'s precious metals basics

The early Middle Ages saw the decline of gold coinage in the West. Monetary gold came back into use with the Crusades; the most notable example of the revival is the augustalis, issued during the 13th century by Frederick II of Hohen­staufen. In 1252, Florence issued the gold florin, followed by gold coinage issued in France, Bohemia, Hungary, the Low Countries and Spain. In 1284, Venice issued what became the most popular coin for more than 500 years, the ducat, or zecchino.

In 1343, England issued its first major gold coin, the florin, followed in 1344 by the noble. The English later struck the angel and the crown, in 1663 the guinea, and in 1816 the sovereign. Germany struck the gulden, Spain the excellente and France a variety of gold coins.

The first federal gold coins in the United States were authorized in 1792 after the Republic was formed, with the first pieces struck in 1795. Before the federal issues were authorized, a goldsmith and jeweler in New York, Ephraim Brasher, struck two different styles of gold coins in 1786 and 1787 that are the approximate equivalents of Spain’s gold 8-escudo coins; the reason the Brasher doubloons (as the coins are called) were issued is unclear.

The Egyptians obtained gold from the earliest times in Nubia, a region in northeastern Africa, modern-day Sudan and Egypt. The Greeks went as far away as India, the Urals, and the mountains and rivers of Asia Minor to obtain gold. Most of the gold used in the Roman Empire came from Spain, then Hungary and Transylvania, and finally Dalmatia (located in Croatia, on the Adriatic coast) and the eastern Alps.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, gold circulation was greatly diminished in the West. From the 10th to the 15th centuries, the gold that was used came from Bohemia (part of the Czech Republic), Silesia (part of modern Poland), Trans­ylvania and Hungary. In the 18th century Siberia and the Urals became important gold-producing regions.

The first half of the 19th century was marked by a large production of gold in Russia and by gold discoveries in the United States in Georgia, North Carolina, and finally, in 1848, the extensive finds in California. Gold production in Australia began around this time as well, followed in 1885 by finds in South Africa, and in 1897 by production in the Klondike, a gold-rich region in northwestern Canada.

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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