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.


Gold mining and refining: Precious metals basics

Photograph of gold sluicing at Dillman Town on New Zealand's West Coast in the 1880s.

Public domain image

Two techniques are usually used to recover gold from its place in nature — placer mining, used to extract gold from rivers and streams; and lode mining, used to take gold out of hard rock.

Placer mining, named after the alluvial deposits (or “placers”) of gold found in the beds of streams, was the most common and productive method of gold mining until the 1920s. The principle is to separate gold from river gravel by washing it with water. The gold, mixed with the river gravel, is washed through a series of sluice boxes, each containing crossbars at the bottom. As the water and gravel pass through the boxes, which are slanted downward to employ the force of gravity, the gold sinks to the bottom and lodges behind the crossbars.

An important derivative of this basic placer mining is dredging. A continuously working chain of buckets brings gravel up from the riverbed onto a ship, where it is broken, screened and washed through sluices.

MORE:'s precious metals basics

Extracting gold from solid rock, or lode mining, uses the same processes common to all underground mining. Entry into the ground is gained by breaking the rock, by drilling and blasting. The gold ore is broken away from the surrounding rock in a transportable size and hauled out of the mine.

These processes of mining yield an impure gold, containing amounts of silver, copper and other metals. Two methods are most commonly used to extract gold from its metal relatives — a chemical process using chlorine, and the electrolytic process, first used in United States Mints.

In the chlorine process, the impure gold is heated until it becomes molten. Chlorine is bubbled through the molten gold, converting the silver to silver chloride, which can be skimmed off the top of the liquid solution. Unlike the electrolytic process, this chlorine method does not extract platinum from the impure gold.

The electrolytic process involves suspending plates of pure gold alternately with plates of impure gold in a cell containing a solution of gold chloride and hydrochloric acid. The impure gold plates are the anode, the pure gold plates are the cathode. Through the liquid, a current of electricity is passed from the anode plates to the cathode plates. The gold dissolves from the anodes and is precipitated on the cathodes. The other metals that were combined with the impure gold dissolve in the liquid, except the silver, which is converted into an insoluble chloride and falls to the bottom of the cell. The gold that precipitates on the cathode plates is washed and melted into bars. This process yields gold that is more than .999 fine, or 99.9 percent pure.

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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