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: Liberty Head 5-cent

Liberty Head 5-cent coins were issued between 1883 and 1912.

Images courtesy of PCGS CoinFacts

Chief Engraver Charles E. Barber was asked by Philadelphia Mint Superintendent A. Loudon Snowden in 1881 to prepare patterns for 1-cent, 3-cent and 5-cent coins with a common obverse motif of a classic head of Liberty, with legend and date.

The reverse was to carry a wreath of corn, wheat and cotton framing the denomination reflected in Roman numerals.

Out of that exercise and with few modifications came the design for what would become the Liberty Head 5-cent coin. The pattern 1-cent and 3-cent pieces were scrapped as being too difficult to coin.

COIN VALUES: See how much Liberty Head 5-cent coins are worth today

Barber's adopted design carried a rendition of Liberty based on a Greco-Roman marble sculpture. Liberty faces left with a coronet with liberty incused, wheat heads and cotton boughs tucked behind. The pattern design was modified to include 13 six-pointed stars on the obverse and the legend was moved to the reverse. The motto E PLURIBUS UNUM was placed in small capital letters in an arc below the wreath-circled Roman number V for five. But there was no other identifiable designation for the denomination.

Soon after being issued in 1883 the Liberty Head 5-cent coin encountered a unique dilemma.

Because it resembled the gold $5 coin and did not include a denomination instantly clear to the public, unscrupulous individuals gold-plated the new 75 percent copper, 25 percent nickel coins before passing them off to merchants at 100 times their actual face value. Many people were fooled by the reeded edge applied to make it look like the gold $5 coin then in circulation. These surreptitious pieces quickly became known as "racketeer nickels."

To repair the damage caused by the confusion, Snowden ordered Barber to modify the 5-cent coin design. The motto was moved above the wreath on the reverse and the denomination cents was added below the wreath and Roman numeral V. More than 5 million of the 1883 Without cents subtype were made before production was stopped to strike the modified design. The public hoarded the coins, which are more affordable today than their With cents subtype. More than 16 million of the With cents subtype were struck, but the coins made their way extensively through commerce and are rather scarce today.

Nearly 600 million Liberty Head 5-cent coins were struck for circulation during its 29-year life span. Among the most difficult dates to find are the 1885 and 1886 issues, with 1.47 million and 3.32 million coins produced, respectively. The rarest circulation strike is the 1912-S, struck at the San Francisco Mint. Only 238,000 were produced for commerce.

Mintage of the Liberty Head 5-cent coins continued without interruption into late 1912, when the decision was made to replace the Liberty Head design with James Earle Fraser's Indian Head design beginning in 1913. During the changeover period from 1912 to 1913, it is believed one or more Philadelphia Mint employees clandestinely struck at least five Liberty Head 5-cents coins dated 1913. All five known specimens were struck on Proof planchets. These famous rarities constitute one of the greatest intrigues in U.S. numismatic history. When sold, the five coins have posted some of the all-time record prices. Two are held in museum collections and three are held in private collections.

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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