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: Seated Liberty half dollar

Shield? Check.

Liberty cap on pole? Got it.

Rock? Right here.

Although this checklist is imaginary, it does seem to be what was used to design silver coinage in the mid- to late 1800s.

What was to become known as the Seated Liberty design – which used a shield, Liberty cap on pole with Liberty perched on a rock – can be found on more silver denominations than any other design.

Many designers and engravers participated in the process of transferring the design concept to the various denominations over the years and the half dollar was no exception.

COIN VALUES: See how much Seated Liberty half dollar coins are worth today

Christian Gobrecht's original allegorical representation of Liberty seated on a large rock (based on a painting by Thomas Sully) is the dominant feature on the obverse. She holds a shield in one hand and a pole with Liberty cap in the other. The figure is surrounded by 13 stars.

Noted designer/engraver John Reich, probably best known for his Capped Bust design used on the half dime, dime, quarter dollar and half dollar, is credited with the Seated Liberty half dollar reverse. Reich's eagle, with wings raised, shield on breast, arrows and olive branch in claws, continues the heraldic reverse theme of earlier coinage.

The Seated Liberty half dollar experienced many of the same design changes through its 52-year run as did the half dimes and quarter dollars bearing the design: the addition of drapery or lack of drapery, and arrows and rays or no arrows nor rays. The design was discontinued in 1891 but not before the 20-cent and silver dollar denominations were issued.

There were several pattern design trial pieces struck for the 1838 half dollar.

Patterns are coins struck to try out a new size or design or denomination or even alloy or type of planchet. Trial pieces are struck to literally test a die being developed by the engraver. Two of the patterns for the Seated Liberty obverse show a design similar to the eagle design adopted – one has the eagle facing right, the other left. Another pattern shows an eagle in flight facing left, reminiscent of the obverse design for the Flying Eagle cent.

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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