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: Classic Head $5 half eagle

The Classic Head $5 gold half eagle was issued between 1834 and 1838.

Images courtesy of PCGS CoinFacts

Classic is defined as serving as a standard of excellence, something traditional or enduring.

Those characteristics aptly describe the Classic Head design used on the gold $5 half eagle coins struck from 1834 to 1838. The design, also used on the 1834 to 1838 $2.50 quarter eagles, was the work of William Kneass who served as the third United States Mint chief engraver.

Kneass was appointed to the position Jan. 28, 1824, for a salary of $2,000 a year. He replaced Robert Scot, who died in 1823.

Many researchers say a friend of Kneass's, Adam Eckfeldt, the chief coiner at that time, was most responsible for his appointment.

Not much more is known about the man who is also credited with designing a pattern for a half dollar dated 1838.

COIN VALUES: See how much your Classic Head $5 half eagle is worth today 

Kneass suffered a stroke in 1835, and died in office five years later. His Classic Head design was among the last examples of his work.

His interpretation of Liberty wears a headband bearing the word LIBERTY. The design is similar to John Reich's design for the Classic Head large cent, which was the first time that word appeared as part of Liberty's portrait.

The reverse design was a collaboration between John Reich and Kneass. The eagle with wings outspread has its head turned to the left with a shield on its breast and olive branches and arrows clasped in its talons.

During the first two years of issue the Classic Head half eagle's metallic content was 89.92 percent gold, 10.08 percent copper and silver. On Jan. 18, 1837, Congress authorized a change in the gold to .900 fineness for the half eagle. After that, the coin's metallic content was 90 percent gold, 10 percent copper and silver.

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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