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: Indian Head $5 half eagle

The Indian Head $5 half eagle was produced between 1908 and 1929.

Images courtesy of PCGS CoinFacts

The early 1900s brought a sense of excitement and adventure to U.S. coinage design.

Between 1907 and 1921 some of the best American artists created designs for U.S. circulating coins: Victor David Brenner's Lincoln cent, James Earle Fraser's Indian Head 5-cent coin, Adolph Weinman's Winged Liberty Head dime and Walking Liberty half dollar, Hermon MacNeil's Standing Liberty quarter dollar, and Anthony de Francisci's Peace dollar.

The inspiration for much of the change can be credited to President Theodore Roosevelt's love of classic art, especially that found on Greek and Roman coins.

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

His artistic interests lead to friendship with leading sculptors and artists of the day. Those friendships provided the spark for a revolution of sorts in American coinage that would move through all denominations of U.S. coinage including gold coins.

Augustus Saint-Gaudens was commissioned by Roosevelt in 1905 to redesign the country's gold coinage. The famed sculptor began preparing designs for the Indian Head $10 gold eagle and the $20 double eagle but was not able to offer new designs for other gold coins before he died in 1907.

That is when a young Boston sculptor and artist, Bela Lyon Pratt, entered the picture and the numismatic history books.

A student of Saint-Gaudens at the Art Students League, Pratt also served as one of his assistants for a time. When Saint-Gaudens died, Pratt was given the assignment to complete the redesign efforts his mentor had started.

Pratt's work can be seen in his Indian Head designs for the gold $2.50 quarter eagle and the gold $5 half eagle.

The Indian Head design for both coins was introduced in 1908 and received mixed reviews. Some praised his boldness in stepping away from the allegorical Liberty concept and replacing it with an intense-looking Indian wearing a feathered headdress and facing left. The obverse design was the first real Indian to appear on U.S. coins. Pratt's reverse design shows a majestic, standing eagle with denomination below the eagle. The designs are the same for both denominations.

Pratt's new designs replaced Christian Gobrecht's Coronet-crowned Liberty design used on the obverse of the quarter eagle from 1840 to 1907 and on the obverse of the half eagle from 1839 to 1908. The eagle with shield reverse was first used on John Reich's Capped Draped Bust half eagle beginning in 1807. Variations of Reich's eagle design continued to appear on half eagles through 1908.

The way the designs were struck on the coins earned Pratt some unpleasant comments. Pratt's design features devices in normal relief but recessed below the level of the fields.

"This return to an ancient Egyptian concept called incuse-relief was advanced by Dr. William Sturgis Bigelow, a close friend of President Theodore Roosevelt. Bigelow was influenced by the "1837" Bonomi pattern crown of Queen Victoria, actually struck in similar incuse-relief style for her 1887 Golden Jubilee for antiquarian J. Rochelle Thomas.

The design features on the $2.50 quarter eagle and $5 half eagle were strongly criticized, with some suggesting that the "incused" portions would "permit enough germs to accumulate to prove a health hazard."

The reference to the health concern came from Samuel H. Chapman, a Philadelphia coin dealer, whose allegations included the charge that the incused areas would be "a great receptacle for dirt and conveyor of disease, and the coin will be the most unhygienic ever issued." In fact, the new coins were a success and were issued until 1929 without causing health problems.

Pratt's designs for the quarter eagle and half eagle remain popular today.

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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