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: Presidential dollar

Within two years of introduction in 2000, it was evident the Sacagawea dollar would suffer the same fate as its predecessor, the Anthony dollar. Given a choice, the public would choose the $1 note rather than a dollar coin.

Although studies suggested a dollar coin would save the government up to $500 million per year due to replacement costs (the coin would circulate up to 30 years and the paper equivalent would last between 14 and 18 months), practicality and habit still reigned. However, Rep. Michael Castle, R-Del, was determined to find a way to obtain greater circulation. He looked to the success of the 50 State quarter dollars program and began advocating a redesign of the dollar coin. His idea was bolstered by a national survey and study conducted by the Government Accountability Office that indicated many Americans who did not seek or who rejected the Sacagawea dollar for use in commerce would actively seek a dollar coin if an attractive, educational rotating design were to be struck on the coin.

In a bipartisan pact, Castle and Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., introduced legislation Feb. 18, 2005, that sought to redesign the Sacagawea dollar coin beginning in 2007 to feature images of U.S. presidents on the obverse and the Statue of Liberty on the reverse. However, the Sacagawea dollar had its constituency in Congress and a compromise was forged that allowed the continued production of the Sacagawea dollar for collector sales. The compromise legislation was signed into law (PL 109-145) on Dec. 22, 2005, by President Bush. Castle noted: "Just like the State quarter program that has been so successful, the Presidential dollar coins bill is a win-win proposition. The Presidential coins will teach history while generating revenue for the U.S. Treasury. I am also very excited that New York's most famous resident and most powerful symbol, Lady Liberty, will grace the back of each coin."

COIN VALUES: See how much Presidential dollar coins are worth today

The Presidential $1 Coin Act of 2005 authorized the production of Presidential dollars coins for circulation as well as the First Spouse bullion coin program, which also included bronze medals. The Presidential dollars, to be issued at the rate of four per year, were specified to retain the same golden color and alloy of the Sacagawea dollar. The obverse of each coin would feature the name and image of a U.S. president, as well as dates of the term of office and a number representing the order of service. The reverse would bear a likeness of the Statue of Liberty extending to the rim of the coin, along with the inscriptions of $1 and UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.

The law also specified the movement of certain inscriptions and other statutory requirements to the edges of the Presidential dollars: E PLURIBUS UNUM, IN GOD WE TRUST, and the year of issue. Mint officials elected to also place the Mint mark on the edge. The reasoning behind moving these design elements to the edge was to allow larger and more dramatic artwork on the coins reminiscent of the so-called "Golden Age of Coinage" in the United States at the beginning of the 20th century.

In reaction to error Presidential dollars produced during the first year of issue without any inscriptions on the edge, amendments embedded in the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2007 directed the U.S. Mint to move the motto IN GOD WE TRUST on Presidential dollars from the edge to the coins' obverse or reverse "as soon as practical." Because the 2008 designs were already in production by the time the legislation was signed into law, the change became effective in 2009. The motto was moved to the obverse on the left under the portrait of the president.

Presidential dollars are to be issued in the order of service, beginning with George Washington. However, the authorizing law prohibits a coin being issued honoring a living former or current president, or of any deceased former president during the two-year period following the date of the death of that president. That mandate would indicate a program extending through at least 2014. It prescribes that only one design shall be issued for a period of service for any president, no matter how many consecutive terms of office the president served. However, if a president served during two or more nonconsecutive periods of service, a coin shall be issued for each such nonconsecutive period of service.

The authorizing law also specified that the director of the U.S. Mint should take all reasonable steps to ensure the circulation and public acceptance of the Presidential dollar coins, including periodic reports to Congress on the efforts and progress of the program. It also set forth provisions for the continued striking of Sacagawea dollars on a percentage basis of the number of Presidential coins struck. Upon the termination of the Presidential dollar coin program, the law specified that production of dollar coins would revert to the Sacagawea design.

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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