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: Sacagawea dollar

The Sacagawea dollar coin was first issued in 2000.

Images courtesy of PCGS CoinFacts

After years of trying to trying to downplay what many had considered one of the United States' greatest coinage failures, the U.S. Treasury Department on Oct. 21, 1997, did an about face. In testimony before the House Banking Subcommittee on Domestic and International Monetary Policy Nancy Killefer, assistant secretary for management and chief financial officer of the Treasury Department, for the first time in more than 17 years went on record encouraging production of a new circulating small-sized dollar coin to replace the Anthony dollar.

The driving force in changing Treasury's attitude was the eminent drawn-down of the government's stockpile of Anthony dollars, which Killefer estimated would be depleted within 30 months. The threat of depletion forced the question of what kind of dollar coin should be produced. Since its introduction in 1979, the public had not generally accepted the Anthony dollar and relatively few coins were drawn out of government reserves in the early years. However, in 1994, demand for Anthony dollars increased, due to an acceptance by several metropolitan transit systems and the installation of 9,000 stamp vending machines by the U.S. Postal Service that accepted Anthony dollars and dispensed them as change for paper currency. Both Killefer and Mint Director Philip Diehl, who also testified before the House panel, advised against simply making more Anthony dollars. Instead they supported legislation to mint a new, gold-colored coin with a distinctive edge. Actual production of a new coin, Diehl said, would require time for the Mint to research and test coin alloys and suitability for use in commerce, as well as to gear up the production facilities. He estimated the Mint needed approximately 30 months of lead time.

For more than a decade, the Dollar Coin Coalition – a lobbying group supported by the vending machine and mining industries – had tried to bring about circulation of the small-sized dollar coin by forcing withdrawal of the $1 Federal Reserve note. Most government and private studies, both in the United States and abroad, had determined that a dollar coin would not gain full acceptance if a $1 note remained in circulation.

Rep. Michael N. Castle, R-Del., chairman of the monetary policy subcommittee and chief sponsor of the United States $1 Coin Act of 1997 (the subject of the Oct. 21 hearing), readily acknowledged that withdrawing the paper dollar would greatly enhance the integration of the dollar coin into general commerce, but he recognized that political and social realities precluded the government from taking action that the public would view as heavy-handed. By side-stepping the issue of whether to withdraw the dollar note, Castle's legislation encountered virtually no opposition. He later combined his dollar coin proposal with legislation authorizing the 50 State quarters initiative (PL105-124) and the multifaceted bill was signed into law by President Clinton on Dec. 1, 1997.

The new law was specific: "The dollar coin shall be golden in color, have a distinctive edge, have tactile and visual features that make the denomination of the coin readily discernible, be minted and fabricated in the United States, and have similar metallic, anti-counterfeiting properties as United States coinage in circulation on the date of enactment of the United States $1 Coin Act of 1997." It also stated forthrightly that "Nothing in this Act or the amendments made by this Act shall be construed to evidence any intention to eliminate or to limit the printing or circulation of United States currency in the $1 denomination."

While that stipulation temporarily put to rest the debate regarding coin versus paper dollar, controversy soon erupted over what designs should be on the coin. Many voiced the opinion that since Anthony was the only female honored on a circulating U.S. coin, she should be replaced by a female.

Secretary of the Treasury Robert Rubin established the Dollar Coin Advisory Committee to "consider design concepts for the obverse side of the new $1 coin and recommend to the Secretary of the Treasury a single such design concept."

Diehl chaired the committee as a nonvoting member and announced that the obverse would depict a female figure, either an allegorical representation or a historical figure. He noted that by law the reverse of the coin would be required to depict an eagle. Other members appointed to the committee by Rubin were Rep. Castle; Constance Berry Newman, undersecretary of the Smithsonian Institution; Peggy Cooper Cafritz, vice chair of the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities; Arthur Houghton, president of the American Numismatic Society; Hilario Candela, fellow and president of Spillis, Candela and Partners Inc., architects, and member of the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities; artist and sculptor Edward Vega; Gail Shaffer, executive director of the Business and Professional Women U.S.A.; and Patricia McGuire, president of Trinity College.

The committee invited the public to submit design ideas and on June 8, 1998, convened the first session of a two-day public meeting in Philadelphia at which anyone could give a five-minute oral presentation. After listening to hours of presentations advocating nearly a dozen separate individuals, as well as themes of "Liberty" and "Peace," and after hours of sometimes lively discussion among the panelists the committee voted 6 to 1 to recommend that the obverse "depict Liberty as represented by a Native-American woman inspired by Sacagawea."

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

Sacagawea or the "Bird Woman," a Shoshone who lived most of her life as a slave, was a native guide and interpreter for the Lewis and Clark expedition to the Pacific Northwest from 1803 to 1806. Committee members did not offer how their suggested depiction should be accomplished other than to recommend that Native American artists and historians be consulted on the design. The committee also voted to recommend that the word "Peace" be included on the coin. The decision was a compromise, voting to honor a woman of history for whom there was no known likeness. Other finalists included Eleanor Roosevelt and black aviation pioneer Bessie Coleman.

Castle, the lone dissenter, introduced legislation July 24 seeking to override the panel's recommendation and to direct Rubin to select the Statue of Liberty for the design of the new dollar coin. However, his proposal failed to gain support and the Treasury went forward with a design contest based on the recommended theme. Mint sculptor-engravers as well as outside artists were invited to submit design sketches and some 121 obverse and reverse designs were submitted.

Nov. 16 through 18 in Washington, D.C., Mint employees, coin collectors, artists, historians and invited guests reviewed the submitted designs, offered comments and indicated their preferences to a Mint design selection committee. On Nov. 20, members of Congress, noted historians and authors, Treasury Department and Federal Reserve Board officials and others had their opportunity to comment about the proposed designs. A Mint design selection panel – whose members Mint officials declined to identify – narrowed the selection to six obverse and five reverse designs, which were posted on the Mint's Web site. The Mint design selection panel reconvened on Dec. 14 to narrow the selection to three obverse and three reverse designs before submitting them to the Commission of Fine Arts for review. The six designs, complete with final design recommendations from the Mint, were forwarded to Rubin in late December of 1998.

Five months later and to the beat of American Indian drums in a special White House ceremony May 4, 1999, the selected obverse was announced to be the work of Santa Fe, N.M., artist-sculptor Glenna Goodacre, whose design features a representation of Sacagawea looking back over her right shoulder, with her infant son, Jean Baptiste, strapped to her back. The winning reverse design was the work of U.S. Mint Sculptor-Engraver Thomas D. Rogers Sr. His design captures an eagle in full flight, its wings sweeping across the reverse field, and surrounded by 17 stars. The number of stars represents the states of the Union at the time of the Lewis and Clark expedition. The 17th state, Ohio, was admitted in 1803. It would be the first time 17 stars would be used on a circulating U.S. coin denomination. Both Goodacre and Rogers attended the unveiling ceremony as did Goodacre's model for Sacagawea, Randy L'Teton.

The alloy composition for the Sacagawea dollar was unveiled Oct. 6, 1999, in New York City. Although golden in color, it contains no gold. Both the golden Sacagawea dollar and silver-colored Anthony dollars are clad coins, sharing a three-layer composite construction, with a pure copper core sandwiched between and metallurgically bonded to outer layers of alloy material.

The alloy layers on each side of the pure copper core of the Anthony dollar is copper-nickel, a material composed of 75 percent copper and 25 percent nickel, the same alloy that comprises the Jefferson 5-cent coin. With the Sacagawea dollar, the alloy layers on each side of the copper core are manganese bronze, a golden-colored alloy composed of 77 percent copper, 12 percent zinc, 7 percent manganese and 4 percent nickel.

Taking into account the pure copper core, the overall composition of the Sacagawea dollar is 88.5 percent copper, 6 percent zinc, 3.5 percent manganese and 2 percent nickel. The overall composition of the Anthony dollar is 87.5 percent copper and 12.5 percent nickel. The alloy used in the Sacagawea dollar was developed to match the electromagnetic signature of the Anthony dollar and thus did not require any retrofitting to be accepted by existing vending and transit authority machines.

Full-scale production of 2000 Sacagawea golden dollars began Nov. 18, 1999, at the Philadelphia Mint, moments after ceremonial first strikes. Mint Director Diehl also announced a series of all-out promotions to ensure the success of the Sacagawea dollars that would put 100 Sacagawea dollars in the hands of members of the general public even before the coins are placed in general circulation in March. Diehl also announced the Mint would be working with two major nationwide retailers who planned to use the Sacagawea dollars extensively in their over-the-counter operations, including using the sixth change slot in cash drawers for the new dollars instead of for rolls of other denominations. He also announced a joint promotion with General Mills that would place specially packaged Lincoln cents dated 2000 from the Philadelphia Mint in each of 10 million specially marked Cheerios boxes and also include a single, specially packaged Sacagawea dollar in every 2,000th box. At General Mills' insistence to further "sweeten" the promotion, Diehl said every 2,500th box, in addition to a 2000 Lincoln cent, would include a certificate than could be redeemed for 100 Sacagawea dollars struck at the Philadelphia Mint. The promotion was launched in January 2000 and put the coins into the hands of the general public a full two months before the scheduled circulation release.

Once placed in circulation, Diehl said an extensive four-month public awareness blitz would be waged via print, radio and television outlets to educate the public about using the new dollar coin.

Despite all of the Mint's efforts to entice use and circulation of the Sacagawea dollar coin, two years after its release, few Americans had ever encountered one in circulation. In 2002 the Mint curtailed production of circulation-quality Sacagawea dollars and began producing them only for collector products.

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:

Community Comments