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: Saint-Gaudens $20 Double Eagle

The early 20th century was a golden age of U.S. coin designs including such depictions as an Indian and bison on the 5-cent coin, a depiction of Liberty wearing a winged cap on the dime, and an image of a Walking Liberty on the half dollar.

Perhaps the most memorable of these classic early 20th century designs is the contribution made by the famed sculptor-engraver Augustus Saint-Gaudens, who created the $20 double eagle of 1907 to 1933 that today bears his name.

Saint-Gaudens died in 1907. The lower relief variety of his coin struck later in that year and throughout the rest of the series was actually prepared by U.S. Chief Mint Engraver Charles E. Barber.

Saint-Gaudens' participation in coinage designs dated from 1891, when he first sat on a committee reviewing designs for silver coins. He became upset with government officials a few years later when they rejected the reverse design for his World's Columbian Exposition commemorative presentation medal, as well as rejecting several revised designs.

Saint-Gaudens' creation of designs for the $10 eagle and $20 double eagle was at the behest of President Theodore Roosevelt. Both men wished to see a higher quality of U.S. coinage designs.

The solicitation of an "outside" engraver did not sit well with the Mint's engraving staff, including Barber. At one point during the designing process, Saint-Gaudens wrote to Roosevelt and said, "If you succeed in getting the best of the polite Mr. Barber ... or the others in charge, you will have done a greater work than putting through the Panama Canal."

COIN VALUES: Know what your Saint-Gaudens $20 double eagle gold coin is worth today

Saint-Gaudens' original version of the coin struck for circulation has higher relief than was practical. Barber created a lower relief version to replace Saint-Gaudens' original concept.

Several major versions of the coin may be included in a type collection: the Extremely High Relief, Roman Numerals, Lettered Edge coin of 1907; the High Relief, Roman Numerals, Wire Rim coin, also 1907; the High Relief, Roman Numerals, Flat Rim coin, 1907; the Arabic Numerals, Low Relief, No Motto coin, 1907 and 1908; and the Arabic Numerals, Low Relief, Motto coin, 1908 to 1933.

All High Relief coins struck during 1907 met with objections from bankers, who said the coins could not be stacked. There are arguments regarding how many of some of these coins exist, with new "discovery" pieces periodically appearing in the market.

The value of the High Relief coins puts most of them virtually out of reach of the average collector. There are sufficient expensive key dates in the series that few collectors have been able to assemble a collection complete through 1932.

According to Mint records 445,000 Saint-Gaudens double eagles were struck in early 1933. The government contends the coins were never officially released into circulation because of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's executive order halting the circulation of all gold coins in March of 1933. The 1933 double eagles were ordered to be melted in 1937 and for years government officials believed all had been destroyed. However, in the early 1940s specimens began to appear in the numismatic marketplace. The government confiscated at least nine specimens in the 1940s and destroyed them.

In 1996 government agents seized another 1933 double eagle from a British coin dealer entering the United States. The coin was claimed to be the 1933 double eagle once owned by Egyptian King Farouk, who was granted an export license for the coin by the Treasury Department in 1944. The coin became the subject of a prolonged court battle and in an unprecedented action, United States Mint officials reached an out-out-court agreement with the British coin dealer to permit the seized coin to be sold at public auction and the proceeds to be split evenly between the dealer and the Mint.

The 1933 Saint-Gaudens double eagle was sold July 30, 2002, in New York City in a one-lot auction conducted by Sotheby's in conjunction with Stack's for $7.59 million plus $20. It is the only 1933 double eagle approved for private ownership.

Another 10 1933 double eagles turned up in 2003 when Joan Switt Langbord, daughter of Philadelphia jeweler Israel "Izzy" Switt, claimed she found them in a family safe deposit bank box. Izzy Switt died in 1990 at age 95. Langbord and her two sons, Roy Langbord and David Langbord (Israel Switts' heirs), asked the U.S. Mint to determine if the coins she found were genuine. Treasury agents declared the coins to be genuine and also confiscated them in 2004. The Langbord family filed suit seeking return of the coins and the case was still in litigation in 2009.

Mintages were never very high on any Saint-Gaudens double eagles. The highest mintages recorded are 8,816,000 for 1928; 4,323,500 for 1924; and 4,271,551 for the 1908 No Motto.

The high mintage of the 1908 No Motto coin makes it attractive as a type coin alongside a subtype with the motto IN GOD WE TRUST. According to David Akers in United States Gold Coins, An Analysis of Auction Records, Volume VI, "A great many Uncs of this date exist, literally thousands of pieces, and the collector will encounter no difficulty in locating a choice or gem quality example."

This two-coin variety set should be affordable, where date collecting of this series may not be.

A type set including Roman numeral dates and High Relief coins will be more expensive to complete.

A type set of coins by Mint in both Motto and No Motto varieties is also possible at a modest price. Mint marks are on the obverse for the Saint-Gaudens series, an unusual placement for Mint marks on U.S. coins from this period.

Disregarding 1933 coin and the pricy 1907 varieties, collectors seeking this series must still contend with such low mintage key dates as 1913-S (34,000 mintage), 1914 (95,230 mintage), 1915 (152,050 mintage), 1930-S (74,000 mintage) and 1931-D (106,500 mintage).

Although perhaps not reflected in their mintage figures, 1931 and 1932 are also difficult dates to obtain.

Another popular coin in the series is the 1909/8 overdate. Akers notes, "It is not a particularly rare one," but the clear overdate makes the coin attractive to collectors.

Proof coins exist for all dates between 1907 and 1915. As with most Proof coins in this time period, they were struck in extremely low quantities and can be quite expensive. The highest mintage is a mere 167 pieces dated 1910. The survival rate of this date in Proof is significantly lower.

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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