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: Jefferson 5 cent series

If one word sums up the Jefferson 5-cent coin, it would be "change" because throughout its storied history it has endured many changes.

  • The Mint mark has been placed in three different locations, and disappeared completely for a time.
  • The designer's initials were added, but not until 1966, nearly two decades after the coin was introduced. (Coin World helped lead the successful public campaign to get Felix Schlag's initials on the coin.)
  • The composition was changed, with the nickel component dropped for nearly four years – mid-1942 through 1945 – from the coin most Americans call a "nickel.
  • It has been issued with multiple surface finishes: standard business strike, Brilliant Proof, Frosted Proof and a non-Proof Matte Finish.
  • The Jefferson 5-cent coin was selected for new designs as a way of commemorating Jefferson's role and the bicentennials of the Louisiana Purchase and the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

Felix Schlag, a German-born designer, won a national design competition to replace the Indian Head 5-cent coin in 1938. Mint officials then still followed the 25-year rule (legally, still in effect today) that they interpreted as requiring design changes every 25 years. Although Schlag won, officials rejected his winning reverse design of Monticello as viewed from an oblique angle, and replaced it with the more static head-on view still used today.

COIN VALUES: See how much Jefferson 5-cent coins are worth today

World War II brought the most significant alloy change for the Jefferson 5-cent coin. The composition was significantly altered and the Mint mark relocated to note the alloy change. The short Wartime Alloy set is an inexpensive, popular one with collectors, totaling 12 coins.

The series is a fantastic one for die variety collectors: It has numerous repunched Mint marks, over Mint marks and doubled dies, including the 1943/2-P overdate variety. Many can be found unattributed in dealers' inventories at a fraction of their real values, if one knows what to look for.

Not counting the die varieties and some of the early Proofs, there is only one non-Proof Jefferson 5-cent coin that could be considered slightly scarce, and it is dated 1994! A special 1994-P Jefferson 5-cent coin was struck with a non-Proof Matte Finish. It was issued as part of the Jefferson Coin and Currency set (it comprises the Jefferson commemorative silver dollar, a Series 1976 $2 Federal Reserve note depicting Jefferson, and the special 5-cent coin). Final mintage of the special 5-cent coin was 167,703 pieces.

New Jefferson 5-cent designs were created under the banner of the "Westward Journey Nickel Program." In 2004 Jefferson's portrait was retained on the obverse and two new reverses were produced. One reverse design honors the Louisiana Purchase and features the design of the Jefferson Indian peace medal Lewis and Clark distributed to native leaders. The second depicts the larger boat the expedition used along the Missouri River for a portion of the journey. A new, right-facing Jefferson portrait was selected for the 2005 obverse and it was paired with two new commemorative reverses: A plains bison, one of the many animal species Lewis and Clark Expeditions members saw during their journeys; and a scene of the Pacific Ocean coastline representing the end of the westward journey of Lewis and Clark. A new full-facing portrait of Jefferson was added to the obverse in 2006 and Monticello was restored to the reverse.

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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