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.


Are bullion coins legal tender?: Precious metals basics

No aspect of bullion coins is quite so important or quite so difficult to explain as legal tender status. Just what, in fact, constitutes a legal tender bullion coin is the matter of no little debate and seems to change from nation to nation.

Legal tender status for a bullion coin distinguishes it, at least in the mind of the collector or investor, from the many privately issued bullion pieces on the market. It is a badge of honor and legitimacy.

As an example, the American Arts Gold Medallion series of 1980 to 1984, though issued by the Bureau of the Mint under congressional mandate, was not afforded legal tender status. The distinction between “official,” which the medallions are, and “legal tender,” which they are not, may seem trivial to the point of an argument of semantics. However, the investors who were expected to purchase a minimum of a million ounces of the medallions every year stayed away in droves. The program was a failure.

MORE:'s precious metals basics

The American Arts Gold Medallions were designed with the investor in mind, the larger piece containing 1 ounce of fine gold and the smaller a half ounce. However, the pieces of 1980 and 1981 have a “medal-like” appearance. Obverses are portraits of the artist with the name above the bust. Reverses show a scene reminiscent of the artist with the legend american arts commemorative series and the date of issue around. The edges are plain.

In 1982 the pieces were altered to give them a more “coin-like” appearance. Reeded edges and rim beading were add­ed. Dates were moved into the field. The legend UNITED STATES OF AMERICA was added to the obverse and one ounce gold or one half ounce gold was added to the reverse.

In comparison to the Krugerrand, the later American Arts Gold Medallions certainly looked like bullion coins. The Krugerrand has a reeded edge and beading. The obverse has a portrait of Paul Kruger and SUID AFRICA • SOUTH AFRICA; the reverse the date, and the legends KRUGERRAND and FYN GOUD 1 OUNCE FINE GOLD around a springbok design.

Marketing attempts for the sale of the American Arts Gold Medallions included the name U.S. Gold, which was given the program by J. Aron & Co., the firm that contracted in 1983 to be the prime distributor of the U.S. Mint-produced gold medallions. The public did not respond to this marketing attempt. The Mint set up a telephone ordering system that was also unsuccessful.

The above is an excerpt from the eighth edition of the Coin World Almanac, published by Amos Media Company in 2011.

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