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: Seated Liberty 20 cents

The obverse of the 20-cent coin bears Christian Gobrecht's design of 13 stars around a figure of Liberty seated on a rock.

Images courtesy of PCGS CoinFacts

The short-lived 20-cent series was born a year before the United States celebrated its centennial. And although the series can not lay claim to the longevity of the country, the silver coin does continue to attract interest long after its birth.

COIN VALUES: See how much your Seated Liberty 20-cent coins are worth today 

The obverse of the 20-cent coin bears Christian Gobrecht's design of 13 stars around a figure of Liberty seated on a rock. Gobrecht's design was first used on the silver dollars of 1840 to 1873. John Hughes and William Barber are credited with modifications made for the design's use on the 20-cent coin. An original design by Barber – showing a facing eagle with partially raised wings, three arrows in the eagle's right claw, olive branch in the other – was used on the reverse.

According to numismatic researchers this design is considered an heraldic faux pas, favoring the arrows of war over the olive branch of peace, but it was copied from the Trade dollar, which Barber also designed.

Barber, as chief engraver, engraved both the obverse and reverse designs of the coin. He served in the position of chief engraver for a short time, dying Aug. 31, 1879, just eight months after the death of his predecessor James B. Longacre. Barber's son, Charles, an assistant engraver at the time, assumed the chief engraver's position after his father's death.

Although William Barber is one of the most well-known Mint engravers who did much original work on pattern coins and also designed many medals, only the 20-cent coin and the Trade dollar were his designs selected for circulating coins.

Seated Liberty 20-cent coins were struck for only four years: 1875, 1876, 1877 and 1878, the last two years in Proof only. Coins dated 1875 were struck in Philadelphia, Carson City and San Francisco while coins dated 1876 were struck in Philadelphia and Carson City only. The first year of issue saw 38,500 coins struck at the Philadelphia Mint and 1,200 Proofs are known for this date. At the Carson City Mint there were a total of 133,290 business strikes but no known Proofs. There are six to seven Proof 1875-S coins known, probably struck to celebrate the first (or last) year of this denomination at the San Francisco Mint. No official Proof mintages were reported for this year, but it was the largest mintage of the series with 1,155,000 business strikes.

Virtually all 10,000 of the 1876-CC coins were melted at the Carson City Mint and no Proofs are known. A few of the business strikes escaped, possibly as souvenirs given to visitors. Fewer than 20 are known today. Only 14,750 1876 coins were struck for circulation and 1,150 Proofs were made at the Philadelphia Mint. The Philadelphia Mint struck 510 Proof coins dated 1877 and 600 dated 1878.

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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