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.


What is a bullion coin?

Bullion coins are a popular investment—and to a growing extent, collectible—medium. But just what is a bullion coin? How is it different from any other precious metal coin?

The dictionary definition of “bullion” is “uncoined precious metal of precious metal fineness,” so at first glance, the term “bullion coin” seems to be contradictory. For our purposes, “bullion coin” can be defined as a noncirculating legal tender coin intended to sell for its precious metal content rather than for face value or at a collector premium.

From the earliest days of coinage to well into the 20th century, coinage was tied to the value of the metal in which it was struck. In theory, a silver or gold coin’s face value (denomination) was representative of its weight.

Before the South African Krugerrand, before Canada’s Maple Leaf and before the American Eagle, perhaps the world’s best-known bullion coin was the Austrian taler of Empress Maria Theresa. It is widely recognized as the first bullion coin. Since the time of her death in 1780, restrikes of a 42.5-millimeter, .8333 fine silver taler dated 1780 depicting her portrait have been minted by at least 15 mints, most of them outside Austria. 

The taler coin long has been accepted internationally, not only in Europe, but in areas of the world where a firm local coinage did not or does not now exist. In particular, these included southeastern Africa and the countries around and in­clud­ing Saudi Arabia. The Maria Theresa taler can be found with chop marks and other banker test marks, indicative of a coin that was accepted in international trade. It was not the only coin that enjoyed wide acceptance but it is by far the best known. 

The U.S. Trade silver dollar, struck from 1873 to 1885, is considered a contemporary bullion coin. It is another example of a silver bullion coin used throughout the world for trade. The coin was intended for use in Asian markets but primarily in China.

As recently as the mid-1960s in the United States, 90 percent silver coinage was issued for circulation. Production of U.S. gold coinage for circulation stopped in 1933, though in reality gold coins had not widely circulated in the United States for years. 

The legalization of gold ownership in the United States on Dec. 31, 1974, changed the market. From 1933 to 1974, Americans could only own gold coins considered rare and unusual. They could not own bullion coins like the Krugerrand or modern commemoratives like Canada’s 1967 Centennial of Confed­eration $20 coin. With the elimination of all barriers to gold ownership in the United States, a worldwide market in silver and gold was developed where commodities prices change daily, and money could be made (and lost) in speculation. The stage was set for government-issued bullion coins.

Precious metals have been used in coinage since antiquity. Their durability, rarity and beauty have made silver and gold the most treasured of coinage metals.

Gold and silver’s use in modern coinage is primarily in commemorative and bullion coins issued by many of the world’s leading governments.

The price of gold and silver bullion coins varies with the daily price of gold and silver and they can be bought and sold around the world through organized financial markets. Bullion coins are intended for consumers interested in the intrinsic value of the metal, while commemorative coins are marketed on the basis of the potential rarity or collector appeal.

Bullion coins are issued in a variety of weights and the issuing government guarantees their purity. Unlike gold bars, gold bullion coins do not require an assay when they are bought and sold. Tradit­ionally, a gold bullion coin is minted in quantities to meet demand and the design remains consistent from year to year.

Coin World’s Precious Metals section keeps readers abreast of related news and insights.

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