Where did the word “numismatics” come from? First documented as an English word in the early part of the 1800s, this word derived from a French adjective, numismatiques, which means "of coins." In turn, that word came from the Latin word for “coin.” The meaning of the word gets even more interesting when the Latin word gets traced back to the original Greek that it was borrowed from. After some iterations, the word came from the Greek nemō, or "I dispense or divide."


IMF formed after gold standard abandoned: Precious metals basics

With the founding of the United Nations after World War II, representatives of 44 nations met in conference at Bretton Woods, N.H., in July 1944, to form the International Monetary Fund. The IMF is a specialized agency affiliated with the United Nations, designed to stabilize international monetary exchange rates instead of relying on the gold standard. It has no authority to dictate national monetary policies, however.

The members of the IMF, it was decided, would all deposit quotas in the fund, only one-quarter of which had to be in gold, and the rest in their own currencies. From this fund, members could purchase with their own national currencies the gold or foreign exchange they needed.

The IMF, then, became the world’s largest source of quickly available international credit. By June 1972, the 124-nation fund had provided $24.6 billion in short-term financial assistance.

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Only the United States decided to keep its currency convertible at all times into gold. The United States pledged at Bretton Woods to convert foreign holdings of dollars into gold on demand at the fixed rate of $35 an ounce. The other countries could hold and count dollars as part of their reserves as if dollars were gold. Thus, the dollar became the center of the world’s monetary system.

Each member of the IMF was required to maintain the dollar or gold parity ($35 an ounce) of its currency by buying its currency when the price fell to 1 percent below parity or selling if the price rose 1 percent above parity.

The London gold market reopened in 1954 after World War II had forced its close in 1939. From 1954 to 1957, the price of gold on the London market fell consistently below $35 an ounce. Private demand for gold was composed almost entirely of industrial-artistic use and hoarding in countries where savings are traditionally held in gold.

Despite the growth in industrial use of gold and that gold, at a fixed price, was cheap in comparison to other commodities, private demand generally did not absorb all newly mined gold and the gold purchased from Communist stocks during this time. Except when the monetary authorities purchased gold to maintain its price at $35 an ounce, most countries bought relatively little gold, and instead built up their dollar holdings.

The gold drain

The system ran into difficulty in 1958 when the United States saw its first significantly large balance of payments deficit. This is a name given to the excess in the amount of dollars going abroad for foreign aid, for investments, for tourist expenditures, for imports and for other payments, in comparison to the amount of dollars coming in for payments of U.S. exports to foreign countries. This meant a heavy drain on U.S. gold supply.

The balance of payments deficit persisted into 1960. Rumors began to spread in October that the United States might devalue the dollar (by raising the price of gold) to slow the gold drain. The first sharp gold panic swept the world’s monetary trading centers. Under pressure from a sudden and widespread demand for gold, the market price jumped in London from $35 to $42 an ounce.

The crisis was eased temporarily as the U.S. Treasury transferred $135 million in gold to the London market, and as the Bank of England intervened as a substantial seller. This flood of gold forced the price down to $35 by the spring of 1961.

Relief was short-lived. The supply of new gold coming into the London market began to fall in midsummer of 1961 as the two largest producers of gold, Canada and South Africa, began to add their newly mined gold to their monetary reserves. Demand for U.S. gold continued to rise, though, as the U.S. balance of payments deficit continued. The price of gold began to creep upward again.

In the autumn of 1961, the United States proposed that other nations join it to maintain the price of gold at a reasonable level. This was the birth of the London gold pool, a group formed to try to stabilize the gold market and avoid excessive swings in the price of gold that would lead to a loss of confidence in many foreign currencies.

The central banks of eight nations joined the gold pool — Belgium, France, Italy, Switzerland, the Netherlands, West Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States. Each contributed a quota to the pool, with the United States matching their combined payment. The Bank of England acted as agent for the group, given the right to draw on the pool and to sell gold if the price rose too high.

In November 1961, the first sales were made. The price of gold fell and the sales by the pool were recovered in later purchases. By February 1962, all the members of the gold pool had been repaid.

The price was temporarily under control, but the U.S. gold drain continued. To defend the dollar on foreign markets, President Lyndon Johnson signed legislation in early 1965 to drop the 25 percent requirement for gold backing of commercial banks’ deposits at Federal Reserve banks. This bill freed about $5 billion of the country’s remaining $15 billion gold stock for additional sale to dollar-holding foreign governments. The requirement that paper currency in circulation be backed 25 percent by gold remained.

Despite United States efforts, in 1966 and 1967 private demand began to exceed the supply of gold available at $35 an ounce. During this time, massive losses from official stocks occurred. The rate of expansion of gold production in South Africa, which had been increasing for 15 years, came to a halt in 1966. With rising production costs, the outlook for a greatly increased supply of gold did not look favorable, especially at a fixed price of $35 an ounce. Greatly aggravating this drop in free world gold production in 1966 was the Soviet Union’s decision to discontinue its by-then-customary gold sales.

As production of gold decreased, demand climbed, particularly from gold speculators who had entered the market in significant numbers with the gold crisis of 1960. These speculators tried to take advantage of the worsening U.S. balance of payments deficit by purchasing large amounts of gold, which they expected would  increase in price.

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

Community Comments

Numismatics is about more than just coins.

While many people use numismatics as a general term to refer only to the study of coins, this word actually refers to the study of all kinds of money. As such, it includes the study of coins and also paper bills, tokens, and other related objects that have been used as currency by various people throughout history, as well as noncurrency items like medals. Some kinds of money used at different points in history might surprise novice numismatists; for example, a culture might have used shells as a currency. 

Barter, or the trade of objects and services for other objects and services, has long been used in the marketplace and continues today. In some cases, the line between barter and currency still provides a topic of debate, but in most cases, articles about numismatics cover subjects like coins and paper money. Numismatics might become easier to comprehend by understanding the numismatic values of coins and paper money, and this refers to the value of a coin or note that is higher than the intrinsic or face value. In other words, this could also be called the collectible value. For example, a historical gold coin has an inherent value that is based upon its bullion value. It may also have a face value, or the actual value of the money assigned by the country that produced it. However, that same coin might be worth much more than the gold or the face value because it is rare, historically significant, beautiful, and/or designed by a famous artist.

Ultimately, understanding numismatics really depends upon understanding the nature of money. In the past, money might have been shells, gems, or precious metals. Today, most societies rely upon coins and paper money, but in this digital age, even that has begun to change as billions of dollars get exchanged every day electronically without the need for physical currency. Even more revolutionary, there are new digital currencies that have never been based upon any nation's physical currency. As it has in the past, it is likely that the study of numismatics will continue to evolve as currency evolves.