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."


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.

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.