Numismatics Guide: Discover the Thrill of Coin Collecting

If you’re just becoming involved with the hobby of collecting coins, this big word numismatics is one you’re probably encountering rather frequently but may not yet know exactly its meaning.

assortment of coins in a jar

Coins can come in a wide variety of colors, shapes, and sizes, representing the diversity in numismatics!

What Is Numismatics? Definition

Numismatics is a broad term that refers to the study of money. A coin collector or academic who studies coins is known as a numismatist.

Some purists believe that the definition of numismatics is different from coin collecting. They claim that the earlier refers to the more scholarly pursuit of knowledge about coins and money, with the latter referring to the act of building a collection of coins.

Yet many, if not most, who linguistically understand what “numismatics” means believe the term references all elements of collecting and studying coins, banknotes, and other forms of money. Related numismatic tangents include tokens, medals, and bullion.

The world of numismatics, also known as “the hobby of kings,” traces back thousands of years. It was originally a pastime enjoyed by the royalty of ancient Greece and Rome, evolving over the centuries into a focused discipline.

1858 10 hall collection

Classic 19th-century coins, such as this gold Half Eagle coin, are a popular area of numismatics.

Many have turned their love of coins into full-time careers, whether as researchers, dealers, collectors, or other serving in other roles that facilitate the hobby. Millions around the world are involved in numismatics at least passively. Tens of thousands build their entire lives around some recreational or business element of numismatics.

History of Numismatics

For about as long as coins have existed, they have been collected. The technology of coinage originated independently in the ancient world, in places as far-flung as Greece, India, and China. Interestingly, each instance of coins emerged around the same time period of the 7th century BCE.

The first collectors of coins were mainly kings and emperors—hence the nickname "hobby of kings" mentioned earlier. Exchanging special commemorative coins has long been an important form of international diplomacy. Similarly, coins and medals have been issued by governments over the centuries to commemorate important events and milestones.

To the present day, such a tradition continues, exemplified by the notorious King Farouk I of Egypt in the middle of the 20th century. Most governments around the world maintain a "mint cabinet" of classic coins that they have issued over the years to create an unbroken record for posterity. From ancient empires to medieval monarchs, the inclusion of a ruler's portrait and national symbols in coin designs has been used to communicate power and cultural ideologies across time and space.

Over the thousands of years in between the invention of coinage and today, many people from all walks of life have picked up the hobby of collecting coins. The scholarly study of coins by academics has also enriched our knowledge of ancient cultures and their monetary systems.

Numismatic Organizations

Those who are involved in numismatics have many different organizations they can join to learn more about coins and paper money. These groups engage in conversations and relationships with other like-minded individuals. One of the oldest and most notable organizations is the American Numismatic Association (ANA). The ANA was established in 1891 and boasts some 25,000 members throughout the United States and beyond.

2012 1oz american gold eagle

The American Numismatic Assocation is headquartered in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

There are also many local and regional numismatic clubs. These can be readily found by checking with the American Numismatic Association’s list of affiliated clubs as well as conducting a search for coin clubs using geographical terms relevant to your location.

You can spend a lifetime learning new things every day about numismatics. But there are many basics you should know as you begin your journey into this world of coins and money.

Frequently Asked Questions About Numismatics

What follows are six of the most frequently asked questions about numismatics:

1. What do coin collectors call each side of a coin?

The “heads side” of a coin is called the obverse, while the “tails side” is known as the reverse. Many people think there are just two sides of a coin—the obverse and reverse. But there are in fact three sides, the third being the edge. The edge can be plain, reeded (or “milled”), lettered, or incorporate ornamental elements.

check for silver coins

The edge of the coin is the side along the thickness of the coin.

2. What is the difference between bullion and numismatic coins?

In general, a numismatic coin is one that is widely traded and considered valuable because of its age, rarity, design, history, or other aspects not relating to its intrinsic metal value. Some of the most popular collectible coins, such as the 1909-S VDB Lincoln cent and 1913 Liberty Head nickel, are made with base metals that carry negligible metal values of only a few cents.

On the other hand, bullion coins are traded primarily for the metal value associated with the coin. Such pieces, like American Silver Eagles and American Gold Buffaloes, are commoditized as stores of precious metal.

It must be stated that the divide between numismatic and bullion coinage isn’t necessarily black and white. There is much crossover between the two. One prime example of this is exemplified in the popularity of collecting American Silver Eagles by date as well as purchasing proof and other numismatic versions of these coins that are otherwise categorized primarily as bullion assets.

3. Do silver and gold coins have numismatic value?

Yes, silver and gold coins have numismatic value. That is, they have value merited by the coin’s age, rarity, design, overall collectability, or other elements beyond the coin’s intrinsic metal value alone.

Numismatic values for bullion coins range all over the gamut. Some silver and gold coins carry only minor numismatic premiums of just a few percent—such as is seen with pre-1965 U.S. silver coinage and common-date, circulated double eagle gold coins. On the other end of the spectrum are silver and gold trophy coins worth millions, such as the 1804 Draped Bust dollar, which has sold for as much as $7.6 million. Meanwhile, the 1933 Saint-Gaudens gold double eagle sold in 2021 for a whopping $18.9 million.

1933 Double Eagle

The 1933 gold double eagle is perhaps the most famous U.S. coin.

4. Why do people collect rare coins?

There are many reasons someone might collect rare coins—far too numerous to be distilled into a tidy answer here. But many collectors of rare coins cite the desire to collect physical assets that are rare, beautiful, and often historic—pieces that come with a story.

Numismatists often enjoy the challenge of buying the key coins—the rarest and most valuable—that complete a set of coins. Yet, some of the most famous rare coins have been purchased by people who may not even consider themselves coin collectors in the formal sense. Rather, they are individuals who also collect vintage art, classic cars, fine wines, and the like.

5. What is the oldest U.S. coin?

This is a question that sparks much debate among numismatic historians who focus their efforts on this area of the hobby. Do we include any coin made for use upon the landmass that eventually became the United States? Coins made only since the federal period—the years following the 1776 signing Declaration of Independence, when the young nation was building its system of laws and government? Only coins that were produced by the United States Mint on a mass scale for circulation?

Here are three leading candidates for the first American coin:

  • The first coins struck in the 13 British American colonies that would later constitute the first 13 states of the United States was the 1652 Massachusetts Pine Tree Shilling.

  • The Fugio Cent came along in 1787. While long classified by some as a type of pattern or “copper,” it has more recently been classified as a regular-issue circulating coin by many influential numismatic scholars.

  • Meanwhile, the first mass-circulation coin produced by the United States Mint, which was established in 1792, is widely considered to be the 1793 AMERI. Chain large cent.

1793 flowing hair chain cent

The 1793 Chain cent is extremely rare, with PCGS estimating only about 1,000 of all types remain in existence.

6. Can you make money with numismatics?

Yes! There are many ways to make money within the world of numismatics, from buying and selling rare coins as a collector, to trading coins and bullion as a dealer. There are also thousands upon thousands of people employed by numismatic firms. These positions range from secretaries and customer service representatives to journalists, auctioneers, researchers, and buyers.

You now know what term refers to the study and collection of currency: numismatics. There is no shortage of ways to make money in numismatics, especially if you’re patient and a willing learner.

Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez is a journalist, editor, and blogger who has won multiple awards from the Numismatic Literary Guild. He has also authored numerous books, including works profiling the history of the United States Mint and United States coinage.

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