The hobby of coin collecting has a long and illustrious history. It has evolved from an amusement for the elite, into a pursuit for people of all backgrounds. Growing from its roots in ancient Rome, coin collecting has become a hobby that can be enjoyed at any level, by casual collectors and numismatists alike.
Ancient Beginnings: Imperial Inspirations
Caesar Augustus of Rome, who often gave coins as gifts, was the first documented collector of coins. Archaeological evidence from this period suggests that Augustus was not the only collector of his era: in Vidy, Switzerland, a pile of approximately 70 Roman gold coins was discovered. Since each coin was unique, researchers believe this find was actually an ancient coin collection.
Around the fourth and third centuries BCE, art collecting began. During this time, coins were finally seen as art, and were often incorporated into jewelry and decorative pieces. From 249 to 251 AD, Emperor Trajanus Decius issued commemorative coins honoring previous emperors, from Augustus to Severus Alexander. These coins mimicked those issued during each emperor’s reign. The prototypes for these imitations must have come from collections, because some of the coins modeled were over 300 years old.
Several centuries later, in 805, Charlemagne designed and issued a series of coins in Roman Imperial style. Again, coins from a collection presumably served as his inspiration.
The key to these coins’ popularity was the beauty and variety of their images. People admired the images of rules and mythological creatures often found on Roman coins, and began to collect them. During this era, coin collecting did not yet take hold in places like Asia or Africa, because coins were not engraved with designs.
A Scholarly Transition: The Rise of Numismatics
Over the next several centuries, coin collecting evolved from an artistic pursuit to a scientific discipline. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, Nestorian scholars who worked for the princes of Jazira (modern-day Turkey, Syria, and Iraq) faithfully replicated coins from the Roman Empire. The only modifications they made were to remove Christian symbols, in deference to the predominantly Muslim population. The quality and detail of these coins suggest that the Nestorians had a collection unprecedented in size and variety, and that they devoted much time to studying coins.
Less than one hundred years later, the scholar and humanist Petrarch built and catalogued a large coin collection that was both artistic and scientific.
Following the Renaissance, an active market for ancient coins developed, and prices skyrocketed. During this period, wealthy royalty and nobility commissioned artists to create commemorative medals and replicas of ancient coins, which eventually gained their own value. Forgeries also began to proliferate in this era, as sought after rare coins gained value.
By the 1600’s coin collectors had taken a more academic focus. People worked on building broad collections, which they meticulously studied and catalogued. The field of numismatics, or coin study, developed as collectors published and distributed scholarly treatises on their findings. This formalized exchange of information revolutionized coin collecting, legitimizing it as not only an artistic, but also a scientific domain.
A Modern Hobby: Coin Collecting Goes Mainstream
During the next century, institutions and governments entered the coin collecting arena. With the founding of public collections, the general public was exposed to coin collecting. Since information was now readily available to the public, the hobby trickled down to the middle class.
Merchants and professionals picked up the hobby, and during the nineteenth century, the number of private collections exploded. Numismatics societies popped up in Europe, Britain, and the United States. Periodicals about coin collecting circulated widely. The scope of collections broadened to include coins from all over the world, both ancient and modern.
In the last century, coin collecting has grown in popularity and acclaim. Perhaps the most famous coin collection of the twentieth century belonged to King Farouk of Egypt, who reigned from 1936 to 1952. He amassed an astonishing collection of more than 8,500 coins and medals.
From its beginning as the “hobby of kings,” coin collecting has gained interest worldwide and blossomed into its own respected field of study. With new discoveries and technologies, the field will undoubtedly continue to evolve.
This information is provided for general reference purposes and does not constitute professional advice. For detailed coin collecting or investing information, please consult with a professional expert.