The study and collecting of coins is called numismatics. Coin collecting is an extremely popular pastime around the world, from ancient tender to modern rarities.
Coins are minted with designs on their obverse and reverse sides. These designs vary depending on the country of origin, the date of production, and the monetary value of the coin.
The obverse side traditionally features the bust of a monarch or political ruler, or a national emblem.
The reverse side can feature different designs which often change along with cultural trends. The coin design will also feature its monetary value and year of minting, along with any other information that marks it as legal tender.
The history of coin collecting begins at the point where the artistic and historical qualities of a coin were first valued above its monetary value. There are records that during the reign of Trajanus Decius (ad 249–251), the Roman mint issued a series of coins commemorating several deified emperors, with designs based on coins issued by these rulers. The first record of a coin being produced was in the 7th century B.C.
As the mint would have needed examples from which to work, and many of the coins were over 300 years old, some experts believe that a collection of these historical coins must have been in existence. Roman historian Gaius Suetonius wrote in "De Vita Caesarum" that Emperor Augustus Caesar collected foreign coins and gave them as gifts.
The practice of coin collecting (and collecting in general) became widespread amongst the wealthy during the Renaissance Period. Italian scholar Francesco Petrarca (1304 – 1374), often referred to as the ‘father of the Renaissance’, was a passionate collector of coins and is often credited with popularising the hobby in Europe during the 14th century. It was referred to as the ‘hobby of kings’, as only the wealthiest members of society could afford to indulge in it.
Royals such as King Louis XIV and Henry IV of France were avid coin collectors, and the German monarch Joachim II (1535-1571) founded the Berlin Coin Cabinet with his numismatic collection, which was part of his ‘Kunstkammer’ (chamber of art). In 1514 the first book on coins, De Asse et Partibus by Guillaume Budé, was published.
During the 16th century, the Ducat gold coin became a standard coin used for trading throughout Europe after it was imperially sanctioned in 1566. This sanction remained in place until 1857, and it remained in popular use until the outbreak of World War I.
To this day several European mints still produce Ducats including Austria, Hungary and the Netherlands.
During the 17th century the spirit of systems and rational thought began to shape all areas of collecting, and the practice in general became a focus for scientific study rather than simply a status symbol for Europe’s elite. The study of numismatics became an academic pursuit and many important works on the subject were published during this time.
The 19th century saw a change in numismatics as a widespread marketplace for rare coins began to appear. The Industrial Revolution offered many workers higher wages and increased leisure time, which in turn saw the rise of the middle classes.
Suddenly the hobby of collecting was no longer seen as purely the domain of the wealthy elite, and as museums began to appear across Europe a large number of private collections became accessible to the public. Coin collecting became a pursuit of middle-class merchants and members of the various professions who were growing in numbers as well as cultural sophistication.
During this period numismatic organisations began to form. The Royal Numismatic Society was established in 1836, followed by the American Numismatic Society in 1858 and in 1866 they began to publish the American Journal of Numismatics.
The 20th century saw coin collecting become a popular worldwide hobby with numerous trade fairs, publications and dedicated dealers offering coins for sale an advice on how to collect them. In 1948 the Sheldon scale of coin grading was introduced, and was later adopted by the American Numismatic Association.
The first international convention for coin collectors was held on August 15 1962 in Detroit, Michigan, sponsored by the American Numismatic Association and the Royal Canadian Numismatic Association. Around 40,000 people were estimated to have attended.
The value of coins as rare commodities began to appeal to a larger number of investors, and at least two major funds for investment in ancient coins were traded on the New York Stock Exchange in the late 1980s and early ’90s. The hobby had blossomed into big business, and professional grading services began to appear along with the notion of registry sets.
Competition for the rarest and finest examples became fierce between collectors, and today world record prices are broken on a regular basis for the finest coins on the market. Previously known as the ‘hobby of kings’, coin collecting is now referred to as the ‘king of hobbies’.
Categories of coin
Coins can be divided into four subcategories.
Ancient & medieval coins
‘Ancient coins’ refers to coins from ancient civilisations, Ancient Greek, Ancient Roman, Byzantine, Ancient China, Ancient India, Islamic, and Biblical coins, and later Medieval coins.
This area is not as exclusive and expensive as many collectors think. While there are extremely rare examples of ancient coins, many are quite common, and even extremely old and significant coins can be purchased for under $50, at a fraction of what some collectible modern coins can achieve.
The famous cities of the ancient world struck coins in great quantity. Each coin was produced by hand, using bronze, silver or gold. The dies were carved by hand, and coins might have used several different dies, making for stylistic differences even between the same coins. This touch of personality and uniqueness in each example is what draws some collectors to ancient coins.
Most ancient coins that come on the market were discovered as part of a hoard, buried during ancient times to keep money safe, and never recovered.
Rare American coins make up many of the most valuable coins in the world. The United States was formed in 1776. By 1792 the first mint was built in Philadelphia to produce coinage for the newly independent country.
There have been many series of coins in American history. Some had brief runs and are now very rare, and there are also some famous errors.
There are also a certain number of collectible colonial coins – American coins from before the United States was formed.
Britain has a long history of producing coins. Medieval coins were brought over by invading Celts, Romans, Vikings and Anglo Saxons, and native Briton tribes were also producing silver ‘starters’ themselves from around 55 B.C. Pennies were introduced, such as the Short Cross and Long Cross pennies. Gold coinage was introduced in the 14th century.
Throughout British history, coinage has born the likeness of the monarch at the time. All kinds of religious, political and royal turbulence that occurred left its mark on Britain’s coins, and history can be tracked through the development of coins.
Many people like to collect coins from one particular British monarch’s reign.
The British Royal Mint now does a huge business in producing commemorative coins specifically for collectors.
World coins generally covers any coins from outside of America and Britain, including but not limited to European coins, Asian coins, Middle-Eastern coins, Australasian coins.
Coins may be collected based on their country, or a collector might attempt to collect one rare coin belonging to each of the different countries in the world. This can suit many different budgets, so makes a nice project for a collector.
Types of coin
There are various different types of coin, for example:
- Bullion – uncirculated coins which are sold at near “melt value” to people who wish to invest in rare metals.
- Commemorative coins – coins which are struck to commemorate a specific event, person or organisation.
- Errors – coins which have been produced normally but have ended up with some kind of error, for example a double image.
- Patterns – coins struck as a test design.
- Proof coins – coins stuck using a technique which makes them highly-mirrored.
- Regular issue – coins which are struck by a government authorised mint for general circulation. These coins are legal tender and are commonly struck each year in significant quantities.
- Silver “Rounds” – coin like metals discs embossed with images. Not legal tender.
- Tokens – emissions from private mints for issuance by merchants, businesses, and store-keepers, oftentimes when legal tender is scarce or not readily available. Not legal tender.
World’s most valuable coin
The most valuable coin in the world is the Flowing Hair silver dollar, the first dollar coin issued by the U.S. government, minted from 1794 to 1795. It is one of the rarest coins in American numismatic history, a holy grail for collectors. A 1794 example sold for $7.85 million in a private sale in May 2010, becoming the most valuable coin in the world.
Guide to Collecting
The value of rare coins can be far higher than their intrinsic monetary value, depending on factors such as rarity, condition and historical significance. Other important factors include the age, design and country of origin of the coin. Some coins contain mint errors, making them highly collectible in the same manner as stamps with print errors.
Some people collect coins as a simple hobby, whilst others use rare coins as a form of investment with the hope that they will appreciate in value over time. See our page on investing in coins for more information.
Some collectors focus their collection on a specific period, country, year of release or mint mark, whereas others can be classed as generalists, building a collection featuring a broad variety of geographical or historically significant coins.
Collectors will generally focus on one of the four aforementioned categories: ancient, American, British or World coins. They may also have a penchant for one of the different types of coin in particular, for example bullion coins, proof coins or error coins. They may choose to focus on a subject, when coins depict various themes. Sometimes they choose to collect coins in one particular type of metal.
Some collectors can also be classed as completists, as they seek to obtain every coin within a certain category. They will often seek the highest-graded examples of each coin in their set, which can prove difficult as many coins have only a small number of known examples.
There are also companies which offer a professional coin grading service, such as the Professional Coin Grading Service (PCGS) and the Numismatic Guaranty Corporation (NGC). Coins which have been professionally graded often have a higher market value than those which have not, and many services also seal coins in airtight plastic holders to protect their condition (a practice known as coin-slabbing).
Specific sets in collections which have been professionally graded and registered are known as registry sets, and the details of these are published in numismatic magazines and online.
The language used in numismatics is quite specified. See our list of coin collecting terms to familiarise yourself with the words and phrases of coin collecting.
You can find coins at auction, through dealers, and on trading platforms like eBay – though be wary of the issues with authenticity this can bring up.
It is always worth purchasing through a reputable dealer. See our list of coin dealers to find one in your area. It can also be extremely helpful for a collector to join a numismatic club or society. See our list of coin collectors' clubs and societies.
Related articles on Wikicollecting
- Top 10 coin sales of 2011
- Top 10 coin sales of 2012
- Top 10: US coins
- Professional Coin Grading Service
- Tragedy, Mystery & Musicals: the stories behind America’s most valuable coins
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