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How to Start a Coin Collection

Coin collecting, originally known as "the hobby of kings," carries a long, fascinating history. Over the years, this hobby caught the attention of a variety of famous figures. Presidents like Jefferson, actors like James Earl Jones and Nicole Kidman, and even famed hockey star Wayne Gretzky found a passion for coin collecting.

Today, you no longer need to be a king, or even a movie star, to participate.

How to Collect Coins

When it comes to coin collecting, anyone can get involved at any level of intensity and investment. You can start with the change in your pocket, or you can spend thousands in ancient coins at auctions. No matter what level of involvement you're looking for, many find it a rewarding hobby that's easy to start.  

We've put together this coin collecting guide for beginners that dives into the history and terminology of coin collecting, as well as some beginning coin collecting tips. 

The History of Coin Collecting

Coin collecting was a natural expansion from the original hoarding of wealth. If you were rich enough to keep a stash of coins, you had the opportunity to collect rather than spend them. Because of this, people referred to coin collecting as the "hobby of kings," since paupers did not have the luxury of keeping coins for pleasure. 

While scholars disagree where the first coin was minted, they consider Caesar August the first known coin collector. The ruler of Rome certainly had enough money to start collecting rare coins. He also gave away some of his favorites as gifts. 

In the 3rd and 4th centuries, people considered coin collecting to be a form of art collecting because of their intricate designs. People considered coins beautiful. As the most affordable form of art, many wore them as jewelry and included them in decorative pieces of art as well. 

While Caesar started collecting around 27 A.D., the modern notion of coin collecting began in the 15th century as the market for antique coins surpassed the supply. In the 17th and 18th centuries, it became a scholarly pursuit to study coins and their origins. 

The most significant expansion in coin collecting came with the rise of the internet. This unprecedented opportunity to trade coins across the globe with the click of a button became available to anyone with an internet connection. Not only can people buy and trade coins, but they can exchange information, communicate with others with the same hobby, and learn more about the coins they're collecting.

Pros to Coin Collecting

Hobbies give you something to focus on, get passionate about, and enjoy in your free time. Here are some of the benefits of starting a coin collection:

  1. It's easy to begin. Chances are if you don't have change in your pockets, there's a jar in your house holding all your loose coins. You can start your collection with items you already have in your home.
  2. They have history.Every coin comes with a story — even ones still in circulation. Think of all the people who held this coin and all the items they purchased. Beyond just the human story, there's great history in most coins, especially the older ones. Whether they are tied to a battle, commemorate a figure in history, or represent a significant moment in time, there's a story to every coin, and it's exciting to uncover it.
  3. They're beautiful. People initially collected coins because many saw them as the most inexpensive form of art. This applies even in recent times. For instance, the state quarters that were released from 1999-2008 feature intricate designs, making them exciting to collect.
  4. They offer stress relief.Today, everything is fast-paced and needs some utility for people to value it. Sometimes you need to kick back and just enjoy searching for the exact coin you need to complete your collection.
  5. It isn't a physical activity.A lot of hobbies require some degree of physical activity, but coin collecting is something that practically anyone can do — and they can do it from home. Whether you search for coins online or sit at your desk to sort coins from the store, you can fully engage in the coin collecting community without leaving home.

How to Become a Coin Collector: What You Need to Know to Begin

Before you get started in coin collecting, there are a few things you need to know. Here is a list of standard terms, good coins for beginners to collect, and quick tips to get you started.

Coin Terminology 

Before you become a coin collector, it's essential to understand the terminology. Here are just a few of the key terms:

  • Numismatist or numismatic: A collector of coins or someone who studies the histories of coins.
  • Name of issuing nation: Unless a recognized nation's government issued the coin, it is not technically a coin. For example, a game token is not a coin. 
  • Denomination: This refers to how much the coin is worth at face value.
  • Device: This is the image on the coin, whether it is a bust or grains of wheat.
  • Obverse: The front or "heads" of a coin.
  • Reverse: The back or "tails" of a coin.

Great Coins for Beginners

As with all collections, some items cost more to collect than others. For example, the Flowing Hair Silver Dollar, considered the first coin struck for the United States, is valued at $10 million. Thankfully, you don't have to pick something expensive to start a coin collection. You can start with the coins you come in contact with every day.

One of the best ways to start a coin collection is to gather coins still in circulation. If at any point you decide you don't enjoy collecting, you can spend the coins as you would before you started.
Here is a list of coins that are still in circulation and worth no more than their face value.

1. State Quarters

Collectors commonly start with this set of coins. The state quarter collection is both commemorative and meant for circulation. Starting in 1999, five more state designs were added each year in the order they gained statehood. The coin's obverse — the image of Washington — didn't see much change, but the reverse gained the new design that passed a rigorous list of criteria.

Before printing, each state collected three to five potential designs, commonly developed through a contest. The designs that received the stamp of approval from the Secretary of the Treasury were then sent back to the original state for a final decision

 

These designs make a great first collection because they are relatively easy to find, don't cost more than their face value, and are attractive to view.

2. Jefferson Nickels

In 1938, FDR announced a national contest to design the next obverse of the nickel to replace the buffalo. Roosevelt was an avid Jefferson admirer and wanted to commemorate his presidency on the nickel. Other than the "silver war nickels" of 1942-1946, all circulating nickels are worth their face value. During those years, the 75% copper and 25% nickel alloy was replaced by a 56% copper, 35% silver and 9% manganese alloy. The military needed the nickel to make supplies. If you're looking for a good, low-cost starter coin, the Jefferson Nickel is an excellent option.  

3. Lincoln Cents

As the longest-running United States coin, there are plenty of opportunities to narrow down your penny collection. You can increase the complexity and rarity of your search as you continue. The Lincoln Cent was the first coin to feature a real person in the United States, replacing the Indian Head Penny. They based the design of the coin on a Lincoln bust sculpted by Victor David Brenner. Although the details and reverse have changed, the obverse remains the same since its creation in 1909

Quick Tips for Getting Started

When starting a new hobby, there's always a few important things to keep in mind, and starting a coin collection is no different. Take a look at these coin collecting tips for beginners:

  1. Do not clean your coins. When non-professional attempts to clean coins, they will likely damage the surface of the coin, negatively impacting it's appearance and value. However, if you are just starting out and only using coins in circulation not worth more than their face value, you can use a bit of dish detergent and hot water to wash the coins in a bowl gently before rinsing. Do not use metal polishes, as they will take off more than just dirt.
  2. Start your search at the store. If you aren't finding coins as fast as you'd like, try buying rolls of coins from a small, local shop. If you can't find a store that will sell them, you can always go to the bank. You're more likely to find older, out of circulation coins at stores, but a bank will do if you're collecting lower value coins.
  3. Most importantly, enjoy yourself. Don't pick a set of coins because it's rarer if you aren't interested in finding them. If you enjoy the engravings of the states, go collect them! If you like collecting nickels because you enjoy finding what you need quickly, start collecting! If you like limited edition mints commemorating your favorite movies, go ahead and buy them. Your coin collection is yours to enjoy, so make sure you pick something you find fun and intriguing.

Fast Facts

Because of the age of the craft, there are countless facts to learn about the art of collecting and coins themselves. Here are just a few interesting ones to get you excited about starting your own collection:

  1. The smell of coins comes from the human touch. The oils on your hands add two electrons to the iron atoms in the coins, creating the infamous coin smell.
  2. The American Numismatic Association was founded in 1891. The non-profit is the largest library in the world that collects and documents numismatic material.
  3. Stamps once replaced circulated coins. At the beginning of the Civil War, the public started hoarding coins to the point that no one could complete small transactions. Thanks to the Postal Currency Act, the public could legally use stamps as currency. Unfortunately, this then created a postage stamp shortage.
  4. The face of a coin helped change history. Placing images of living people on coins was considered ostentatious. When Caesar violated this social taboo, his assassins used this as justification for his murder — if he was self-righteous enough to put himself on a coin, he must have intended to make himself king. During the civil war following the assassination, Fulvia Flacca Bambula took power in Italy as men left to fight the war. The Roman mint struck coins with her on the obverse and the goddess of Victory on the reverse. This image started to change the perception of coins minted with the images of people. 

Frequently Asked Questions 

When starting a new hobby, you generally have lots of questions. Here is a look at the answers to some of the most commonly asked questions from beginning coin collectors.

1. Can You Make Money From Coin Collecting?

The driving force behind the value of coins is rarity and time. Pure collectors don't focus on the economic value — they find joy in completing a collection.

 

Many of the coin collections that sell for millions of dollars are ones that people inherited from family. The most important factor? They've been sitting around for a while. Also, collections selling for millions were not accumulated for the price of their face value. Robert and John Garrett built on their late father's collection, and while it sold for $25 million, they also estimate they spent somewhere near $100,000. While that is exponential growth, not many people looking for a casual hobby have a collection to inherit and $100,000 to spend on gathering coins.

2. How Much Time Does Coin Collecting Take?

The short answer? It takes as much as you'd like. Because of the nature of coin collecting, you can be as passive or involved as you'd like to be. It isn't an active hobby you need to continuously keep up with, but there's no limit to how much you can collect.

3. Where Can I Buy Specialty Coins?

Depending on the sort of coins you're looking for, you can buy different coins at auctions — both in-person and online. You can also search different antique stores and pawn shops to see what they have available.

To make your experience even easier, you can buy coins directly from American Mint. We have both limited edition gold-layered or silver-plated coins printed outside of circulation and antique currency minted at a variety of locations and time periods.

Time to Get Started

Now that you've begun your study of proper coin collecting practices, it's time to get started with your collection.

Don't know what coins you want to start with?
Browse American Mint to discover the limited edition and antique coins we have available. Getting a hold of these unique coins will inspire you to begin collecting on your own. It's an easy way to start your coin collection without the stress of bidding, hours of searching online, or combing through a pile of circulated coins.

 

Whether you're interested in presidential dedications, replicas of famous coins, genuine antiques, or historical commemoratives, we have the collections to get you started on your coin collecting journey.

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