Coin collecting—referred to as numismatics—is one of the oldest known hobbies. It is also a pleasant way to save money. The word "numismatics" comes from the Greek word nomisma and the Latin word numisma, meaning a coin. People who collect coins are called numismatists.

The designs on coins tell many stories. Some ancient coins tell us all we know about a country or a period of history. They bring us portraits of otherwise unknown rulers. Coins of past centuries tell us about the art, mythology, religion, and fashions of people who lived long ago.

A great variety of things were used as money before coins were invented.

Almost 3,000 years ago the Chinese had a form of money made from metal. But the first coin with a fixed value was not struck (made or minted) until the 7th century B.C. in Lydia (now Turkey). Ever since, coins have helped the world carry on its trade and commerce.

Starting a Collection

Your special interests will help you decide the kind of coin collection you would like to assemble. You may wish to collect the coins of one country or one part of the world. Or you may want your collection to contain coins from all over the world but limited to a certain period of time.

Some people choose to collect the coins of their own country, while others are interested in ancient Greek and Roman coins. Many ancient coins are quite easy to obtain. Small ancient bronze pieces in average condition can often be bought fairly cheaply. A collection of present-day coins from countries forming the United Nations is not costly and is worldwide in scope.

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Caring for Your Collection

There are many ways to arrange coin collections. Some collectors keep their coins in small square envelopes. A complete description of the coins should be written on the outside of the envelopes. These envelopes are arranged in cardboard boxes. Envelopes and boxes may be bought at any coin store. You can also use transparent envelopes.

For a worthwhile collection, numismatists advise that you choose the coin in the best condition you can find. Experts classify the condition of coins according to the amount of wear they have received. Proof coins are struck especially for collectors and have a very shiny surface. Uncirculated coins were struck for general use but were never circulated. These are the most valuable coins to collect—and the hardest to obtain. Extremely fine, very fine, and fine coins have been in circulation and show varying degrees of wear. Very good and good coins are worn, but the details of the design can be seen clearly. And coins in fair condition show much wear but can still be identified.

Never clean a coin unless it is caked with dirt. Remove the dirt by washing the coin gently with soap and warm water. Do not use scouring powder, metal polish, or steel wool. This will damage both the looks and value of the coin.

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Studying Your Hobby

To get the most enjoyment from your hobby of coin collecting, read as much as you can on the subject. Try to form a group of collector friends. Visit special exhibitions and have a reliable dealer through whom you can buy your coins. If you have an old or foreign coin, find out where and when it was made, its name and value, and what you could have bought with it when it was in use.

Many thousands of books and publications have been written about coins. Your public library probably has a number of them. Of interest to the collector of modern coins are: Handbook of United States Coins, R. S. Yeoman, Racine, Wisconsin (published annually); and Modern World Coins: An Illustrated Catalog with Valuations, R. S. Yeoman, Racine, Wisconsin.

Among the monthly magazines is The Numismatist, the official publication of the American Numismatic Association. Many notes of interest may also be found in weekly journals such as Coin World and Numismatic News.

For answers to your coin collecting problems, write the Division of Numismatics, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. 20560. The Smithsonian, however, will not advise on the money value of coins. Consult a coin dealer for this kind of information.

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Collecting United States Coins

One way to start a coin collection is to select the best examples of coins now in use. You may be able to assemble an interesting series of United States coins with different dates and mintmarks. Special mint sets and proof sets of United States coins are sometimes available. For information, write to the Office of the Director of the Mint, U.S. Treasury Department, Washington, D.C. 20220.

The first coins of the United States were authorized by the Mint Act of April 2, 1792. By 1793 the Mint in Philadelphia was issuing gold, silver, and copper coins. The gold coins were eagles with the value of ten dollars. There were also half eagles and quarter eagles. The silver coins were dollars, half-dollars, dimes, and half dimes. The copper coins were cents and half cents.

Since then there have been many changes in coins and the laws governing coinage. Among the coins no longer made or issued are half dimes and half cents. The five-cent coin appeared in 1886. No silver dollars were coined from 1935, and none issued from 1964 until 1971, when the first silver-clad Eisenhower dollars were minted.

A coin's design may not be changed more than once in 25 years, except by an act of Congress. In 1965, Congress passed a law making the first major change in coinage in more than 100 years. Because of shortages, silver was left out of dimes and quarters. Silver in half-dollars was reduced in 1965 and stopped altogether after 1970.

The latest change came in 1999 when the first in a series of 50 new quarters commemorating each state was issued. Five quarters will be issued per year, until 2008, in the order the states joined the Union. Each quarter will have a unique design on the back.

For information on coin-collecting clubs, contact the American Numismatic Association, based in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

V. Clain-Stefanelli
Curator, Division of Numismatics
Smithsonian Institution