Back to the main page


How to become a coin collector :: A beginners guide to coin collecting (part 2)

For seasoned coin collectors, an article title like this might invoke a little humor. But for a budding coin collector who may have just recently held a Morgan silver dollar for the first time, or visited his or her first coin show, this topic carries a little more weight. A beginning Numismatist no doubt has great excitement and ambition. I know I did when I first got hooked! Once the bug hits, it's hard to ignore it. New interests in history; the excitement and ambition to assemble ones own collection, and a sense of pride to become involved in such a scholarly hobby shared by the average Joe and kings alike. Sound corny? It might, but at this point it's good to start learning and set some direction in your new found hobby. Without a little knowledge and patience, you could set yourself up for disappointment rather quickly.

Very few coin collectors just wake up one day and decide to collect coins, and fewer still have the fundamental skills to jump right in and build a sensible and well thought out coin collection. Whatever catalyst brought you to this point; whether it was handling some old coins, ebay, browsing some online dealers. Maybe finding a wheat penny or war nickel in a handful of change. Your first experience with a collectable coin is certainly a gateway. But before running with the urge, lets learn a little more.

Coins for the beginning hobbyist :: Don't overlook variety for value

Unless you have a lot of money to throw at the hobby right off the bat and have a reliable and experienced fellow collector in your court, a good place to start

should be with some inexpensive coins. These inexpensive coins could include some older cull and lower grade coins (P-1 through AG-3), along with. Give yourself a feel of different coin sizes, the colors and patina of copper, silver; alloys such as cupronickel, copper plated zinc and various bi-metal compositions. Don't get caught up in value while taking your very first steps. Going inexpensive allows you to visit a coin shop, flea market or coin swap and buy a sampling of many different coins. You won't end up with anything spectacular value wise, but you'll own some coins with different device relief, date positions and various designs; different renditions of common design themes and styles. Plus you will get you a bunch of coins right away that you can fancy for a week without spending a lot. This will help you on your way to choosing your areas of interest, and You'll also be able to purchase some significantly older or slightly rarer coins inexpensively in a lower grade.

If you decide to keep a look out for inexpensive coins, you will inevitably come across the foreign coin box. The 10 coins for a couple of dollars box; the grab bag deal. I urge you not to pass this by. If your starting out with American coins you might find the foreign box a distraction, but it really will expand the variety of your fist sampling of coins. There is an incredible amount of variety throughout the world an over centuries of coin mintage. Remember: we're not going for value yet; we're just getting our feet wet. And once you've progressed in your hobby, these foreign grabs will make a great ice breaker to help bring a young person into the hobby, or by passing coins along as a gift or surprise found in an Easter basket - if some haven't steered your collecting goals. ;-)

All coins have a mintage amount for each year that a coin was produced. The mintage is a primary driver in the market value of a coin. There are several other things that factor in for value that we'll discuss shortly, but the amount minted directly corresponds to supply and demand.

Fewer coins minted = fewer coins available to collectors = higher price.

So if you think your interested in buffalo nickels, you can pick up a 1936P which had a mintage of 119,001,420 in a range of grades for $.50 - $2.00. Where as a 1924S is going to be considered a key or semi-key date at a mintage of 1,437,000, and will cost about $10 to purchase even a low grade specimen.

Other factors can also influence the availability of collectable coins. Market fluctuations that cause the value of gold and silver to rise to the point that coins would be melted down to create pure ingots, or coins recycled for a war effort.

Many numismatists who begin their interest with American coinage, might might look to Lincoln cents. Due to the chance of finding a wheat back Lincoln in pocket change. While random wheaties in change was more probable a couple of decades ago, it still does happen! Lincoln cents have the longest minted obverse design in US minting history: replacing the Indian cent in 1909 and still minted to this day. With the shear volume of reasonably priced circulating specimens, the variety, and the challenge of assembling a complete set, it's no wonder Lincoln cents are popular among some beginners. If your primary interest is in collecting US coins, don't forget all the other countries! Many world coins can be significantly lower priced and found in better condition, and are just as interesting to collect.

Coin Characteristics :: Some of the basics

Key Date? Grade? Mint mark? Aside from availability, there are several other basic points of value and design that a numismatist can take into consideration.

Mint Mark - With American coins in particular, you'll often notice a small letter on either the obverse or reverse of the coin. This letter denotes the location it was minted. The united states currently operates four minting facilities:

  • The Philadelphia mint (P or no mint mark)
  • The Denver mint(D)
  • The San Francisco mint(S)
  • and The West Point mint(W)
Historically, the US has had five other minting facilities:
  • Charlotte NC(C)
  • Dalhonega GA(D)
  • New Orleans LA(O)
  • Carson City NV(CC)
  • The Manila mint(M or no mint mark) in the Philippines

You will also find mint marks on many world coins as well. For example: a German coin minted in Berlin may have an "A" mint mark; a Mexican coin minted at the Mexico City Mint would bear "MO" for the mint mark. British Sovereigns carry several mint marks, including: Sydney(S), Melbourne(M) and Perth(P) Australia; (C) for Ottawa Canada, (I) for Bombay India and and (SA) for Pretoria Africa.

Key date - Key date is a name attributed by the hobby to define a coin with low mintage. When assembling a full date set of a particular coin, the years (and mint marks) with the lowest mintage will be considered key dates. The 1916-D Mercury Dime is perfect example of a key date with a mintage of 264,000, and a price tag upwards of $1,000 in just a moderate grade. Consideration of key dates is a good idea before choosing a date set to collect. The key dates could determine whether you'll actually complete a date set or not, depending on your coin collecting budget.

Strike - Another important distinction is the strike of the coin. Business strike vs. a proof coin, as well as a strong or weak strike. Coins designated as business strike are minted for general circulation and end up in our pockets, between our couch cushions and fed into vending machines. Modern business strike coins contain basic low value metal alloys commonly containing copper, nickel and zinc. Bronze, brass and tin are also common for many world business strike coins.

Coins being their life as a plain disc metal disc, or planchet. The planchets are punched from large sheets composed of the coins designated metal or metal alloy. The planchet creation is sometimes outsourced to companies outside of the mint. Once the planchets have been punched, they are annealed or softened, cleaned in a chemical bath and inspected for imperfections. Next the coins are upset. This process creates the raised edge around the diameter of the coin. Then the actual striking process begins. The strike process is what differentiates business strike from collector quality and proof coins. When coins are struck, they are basically stamped between two dies. An obverse die or hammer die, and a reverse die or anvil die, which are machined from the coins final pattern design. The planchets are fed in between the dies one at a time, and are struck or stamped. The strike imposes the coins design on the obverse and reverse, as well as extruding the planchette outwards from the center against the collar, creating the basic edge detail; most commonly a smooth edge or a reeded edge. This extrusion also creates the coins lustre (or cartwheels). The coins luster represents the light reflecting from the extrusion marks or ridges on the fields of the coin.

Business strike coins are struck in a high volume production environment and are periodically inspected for errors, such as off center, wrong size planchets and die wear. As the dies become worn, they are replaced and production continues. Worn dies contribute to weakly struck coins. Since manufacturing processes have improved, error coins are somewhat less common.

Proof coins follow a similar journey from planchette to finished coin. Proof coins are primarily designated as collectable and sold as sets or in presentation packaging. If you ever find a proof coin in pocket change, it would either be due to a mix-up from the mint, or some ones foolish mistake. It's very common for proof coins to be composed of different materials then their business strike cousins, such as fine silver or a high silver alloy for dimes, quarters, nickels, half and silver dollars. Cents and nickels usually retain the business strike composition.

For proof coinage, die preparation and inspection receive greater attention. To begin with, the dies are highly polished by hand, frequently inspected and re polished and replaced more often. When the planchets are struck with the polished dies, a mirror like surface is created on the fields of the coin. An individual coin may also be struck several times to produce the best possible and most uniform strike. Unlike business strike coins, after striking, the coins are not allowed to just fall into a receiving container. Instead, they are carefully handled and packaged into display holders, to avoid any damage and retain their collectable value.

You'll also see a PL or Proof Like designation. These are coins that exhibit proof qualities, such as mirror like fields or some frosting on the devices, but where minted as business strike.

Some of the other distinguishing characteristics that may directly influence desirability are: edge designs, minting process for significantly older coins: (hammered. milled, etc.), pattern coins, commemorative strikes, error strikes, die corrections and date revisions, historical significance and celebrity status, etc. We will dig into these characteristics a little later when we move on to older coins and coining techniques.

 Continue on to part 2 of this article to learn about grading and care...

 Return to the home page...