Coin collecting is the ideal hobby for those who enjoy studying coins, assembling sets of coins, and searching for rare or unusual coins.
Coin collectors have many different avenues for embarking on the hobby, including building a collection from the coins they find in their pocket change or at the bank, buying coins from coin dealers and at auctions, and searching for coins through metal detecting and other forms of treasure hunting.
Contrary to popular belief, coin collecting is not just for old rich men.
While affluent retired men (and women) are a significant demographic in the hobby, coin collecting is increasingly attracting a more diverse array of individuals, including younger people of all income ranges and socioeconomic backgrounds.
But why collect coins?
Have you ever found an old coin in your pocket change – one that looks much different than the coins you ordinarily encounter?
Or perhaps you’ve stumbled upon a coin from another country.
Maybe you’ve found these old and unusual coins interesting and are curious about their worth.
Or, it’s possible you’ve been intrigued by the people and places on those unfamiliar coins – or likely you’ve been trying to decipher what those odd words mean on certain foreign coins.
These coins may have ended up tossed aside in a coin jar, in a drawer, or special box, just waiting for the day when you’d pull them out to study them more.
If any of these scenarios sound like something you’ve done or are likely to do, then you’re sure to enjoy becoming an active coin collector.
In this guide:
- Brief history of coin collecting
- Get started with your collection
- Ways to find coins
- Collecting coins for money vs. enjoyment
- What makes a coin valuable?
- The most valuable United States coins
- Safely storing your coins and supplies
- Grading coins
- Professional coin grading services
- What are coins made from?
- Basic coin collecting terminology
- How to get kids interested in coin collecting
- Fun history of coins in the United States
Brief history of coin collecting
The first coin collectors were ancient kings, queens, and other wealthy individuals in ancient Rome and Mesopotamia, which is largely the reason why coin collecting is referred to as the “Hobby of Kings.”
By the Renaissance period, coin collecting blossomed in Europe among scholars, researchers, and others who were interested in studying the artistic, cultural, and sociopolitical aspects of ancient coins as well as more contemporary coinage of the time.
Coin collecting became a major pastime in the United States during the mid 18th century and has grown in popularity since.
According to the United States Mint, more than 100 million Americans were collecting the 50 States Quarters during the early 2000s.
Millions still enjoy looking for old and unusual coins in their pocket change, and tens of thousands of individuals consider themselves active, enthusiastic coin collectors.
At the end of this guide, I’ve included an entire section on the history of coin collecting in the United States.
Get started with your collection
There are as many ways to collect coins as there are collectors.
This is a hobby that’s ideal for those who march to the beat of their own drums because you can assemble virtually any type of coin collection you want.
There are no “right” or “wrong” ways to collect coins.
However, there are some common objectives that many collectors pursue.
Common types of collecting
Here are some examples of more common types of coin collecting:
Collecting coins by date
Such a collection includes each date for a certain type, such as assembling an entire set of Lincoln cents from each year they were minted since 1909.
A more comprehensive type of date collecting involves collecting each of the date and mintmark combinations.
A type set would include one coin of each design either within a certain denomination or from a certain time period.
An example of a nickel type set would include one specimen of each nickel design, including:
- Shield nickel (1866-1883)
- Liberty Head nickel (1883-1913)
- Buffalo nickel (1913-1938)
- Jefferson nickel (1938-present)
A type set from a certain era might include all the different types of U.S. coins made during World War II (U.S. involvement, 1941-1945), including:
- Lincoln wheat cent (1909-1958)
- Jefferson nickel (1938-present)
- Mercury dime (1916-1945)
Year set collecting
A year set is a popular method of collecting coins from a specific year.
An example of a year set is an assemblage of coins representing one’s year of birth.
This is especially popular when buying proof sets.
Topical collecting entails assembling a set of coins with a certain kind of design theme, regardless of the coin’s nation of origin, date, or denomination.
For example, a person building a topical set of coins with boats on them might collect a 2001 Rhode Island 50 States quarter, 1923 South African half penny, 2003 New Zealand America’s Cup $5 coin, and 1949 Canadian silver dollar.
Popular types of coins for beginners
There are also several types of coins that are the most popular to collect. These include:
These are the coin most commonly encountered in circulation – including all date and mintmark combinations, there are hundreds of different Lincoln cents.
Washington quarters (50 States / America The Beautiful quarters)
Struck since 1932, the Washington quarter has become a popular collectible since 1999 when the 50 States quarter series debuted with a new design appearing on the reverse of the Washington quarter about once every 10 weeks.
As of this writing, the reverse of the Washington quarter is the canvas for new America the Beautiful designs honoring different national parks and landmarks from around the United States.
Kennedy half dollars
First made in 1964, the Kennedy half dollar honors the 35th president of the United States, John F. Kennedy, who was assassinated in 1963.
Though no longer struck for circulation, the Kennedy half dollar is legal tender and remains a popular collectible coin that is still minted for certain collector sets.
Morgan silver dollars
One of the most popular silver coins of all time, this large dollar coin features the head of Miss Liberty on the obverse and an eagle on the reverse.
Engraver George T. Morgan designed this coin, which was minted from 1878 through 1921.
The United States Mint has struck gold coins since 1795.
Until 1933, United States gold coins were produced for circulation and were used at face value.
These days, gold coins are produced mainly as commemorative issues or bullion issues.
A commemorative coin that is issued for a limited period of time and is designed to honor a specific person, place, or event.
1976 Bicentennial Washington Quarter
Commemorative coins are usually not intended for circulation, though some have been produced for use in commerce.
In the case of United States coinage, commemorative coins are considered legal tender.
Commemorative coins may be made as proofs, specimen strikes, or business strikes (circulation quality), and they are graded in the same manner as other coins.
An error coin contains some type of minting mistake and are usually much more valuable than ordinary coins due to their rarity.
Such pieces are graded in the same fashion as non-error coins. There are many types of error coins. Just some of these include the following:
- Blank planchet – A coin that has not been struck by a die and contains no design.
- Broadstrike – A coin that wasn’t struck within its retaining collar (which, on given coins, imprints the edge reeding). Broadstrike coins are thinner and wider than normal coins and usually show a wider-than-ordinary margin around the design.
- Clipped planchet – A coin that appears to have a small bite taken out of it due to a cutting error at the Mint.
- Die breaks – Dies sometimes become damaged during the course of their operating lifetime, and this damage often comes in the form of cracks, chips, and breaks. These die breaks usually look like raised lines or blobs.
- Doubled die – Doubled die coins were struck by dies that have received a secondary, misaligned impression from the hub. A hub is a piece of equipment that imprints a design on the working dies.
- Off-center strike – This is a coin that shows only some of its design. The percentage of design that may remain can range from 1 to 99 percent. Coins with only a tiny portion of their design are extremely rare, and off-center coins missing most of their design yet also still exhibit their date are highly desirable.
- Overdates – Throughout the 19th century and some of the 20th century, Mint officials reused dies until they were no longer viable to help save money. If the die was used for more than one year, engravers carved the new date into the die, creating a type of error (or variety) known as an overdate. An overdate normally entails the changing of the last digit in the coin’s date and will thus show traces of at least two dates.
- Mule – A coin struck by two dies that were never intended to be used together is called a mule. A popular example of a mule is a 2000-dated U.S. coin error showing the obverse of a Washington quarter and reverse of a Sacagawea dollar that sold for more than $150,000. Indeed, mules are extremely rare and valuable!
- Wrong planchet – An example of a wrong planchet error is a Lincoln cent struck on a Roosevelt dime planchet. Wrong planchet errors are rare and valuable.
Ways to find coins
Building your coin collection is something that may take many years and is a process that is never really complete if you make coin collecting a lifelong pursuit.
There are many avenues for finding the coins you want for your collection.
Here are some of the most common methods for acquiring coins:
Searching pocket change
These are the coins you receive as change while making cash transactions for items you purchase, coins you find on the ground, and coins you encounter in other common circumstances.
Looking through your pocket change is a great way to find common, circulated coins.
Looking through bankrolls (coin roll hunting)
Many collectors order rolls of coins at their bank and search through them looking for rare, old, and valuable coins or error coins.
Bank rolls are obtainable for face value and are widely available, though rolls of half dollars and dollar coins may require a special order request.
Some collectors prefer looking for coins with a metal detector. Many valuable coin hoards have been found this way.
Most coins found metal detecting will not be worth much since they’re usually in poor condition.
We LOVE metal detecting here at Smarter Hobby. Check out our complete guide to metal detecting here.
Buying coins from coin dealers
Coin dealers are individuals who buy and sell coins.
For a collector who wants old, rare, and valuable coins, a coin dealer is a good source of collecting material that is not normally available in circulation.
Shopping at garage sales and flea markets
Collectors can sometimes find some nice coins at garage sales and flea markets.
Many dream of making an “Antiques Roadshow find” – that rare or valuable coin that was bought for only a few bucks but is really worth several thousands of dollars.
However, beware of counterfeit coins, as they commonly turn up in garage sales and flea markets.
Some folks really do get lucky and score an authentic rare coin for a low price, but for the most part, rare coins that are dirt cheap are either counterfeit coins or genuine common coins that were altered to look like a particular rare coin.
Collecting coins for money vs. enjoyment
There are many people who collect coins for the sole purpose of making money.
But is that all there is to collecting coins? Making money?
Sure, you might be collecting money, but that doesn’t mean earning more of it has to be the only reason you collect coins.
In fact, if you survey a wide selection of die-hard numismatists – people who collect coins mainly for the sake of studying coins for their history and art – you’re likely to find that most of them collect coins primarily for the sheer enjoyment of the hobby of itself.
Not that there’s anything wrong with collecting coins for the sake of investing.
It’s probably safe to say that most collectors don’t mind if they make a profit when they sell their coins. But coins don’t always go up in value.
In fact, between the quarter century spanning the years 1989 and 2014, many coins have experienced at least two major eras of price declines, sandwiched by periods of price stabilization and/or price increases.
What about all those TV ads that tell you the price of gold increased almost 1,000 percent between 2002 and 2011?
They’re not necessarily telling you that gold also declined from $800 in 1980 down to $295 in 2002 (and that’s not even accounting for inflation!), or that the price of gold decreased from about $1,900 in 2011 to just $1,150 in late 2014.
Whether or not you collect coins with the primary goal of making money, isn’t it even better if you enjoy the coins in your collection?
There’s a lot about coins to like, too. History and art come to mind. There’s also the thrill of the hunt in finding certain rare or obscure coins.
Imagine the joy of finding all of the quarters necessary for completing the 50 States quarter set or finishing a complete set of Morgan dollars.
Foreign coins expose you to a whole new world of art, history, and culture.
And there’s an unmatchable thrill in holding a historic old coin such as an ancient Greek tetradrachm or an early American silver dollar.
What coins do you like?
The possibilities are virtually unlimited. And, if you’re lucky, you might even make a few bucks in pursuing the hobby you love, too!
What makes a coin valuable?
This is a complex question, and it comes with a multifaceted answer.
There are several factors that go into determining what a coin is worth, including:
- Face value
- Intrinsic bullion value
- Numismatic value
In short, a legal-tender coin is always worth at least its face value.
Gold and silver values could collapse to zero, and a coin might not have any numismatic value as a collectible, but if it’s a legal-tender coin, it’s always worth at least the amount printed on it unless it’s officially demonetized.
Beyond face value, coins are worth their intrinsic value.
While many people think of bullion value as referring only to precious metals such as gold and silver, all coins have a basic intrinsic value.
The most common types of United States coins that are worth much more than face value solely due to the metal from which they are made include:
- copper Lincoln cents
- copper-nickel dimes and quarters
- copper-based “golden dollar” coins
However, most old coins, and even some new ones, are worth more than both their face value and intrinsic value.
In this case, we’re talking about numismatic value, or the price premium based on the value a coin has to coin collectors.
Numismatic value may range from only a few cents over the face value of a coin to millions of dollars.
What are some of the factors that go into setting a coin’s numismatic value?
Here are a few considerations:
Aa coin’s grade is based on how much or little wear it has.
The less wear a coin has, the more it is worth.
The value of a coin is often based on how many examples are available.
As with almost any other hobby involving collectibles, the rarity of a coin is key in determining what it’s worth.
So it follows that rare coins are generally worth more than common coins, and thus the value of a particular issue will largely hinge on the number of its survivors.
A coin’s mintage refers only to how many were minted, and not necessarily how many examples still survive.
Logically, the number of survivors for any coin – even new coins – is almost always lower than its mintage due to specimens getting damaged, lost, or destroyed.
Popularity (supply and demand)
While scarce coins are typically worth more than common coins, some scarce coins are worth more than other scarce coins.
Take for example the popular 1909 Lincoln cent struck at the San Francisco (“S”) Mint with the initials of designer Victor David Brenner (VDB).
While 484,000 1909-S VDB Lincoln cents were made, they are worth more than the much scarcer 1844 Liberty Seated dime, which has a mintage of only 72,500 pieces.
This is a case of supply and demand. There are far more people who are actively collecting Lincoln cents than Liberty Seated dimes.
Thus the price is much higher for the 1909-S VDB penny than the 1844 Liberty Seated dime because there simply aren’t enough 1909-S VDB pennies to meet the demand for these relatively rare pennies.
Cleaning coins and the effect on value
Many non-collectors believe cleaning a coin will make it look better and help improve its value.
However, this couldn’t be further from the truth.
You should never clean your coins because it can make them look unnaturally bright and will damage their surfaces.
Most collectors prefer the natural color (or patina) on a coin, and you should therefore leave your coin exactly as it was found.
Cleaning a coin can reduce its value by 50 percent or more.
Some people may like to believe that because they “own” the coin they can do whatever they want to it.
While this may be legally true, collectors have the responsibility of being protective stewards of their coins, for these numismatic treasures will eventually pass on to the next generation.
Coins should therefore be preserved in the best condition possible. Cleaning a coin simply damages it.
Safely handling coins
Handling your coins can also have an impact on value.
The safest way to hold a coin is by its edge between your thumb and index finger.
It’s best to hold coins with gloved hands, since the natural oils on your skin may contaminate a coin’s surface and cause discoloration.
Avoid dropping your coins to eliminate the risk of surface damage, and don’t talk, sneeze, or cough near your coins, because saliva can cause spotting and other detrimental effects on your coins.
Some coin collectors will view their coins while sitting at a table, and many go the extra mile further by holding them over a soft pad to prevent damage to their coins should they accidentally drop.
The most valuable United States coins
People love collecting valuable coins, and those who have deep pockets often fork over thousands of dollars – or more – for the coins they want for their collections.
You may be surprised to learn there are dozens of coins worth six, seven, or even eight(!) figures.
Here’s a look at some of the most valuable United States coins based on actual sale prices:
1794 Flowing Hair Dollar
The finest-known example of the 1794 Flowing Hair sold for $10,016,875 in January 2013.
1933 Saint-Gaudens Double Eagle
The United States government has so far permitted just one 1933 Saint-Gaudens gold double eagle to be privately owned (the rest are subject to government seizure as they were officially recalled after the abolishment of the gold standard in 1933).
The King Farouk specimen of the 1933 Saint-Gaudens $20 gold coin sold for $7,590,020 in July 2002.
1787 Brasher Doubloon
This privately minted rare coin dating back to America’s early days is one of the most famous and valuable rare coins around, selling for $4,582,500 in January 2014.
1804 Draped Bust Dollar
Widely known as “The King of American Coins” for its widespread fame and incredibly high value, the most expensive example of this rare silver dollar sold for $4,140,000 in August 1999.
1913 Liberty Nickel
The origins of this popular rare coin are murky, but only five examples are known, and in January 2010 one specimen sold for $3,737,500
Safely storing your coins
The best way to protect your coins from damage and keep them organized for easy viewing is to store them in designated containers and display products.
Here is a rundown on the basic types of coin storage options:
(Full disclaimer: storing your coins in ziploc bags or other plastic containers not meant for coins can potentially damage your coin. Certain chemicals (such as PVC) in the plastic can react with the metal in the coin so be sure to buy your supplies from a reputable source!)
Coin folders are typically bi-fold or tri-fold books made from cardboard panels. Coins are inserted into open-air portals and are ideal for sorting common, inexpensive coins by date and mintmark.
Normally just one side of a coin stored in a folder is viewable.
A more deluxe type of book-style coin storage product that sorts coins on pages outfitted with clear plastic slides inserted over the portals to permit viewing of a coin’s obverse and reverse.
Coin albums are generally more protective and are a better option than folders for storing more valuable coins.
Air-Tite coin capsules are round-shaped disks with two lenses that seal together around a coin.
Most Air-Tite holders incorporate a foam collar around the coin to buffer it from edge damage and help hold it in place within the capsule.
A coin display may consist of a rigid panel or decorative case in which coins can be displayed in such a fashion that is suitable for showcasing on a bookcase, mantle, or desk.
These small, clear plastic envelopes are ideal for storing a single coin with an identifying card.
Several coin flips may be arranged in a single-row or double-row box for easier organization and efficient mass storage.
These cardboard coin mounts, usually measuring 2 inches square, include a round or square clear plastic window and are folded over a coin then the ends are stapled together to sandwich the coin for temporary storage.
Many coins sold by coin dealers are packaged in 2×2 cardboard mounts, which also include space for writing identification information.
These plastic tubes allow for mass storage of coins of a single denomination in quantities generally consistent with commerce standards for bank-designated coin rolls.
The number of coins in a standard coin roll are the following:
- One-cent coins (pennies) – 50
- Five-cent coins (nickels) – 40
- Ten-cent coins (dimes) – 50
- 25-cent coins (quarters) – 40
- 50-cent coins (half dollars) – 20
- Large-size dollar coins (such as Morgan dollars) – 20
Other coin supplies
In addition to coin storage products, there are several other coin collecting items you’re going to need. A few of the basics include the following:
Magnifying glass or coin loupe
Necessary for viewing minute details on coins, you should consider buying a magnifier or loupe of 5X power.
Using cotton gloves when holding coins will help prevent leaving behind fingerprints, smudges, and other detractions on the surfaces of your coins.
There’s an old saying that goes “buy the book before the coin.”
This means you should study up on the types of coins you want to collect before you set out on buying and collecting them.
This will help make you an informed collector, can prevent you from being scammed, and assists you on knowing what to look for when shopping for the coins you want.
Hands down, the most popular coin book on the market is an annual publication entitled A Guide Book of United States Coins (R.S. Yeoman and Kenneth Bressett, Whitman Publishing).
This is also known as the ‘Official Red Book’.
Other great books are:
- The Coin Collector’s Survival Manual (Scott Travers, House of Collectibles)
- Coin Collecting for Dummies (Neil S. Berman & Ron Guth, For Dummies)
- Cherrypickers’ Guide to Rare Die Varieties of United States Coins (J.T. Stanton & Bill Fivaz, Whitman Publishing).
In addition to online coin price guides, consider buying monthly coin periodicals like COINage, Coins, or Coin World for more information on current retail prices and other important coin collecting news and information.
Annual price guides include:
- The Official Blackbook Price Guide to United States Coins (House of Collectibles)
- North American Coins & Prices: A Guide to U.S., Canadian and Mexican Coins (David Harper, Krause Publications).
Where to Buy Supplies
Many hobby shops carry a limited variety of coin storage products listed above.
Coin folders, flips, 2×2 cardboard mounts, coin tubes, and magnifying glasses are the items you’re most likely to find at a general hobby store.
However, to find a broader array of coin storage options and other types of coin supplies, you’ll need to shop for them through a coin dealer or Amazon.
Many towns and cities have at least one or two coin dealers.
If there isn’t a coin dealer near you, you’ll find plenty of coin dealers online who offer a wide selection of coin supplies – not to mention coins!
Coin grading is one of the most important aspects of evaluating a coin from the perspective of determining its value and overall desirability as a collectible.
When you grade a coin, you evaluate it based on the amount of surface wear it has, or lack thereof.
While coin grading is largely standardized, there is a significant degree of subjectivity involved with grading coins, and one person’s interpretation of a given grade may be quite different from another individual’s assessment.
Nevertheless, there are certain grading standards recognized by most people involved in the coin hobby.
Below is a guide to the very basics of coin grading, including guidelines on the different, widely recognized coin grades:
Circulated coins exhibit wear and are graded on a numerical scale ranging from 1 through 59, with “1” being the lowest wear-based grade and “59” referring to a coin with only the slightest trace of wear on its highest points.
A coin that has been worn nearly smooth. On some coins, such as Buffalo nickels, the date may be obliterated completely. The coin may be identifiable only by type.
Much of the coin design’s basic outline may be visible, and parts of the inscription near the rim may be visible.
The coin’s overall design should be largely outlined, though areas near the rim may be worn smooth. Lettering near the edge of the coin might be partly worn into the rim.
Good-4 to 7
The coin’s date should be fully legible and the rims should be complete. The coin’s overall design should be fully outlined, though minor details will be obliterated.
Very Good-8 to 11
The coin will have completely defined rims and complete inscriptions and date. Some details in the design will be evident.
Fine-12 to 19
The coin’s overall design will be bold, with some details evident throughout. Lettering, the date, and the rim should be clearly defined.
Very Fine-20 to 39
The coin’s rim, lettering, and date should be sharp. More than two-thirds of the coin’s details should be visible.
Extremely Fine-40 to 49
Most of the coin’s details should be clear, and on better examples of an “Extremely Fine” coin, hints of mint luster may be evident in protected areas, such as around inscriptions, the date, and high-relief portions of the design.
About Uncirculated-50 to 59
Wear should be visible only on the highest points of the coin, such as Lincoln’s cheek and beard on the one-cent coin. Mint luster should be evident across much of the surface.
Mint state coins
A Mint State (or uncirculated) coin has never been in circulation and should have absolutely no wear, period.
Mint State coins are graded on a numerical scale ranging from 60 through 70, with “60” denoting an uncirculated coin with bag marks, scratches, and other unsightly marks.
A Mint State-70 coin is fully struck, lustrous, and considered numismatically perfect, with no evident surface marks or other detractions visible under 5X magnification.
You should know early on that coin grading is one of the hobby’s most complex, even controversial subjects – particularly in the arena of grading Mint State coins.
Some experts quibble over how many marks are “allowed” on Mint State coins within the various numerical thresholds, and these debates are very contentious in some circles.
This is in part due to the differential in value between a coin in one grade versus another.
You may be surprised to learn that some Mint State coins are worth hundreds, even thousands more if they’re deemed to be just one numerical Mint State grade higher.
Entire books are written on the subject of coin grading.
The information presented above includes only the most basic guidelines on coin grading, and it’s recommended you study the topic further as your interest in the hobby grows.
One of the most widely respected books on coin grading is the Official American Numismatic Association Grading Standards Guide for United States Coins (ANA & Kenneth Bressett, Whitman Publishing).
For those who are interested in learning more about grading Mint State coins, peruse the Professional Coin Grading Service (PCGS) Grading Standards webpage: http://www.pcgs.com/grades
Proof coins are collector-quality pieces struck for numismatic purposes.
Proof coins are struck at least twice from specially prepared, polished dies and planchets.
Proof is not a “grade,” but rather a method of manufacture that produces a coin with superior detail and surface quality.
Proof coins are graded according to the numerical scale referenced above.
Proof coins that have been spent as money and have entered circulation are accordingly graded from 1 through 59.
Circulated proof coins are generally categorized as “impaired proofs.”
Specimen coins are coins that are struck for ceremonial or display purposes.
They commonly possess matte-style surfaces and may look like uncirculated coins at first glance but exhibit the surface strike and overall quality of a proof coin.
Professional coin grading services
Since the 1980s, there has been an increasing demand for coin grading services from coin certification companies.
These firms, which are largely referred to as third-party coin grading companies, consist of multiple experts who grade individual coins based on the amount of wear they have.
These experts also take into account whether the coin they are grading has been cleaned and other surface-quality factors, including determining whether or not the color of the coin is attractive and considered normal for the metal and age of the coin.
After the experts at a grading service inspect a coin and grade it, they will encapsulate the coin in a tamper-evident plastic holder (often called a slab) with a label inside denoting the coin’s grade and other pertinent identification information.
The most popular coin grading firms include:
- Professional Coin Grading Service (PCGS)
- Numismatic Guaranty Corporation (NGC)
- American Numismatic Association Certification Service (ANACS)
Each grading service has its own submission standards, and you will therefore want to consult each firm for its specific guidelines.
All services charge fees.
However, these fees are worth the cost, especially if you have a rare and valuable coin that may be subject to skepticism from potential buyers over its authenticity if it is sold “raw,” or without an official grade and encapsulation from a reputable third-party coin certification company.
An unfortunate reality for coin collectors is the presence of counterfeit, or fake, coins.
They are more prevalent than many wish to acknowledge and are becoming more deceptive by the day due to greater sophistication in how counterfeit coins are manufactured.
In the search for a cheap deal, many innocent coin collectors will unknowingly purchase counterfeits that look like real coins.
For this reason, it’s advisable to buy only rare or valuable coins that are encapsulated by a major third-party coin grading company, such as the firms mentioned above.
If the price of a coin, especially a rare coin, looks too good to be true, it probably is.
What are coins made from?
The most common metals used in minting United States coins include copper, nickel, silver, and gold.
However, other metals have been used in striking U.S. coins, including platinum, zinc, manganese, tin, steel, aluminum, and palladium.
Let’s explore some of the most common types of U.S. coins and the metals they’re made from:
Traditionally, one-cent coins have been made from a composition consisting of at least 95 percent copper, which was the case from 1864 through 1982, with few exceptions.
In the late 1850s and early 1860s, pennies were made from a composition of 88 percent copper, 12 percent nickel.
In 1943, the U.S. government minted pennies from zinc-coated steel to save copper for the war effort. From 1944 through 1946, reclaimed copper ammunition shells were melted to make one-cent planchets.
Following experiments with cheaper metals, including aluminum in the 1970s, the Mint has made circulating one-cent coins with a copper-plated zinc composition since 1982.
Nickels – A “nickel” is actually made from an alloy consisting of 75 percent copper and 25 percent nickel.
From 1942 through 1945, the U.S. government rationed nickel for war purposes and made Jefferson five-cent coins from an alloy of 56 percent copper, 35 percent silver, and 9 percent manganese.
These silver wartime five-cent coins are identifiable by a large “P,” “D,” or “S” mintmark above the dome of Monticello on the reverse.
For most of their history, dimes were minted from a 90 percent silver composition. Beginning in 1965, rising silver costs forced the Mint to strike dimes and other denominations from a copper-nickel clad format. However, some collectible dimes are still made from silver.
As was the case with dimes, increasing bullion prices required the U.S. government to change the previously silver composition of the quarter to copper-nickel clad in 1965.
Special collector-edition quarters are still made from silver.
Following a period from 1794 through 1836 when the half dollar was struck from an 89.24 percent silver composition, this denomination was minted from 90 percent silver planchets until 1965.
Rising silver prices caused the government to reduce the percentage of silver in the half dollar to 40 percent in 1965, and in 1971 the silver content was completely eliminated from circulating half dollars.
Some numismatic-quality half dollars are still minted from silver.
The dollar coin was traditionally minted from silver, giving rise to the term “silver dollar.”
The last traditional silver dollars were minted in 1935.
Following a 36-year hiatus, the U.S. government resumed making dollar coins in 1971, by which time the composition for the denomination was switched to copper-nickel clad for the Eisenhower dollar (1971-1978) and Susan B. Anthony dollar (1979-1999).
Beginning in 2000, the U.S. Mint began striking so-called “golden dollars,” which are actually minted from a composition of 77 percent copper, 12 percent zinc, 7 percent manganese, and 4 percent nickel. This was the Sacagawea dollar.
As their name suggests, these coins are minted from one of the world’s most valued metals: gold.
The U.S. Mint struck gold coins for circulation purposes until 1933, when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 6102 and removed the United States from the gold standard.
In 1984, the United States resumed the mintage of gold coins with the production of a special Olympic commemorative coin.
In 1986, the U.S. government officially unveiled the American Eagle bullion coin program, which includes investment-grade gold coinage.
How coins are made
Here is a terrific video from the U.S. Mint that shows exactly how circulated coins are made today:
If you ever get a chance to visit one of the mints, it’s an amazing learning experience – also great for kids!
The coin community
If you love coin collecting, you should consider joining a coin club so you can meet other people who enjoy the hobby.
When you join a coin club, you have the opportunity to partake in lectures and seminars where you can learn more about the coins and numismatic topics you enjoy.
There are all types of coin clubs, including:
- National coin clubs, such as the American Numismatic Association
- Regional and state clubs, like the Florida United Numismatists and Central States Numismatic Society
- Local coin clubs, such as the St. Louis Numismatic Association
Coin Shows & Conventions
There are several perks to being a coin collector, including coin shows and coin conventions!
Many coin clubs host coin collecting-related events.
These can range in size from small, single-day coin shows that attract 20 or 30 coin dealers and a few dozen attendees to major coin shows that are held in large convention halls, last a few days, and draw 10,000 or more people.
If you’ve never been to a coin convention, you should experience such an event at least once.
The bourse floor, where all of the coin show action takes place, is where you’re sure to find an exciting array of coins for sale, fascinating exhibits, and seminars on a variety of numismatic topics.
A coin show can be a great place to make new friends, find the coins you’ve been searching for, and help you become more educated about coin collecting.
It’s perhaps little surprise that many coin collectors build their calendars around attending coin shows!
Basic coin collecting terminology
Before you start your collection, joining clubs and attending coin shows, you’ll want to familiarize yourself with some basic terms.
Coin collecting is a hobby in which you’ll encounter many new and unfamiliar words that will become critical to your vernacular as you grow in the hobby.
It’s infeasible to list every coin collecting term in this guide, but there are some basic terms you’ll need to know during your early days in the hobby.
Here are some of the most important words you should know:
Gold, silver, platinum, or palladium coins struck at a specific weight and purity and usually traded for their metal value.
Such coins are typically not worth more than their intrinsic value or spot value – the amount of money the metal within the coin is worth.
Undesirable marks on a coin caused by banging against other coins when it was stored and transferred in bags.
The round metal disk that is created for making into a coin. After the blank has passed through the upsetting machine, which raises the blank’s rim, the blank becomes a planchet.
The channels of commerce in which coins are used for banking, purchases, and other economic uses.
Coins you receive in cash transactions at stores or through your bank are common examples of circulation.
This is the stated value on a coin, also known as its face value.
The minting device that strikes an image on a planchet (see below).
A coin that exhibits a doubled image because the design on the die was struck twice by the hub (which imprints designs on the die).
A doubled die does not refer to a coin that was struck twice by the die.
A United States gold coin with a denomination of $10. Also, the name of the United States bullion coin programs (American Eagle) since 1986.
The edge of a coin is sometimes called its third side. Edges are plain (as on the one-cent coin and nickel) reeded (the thin grooves on the side of some coins, such as U.S. dimes, quarters, and half dollars), or lettered (as on Presidential $1 coins).
For circulated coins, grading is a subjective system of evaluating a coin’s state of preservation based on the presence of circulation wear.
For uncirculated coins, grading is based mainly on how many surface detractions it has, such as nicks, scratches, gouges, etc.
Usually a reference to the inscription that describes the coin’s nation of origin and its denomination.
A non-monetized, non-legal tender coin-like disk usually minted for ceremonial or other commemorative purposes.
A factory that strikes coins. The United States has several mint locations, including facilities in Philadelphia, Denver, San Francisco, and West Point.
The quantity of coins made for a given issue. Mintage is not the same as a coin’s survival or population number, which is usually lower (sometimes much lower) than the same coin’s reported mintage.
An inscription, usually a single letter (though sometimes multiple letters or an insignia) that indicates the location where a coin was struck. You’ll find the following mintmarks on U.S. coins:
C – Charlotte, North Carolina (gold coins from 1838-1861)CC – Carson City, Nevada (1870-1893)D – Dahlonega, Georgia (gold coins from 1838-1861)D – Denver, Colorado (1906-present)O – New Orleans (1838-1861; 1879-1909)P – Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (1793-date; “P” first used in 1942)S – San Francisco, California (1854-present)W – West Point, New York (1984-present)
The study of money. A numismatist is an individual who studies coins.
The “head’s side” of a coin.
A coin that serves as a model or example of a coin that may be produced in the future. Some United States pattern coins, such as the 1856 Flying Eagle cent, have circulated as legal tender.
Usually a reference to a blank coin that has been processed through the upsetting machine to raise its rim. Many experts refer to the metal disc of a finished coin as a planchet.
The thin grooves on the edges of coins such as the United States dime, quarter, and half dollar.
This is a coin’s “tail’s side.”
All the coins struck within a denomination of the same basic design. All of the Eisenhower dollars ever made (from 1971 through 1978) are part of the same series.
All of the Jefferson nickels struck since the design debuted in 1938 are also collectively categorized as belonging to the same series
Any distinct coin design. A single 1925 Standing Liberty quarter (which belongs to the Standing Liberty series minted from 1916 through 1930) is representative of the entire Standing Liberty quarter type.
A type of round (or other shape) disc made of metal or another material most often used in exchange for goods or services. It is not, however, normally considered legal tender, though there are some historical instances during severe coin shortages – such as during the Civil War – when tokens were widely accepted as money.
Usually a reference to a minor design modification within a type or series. A variety often refers to unintended die-related issues that affect the overall appearance of a coin, such as a doubled die.
How to get kids interested in coin collecting
Coin collecting is an exciting hobby, but it’s one that doesn’t seem to hold the attention of today’s digitally connected youth.
Coin collecting isn’t the only hobby suffering from a dearth of youth.
The ranks of stamp collectors have fallen dramatically over the past few decades, and even other popular pastimes, such as baseball and going out to see a movie, have seen relatively smaller followings among the younger generations.
Changing tastes are partly to blame.
So, too, is the increasing dominance of digital technology, which seems to have shortened attention spans and lengthened the amount of time people spend time behind tiny screens.
But when it comes to increasing the number of young collectors in the coin hobby, all is not lost.
The 50 States quarters and America the Beautiful quarters issued by the United States Mint can be used for educating children about geography, historical figures, and important events.
And there are many other new, exciting coin programs that appeal to youngsters, such as the superhero coins recently released by the Royal Canadian Mint and Disney-themed coins struck by Australia’s Perth Mint.
If you want to introduce the young people in your life to coin collecting, consider giving them a few inexpensive coins that might pique their interest, such as old (but common) Lincoln wheat cents, cheap silver coins, or inexpensive foreign coins.
Take them to a coin show, if you can. Or offer to help them build a coin set, such as a collection of 50 States quarters.
Be patient with budding, young coin collectors.
Kindly answer their (often many) questions.
Educate them on the coins they seem interested in.
The children are our future – you can help shape that future!
Some fun history of coins in the United States
I thought I’d cap off this guide with a little bit of fun history.
America has a rich numismatic history.
Before the arrival of the first pilgrims on the Mayflower in 1620, many of the native peoples who lived on the lands that became the United States used a type of money called wampum, which consisted of beads from clam shells.
As increasing numbers of Europeans arrived on the continent and built colonies, they issued a variety of mainly copper (and some silver) coins, though many foreign coins brought over from the Old World circulated in those young American colonies.
Several dozen different issues among the original colonies are favorites of coin collectors today.
Among the most popular and scarcest are the 1652 Massachusetts Bay Colony Pine Tree shillings, New Jersey’s St. Patrick halfpennies and farthings from the 1660s and early 1670s, and 1773 Virginia halfpennies.
One of the world coins that circulated most commonly among the colonies was the Spanish Pieces of Eight, or Spanish dollar.
The coin, worth eight Spanish reales, could be divided into halves and quarters.
In this way, the Spanish dollar became a model for the federal United States coin system that was introduced by the end of the 17th century.
Meanwhile, the thaler, a large silver coin used throughout Europe, inspired the creation of the United States dollar.
After the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776 and the United States was officially born, there was a patriotic push for the young nation to coin its own federalized money.
Throughout the 1780s, a variety of copper and silver coins was produced, with the most notable among these being the 1783 Nova Constellatio and 1787 Fugio coppers.
Congress established the United States Mint on April 2, 1792, and construction on the first mint began in Philadelphia, which was then the nation’s capital city.
Proposed coins were struck in 1792, including the Birch cent, half disme, and disme.
These coins served as patterns for the first coins the United States Mint officially produced beginning in 1793.
The early U.S. coin system included half cents, one-cent coins (that were then nearly the size of a modern-day half dollar), half dimes, dimes, quarters, half dollars, dollar coins, quarter eagles ($2.50 gold coin), half eagles ($5 gold coin), and eagles ($10 gold coin).
By 1857, when the United States government abolished the legal tender status of Spanish dollars and other foreign coins still circulating in the young nation, other U.S. denominations were adopted, including a three-cent coin, gold one-dollar coin, and double eagle ($20 gold coin).
Also in 1857, the half cent was eliminated due to its decreasing purchasing power and the large cent was reduced in size to the modern-day small-cent coin with which most Americans are now familiar.
By the 1860s, the United States Mint was expanding west into new terrains.
The first branch mints opened in 1838 in Dahlonega, Charlotte, and New Orleans.
The California Gold Rush that drew thousands to the West Coast in the 1840s led to the construction of the San Francisco Mint in 1854, and silver mining in the Rockies necessitated the establishment of the Carson City Mint in 1870 and Denver Mint in 1906.
The most recent city to gain an operating U.S. Mint branch was West Point, New York, which debuted its mint in 1937.
It produced non-mintmarked Lincoln cents in the 1970s and early 1980s, but the first “W” mintmark was not utilized until 1984.
The West Point Mint began as a bullion depository and by the mid-1970s was striking unmintmarked business-strike coinage to help supplement the nation’s coinage needs.
While its operations focused mainly on collector issues beginning in the mid-1980s, they do produce non-proof coins.
In 1996, West Point manufactured 1996-W business-strike Roosevelt dimes for mint sets as well as uncirculated (and proof) bullion coins.
A two-cent piece came along in 1864 and became the first U.S. coin to bear the motto “IN GOD WE TRUST.”
A decade later, in 1875, a relatively unpopular twenty-cent silver coin, commonly called a double dime, debuted.
The last were produced in 1878. The United States Mint produced its first commemorative coins in 1892, and while there was an exciting array of coins, President Theodore Roosevelt felt the nation’s coin system needed an overhaul.
Around 1905, he called for a “renaissance” in U.S. coin design.
He called on several notable artists, including Augustus Saint-Gaudens, to create beautiful new designs for the nation’s coins.
Several timeless designs were born during this era, including the Lincoln cent (1909), Buffalo nickel (1913), Mercury dime (1916), Standing Liberty quarter (1916), Walking Liberty half dollar (1916), Peace dollar (1921), Indian Head quarter eagle and half eagle (both 1908), Indian Head eagle (1907), and Saint-Gaudens double eagle (1907).
In the decades following President Roosevelt’s executive action to take the United States off the gold standard in 1933 during the Great Depression, several changes occurred in the U.S. coinage system.
The first modern-period proof sets were made in 1936, and in 1947 the first uncirculated sets were produced.
The last commemorative coins of the so-called traditional era were minted in 1954, and in 1965 the last circulating 90 percent silver coins came off the presses.
Copper-nickel clad coinage was introduced in 1965, and in 1968 proof set production was moved from Philadelphia to San Francisco, where the bulk of proof coins are minted today.
In 1975 and ‘76, the United States Mint struck the 1776-1976 Bicentennial quarters, half dollars, and dollar coins that became highly popular with coin collectors.
In 1979, the U.S. Mint made history by striking the Susan B. Anthony dollar, which became the first small-size dollar coins and the first circulating U.S. coins to bear the portrait of a non-mythological woman.
The first modern-era commemorative coins were issued in 1982, and in 1986 the U.S. Mint released the first of its silver and gold American Eagle bullion coins.
In 1999, the extremely successful 50 States quarter program was launched, and this was followed up by other circulating commemorative series, including the Westward Journey nickels (2004-2005), Presidential $1 coins (2007-2016), Lincoln Bicentennial cents (2009), Native American dollar coins (2009-present), and America the Beautiful quarters (2010-present).
In 2017 the United States marked several milestones, including its 225th anniversary, the striking of the first one-cent coins with a “P” mintmark, and the production of the first coin to depict an African American version of Miss Liberty.
Coin collecting is a pastime that has endured for thousands of years.
It can grow with you as you evolve and as your interests in art, history, culture, and society change.
There are as many avenues in coin collecting as you wish to travel, and with coins you can venture virtually anywhere around the world and to any period of time back to early human civilization right from the comfort of your home.
Coin collecting can be an exciting journey that lasts a lifetime – and the first open door to this escapade may be sitting in your pocket or change jar right now.
Are you ready for an adventure? Happy collecting!