Coins of interest to collectors often include those that circulated for only a brief time, coins with mint errors and especially beautiful or historically significant pieces. Coin collecting can be differentiated from numismatics, in that the latter is the systematic study of currency. Though closely related, the two disciplines are not necessarily the same. A numismatist may or may not be a coin collector, and vice versa.
People have hoarded coins for their bullion value for as long as coins have been minted. However, the collection of coins for their artistic value was a later development. Evidence from the archaeological and historical record of Ancient Rome and medieval Mesopotamia indicates that coins were collected and catalogued by scholars and state treasuries. It also seems probable that individual citizens collected old, exotic or commemorative coins as an affordable, portable form of art. According to Suetonius in his De vita Caesarum (The Lives of the Twelve Caesars), written in the first century CE, the emperor Augustus sometimes presented old and exotic coins to friends and courtiers during festivals and other special occasions.
Contemporary coin collecting and appreciation began around the fourteenth century. During the Renaissance, it became a fad among some members of the privileged classes, especially kings and queens. The Italian scholar and poet Petrarch is credited with being the pursuit's first and most famous aficionado. Following his lead, many European kings, princes, and other nobility kept collections of ancient coins. Some notable collectors were Pope Boniface VIII, Emperor Maximilian I of the Holy Roman Empire, Louis XIV of France, Ferdinand I, Henry IV of France and Elector Joachim II of Brandenburg, who started the Berlin Coin Cabinet (German: Münzkabinett Berlin). Perhaps because only the very wealthy could afford the pursuit, in Renaissance times coin collecting became known as the "Hobby of Kings."
During the 17th and 18th centuries coin collecting remained a pursuit of the well-to-do. But rational, Enlightenment thinking led to a more systematic approach to accumulation and study. Numismatics as an academic discipline emerged in these centuries at the same time as coin collecting became a leisure pursuit of a growing middle class, eager to prove their wealth and sophistication. During the 19th and 20th centuries, coin collecting increased further in popularity. The market for coins expanded to include not only antique coins, but foreign or otherwise exotic currency. Coin shows, trade associations, and regulatory bodies emerged during these decades. The first international convention for coin collectors was held 15–18 August 1962, in Detroit, Michigan, and was sponsored by the American Numismatic Association and the Royal Canadian Numismatic Association. Attendance was estimated at 40,000. As one of the oldest and most popular world pastimes, coin collecting is now often referred to as the "King of Hobbies".
Motivations for coin collecting
The motivations for collecting are varied. Possibly the most common type of collector is the hobbyist, who amasses a collection purely for fun with no real expectation of profit. This is especially true of casual collectors and children who collect items on the basis of chance and personal interest.
Another frequent reason for purchasing coins is as an investment. As with stamps, precious metals or other commodities, coin prices are cyclical based on supply and demand. Prices drop for coins that are not in long-term demand, and increase along with a coin's perceived or intrinsic value. Investors buy with the expectation that the value of their purchase will increase over the long term. As with all types of investment, the principle of caveat emptor applies and study is recommended before buying. Likewise, as with most collectibles, a coin collection does not produce income until it is sold, and may even incur costs (for example, the cost of safe deposit box storage) in the interim.
Coin hoarders may be similar to investors in the sense that they accumulate coins for potential long-term profit. However, unlike investors, they typically do not take into account aesthetic considerations; rather they gather whatever quantity of coins they can and hold them. This is most common with coins whose metal value exceeds their spending value.
Speculators, be they amateurs or commercial buyers, generally purchase coins in bulk and often act with the expectation of short-term profit. They may wish to take advantage of a spike in demand for a particular coin (for example, during the annual release of Canadian numismatic collectibles from the Royal Canadian Mint). The speculator might hope to buy the coin in large lots and sell at profit within weeks or months. Speculators may also buy common circulation coins for their intrinsic metal value. Coins without collectible value may be melted down or distributed as bullion for commercial purposes. Typically they purchase coins that are composed of rare or precious metals, or coins that have a high purity of a specific metal.
A final type of collector is the inheritor, an accidental collector who acquires coins (a collection, hoard or investment) from another person as part of an inheritance. The inheritor may not necessarily have an interest in or know anything about numismatics at the time of the acquisition.
Casual coin collectors often begin the hobby by saving notable coins found by chance. These coins may be pocket change left from an international trip or an old coin found in circulation.
Usually, if the enthusiasm of the novice increases over time, random coins found in circulation are not enough to satisfy their interest. The hobbyist may then trade coins in a coin club or buy coins from dealers or mints. Their collection then takes on a more specific focus.
Some enthusiasts become generalists and accumulate a few examples from a broad variety of historical or geographically significant coins. Given enough resources, this can result in a vast collection. King Farouk of Egypt was a generalist with a collection famous for its scope and variety.
Most collectors decide to focus their financial resources on a narrower, specialist interest. Some collectors focus on coins of a certain nation or historic period. Some collect coins by themes (or 'subjects') that are featured on the artwork displayed on the coin. Others will seek error coins. Still others might focus on exonumia such as medals, tokens or challenge coins. For example, John Yarwood of Melbourne is the first person to take a serious interest in British military money (especially tokens).
Some collectors are completists and seek an example of every type of coin within a certain category. Perhaps the most famous of these is Louis Eliasberg, the only collector thus far to assemble a complete set of known coins of the United States.
Coin collecting can become a competitive activity, as prompted by the recent emergence of PCGS (Professional Coin Grading Service) and NGC (Numismatic Guarantee Corporation) Registry Sets. Registry Sets are private collections of coins verified for ownership and quality by numismatic grading services. The grading services assess collections, seal the coins in clear plastic holders, then register and publish the results. This can lead to very high prices as dedicated collectors compete for the very best specimens of, for example, each date and mint mark combination.
Common collection themes
A few common themes are often combined into a goal for a collection:
- Country collections: Many enthusiasts focus their collection on only a single country—often their own. In contrast, some collectors attempt to obtain a sample from every country that has issued a coin.
- Year collections: Rather than being satisfied with a single specimen of a type, a great many collectors collect type by year; for example, one Memorial Lincoln Cent for every year from 1959 (the year it was first minted) to 2008 (the last year it was minted). This is perhaps one of the most practical ways to collect a national currency since probably the majority of coin reference books and coin albums catalogue in the same manner.
- Mint mark collections: Many collectors consider different mint marks significant enough to justify representation in their collection. When collecting coins by year, this multiplies the number of specimens needed to complete a collection. Some mint marks are more common than others.
- Variety collections: Because mints generally issue thousands or millions of any given coin, they use multiple sets of coin dies to produce the same coin. Occasionally these dies have slight differences. This was more common on older coins because the coin dies were hand carved. But differences—intentional or accidental—still exist on coins today. Generally this is in a very small detail, such as the number of leaves on the ear of corn on the recent US Wisconsin state quarter File:2004 WI Proof.png.
- Type collections: Often a collection consists of an examples of major design variants for a period of time in one country or region. For example, United States coinage type set, Euro coins carry a "common side" that shows the denomination and a "national side" that varies in design from state to state within the Eurozone. Likewise, a type collection might focus on an unusual design feature such as coins with a hole in the middle, coins that are not circular in shape or coins with brockage.
- Composition collections: For some, the metallurgical composition of the coin itself is of interest. For example, a collector might collect only bimetallic coins. Precious metals like gold, silver, copper and platinum are of frequent interest to collectors, but enthusiasts also pursue historically significant pieces like the 1943 steel cent or the 1974 aluminum cent. (Note that because the latter example was a pattern coin (a proposed design that was never produced for circulation) the U.S. Government considers private ownership of the 1974 aluminum cent illegal.)
- Subject collections: Collectors with an interest in a certain theme or subject (such as, ships or eagles) may collect only coins depicting that interest.
- Period collections: Collectors may restrict themselves to coins of the 18th or 19th century, while others collect ancient and medieval coins. Coins of Roman, Byzantine, Greek origin are amongst the more popular ancient coins collected. Some collect coins minted during a particular ruler's reign or a representative coin from each ruler. Collectors may also take interest in money issued during the administration of a historically significant bureaucrat such as a central bank governor, treasurer or finance secretary. For example, Reserve Bank of India governor James Braid Taylor presided over the country's move from silver currency to fiat money. Coins reflect the events of the time in which they are produced, so coins issued during historically important periods are especially interesting to collectors.
- Printed value collections: A currency collection might be modeled around the theme of a specific printed value, for example, the number 1. This collection might include specimens of the US 1 dollar coin, the Canadian Loonie, the Euro, 1 Indian rupee and 1 Singapore dollar.
- Volume collections (Hoards): Collectors may have an interest in acquiring large volumes of a particular coins (e.g., as many pennies as they can store). These usually are not high-value coins, but the interest is in collecting a large volume of them either for the sake of the challenge, as a store of value, or in the hope that the intrinsic metal value will increase.
- Copy collections: Some collectors enjoy acquiring copies of coins, sometimes to complement the authentic coins in their collections. Copies might be:
- contemporaneous ancient copies minted as official coins by other cities or rulers
- contemporaneous ancient copies minted as counterfeits (often gold- or silver-plated) to fool merchants and consumers
- contemporaneous modern copies minted as counterfeits to fool merchants and consumers
- modern copies of older coins minted as forgeries to fool collectors
- modern copies sold as replicas (often, but not always, marked as such)
- modern copies minted for museums to be displayed instead of the originals
- modern copies made to be used in jewelry
- modern copies as official circulating coins that pay tribute to the original coin
- modern copies as bullion collectable coins that pay tribute to the original coin
- modern copies as medals or tokens that pay tribute to the original coin
Collecting counterfeits and forgeries is a controversial area because of the possibility that counterfeits might someday reenter the coin market as authentic coins, but US statutory and case law do not explicitly prohibit possession of counterfeit coins.
- Geo-Political collections : Some individuals enjoy collecting coins from various nations which were once united by one dominant Geo-political force or movement. Examples include communist states such as the (PRC China) and the Soviet Union and satellite or constituent nations which shared similar iconography. Another common Geo-political coin collection may include coins from nations within the former and current British Empire, such as Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Samoa, Canada, nations of the Caribbean, South Africa, Rhodesia, and other nations from Africa and South America, as well as Asia, such as Hong Kong and Europe, for example Northern Ireland a.k.a. "the Provence". Such collections can be broken down into geographical regions, such as British territories in Europe, from Africa, from Asia, the Americas, or from the Pacific, and even the smaller region of Oceania. Such coin collections can include a wide variety of coin shape and constituent materials, on the other hand they can also include periods where coins were very similar either in/or both composition and dimensions, with one face of the coin depicting local variance. There are many different Geo-political movements/ forces to choose from, including political movements such as Communism Fascism and Nationalism, and Empires such as those of the great European expansionists including England, France, the Netherlands, Spain and Portugal. Collectors of coins from empires have a wide time-span to choose from as there have been various forms of empire for thousands of years, with different regions changing hands between them.
- Aesthetic collections : Some collections consist of coins which could fit into the other categories, and on coin grading may be graded poorly due to not conforming to their systems. These collections are made up of coins which are pleasing to the owner and to others not due to perfect condition, but rather due to the uniqueness of the coin based on several factors. These can include patinas which form from being exposed to acidic or basic environments (such as soil, when coins are excavated), and warping or wearing which come from use in circulation. Very interesting patinas and patterns can form on coins which have been naturally expose to environments which can effect the contents of the coin. Examples include naturally blackened Victorian pennies, which have only the most raised surface showing the underlying copper, meaning that the head is clearly presented. Many collectors often find discolored coins from the same year which are remarkably different, which makes for added categorization and enjoyment.
- These sorts of collections are not enjoyed by mainstream collectors and traditional collectors, even though they themselves may have in the past or continue to have pieces which could be considered part of an aesthetic collection. One of the issues with this category is that the coins can be seen to have less perceived value to speculators and appraisers. Secondly the coins may be produced artificially, that is coins can be exposed to substances which can create effects similar to those sought for aesthetic collections. This means that coins which may be worth more to historians, numismatists and collectors for their purposes will be destroyed by the process.
Coin condition and value
In coin collecting, the condition of a coin is paramount to its value; a high-quality example is often worth many times more than a poor example. Collectors have created systems to describe the overall condition of coins.
In the early days of coin collecting—before the development of a large international coin market—extremely precise grades were not needed. Coins were described using only three adjectives: "good," "fine" or "uncirculated". By the mid 20th century, with the growing market for rare coins, the American Numismatic Association helps identify most coins in North America. It uses a 1–70 numbering scale, where 70 represents a perfect specimen and I represents a barely identifiable coin. Descriptions and numeric grades for coins (from highest to lowest) is as follows:
- Mint State (MS) 60–70: Uncirculated (UNC)
- About/Almost Uncirculated (AU) 50, 53, 55, 58
- Extremely Fine (XF or EF) 40, 45
- Very Fine (VF) 20, 25, 30, 35
- Fine (F) 12, 15
- Very Good (VG) 8, 10
- Good (G) 4, 6
- About Good (AG) 3
- Fair (FA, FR) 2
- Poor (PR, PO) 1
In addition to the rating of coins by their wear, Proof coinage occurs as a separate category. These are specimens struck from polished dies and are often packaged and sold by mints. This is frequently done for Commemorative coins, though annual proof sets of circulating coinage may be issued as well. Unless mishandled, they will stay in Mint State. Collectors often desire both the proof and regular ("business strike") issues of a coin, though the difference in price between the two may be significant.
Coin experts in Europe and elsewhere often shun the numerical system, preferring to rate specimens on a purely descriptive, or adjectival, scale. Nevertheless, most grading systems use similar terminology and values and remain mutually intelligible.
When evaluating a coin, the following—often subjective—factors may be considered: 1) "eye appeal" or the aesthetic interest of the coin; 2) dents on the rim; 3) unsightly scratches or other blemishes on the surface of the coin; 4) luster; 5) toning; 6) level of detail retained, where a coin with full details obviously is valued higher than one with worn details. If the coin is judged favorably in all of these criteria, it will generally be awarded a higher grade.
Damage of any sort (e.g., holes, edge dents, repairs, cleaning, re-engraving or gouges) can substantially reduce the value of a coin. Specimens are occasionally cleaned or polished in an attempt to pass them off as higher grades or as uncirculated strikes. Because of the substantially lower prices for cleaned or damaged coins, some enthusiasts specialize in their collection.
Coin grading services
Coin grading services are a relatively recent phenomenon, having emerged in the 1980s as a response to the need for buyers and sellers to agree on common measures of a coin's value. Such services are an effort to bring more confidence to investors in rare coins under the guise of being "official." Grading services certify the authenticity and rate the quality of individual coins, thus—it is hoped—establishing the worth of the coin relative to all others of its kind. Many coin grading services will also seal coins in a labeled, air-tight plastic holder, ensuring the coin is protected from deterioration. This process is commonly known as coin slabbing and is most prevalent in the US market. The two most prominent grading services at present are the Numismatic Guaranty Corporation (NGC) and the Professional Coin Grading Service (PCGS).
While professional grading has reduced the number of counterfeits foisted upon investors and has improved buyer confidence substantially, the goal of creating a sight-unseen market for coins remains somewhat elusive. Professional grading services remain the subject of controversy because grading is ultimately subjective; coins may receive different grades by different services or even upon resubmission to the same service. In addition, the numeric grade alone cannot represent other factors, such as toning, which are often important considerations to buyers. Due to potentially large differences in value over slight differences in a coin's condition, some commercial coin dealers will repeatedly resubmit a coin to a grading service in the hope of a higher grade. Furthermore, grading services are not free, and by using them collectors funnel money into an ancillary aspect of the hobby, instead of purchasing additional material for their collections. Reputable coin dealers eschew the growing tendency to sell higher graded coins via sales pitches asserting that grading removes subjectivity as to the value of mint state coins. Dealers that sponsor infomercials on shortwave radio are notorious for such sales pitches, most notably Discount Gold & Silver Trading on WWCR, which proclaims graded coins, in direct contradiction to their pricing history, as having appreciated more than non-graded coins, or as not likewise being "opinion coins."
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