Some musings and comments on coin collecting, mostly in response to questions that have come to me as former writer/editor of the Montgomery County Coin Club Bulletin:
Why collect coins?
There are as many reasons as there are collectors. Coins are fun. Coins are historical artifacts, connected at a fundamental level to the lives of people in the past. Coins are miniature works of art. Coins are (rarely!) good investments. Coins are fun.
What's the value of my coin?
"That depends" is the only honest answer. What type of coin is it? What is the date and mintmark and variety? What condition is it in? Is it genuine or counterfeit, a restrike or a copy, a regular issue or a proof or a fantasy piece or an error? Has it been authenticated and graded? Does it have a pedigree? These are some of the questions which have to be answered to estimate the value of a coin.
How can I get an estimate of my coin's value?
There are many ways. You can check out books about coins from your local library (see the 737.4 area of the Dewey Decimal System) or purchase numismatic reference materials from various sources. You can take your coin to a dealer, or a coin show, or a coin club meeting. You can send your coin in to a commercial grading service and have it encapsulated, authenticated, and graded professionally. You can also find numerous online sources of numismatic information --- though to apply them to your particular coin will demand significant expertise on your part.
What is this little "California gold" coin?
It's probably a replica token, of negligible numismatic value. During the California gold rush (which began in earnest in 1849 and reached a peak in 1852) small denomination coins were in short supply in the California territory. Local mints produced tiny tokens made of real gold with values of $1 or fractions thereof. You can read about them in various numismatic reference books. Genuine territorial gold tokens are worth hundreds of dollars --- if they are authentic and in nice condition. Far more commonly seen, however, are modern replicas. These are typically made of brass, perhaps plated with a thin coating of gold. Such tokens are of nominal value only, perhaps a dollar or so. (If a replica is made of solid gold, it is worth roughly the meltdown value of the metal.) Real territorial gold pieces usually have the word "dollar" along with a denomination on one side, and the year of issue with a Liberty head on the other side. (See  for obverse and reverse images of a genuine token.) Replicas generally lack the word "dollar" and often have a bear (or anteater-like creature) on one side. Beware of spending too much for a replica which has been misrepresented as genuine!
What are some good coin books?
There are many. The classic "Redbook" is a fine starting point for US collectors. (Its official title is A Guide Book of United States Coins and new editions are issued every year.) The Redbook includes short historical discussions of each type of coin, information on how to grade specimens, and retail price estimates by year, mint, and condition for major varieties. Beyond the Redbook, you may wish to look at Walter Breen's Complete Encyclopædia of US and Colonial Coins, the Krause & Mishler Standard Catalog of World Coins, or countless other books. (See  for a catalog of the books in the Montgomery County Coin Club's library.)
Where should I look for online numismatic information?
An excellent place to start is the American Numismatic Association. The ANA web site has pointers to coin dealers and local clubs, as well as historical data about coins, paper money, tokens, and other numismatic materials. The ANA Headquarters is in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where the organization has a major money museum, a research library, and a staff which is extraordinarily helpful.
How can I sell my coins?
There are many ways. Quickest is to find an honest dealer and sell directly to her or him; unfortunately, many less-than-honest dealers are around. (Membership in the Professional Numismatists Guild and/or the American Numismatic Association is a good sign to look for.) Dealers must make a living and will not be able to pay you as much as you might get from other, slower, methods. Auction sales are another possibility: live, via Internet, by telephone, or by mail. But prices realized at auction can fluctuate widely, and there is likely to be several months of delay in addition to significant commissions to be paid. Selling coins by consignment through a dealer is a slow process, but often can yield good prices. (Direct sales via Internet or in person have additional complexities and risks --- good luck!)
What are authentication, grading, and encapsulation services?
The "grade" of a coin is a shorthand way to describe its condition. Standard coin grades range over Good, Very Good, Fine, Very Fine, Extremely Fine, About Uncirculated, and Uncirculated --- on a numerical scale from 1 (severely worn) to 70 (perfection). Grading a coin is a complex business and demands great experience; it's not something that an amateur can do reliably. Commercial services take a coin, inspect it, assign a grade, seal it in a tamper-evident plastic "slab", and guarantee the authenticity and condition of the coin. This typically costs $10-$30 or more, so it is only worthwhile for relatively valuable specimens. Widely-recognized major grading services include PCGS, NGC, and ANACS. A coin encapsulated by one of them can be trusted to be genuine and in the condition specified on the slab, so it is likely to be easier to sell quickly and for a good price.
What is a "proof"?
Proofs are special coins, often struck more than once at the mint (to bring up design details), often made from highly polished dies, and often carefully handled after their production. This gives proofs an unusual surface finish and can make them lovely coins. Proofs, however, are not necessarily valuable; in fact, in recent years various mints have issued huge numbers of proofs and have sold them to the public at excessively high prices --- which have since fallen sharply.
What's the most important thing to remember about coins?
Don't clean them! More precisely, unless you have a lot of experience any attempt you make to clean a coin will likely scratch it and reduce its value. Don't rub a coin's surfaces, don't polish it, don't brush it, don't dip it in chemicals, don't run electricity through it, and don't store it in an environment that will cause its surfaces to deteriorate. Ask a professional for advice before doing anything to "improve" a coin's appearance.
What's the second most important thing to remember about coins?
Take your time! Don't let yourself be rushed into buying coins, especially not over the phone, at an auction, or from a person whom you don't know well. Don't sell try to your coins hastily either. Don't expect to make money on your coins on timescales of less than decades. Find some good books about coins and read them; visit a coin club and talk with the people there; go to a coin show or a store and browse. Buy a few inexpensive coins and enjoy them, then expand your collection in whatever directions interest you most. Go slow.
My own idiosyncratic case: I got back into numismatics in the early 1990s, after ignoring it for some decades ... began by filling in the gaps in a set of Mercury dimes, Roosevelt dimes, Washington quarters, and Franklin halves ... started acquiring nice coins of 1852 (a century older than I am) and slowly built up a type set for that year ... and recently have been accumulating Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver commemorative half dollars (from the 1946-1954 era; they seem extraordinarily cheap nowadays). Numismatics gives me something relaxing and intellectually stimulating to do in my spare time, and has inspired a few web pages with images and commentary (see ). I wrote a tiny article for The Numismatist about the idea of building a single-year type set (which I call "Annual Collecting"). And via the Montgomery County Coin Club I have met a host of wonderful people. Numismatics is a splendid lifelong hobby. I've already received quite a (nonmonetary) return on my tiny investment!
Monday, August 07, 2000 at 05:51:50 (EDT) = Datetag20000807