I began collecting coins on a whim and soon found myself completely engrossed in this fascinating hobby. In this guide, I’ll explain how to get started with a collection of your own and hopefully help you avoid the common obstacles that can trip up a new collector.
Read on to learn about the kinds of coins that people collect, the best places to find and buy coins, strategies to avoid scams, coin handling practices that will keep your collection in top condition, and more!
Why collect coins?
There are many good reasons to start a coin collection:
- To learn more about history. There’s something undeniably cool about holding a little piece of history in your hands, whether it’s an ancient coin bearing the portrait of Alexander the Great or a 1943 US penny made of zinc-coated steel instead of the usual copper. Historical coins have fascinating stories to tell.
- As an investment. A coin’s value depends on a few factors, and in some cases is higher than its “face value.” Some coins are made of valuable metals, while rare coins often command high prices among numismatic connoisseurs—the most valuable coins may even sell for millions of dollars. A rare, high-quality, and in-demand coin can make a smart investment. If your primary goal is eventually selling your coins for profit, then you will need to do extensive research on coins and market trends to make the smartest possible acquisition decisions.
- For fun! You might love the thrill of finally tracking down a rare coin or finishing a particular set, you may appreciate the aesthetic and artistic value of a coin, or you might enjoy hanging out with likeminded hobbyists. Coin collecting is a fun and satisfying hobby for countless people.
Personally, I collect coins as a way of engaging with history and simply enjoying myself. I haven’t sold any coins from my collection and mostly just enjoy researching the history behind each coin.
What kind of coins can I collect?
All sorts! You can collect historical currency from a wide variety of places and time periods, modern currency, coins made of various metals and featuring a wide range of designs…The options are endless.
Some collectors acquire a broad and eclectic array of coins from all over the world, while others like to build their collections systematically with a deliberate emphasis; for example:
- Collecting by time period: You might focus on Hellenistic coins, medieval German coins, Almohad coins, 19th-century US coins, and so on. If you have an interest in a specific historical period, then this kind of collecting may be perfect for you.
- Collecting by type: For example, you might want to collect an example of all the different kinds of US nickels and pennies minted over the years. Or, you might develop an interest in collecting all the different Euro designs.
- Collecting by design theme: Perhaps you love horses and decide to collect as many coins as you can find featuring equestrian designs. Other common themes might include birds, ships and boats, architecture, or geometric designs. This is a fun way to collect coins from different places and time periods while still maintaining a coherent theme.
Some specific coin collecting areas include:
- Ancient coins: Coins from ancient Greece and Rome and the Hellenistic period are popular among historical coin collectors. You can find some truly famous faces on ancient coins, from Alexander the Great to Julius Caesar to Constantine.
- Medieval European coins: You’ll find incredible variety within the broad category of “medieval coins.” Coins might depict saints, kings, bishops, emperors, and more. In both ancient and medieval times, images on coins provided a useful propaganda tool for rulers intent on affirming their legitimacy and power.
- Islamic coins: From Abbasid coins to Almoravid coins, Islamic currency often features intricate script designs, which make for beautifully detailed collectibles.
- Historical U.S. coins: This is one of the biggest and most popular collecting areas. The United States Mint owes its origins to the 1792 Coinage Act, and it has since produced a dizzying array of coins, from the rare 1933 Saint-Gaudens Double Eagle to the humble Wheat Penny.
- State quarters and ‘America the Beautiful’ quarters: The State Quarters program operated from 1999 until 2008, inspiring millions of Americans to begin collecting coins. The US Mint began issuing America the Beautiful quarters in 2010 with plans to continue until 2021 or beyond. These quarters depict national parks such as Yosemite, Glacier, and Denali.
- Latin American coins: Learn more about Latin America’s fascinating history by collecting the coins produced there over the centuries. You can expect to find portrayals of figures such as the Spanish kings and Simón Bolívar.
- East Asian coins: Some collectors are especially drawn to the currencies of China, Mongolia, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. I’m personally a big admirer of these Chinese coins from the Eastern Zhou Dynasty, which are over 2000 years old! I also love the distinctive shapes of Tokugawa coinage, used in Japan from 1601 until 1867.
- Commemorative Euros: Beginning in 2004, members of the Eurozone have been minting commemorative €2 coins depicting notable events. In 2018, for example, Slovenia celebrated World Bees Day, Finland highlighted its sauna culture, and Spain illustrated the old town of Santiago de Compostela, all in coin form!
- Varieties of foreign currency: Many casual coin collectors simply enjoy owning a variety of currency from all around the world. They might keep a coin or two from their travels to remember the places they’ve been.
- Error coins: Mint errors can occur for a number of reasons, and they result in coins with different appearances from the “norm.” If you have a penchant for things that are a bit offbeat or unusual, then you might be interested in collecting error coins.
- Silver and gold coins (bullion): Bullion denotes precious metals such as gold and silver, often in the form of ingots or bars, but you can also acquire bullion coins. Today’s bullion coins are generally legal tender, but it’s uncommon for them to circulate; they’re more often acquired for investment purposes.
How to get started
Coin collecting can seem deceptively simple—don’t you just need to buy a few coins? But then come the complications: Which coins should I buy? What (if any) focus should my collection have? Where can I find good coins? How much should I pay?
I’ll be honest: My first few coin purchases were completely spontaneous. I was walking past a small coin shop in Salzburg and decided to stop in to see if they had anything medieval. As it happened, the dealer had some 13th-century coins minted by the city’s bishop, ranging in price from 15 to 75 euros. I grabbed one I liked for 20 and never looked back.
Plenty of casual hobbyists are happy to build their collections in this way, selecting new items based on personal appeal and a bit of serendipity. This can be a fun and low-key way to collect.
As I’ve gotten more into coin collecting, I’ve started putting more time, thought, and research into my purchases. This is for two reasons. First, I really enjoy learning more about numismatics and finding out about cool coins I’d otherwise never have known about. And second, once I started buying bigger-ticket items, it simply made sense to do more research.
So, if you’re looking to get a little more serious about coin collecting, here are your first steps:
- Define your interests. What excites you most about coin collecting? How can you narrow down the kinds of coins you’re interested in acquiring?
- Browse coins and learn more about what’s available. You can scroll through offerings on eBay or dealer websites to get a sense of all the different coins out there and typical prices.
- Read up on evaluating coins: How rare and valuable is a given coin? What physical condition is it in? What is the market value? How reputable is the seller?
- Buy the coins! This is the best part.
Where to find and buy coins
Building a sizeable coin collection often takes time, so be patient! There are many places to look for new coins to add to your collection.
For starters, you can examine your pocket change. Are there any interesting coins? If you’re trying to collect every State Quarter, then this method may work quite well to get your collection going.
Some collectors enjoy metal detecting. This hobby gets you outside enjoying the fresh air as you hunt for historical coin hoards. Of course, finding top-notch coins this way requires practice and luck—bear in mind that coins which have been buried for decades aren’t always in pristine condition.
Just make sure to check local rules and regulations before you set out with your metal detector.
Flea markets, estate sales, and yard sales are another coin-finding venue. One difficulty here lies in determining authenticity, so proceed with caution! However, you can sometimes find some real gems at flea markets at a reasonable price.
Some collectors (including myself) have found some great coins at small antique and numismatic shops. Many of these shops now maintain websites, so if you find a shop or dealer you like, you can check out their recent acquisitions online.
Finally, online dealers and auctions are a convenient way of finding and purchasing coins for your collection. Tons of dealers sell coins on eBay nowadays, while some maintain their own websites. Before committing to a purchase, do your research to evaluate how reputable the dealer is.
How to evaluate the quality of a coin
This process is known as “grading.” Coins are graded based on how well-preserved they are. Grades may be ascertained in several different ways, but it is quite common to use the 70-point Sheldon Scale (or a modified version of it) to evaluate coins.
Earlier grading systems often relied on qualitative adjectives, such as Excellent, Very Fine, Fine, Good, and so on. However, even for experienced numismatists, it can be hard to discern definitively between adjectives like Superb and Excellent.
The Sheldon Scale offers a more standardized alternative, and its 70 points allow for nuanced and finetuned evaluations of a coin’s precise state.
A coin that has undergone heavy wear and tear might merit the lowest rank of (P-1) Poor, while a completely pristine uncirculated coin will merit a grade of (MS-70) Mint State Perfect. There are many points in between these two extremes, starting with:
- (FR-2) Fair: The coin is very damaged, and fine details are worn away, but major design features remain visible, and the coin remains identifiable.
- (G-4) Good: The coin is overall very worn, but major features remain discernible.
- (F-12) Fine: This grade indicates a moderate but fairly even amount of wear, and text on the coin should be mostly legible.
- (EF-40) Extremely Fine: The coin displays slight wear, but major features are well-defined, text is legible, and even finer details are clear.
The above grades apply to coins that have been in circulation and undergone at least some wear. Next comes the “About Uncirculated” (AU) category, for coins that have only been lightly handled. They’re technically no longer in mint condition, but they’ve barely circulated or been handled.
These grades include:
- (AU-50) About Uncirculated: Very slight hints of wear evident on the higher points of the coin’s design.
- (AU-58) Very Choice About Uncirculated: For this grade, the coin must display only the tiniest markers of wear or damage. It has been in circulation but remained in close to perfect condition.
Grades of 60 and above are reserved for coins that have never been circulated and are in mint state. There are still variations even among uncirculated coins. At the lower end of the scale are coins that may be uncirculated but are otherwise unremarkable, while coins at the higher end are truly exemplary. For instance:
- (MS-60) Mint State Basal: The coin has never been circulated, but it is not particularly visually appealing; it may lack luster and appear dull, feature hairlines or contact marks, or have a poor strike.
- (MS-63) Mint State Acceptable: An uncirculated coin of an average or below-average strike. It may have imperfections like contact marks or slightly subdued luster, but is overall an attractive coin.
- (MS-65) Mint State Choice: This uncirculated coin will feature good luster and above-average strike.
- (MS-69) Mint State Almost Perfect: This coin comes so close to perfect that its flaws can often only be identified under microscope. Overall, a superb, shiny, and visually appealing coin.
Note that even though this scale is numbered from 1 to 70, in some cases it is possible for a coin at a lower number (such as 40) to outshine a coin at a higher number (such as 60).
That’s because the scale is split into three broader categories, one for circulated coins, one for “about uncirculated” coins, and one for coins in mint condition. So, a top-quality circulated coin with minimal wear and an overall brilliant appearance tends to be far more appealing than a dull, lower-quality uncirculated coin.
Even if you’re not an expert, you can use this scale as a general guideline for evaluating the coins you come across. I suggest finding a coin grading guide that includes images to train your eye.
The Professional Coin Grading Service (PCGS), for example, has a free online program called Photograde, which includes hundreds of United States coin images and their grades. This is an incredibly handy tool, and even if you collect non-US currency, you can quickly get a feel for the different grades.
How to avoid common scams and pitfalls
One of the biggest potential risks of coin collecting is falling for scams. Unfortunately, some unscrupulous dealers are willing to lie about a coin’s value or authenticity, and you may not discover the truth until it’s too late.
In addition, some dealers are more knowledgeable than others. An inexperienced dealer might offer perfectly genuine coins at an inflated price—it’s up to you to know what a fair price is so that you can make wise decisions.
Education is the best preventative measure you can take to protect yourself from scams and other pitfalls of coin collecting.
Do your research, both on the specific coin you’d like to acquire and on the dealer you’re planning to approach. It’s usually pretty quick and easy to search for a dealer’s online reviews.
You can also check if a coin has been certified by an independent grading service such as the Numismatic Guaranty Corporation (NGC) or the Professional Coin Grading Service (PCGS). These services examine coins and assign them grades, then seal them in cases which are resistant to any tampering.
I find that this extra form of authentication is incredibly helpful, especially for less experienced coin collectors, as it helps ensure that the coin you think you’re getting is the coin you’re actually getting. You can then check an up-to-date reference volume to see if the dealer’s price is roughly on par with market value.
Bear in mind, however, that the value of a historical coin is somewhat subjective, based on factors such as rarity, physical condition, buyer demand, and general historical interest.
If you’re making purchases based primarily on personal preference and enjoyment, rather than investment potential, then it’s ultimately up to you whether a particular coin is “worth it” at a given price.
Sometimes, sellers grade their own coins—Take these grades with a healthy dose of skepticism. You might see someone on eBay declaring that their coin is Extremely Fine when really it’s just Good. This is why it’s important to understand the grading scale for yourself, so that you can determine whether a dealer’s stated grade is plausible or not.
In addition to checking whether a coin has been legitimately graded, you can check if dealers themselves are certified by a legitimate authority.
In the next section, I list my favorite resources for educating yourself on the rare coin market. Many of these books contain extensive information on virtually every kind of scam there is—Take the time to do some research before you buy, and you’ll have a much better chance of avoiding disreputable sellers.
Useful books and resources
I highly recommend looking into the available educational resources before you get too deep into your coin collecting exploits. There are many books that can give you a solid grounding in numismatics.
You’ll get an idea of which coins are considered rare or valuable, as well as the historical context surrounding them. You’ll learn more about how professional numismatists grade coins and develop the expertise you need to steer clear of counterfeits.
Here are some useful books for learning more about coin collecting:
- S. Yeoman and Kenneth Bressett, 2019 Official Red Book of United States Coins: A must for the serious collector of United States currency, this massive book offers up-to-date values and auction records, educating you on the state of the modern rare coin market. In addition, the book contains information on each coin’s history and specifications. You’ll learn how to grade coins, root out fakes, make wise investments, and determine precisely how much you should expect to pay for a specific coin. This book is helpful whether you’re a hardcore collector or are simply curious about the value and history of the coins you’ve got lying around the house.
- Scott A. Travers, The Coin Collector’s Survival Manual, revised 7th edition: This manual has chapters on “The Grading of U.S. Coins,” “Telling Fact from Fiction,” “Making Money in Coins Right Now,” and “Making Sure the Price Is Right.” It’s a great book for more investment-minded coin collectors, but it also has helpful advice for new and just-for-fun hobbyists too: After all, even casual hobbyists want to avoid scams, pay a fair price, and understand the basic quality and value of the coins they purchase. Overall, it’s a fantastic guide to the various aspects of buying, selling, collecting, and investing in coins.
- Wayne G. Sayles, Ancient Coin Collecting, volume 1: Pick up this book for an effective and engaging introduction to the world of ancient coins. Wayne Sayles walks the reader through the major aspects of the field, highlighting the relevant historical context (travel, trade, and geography in ancient societies) and explaining how to discern between authentic and counterfeit ancient coins. You’ll come away with a deeper appreciation for history and a clear grasp of how to start and expand your ancient coin collection. Note that this is the first of several volumes; later volumes in the series examine specialty areas in greater depth, such as Greek coins and Roman provincial coins. Sayles has also written a book on forgeries and counterfeits of ancient currency.
- Alan Herbert, The Official Price Guide to Mint Errors, 7th edition: This book is a great introduction and reference guide to collecting error coins. You’ll learn about the minting process and how and when errors slip in, in addition to the errors known to occur in each denomination. Definitely take a look if you’re interested in mint errors.
- Paul A. Torongo, Collecting Medieval Coins: A Beginner’s Guide: Medieval coin enthusiasts should try to acquire Torongo’s guide to medieval coinage, which covers the basic history of minting practices and coin distribution and includes tons of color photographs. There’s a lot of material to cover, and Torongo does a great job helping new collectors get their bearings.
- Medieval European Coinage series: This multi-volume series is broken down by time period and geographic location. You can choose from a range of volumes on early medieval coinage (c. 5th-10th centuries), British and Irish coinage (c. 400-1066), or coinage of the Iberian peninsula, among others.
In addition to books, you can check out the many online resources on numismatics. For example:
- American Numismatics Society: The ANS was established to promote research and education on numismatics, encompassing coins, medals, and currencies of all kinds. It sponsors lectures, hosts exhibitions, maintains a vast coin collection, publishes books, and produces the American Journal of Numismatics. The society has also been instrumental in contributing to the development of numerous online resources and tools, including:
- Coin Hoards of the Roman Republic (CHRR) Online: CHRR is a database of Roman coin hoards from the Republican period, spanning from 155 BCE until 2 CE.
- Coinage of the Roman Republic Online (CRRO): Another project focusing on Roman Republican coins, CRRO is a helpful tool for identifying coins of this period.
- Online Coins of the Roman Empire (OCRE): OCRE is the product of collaboration between the ANS and New York University’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World. This tool records and catalogues Roman Imperial coins dating from the reign of Augustus until the death of Zeno. It includes over 40,000 different kinds of Roman coins.
- PELLA: Coinage of the Macedonian Kings of the Argead Dynasty: PELLA is a useful educational and research tool for those of you fascinated by Hellenistic coins, specifically those minted by Macedonian kings belonging to the Argead Dynasty. Of these, coins featuring King Philip II and his son Alexander the Great are the best-known. Alexander’s early death in 323 BCE marks the start of the Hellenistic period and the continuation of a coinage tradition.
- Seleucid Coins Online (SCO): The Seleucid Empire is one of the successor states that arose in the power vacuum created by Alexander the Great’s death. They minted some awesome coins! Browse through SCO to find some stunning examples—featuring images of elephants, bulls, the head of Medusa, and Hercules in his lion-skin helmet.
- Dar al-Kutub: Collection of the Egyptian National Library: This online catalogue represents the joint efforts of the Egyptian National Library and the ANS. It features 6500 numismatic items, including not just coins but also medals and glass weights. The collection includes pieces from Madinat al-Salam (Baghdad under the Abbasids), India, and Egypt, plus an impressive group of Fatimid glass jetons.
How to take care of your coins
It’s important to take good care of your coins so that they stay in good condition long-term, retain their value, and continue to provide educational value to future generations.
Top recommendation: AVOID CLEANING THEM. Cleaning coins is one of the fastest ways to destroy their value. Older coins may have discoloration or a grimy appearance, but they’re more valuable that way than they would be if you polished them.
Historic coins often have a nice tarnish or patina, and they should stay this way. So, avoid the urge to polish, and definitely keep them out of the rock tumbler!
There may be cases in which some amount of cleaning is necessary or desirable; for example, if you if you and your kids are collecting circulating currency (such as America the Beautiful quarters) by setting items aside from pocket change.
In this scenario, the coins are probably kind of germy, and they’re not super high value. Giving them a basic clean won’t really do any harm.
So, if you decide you definitely want to clean a coin, here’s how to proceed: Use only gentle soap and water. Stay away from anything rough, abrasive, and destructive like acid, metal polish, or steel wool.
Wash your coins in a small container with warm water (preferably distilled water). A plastic container works well; harder materials like glass or metal aren’t as good since they’re hard and can bang up your coins.
You should wash only one coin at a time. Dumping a bunch of coins in your container allows them to hit and scratch each other.
Once finished, gently pat each coin dry (do not rub—this will leave scratch marks). Let them dry all the way before you put them away.
Cleaning aside, how should you touch, move, and handle your coins? With care, and ideally with gloves. The natural oils of you skin can corrode and damage coins over time. I suggest wearing cotton gloves and holding your coins by the edges to avoid wearing away detail.
What about storage? When determining how to store your collection, you should keep in mind the various factors that contribute to damage:
- Humidity: Metals like silver and copper don’t respond well to moisture and humidity.
- Acid: Many forms of paper, cardboard, and packaging materials contain acids which can damage coins over time. Acids and oils from your skin also harm coins if you handle them often with bare hands.
- Air pollution: This is something to worry about if you live somewhere with a lot of smog.
- Rough physical treatment: Dropping coins on the floor or jangling a handful of coins together can lead to scratches and scuffs.
These factors should all be avoided.
You might stash regular spare change in a jar or piggy bank—but don’t store your valuable coin collection this way. Rather, opt for a proper container like a coin album or holder. A good holder lets you keep your collection organized and protected.
Keep your collection out of potentially humid rooms like the kitchen and bathroom, and also beware of hot stuffy attics and cold basements. Your collection will do best in your bedroom, living room, or similar space that has a steady, reasonable temperature and humidity level.
Teaching children about coin collecting
Many avid coin collectors enjoy sharing their hobby with their kids, grandkids, nieces, or nephews. Coin collecting is a fantastic activity for children.
It teaches them responsibility as they learn how to handle their coins with care. It encourages their curiosity about history and about other countries and their currencies. And it makes a fun, social activity to enjoy across the generations.
So, if there are children in your life who show an interest in your coin collection, go ahead and involve them! Tell them the stories behind your coins and ask which coins they like best.
I also recommend checking out the United States Mint, which has a website set up just for kids! There are interactive games and activities, tips for young collectors, and even a coin coloring book.
Children may enjoy the Mint’s animated video explaining how coins are made. They can also watch this video to take a virtual tour of the Philadelphia Mint to see what goes on inside United States Mint facilities.
Coin clubs, shows, and conventions
Coin collecting can be a social hobby. Coin enthusiasts can join clubs and attend conventions to learn more about the field, buy and sell coins, and socialize with likeminded people.
Numismatic Guaranty Corporation also maintains a calendar of upcoming events of interest to avid numismatists.
Looking for a local coin club to join? Head to the American Numismatic Association website to search for a club in your area. Becoming a member is an excellent way to learn about the hobby from more experienced collectors.
The history of the world from ancient times to today can be told, at least in part, through coins: Who produced them, what technology was used, what kinds of images appeared on them, and how widely they circulated.
As a coin collector, I love having a tiny piece of history to myself and learning all about the circumstances that brought the pieces in my collection into existence. I hope you enjoy this hobby as much as I do. What kind of coins do you like to collect? Got your eye on any in particular?