Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Coin Collecting – Installment I

I’ve spent a lot of time on watches and books, and consequently it’s taken longer than I anticipated getting to Numismatics – better known as coin collecting.

Coins are art for the masses. Handled daily, their artistic value is often overlooked. They are, however, one of the last great examples of civic art in the country. Sculpture in miniature, coins are perhaps the only sculpture that most people will ever own.

It’s no secret that the field of coin collecting has really taken off in the past few years, after what was considered by some to be a long period of stagnancy. The front (obverse) of the Lincoln cent has been with us for nearly 100 years – since 1909 – and the back (reverse) of the cent has shown the Lincoln memorial since 1959. The art of the Roosevelt dime has remained unchanged since its debut in 1946, and that of the Kennedy half dollar (ignoring the bicentennial coins of 1976-77) has been the same sine 1964. A good overview of U.S. coinage during the 20th century (though now slightly dated) can be found at Circulating Coin Designs of the 20th Century by Dr. Thomas Fitzgerald.

The mint dabbled at introducing new coins with the Susan B. Anthony dollar in 1979, and the Sacagawea dollar in 2000. It wasn’t until the 50 States Quarters program began in 1999 that Americans saw frequent design changes in their coinage.

The State Quarters program highlights five reverse designs every year through 2008, one for each of the 50 states. The quarters have encouraged millions of Americans to look at their pocket change once again. Capitalizing on the success of the program, the mint has begun to produce new obverses and reverses for the Jefferson nickel with the Westward Journey nickel series. This series consists of two obverse variations, and four reverses, including an homage to the hugely popular ‘Buffalo Nickel’ of 1913-1938.

And it looks like design variation in our coinage will continue. There is talk of a nickel series portraying each of the Presidents, and the future of the Lincoln cent is a hot topic as it approaches its 100th anniversary.

What to collect?

In the past, the most common type of collection has been the ‘series’ collection. In a series collection, a collector tries to gather one example of each year and mint for a specific series, e.g. Lincoln cents. A collector may focus on one series at a time, or may maintain more than one series collection simultaneously, e.g. Lincoln cents and Washington quarters.

Less common is the series-year collection, where the collector tries to collect one example from each year of mintage, regardless of the mint that example comes from. For example, instead of collecting one 2005 Roosevelt dime from each of the mints (Philadelphia, Denver, and San Francisco), the collector keeps only one 2005 dime. This type of collection is often marketed on cable shopping shows, or in print by coin sellers. It is rare that dedicated collectors are content with year sets.

For some series of coins (and for the hard core coin nut), collectors may choose to collect by die variation. In any given year, a number of dies will be used at an individual mint for a single denomination. The dies are made, used, and replaced with a new die when the old one becomes worn or damaged. A collector who specializes in die variations would want one example from each die, at each mint, for each year! The Morgan Dollar is arguably the best documented series in this regard, and attracts more die variant collectors than any other series.

“Filling holes” in an album for a series may be the most common way to collect, but the new collector shouldn’t be a slave to tradition. The State Quarters program has some people collecting one quarter representing each state, one from each mint (P and D), or the clad and silver proofs as well (more on these terms in the future).

Since 1964, all coins struck for circulation have been clad. Coins before 1964 were predominantly silver. Many casual collectors will check their pocket change for coins before ’64, and keep them regardless of series or condition.

Some collectors do not restrict themselves to coins of the U.S., but gather whatever interests them from around the world. The introduction of the Euro has changed the face of European coin collecting in much the same way it has changed in the U.S. Countries participating in the Euro have abandoned their previous coinage, and all new series have resulted.

Other collectors gather coins with wildlife, ships, or commemorative issues. What you collect is strictly up to you.

I enjoy ‘Type Set’ collecting. In type set collecting, one coin is collected representing each series (or major change in each series). I will collect one Morgan dollar, and one Sacagawea dollar – and so on, for each of the series struck since the U.S. has struck its own coinage. An alternative would be to do the same for each coin minted in the 20th century, for example.

Resources

What does a collector need to know in order to get into numismatics? There are many resources available to aid the beginning collector.

Print

A Guide Book of United States Coins 2006: The Official Red Book by R. S. Yeoman

This is the coin collecting ‘bible’. Updated annually, the ‘Red Book’ contains information on collecting, grading (or determining the condition of coins), and coin values. It is worth every cent of its $10-$15 dollar price tag to the new collector.

Numismatic Art in America: Aesthetics of the United States Coinage by Cornelius Vermeule

Though published in 1971, I believe that this is the most approachable and enjoyable history of U.S. coinage ever written. It details the artists and evolution of coin art, including design influences from countries abroad and designs that didn’t make the cut. Out of print, it can still be found secondhand at places like Bookfinder.com – and finding it will pay off!

Internet

Coin collecting has spawned a massive array of websites, with varying degrees of usefulness.

The obvious place to start is the U.S. Mint. On the Mint’s web site you can purchase the newest minted coins, and find some information on coinage in general.

Other good resources include the web site of the American Numismatic Association (ANA) the largest coin collecting organization in the United States. A good site for links and information is CoinSite, and a series of useful articles can be found at Numismedia.

One word before parting for now – coins are often touted for their investment value. My collections focus on the enjoyment and education I derive from them, because I have found that unless you are a professional dealer, in any collecting field, there is no guarantee that what you collect will appreciate. The best appreciation a collection is likely to see, is the appreciation of the collector, and those who he shares the collection with.

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