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A Buying Guide for Coins

by Paul Song, category specialist at Sotheby's

the great collector Virgil M. Brand died in 1926, his collection contained more than 300,000 coins from almost all countries of the world, covering over 2,000 years of history. New collectors also begin by acquiring coins haphazardly from all countries and time periods. Of course not everyone has the late Mr. Brand's leisure and limitless resources, and so it becomes necessary, and enjoyable, to narrow the focus of your interest. Fortunately, there are as many ways of building a collection as there are collectors.

Almost every part of the globe has issued coins at some stage. Some collectors will select an important date and try to obtain examples of all the issues struck in that year. Thus a collection based around the year 1776 might include U.S. colonial coppers, cast Chinese cash of Ch'ien-lung, an Indian silver rupee, a Russian 5 kopecks, and an Ottoman gold sultani. Other collectors choose to concentrate on one small area in great detail. Early American cents and half-cents are collected by die-variety, with collectors relishing the challenge of finding and identifying each subtle variation.

One of the most interesting ways to build a collection is to concentrate on coins of your own country or a country to which you have some personal connection. Because a nation's coinage can change as its leaders do, you will be able to find different designs, weights, and metals all issued from a single country. Building a collection of this type captures a fascinating snapshot of a country's economic, social, and political history.

Ancient coins are also very popular, often for similar reasons. Assembling a portrait gallery of Roman emperors is one common theme, and coins of many of the most famous emperors--Julius Caesar, Hadrian, and Constantine the Great--are widely available. The many reverse types on Roman coins offer other themes, and another reason to search for them. You should be able to find an extremely wide array of gods and goddesses, as well as references to specific events, such as the capture of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. or Claudius' invasion of Britain in 44 A.D.

Extremely rare and expensive coins have an appeal in their own right, but even the most costly coins are not necessarily the most interesting. Nor do collections have to contain thousands of coins to be enjoyable and rewarding. One of the best ways to get the most out of your coins is to learn all you can about them. Increasing your knowledge will only increase the pleasure and satisfaction of your collection, no matter how you decide to organize it.

Determine what metal the coin is made from. If it is made of precious metal (gold, silver, platinum), rather than base metal (copper, bronze, nickel, lead), it will generally be more valuable. Keep in mind that other issues (like rarity and physical condition) will also affect overall value.

Note the denomination of the coin. For example, is it a dollar, shilling, mark, yen, or dirham reale? Identifying the denomination is important because it represents one of the first steps toward familiarizing yourself with and understanding the coin.

Find out if there is a date on the coin. Most Western coins struck from the 17th century onward are dated, as are many Islamic coins, but many ancient and Far Eastern types are undated. Keep in mind that the age of a coin has little to do with its rarity. Even ancient coins, which were made by hand one at a time, could be struck in huge numbers. It is possible to buy a 2,000-year-old coin for only a few dollars, although the most expensive coin ever sold at auction was produced in the early 19th century.

Rarity is a major factor, but does not automatically make a coin valuable. Classic rarities, such as the American 1804 dollar, the Roman Ides of March aureus, or the English 1933 penny, are well-known, and are already highly prized by collectors. More obscure rarities, such as an unpublished variety of an Indian copper damma, will not be worth a great deal if there are no collectors willing to pay a high price for them.

Not all types of coins are equally collected. There are many more collectors of American coins, for example, than of mediaeval Islamic issues. The world record for a U.S. silver coin is currently about $4,180,000, for an ancient silver coin the record is currently $572,000, and for an Islamic silver coin, about $160,000.

Currency and forgeries have gone hand-in-hand over the years. Some of these were made at the time of the original coin's issue and were intended to circulate alongside the real thing. Others were made specifically to deceive, while still others were made as souvenirs or for jewelry. Make certain that any coin you buy, whether from a reputable dealer or a garage sale, has been professionally authenticated.

The less the coin has been handled, the greater its chances of being valuable. A coin which is worth very little in well-used condition can become a desirable item if it is virtually good as new. This is particularly relevant for modern machine-made coins, especially U.S. issues.

As a general rule, do not clean coins. Polishing coins removes their original surfaces and will always reduce their value, often greatly. If a coin is well-worn, polishing the surfaces will only make the remaining detail even flatter. It is possible to remove dirt from the surface of a coin, but it is much safer to have this done professionally.

Toning is not the same as corrosion or dirt. Gold, silver, and copper all tarnish naturally on exposure to the air. This frequently adds to a coin's appearance, and many collectors will pay a premium for an attractively toned coin.

A piece of blank metal cut to the correct shape and weight for striking as a coin.
The stipulated circulating value of the coin, often denoted by a mark of value incorporated into the design.
The block of metal used to stamp a blank with the design of the coin.
The part of the coin below the main design, normally divided from it by a horizontal line and often containing the date.
The flat, unstruck area of a coin's surface between the legend and main design.
Flan or Planchet:
The whole coin after striking.
Graining or Reeding:
The notches on a coin's rim, commonly called milling.
A coin produced by striking dies by hand.
The inscription, normally running clockwise around the edge of a coin's face.
Coins manufactured by a mechanical coining press.
The "heads" side of the coin which normally shows the ruler's head or name.
A piece representing a change of design or a new denomination, for possible adoption as a regular currency issue.
A coin struck from specially prepared and polished dies, not intended for general circulation.
The "tails" side of the coin, opposite to the obverse.
The main design element on a coin.