Since the early 1800s, coins were used to celebrate or mark special events. This is how and why most early “proof” coins came to be; they were struck in conjunction with some special circumstance. However, these proofs tended to be specially prepared versions of ordinary coins. That is, the coins would have the same format and basic design motif—but would be struck with polished dies and specially prepared planchets (blanks).
As of 2015, America’s coinage is limited to just six denominations: 1c, 5c, 10c, 25c, 50c and $1. Of those six units, most people encounter just the first four; the half dollar and dollar circulate somewhat infrequently. With that in mind, it might come as a surprise to the average American that our country has produced coins in seventeen (!) different denominations. Granted some of these were short-lived and were phased out over a century ago, but they continue to be fascinating keepsakes and treasured collectibles. Below is an overview of the more unusual denominations and how they came to be:
In most grades, the 1880-O (New Orleans) and 1880-S (San Francisco) silver dollars are common and virtually identical in value. These two dates sell for anywhere between $25 and $40 in circulated grades. Further up the grading scale, however, a major difference emerges. In MS 65 the 1880-S trades for around $150, but the 1880-O commands a hefty $15,000-$20,000 in MS 65! Many collectors might wonder why this disparity exists—and whether it is a common occurrence in numismatics.
The vast majority of numismatic or collector coins are worth substantially more than their melt value. In virtually all cases, their bullion content has little or no bearing on their value. However, from time to time, certain numismatic coins have traded close to their underlying melt value. This phenomenon doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it creates an intriguing investment opportunity. Low premium numismatic coins offer two ways to win: an increase in the spot price or an increase in the numismatic value.
Major events in American history have often been reflected in numismatics. Examples include discoveries of gold and silver, financial panics, population shifts, political changes, and wars. This is especially true for the Civil War, World War I and World War II; all three conflicts had a profound impact on United States coinage. In fact, some of the changes incited by these wars affect America’s money to this day.
American coin collection has been popular since the mid-19th century; it’s one of the oldest pastimes in the United States. Even so, the hobby has seen some major changes in the past ten years. Thanks largely to technology and increased consumer education, the rare coin market is a very different place today versus a decade ago. We can boil the changes into three main categories:
Anyone with a manufacturing background can attest to the need for prototypes. Before producing a large quantity of anything, it’s always important to produce a test sample. Coins are no different. In the United States Mint’s 200+ year history, it has consistently produced prototype or “pattern” coins to test various designs, metals, formats and techniques. The result is a fascinating branch of American numismatics.
In everyday life, the word “pedigree” usually translates to lineage, ancestry or bloodline. It’s a word often used in conjunction with award-winning dog breeds or prestigious families. In numismatics, however, a pedigree (or its fancier French synonym “provenance”) refers to a coin’s past owners. Sometimes this information is of little significance, but in many cases a coin’s pedigree can make it much more desirable.
It’s a simple question that is frequently debated among coin collectors: which coin is the most valuable in the world? The answer depends on who you ask and what measure you use. Even among seasoned numismatists, there is tremendous disagreement as to which coin is the most precious. What makes the question more interesting is that some of the rarest and most valuable pieces either haven’t traded hands in decades—or might never be sold ever.
A common question among newcomers to the hobby is whether there’s a “right” or “wrong” way the collect coins. The answer is no—but there are ways of collecting that may prove to be especially enjoyable and rewarding. Some buyers are accumulators who simply buy items that pique their interest. Others attempt to form collections with a specific theme or structure. There is nothing wrong with either approach, but collectors often derive the most satisfaction from assembling sets.