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Looking Back on my 70 years of coin collecting



Chapter 5 Tools of the traded

What “tools” do coin collectors need to support their interest in this hobby? As with most things related to coin collecting I have very strong opinions on this topic. I will however try to be realistic.

I want to first address the tools that are available to collectors.

1 – Numismatic Knowledge – This is without a doubt the key tool in the coin collector’s tool box. The truest guidance ever given the collector is the old adage “buy the book before the coin.” No one is born knowing all there is to know about collecting any type of coin. This knowledge must be developed with the creation of a numismatic library. The contents of this library will depend on the specific contents of each and every collection. Before I stopped collecting, my personal numismatic library contained over 450 volumes. I sold them over time in auctions conducted by Kolbe & Fanning and you can go to your search engine and find many more dealers in numismatic related books.

2 – Some form of magnifying device. I always wanted a stereo microscope but could never really come up with the money to buy one and I really could not set one up at an auction site. I settled for a group of well-made handheld magnifying glasses 5X, 10X and 20X. Typically with the handheld glasses the higher the magnification power the small the field you look at when you use them. Why would you want/need this tool, first to assist in grading and second to assist in determining varieties and checking for doubled dies. If you want to know a secret the best magnifying glass I ever had was a lense from a home movie projector or home movie camera (I am not sure which). After I purchased one and found it to be such a great magnifying glass I purchased a second. Eventually I wore them both out. The lense had a zoom function and over time I just wore the zoom function out. If you ever have the opportunity to acquire one of these lenses don’t turn your nose up at it just because it doesn’t look like a magnifying glass.

3 – A Vernier caliper this is more for counterfeit detection of colonial and truly early U.S. coinage. But here you must be sure of the value you are comparing your measurement against. About two years ago I was at a local auction which contained 1797 sixteen star dime. I closely studied the coin in order to make two determinations and these were; is it real and, what is it grade? I graded the coin XF and everything I saw said this coin is real. I won the auction and paid $4.600 including buyer’s fee. After I paid for the coin one of the bidders came up to me and said I really wanted that coin but I think it is a fake. He said according to the Red Book this coin is supposed to have a diameter of 19mm and that this coin has a diameter of 20mm and possibly a little over. He used a small plastic ruler he laid over the coin to measure it. I said that his info surprises me. And that was that. When I got home the first thing I did was get out Breen’s Complete Encyclopedia of U.S. and Colonial Coins. Guess what Breen gave the diameter as 19.8mm or approximately 20mm vs the Red Book and approximately 19mm. Anyway the coin came back from NGC graded XF-45 and it also received a CAC sticker when I sent it in for that. The coin sold for $8,000 over what I paid for it.

4 – A scale, I use a three beam balance beam good to 0.01 grams. The Caliper and scale combined are great tools to help in the detecting of counterfeits whether it be a contemporary or modern counterfeit.

5 – A comparator Magnifier. I use a “Desk Model” and once you develop the correct technique for using one of these you will be glad you have one. You only need this item when identifying die varieties of colonial through mid-ninetieth century coins. These are not expensive items. Mine came with eight interchangeable end lenses (four in black markings and the same four in white markings). Coins of light metals or toning use the black and darker coins use the white. Mine brakes a centimeter into mm’s and mm’s into 1/10ths of mm’s. So you can accurately measure small variances in design elements or the location of design elements relative to one another. I also use it to grade stamps by measuring the distance from the bottom of the perf to the frameline of a stamp (usually in two locations on all four sides of the stamp). I strive to identify grades higher than VF and not a single stamp has comeback worse than VF-XF with XF being typical and an occasional XF-S.

OK which if any of these tools do I recommend for you. – Trick question because my answer will depend on what you collect. So let’s take these tools one at a time.

Show dealers – these are collectors that on weekends setup at coin shows to sell to the public. These individuals need the most accepted reference book related to every type of coin they sell. In addition they must attribute every coin they sell with the variety designator provided in the appropriate reference. Once one of these individuals offer a coins for sale they become a dealer and they are expected to be knowable on the material they are selling. To sell coins without attribution they’re telling those that visit their table they’re really just a hack who is either too cheap to purchase the necessary reference material and/or too lazy to put in the time to find out what it is they’re really selling. I once read a post where a “Show Dealer” whined and cried about collectors who would come to his table and cherrypick his inventory. He totally believed that when a customer found a rare variety in his inventory they should be obligated to inform the dealer of this. To this I say BULL! There is no reason that dealer cannot purchase the appropriate reference material unless the dealer is just too cheap to purchase the necessary reference material and/or too lazy to put in the time to find out what it is they’re really selling. So this dealer believes it is up to his customers to do his job – No Way.

Show dealers must add to their library a decent number of references on counterfeit detection. In the 80’s & 90’s there were a couple of firms that several times a year published packets of 8½ X 11 sheets that detailing recent new counterfeits that came into the market place. If you can find any of these buy them because those counterfeits are still out there and some are quite good. I have a few ring binders full of these sheets. I would also include two general references these being the MEGA RED (the massive red book) and Walter Breen’s complete Encyclopedia of U.S. and Colonial Coins.

And last but not least a very good grading reference.

If as a dealer one limits his inventory to 20th & 21st century coins you can skip the scale, calipers & comparative magnifier. If you are going to deal in a wide range of U.S. coins, in my opinion, you will need all of the tools listed above.

Now the collector

Once you have decided on what it you want to collect you have defined what it is that you need in your library. That is your library must be tailored to the material you collect. There is one exception here. If your goal is to complete type sets or a single massive type set covering all U.S. coinage you need not go after all the specialty books such as those dedicated to half cents, large cents, bust halves and etc., etc. Since all you are looking for are coins that represent each type the MEGA RED or Walter Breen’s complete Encyclopedia of U.S. and Colonial Coins will serve you well. When it comes to reference books stay away from simple reprints of monographs. In my library I had a copy of Valentine’s original monograph on half dimes and a newer reprint of the monograph. The photos in the reprint were nowhere near the quality of those in the monograph. Even though I wanted to protect that original work from wear and tear I ended up using the original monograph more than I wanted.

When it comes to what tools to get to support his hobby, the collector should follow what I recommended for the show dealer. If the show dealer and collector both specialize in the same areas they should both be on the same footing when it comes to depth of knowledge and tools used. When the dealer prefers to support a larger base of collectors and purchases inventory for this larger base he may have a very good knowledge base to handle his inventory but the collector who specializes should know more about his area of specialization than the dealer.

Best regards



Recommended Comments

I second the recommendation for having a caliper in your numismatic toolkit.  Today you can get an inexpensive one with a digital readout.  They are, of course, useful for measuring the diameter but you can also use them for measuring the thickness.  With those two measurements you can calculate the volume, then with the weight you can calculate the specific gravity. Many counterfeits can be detected by having an incorrect SG.

Thanks Ram for all the good advice!

Edited by jgenn

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Thanks jgenn

I am glad you mentioned checking for specific gravity since it is one of the best ways to check for fakes. In fact my three beam balance beam scale is designed to facilitate the suspension of an item/coin in water.

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