How to Get Started Collecting Coins

Posted on 5/24/2012

One of the most wonderful aspects of numismatics is that you can begin on almost any budget.

I first became interested in coin collecting the old fashioned way in the late 1960s. A family friend gave me a Whitman album for collecting Lincoln Cents, 1941 to date. For some reason the challenge of completing this small album became a full time pursuit for a budding, young numismatist. My parents would take me to the bank each week to purchase $5 worth of penny rolls that would be searched and later traded for another batch. After several weeks of meticulous searching, my album neared completion. This is where things get interesting for most collectors. Some become bored as they make little progress finding the last few coins needed for a set; others become obsessed. Count me in the latter group. Finding those last few “rare” S–mint cents became a true obsession. First, I tried ramping up the number of penny rolls that I searched each week. This still did not yield those last few coins. Finally, I decided that making my first numismatic purchase was the only avenue for completion of the task. Of course I was being impatient, as finding a 1941–S Lincoln Cent was not that hard! Around this time I also purchased my first numismatic publication. I believe it was Numismatic News or Coin World. I discovered that for only 50 cents the fantastic goal of completing my Lincoln Cent collection could be a dream fulfilled. I placed an order with Littleton Coin Company, and a week or so later those few pesky coins that had evaded my grasp showed up in the mail. Of course, for weeks after that more coins continued to arrive from Littleton on consignment. I think I might still owe for some of those, but don’t tell anyone.

Many who become interested in numismatics find it more difficult to get started. The field of coin collecting is vast and can sometimes be quite intimidating. One of the most wonderful aspects of numismatics is that you can begin on almost any budget. The young collector with a weekly allowance can find great coins to fill his or her collection. I have long been an advocate of promoting coin collecting to young people. The hobby has much to offer for those interested in history, money, art and technology. At the other end of the spectrum even an occasional billionaire will find numismatics to be an engaging pursuit. Regardless of your finances, most individuals can find a series, denomination or specialty to fit their spending abilities. Sometimes, just getting started is the hard part.

For those interested in United States coinage, the task of deciding what to collect is a matter of taste and interest. Most start their collection with a particular denomination or series. Two of the most popular are Lincoln Cents and Morgan Silver Dollars. Following closely in popularity are Walking Liberty Half Dollars, Mercury Dimes, Washington Quarters and Buffalo Nickels. Silver Dollars are extremely popular, no doubt due to the large size of the denomination. Morgan Dollars are also popular because there are so many issues that are quite affordable. There are probably 20 or 30 dates of mintmarked Morgan Dollars that can be purchased in NGC MS 63 or MS 64 holders for less than $100. This can be a great start on an exciting series. Peace Dollars are also beautiful and quite affordable for most collectors. Most of the series mentioned above are among the more popular ones. Other collectors might choose Standing Liberty Quarters, Liberty Nickels or Barber coinage. Liberty Seated coinage is much more complex, but appeals to collectors seeking a challenge. Collecting early copper coinage by die variety is generally considered an advanced numismatic pursuit. There are dozens of series that might be of interest, but this gives readers an idea of the ranges of possibilities.

A great way for beginners to start a numismatic collection is to buy one of each type of United States coins. This is commonly referred to as “Type Collecting,” and offers many advantages to those new to the hobby. By seeking one example of each type, collectors can begin to understand the rarity of the series and learn about the rich history each has to offer. There is also a great diversity aspect to this type of collecting as well. I tell friends and customers that it’s a bit like buying a “rare coin mutual fund.” After working on a type set, many collectors will focus on one particular series that has sparked an interest. Several years ago, I co-authored the book, United Stated Coinage: A Study by Type. This book gives interesting information for each type of coin struck by the United States along with a photograph of the finest example possible.

Speaking of books, these are really the best place to start when collecting coins. Legendary numismatist Dave Bowers famously states “buy the book, before the coin.” This advice is sound and will serve any collector well. The main reason I have written numismatic books is to educate collectors. An educated collector buys more coins and that is good for dealers and the hobby. People will spend money more freely when they have taken the time to study a series. They will also avoid many of the pitfalls that an uneducated or impulse buyer would make. Today’s collectors are extremely lucky. There are dozens of books about rare coins and there is a specialty book on nearly every series. Rich numismatic content can also be found on the internet. Thirty years ago, the Red Book was the best source of information. Understanding what you collect is highly recommended before spending large sums of money!

The most common advice a collector usually hears is to “buy the best you can afford.” This advice has proven profitable over the decades and will probably hold true in the future. Everyone wants to own the finest available. These phenomena can be seen in the extreme popularity of “Registry collecting.” Coins at the top end of their grade range have soared in recent years. Collectors are now competing with each other in a very public manner to own the finest set of a series. Years ago most advanced collectors were very private, if not secretive. The great collector John J. Ford, Jr. was famously secretive of his holdings and the numismatic world was aghast at the size of his collection when it was offered at auction. Registry collecting is here to stay and will continue to influence rare coin prices for years to come.

Another piece of good advice for new collectors is to locate someone willing to mentor your adventures in numismatics. No numismatic book or website can substitute the vast knowledge accumulated over decades of buying and selling rare coins. Most dealers or advanced collectors will share their knowledge and enthusiasm with new collectors. Find someone who is an expert on the series you have chosen. The time you take to develop this relationship will be extremely valuable. One good way to meet others with similar interests is to join a numismatic club. Start with the American Numismatic Association. There are also many local coin clubs in most major cities. These are great places for new collectors to get started.

Whether your interests are in United States coinage, world coins, paper money, tokens, ancient coins or something more esoteric, getting started is sometimes the hardest part of the journey. Get started today and you will probably get hooked on a hobby that will be exciting and richly rewarding!

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Jeff Garrett bio

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