The Ultimate Coin Collector's Resource

The Ultimate Coin Collector's Resource

If you’re just getting started with coin collecting, it may seem like an overwhelming endeavor. Even if you’ve been collecting for years, you may still be unaware of some best practices. Cue the Ultimate Coin Collector’s Guide: a place where we’ll share all of our tips regarding storing, cleaning, and understanding mint marks. Read on.

Table of Contents

Getting Started with Coin Collecting

Coin collecting for beginners can seem overwhelming, but in short, numismatics is the systematic accumulation and study of coins, tokens, and objects of similar form and purpose. It’s one of the oldest hobbies in the world, with evidence suggesting that it began as early as the 4th or 3rd century BC. The fascination of collecting in these early periods seemed to stem from coin images depicting rulers and mythological beings. 

There’s a major difference between coin collecting then and now that began after the Renaissance, and that’s the development of an active collecting market – supply and demand. During the 15th and 16th centuries, the ancient practice became a “king’s hobby,” and by the 17th century, collecting shifted slowly toward serious research and numismatics became an academic pursuit. By the 19th century and into the 20th, private collecting became more popular as handbooks broadened the novice’s scope, and as numismatic societies began growing, the demand from the general public grew, too. This led to more of an expended effort, making what was once only available to the wealthy within reach of local collectors.

Reasons to Collect Coins

  • Historical significance. As we’ve discussed, coins have a rich, ancient history that continues to grow with modern times.
  • It’s an educational pursuit. The academia involved in numismatics is a cerebral endeavor as you learn history, coin-making processes, and grading standards.
  • There’s value. Whether it’s the intrinsic value of the metal a coin is made of, the artistic features, or simply the historical significance, collectors find extraordinary value that goes simply beyond monetary pursuits.
  • Coins are art. The sculptors of modern coins are among the most prestigious of artists that the U.S. Mint seeks out.
  • Your collection is tailored to you. As a collector, you have the freedom to collect the coins you want. From memorable medals to coins from a specific time and region, the challenge is yours to pursue as you seek to add to your collection.

Understanding the value of collecting coins is one of the chief things you should be involved in when starting a coin collection, and to gain the most out of this newfound hobby, thorough research is required as you look at coin grades.

What You’ll Need to Start Collecting

An Australian coin in its plastic case being held with cloth glovesAn Australian coin in its plastic case being held with cloth gloves
  1. A coin reference guide and book. Many collectors have what’s known as the “Red Book” – a thorough guide by year of coins for collectors with pictures, coin-grading terms, and conditions.
  2. A way to store your coins. Whether that be a folder, album, or tube with a secure location, many collectors seek proper ways to store the coins within their collection, ensuring their value and protecting their collection.
  3. Soft surface for examination. Coins are often made of soft, valuable metal, like gold, which a hard surface can easily damage, especially if poorly handled. A soft, fabric pad or surface can help prevent damage if – or when – accidents occur upon examinations.
  4. Cloth gloves. This protects coins from the natural oils the human body has, along with any trace residue that you may still have on your fingertips. If left on during storage, this residue can cause discoloration.
  5. A magnifying glass and light. The naked eye can’t see or appreciate some details, and when it comes to coin grades, the devil is in the details.

Ways to Collect Coins

  • Finish. This refers to the appearance of a coin after it’s gone through the minting process. Different methods of striking a coin produce a different "look" or a different finish.
  • Country. Collecting coins by their country’s origins is a method employed by history enthusiasts and can add some valuable information and stories based on the coins you collect.
  • Time period. The time at which a coin is produced is another valuable and fun way to collect coins. The true challenge comes from finding old coins that are still in fantastic condition.
  • Denomination. Whether it be quarters, pennies, yens, or some other form of currency, collecting the denomination of a particular coin throughout the years is another sought-out method.
  • Artist. Coins are art, and the artists behind the coin can make a coin that much more valuable. Knowing your history is extremely important if collecting in this fashion, as the artists may not be as obvious as denominations, materials, years, and countries are.

 Coin Grading Scales

You can determine the physical condition of a coin through grading. By analyzing the physical properties and condition of a particular coin, a coin usually falls between the two extremes: completely worn out and mint condition. In 1949, a famous numismatist by the name of Dr. William H. Sheldon developed a 70-point grading system in what is referred to as the Sheldon Grading Scale, which established common standards that all coins could be judged against. Many third-party grading services, including both the Numismatic Guaranty Corporation (NGC) and Professional Coin Grading Service (PCGS,) use this scale. It’s critical to know the different strike types, such as Mint State, Proof, and Specimen – which is a hybrid between Mint and Proof.

Coin Certification

Because of the prestigious nature of the “king’s hobby,” not only were famous artists employed to create replicas of ancient coins but portrait and design collectible commemorative medals, too. This in turn fostered the introduction of forgeries. As a result, very broad collections were formed, studied, and cataloged, making Numismatics an academic pursuit, where many important treatises were published during the 18th century. Today, there are two main authorities in the industry: the Professional Coin Grading Service (PCGS) and the Numismatic Guaranty Corporation (NGC). These services –  and many other third-party grading services – participate in certifying the authenticity of coins throughout the world as well as determining their condition based on the Sheldon grading scale.

Where to Find & Purchase Coins

 A woman buying coins online from her laptop in a corner A woman buying coins online from her laptop in a corner

When it comes to buying coin collections, a portion of the market has certainly shifted to online authorities. When making coin purchases, you don’t necessarily want to settle for the best price. One of the major disadvantages of buying anything online is that you are often buying sight unseen. Buyers cannot check the coin’s grade nor its authenticity, which can lead to buying a counterfeit coin if not careful. This is why you want to stick with a trusted seller like GovMint.com.


Checking return policies, reading customer reviews, and looking at the dealer’s Better Business Bureau rating are just some ways you can mitigate against bad online purchases. To double down on that, the best places to buy coins online are from dealers who ensure the quality of their coins with a quality return or exchange policy and have a secure method of delivery – two of which are things GovMint.com strives to do with every coin in our catalog, some exclusions apply.

Storing & Cleaning Your Coins

You should take careful consideration when storing and cleaning the coins within your collection, and while this may seem obvious, you might be surprised by what you learn. For a more detailed and in-depth read about storing and handling your coins, see another guide we wrote specifically for coin holders.

Coin Storage Ideas

  • Keep cool and dry. Extreme temperature changes, along with moisture, can cause discoloration and damage that can greatly devalue a coin.
  • Use original coin holders. All modern coins and sets should be bought and sold in their original cases. The U.S. Mint sells some coin sets in protective plastic cases called lenses, or in folders, while individual coins are packaged in capsules fitted into boxes. Some bullion and circulating coin options will ship from the U.S. Mint packaged in rolls and monster boxes.  If that’s simply not possible, other storage options include: 
      • 2″ x 2″ homemade cardboard or plastic holders, using acid-free holders free from polyvinyl chloride (PVC), which can ruin a coin’s surface by eventually coating a coin with sticky green slime
      • Plastic tubes or capsules
      • Sleeves or envelopes
      • Albums
  • For high-value coins, professional coin-grading services use what are known as “slabs,” which are sealed holders to protect the authenticated, graded coins.
  • Save documentation. As a best practice, you want to secure a certificate of authenticity and/or an information card for each coin you purchase.
  • Keep them safe. While a safe deposit box at a bank may be ideal, it can be as simple as a home safe where contents are covered by your home insurance (including full replacement costs).

How to Clean Old Coins without Damaging Them

Believe it or not, cleaning a coin may not be in a collector’s best interest. You should always wear soft cotton gloves to protect a coin’s surface from fingerprints, natural oils from the skin, and other trace residues that can lead to corrosion. While you may be tempted to polish your coins, making them look shiny and new, proceed with caution. Polishing and/or cleaning coins can reduce their value. Older coins that show deep age coloration are more desirable than coins with stripped-away surfaces from improper polishing or cleaning.

One last interesting caveat: Avoid talking directly over your coins. Much like the oils from your skin, tiny droplets of saliva can create spots on a coin that can be extremely difficult to remove. So, with that being said, do not breathe and fog a coin's surface and rub to polish. That is wrong on all fronts!

The Parts of a Coin (Coin Anatomy)

You should know the basic parts of a coin before starting a coin collection, and in all honesty, it’s rather simple.

Parts of a Silver Eagle Coin Labeled Parts of a Silver Eagle Coin Labeled
  • Obverse

The front side or “heads” of a coin

  • Reverse

The back side or “tails” of a coin

  • Edge

The coin’s outer border – edges can be plain, reeded, lettered, or decorated 

  • Rim

The coin design’s protective raised portion of the edge on both sides

  • Legend

The principal inscription or lettering on a coin

  • Mint Mark

A small letter or symbol on a coin used to identify the coin’s birth

  • Relief

The part of a coin’s design that is raised above the surface

  • Field

The flat portion of a coin’s surface that’s not used for design or inscription

Coin Finishes

There are a variety of finishes that include circulated, uncirculated, and proof, and with each finish, different production steps are required and implemented.

Uncirculated Finish Gold Buffalo CoinUncirculated Finish Gold Buffalo Coin
Uncirculated
2016 Proof American Gold Buffalo Coin2016 Proof American Gold Buffalo Coin
Proof
2013 Reverse Proof American Gold Buffalo Coin2013 Reverse Proof American Gold Buffalo Coin
Reverse Proof
  • Circulating Coins

Circulating coins are made for commerce and the daily business of buying and selling. Because of the constant handling, there are no extra steps when producing these coins.

  • Uncirculated Coins

While there are circulating coins, there are also uncirculated versions of those same coins with the sole purpose of saving and collecting. Quality enhancements are used to create a brilliant finish. In fact, some coins are created with the intention of never circulating.

  • Proof Coins

Proof coins have a mirror-like background with frosted design elements that are produced using a special process with polished dies. When creating a proof coin, each coin is struck at least twice to help bring out the details of the design. The reverse proof uses this same process, only the coins feature a frosted background with a mirror-like design rather than the other way around.

  • Enhanced Finishes

Sometimes, there are special enhancements made to uncirculated, proof, or reverse proof coins to bring out more or specific details.

Understanding Mint Marks

Mint marks are letters that identify where and when a coin was made. This specific mark holds the manufacturer responsible for a coin’s quality and authenticity, which was extremely important when circulating coins with precious metals such as gold and silver in them. To ensure the authenticity of these circulating coins within the United States, a commission evaluated the metal compositions and quality of coins from each of the Mint facilities, holding these facilities accountable to the correct specifications.

Back in the Mint’s early days, it wasn’t necessary to identify a coin’s source, as Philadelphia's branch was the only branch in operation. However, in 1835, Congress passed an act that created the first Mint branches, which also created the need for mint marks. After this act – and the first mint marks from the Charlotte, Dahlonega, and New Orleans branches being coined in 1838 – it was still common to not include mint marks on coins from Philadelphia. 

During World War II, this all changed in 1942 when the “P” mint mark made its first appearance on coins produced from the Philadelphia branch. Nickel was removed from the alloy of these coins at this time, and the position of the mint mark changed, moving from the right of Monticello to above the dome to indicate the new metal composition. After the war, when nickel was reintroduced into the alloy mixture, Philadelphia coins returned to the former mint-mark position and also removed Philadelphia’s “P” from its mark.

The “P” returned in 1979 when the Susan B. Anthony dollar coin was introduced, and the year after, the “P” made its appearance on all of the denominations save for the penny, until a special release in 2017.

Coins without Mint Marks

In the United States, Philadelphia was the first and only branch in operation in the country’s earliest years, so identifying the sources of a coin wasn’t necessary at the time. It wasn’t until Mint branches in Charlotte, Dahlonega, and New Orleans opened in 1838, and after a Congressional Act, mint marks made their first appearance on U.S. coins.

Coins also made during the years of 1965-1967 do not contain mint marks due to the Coinage Act of 1965 which eliminated mint marks to discourage collecting while the Mint strived to meet the country’s coin needs. Today, these coins are sought amongst collectors, as they reflect a specific time in the history of the nation.

As of today, there are eight different mint marks and four different Mint branches in operation. Some coins, such as bullion releases and certain strikes from the Philadelphia Mint, do not carry mint marks in the modern day. In some cases, identifying marks on sealed monster boxes can allow grading companies to determine the mint of origin.

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