What is a Numismatist?

What is a Numismatist?

By Sean McConeghy

(Nuːˈmɪzmətɪst, -ˈmɪs-, njuː-)

Merriam-Webster defines numismatics as “the study or collection of coins, tokens, and paper money and sometimes related objects (such as medals).”  A numismatist is “a specialist in numismatics.”

While many numismatists are collectors and many collectors are numismatists, the two terms should not be used interchangeably. Collectors acquire coins, often but not always focusing on coins from a particular mint, a particular country, a particular date, etc. Numismatists study coins and money. Some numismatists are generalists, while others focus on specific series, periods, or other narrower areas of concentration.

What Does a Numismatist Collect and Do?

For a long time, most people thought that coin collecting started in Italy during the Renaissance. This view contrasts with evidence suggesting that the hobby is well over a thousand years older. According to De vita Caesarum by Seutonius (AD 69-122), Augustus Caesar liked old and foreign coins. He also gave them to friends as gifts. Even before that, coins were considered art and, being the most transportable and affordable forms of it, were likely collected during the period.

During the 1400s and 1500s, coin collecting was the hobby of nobility in Europe. The royal hobbyists not only collected and studied old coins, but they also served as patrons to artists, whom they commissioned both to replicate old coins and to create commemorative medals, often with the images of the patrons. The ensuing centuries saw the development of scholarship on the topic, and a cottage industry developed around the specialty.

The hobby underwent tremendous growth and became much more democratized in the 1800s as the number of private collectors grew. Novice hobbyists joined royalty in this pursuit, and numismatic societies and publications developed to spread information about coin collecting. The spread of the hobby developed still further in the last century, as shows, conferences, conventions, and local clubs began popping up across the globe.

As the hobby has grown and knowledge about historic coins and those from around the world has increased, it is not surprising that many numismatists have one or more specialty areas. Among dealers, this area of expertise is sometimes defined by price. The most common breakdown in this regard is coins priced under $1,000, coins priced between $1,000 and $100,000, and coins priced either above $100,000 or, in some instances, above $1 million. Other standard fields of expertise include ancient coins, paper money, commemoratives, early gold, territorial gold coins, error coins, and contemporary issues. Although many collectors choose to assemble pieces that cover various areas, others focus almost exclusively on one or two of them. Fortunately, resources abound for all sorts of collectors.

Coin Grading Standards

Numismatic Guaranty Corporation (NGC) and Professional Coin Grading Service (PCGS) use the Sheldon grading scale. The companies are the veritable “gold standard” for coin grading. Collectors and dealers alike depend on their expertise in grading coins, and a difference of just one numerical grade can dramatically change the value of a coin. While there are other grading companies, the reputation of NGC and PCGS sets them miles apart from the others, and coins graded by those companies tend to be far more popular than those graded by other companies. 

As the hobbies of numismatics and coin collecting have expanded, so too have instances of counterfeiting and forgery. These two matters are distinct and, at least in ancient times, not always as nefarious as today. Counterfeiters seek to use their coins as currency, spending them at face value. While both in the past and present, counterfeiting has been punishable, it was sometimes necessary in ancient times due to the shortage of legal tender. This shortage was especially true in Roman provinces. Forgers, by contrast, seek to sell their products to collectors. In modern times they seek to sell their products at or near the value of the coins that they mimic rather than use them as the nominal face value of such coins. Collectors and coin businesses alike rely on the experts at NGC and PCGS to authenticate coins.

How to Become a Professional Numismatist

Those who want to pursue a career in numismatics should pursue a diploma in the subject from the American Numismatic Association (ANA). The program consists of six courses covering such subjects as U.S. coin grading, detecting counterfeit and altered coins, and modern minting. The courses can be completed through correspondence or with substitute in-class courses. Students must complete the six courses, pass tests in each subject, and then pass a closed book, 200-question final exam. The exam is proctored and can be taken at any school, library, an ANA convention, or the ANA headquarters in Colorado Springs. Students get two attempts to pass the final exam, and if they fail to pass, they must wait a year to retake it. The courses and the exam fee can be purchased together for $475. Individual lessons are also available.

The ANA is a non-profit educational organization that helps people to learn about and engage in the study of money and related items. The organization was the brainchild of Dr. George Heath, a doctor who passionately pursued the hobby. Heath lived in the small town of Monroe, Michigan, and he had difficulty connecting with other collectors. In 1888, he wrote and publicized a leaflet known as The Numismatist, and three years later, he came up with the idea of an organization dedicated to the hobby. That organization was founded in October of 1891 and has since grown into the largest organization of its kind in the world. In addition to providing a network of and for experts and helping them share their knowledge with others, the ANA provides a specific opportunity for numismatic experts to help others newer to the field through a mentorship program, which is part of their diploma program.

While the ANA is the largest American organization of its kind, it is not the only one. There are several state and local organizations, publications, and shows for hobbyists beyond those offered by the ANA.

Several types of jobs are available for professional numismatists. NGC and PCGS both employ coin graders who are at the heart of the industry. Coin dealers, industry publications, and others also have employment opportunities. For those currently looking for employment, Certified Collectibles Group has several opportunities available.

Our Coin Authority at GovMint.com 

President and CEO Bill Gale leads GovMint.com. Gale is a nationally recognized numismatist who has sold over $3 billion worth of coins, including pieces from shipwrecks, rare coins, and other collectibles. He co-wrote and published the authoritative reference book, United States Proof Sets and Mint Sets, 1936-2002, which has critical information on U.S. Mint Sets and Proof Sets. His connections and expertise, along with those of other team members, ensure that our customers have access to such essential sources as the Redfield Hoard from Nevada, the Rive d’Or Hoard, and even the first-ever General Services Administration hoard of vintage gold coins.

Our company is committed to providing new and experienced collectors alike the education and resources they need to get the most out of the hobby. The Coin Authority section of our website offers countless articles on the latest releases, historic coins, modern mints, and more.

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