A Beginner’s Guide to Coin Collecting: From Pockets to Portfolios

Centsless people lines up to buy the new Lincoln cent outside the New York sub-treasury building, 1909 ( Centsless people lines up to buy the new Lincoln cent outside the New York sub-treasury building, 1909 (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).

From the Holy Roman Emperor to Nicolas Cage, Louis XIV of France and Jack Black, coin collecting is hobby of diverse tastes that was known as the ‘Hobby of Kings’ during the Renaissance. Today, millions of people across the globe collect coins for fun, with people of all ages and from all walks of life drawn to this age-old pastime.

The pursuit of money has been repeated throughout history, as people hungrily chase increasing wealth, but the pursuit of money for its artistic value is another matter entirely. Dating back to ancient Greece, this popular hobby’s roots were established with the custom of presenting people with coins as gifts on special occasions – and today has transformed into a global pastime in which rare coins have become grail items to collectors.

A multitude of factors can contribute to a coin’s value, including its condition, rarity, and enduring popularity, but the reasons behind coin collecting can vary. Some are in it purely for the art and collect for pleasure without the intention of making a profit, but there’s also money to be found in…money… and a number of collectors astutely navigate the coin market for financial gain.

As with other collectibles, prices can fluctuate, but coins appeal to investors as they can provide a safe long term investment. For those with a thirst for knowledge, coin collecting provides a window into the past, as each coin contains a wealth of information from its era. For many, the joy of collecting is matched by the hunt for hard to find coins. People across the world collect all manner of currencies, and despite some coins like the 1933 Saint Gaudens Gold $20 Double Eagle selling for tens of millions when it appears at auction, starting a collection filled with history and intrigue is actually well within the financial reach of many.

Getting Started

1909-S VDB Lincoln Cent

Replacing the Indian Head penny, the Lincoln penny was the first popular US coin to feature an actual person, but a surprising controversy upon its release made a key date variety one of the classic collectible coins in United States history. The coin included the initials of its designer, Victor David Brenner, on the reverse, much to the disapproval of Secretary of the Treasury, Franklin MacVeagh, while The Washington Post proclaimed, “V.D.B. Cent Doomed”. And they were right, as on the same day, it was discontinued to allow Brenner’s initials to be removed.

The Philadelphia Mint produced 27,995,000 VDB pennies, but those minted in San Francisco with the mint mark S beneath the date are highly prized thanks to the relative limited run of 484,000 coins. When Americans heard that the coin was being discontinued, they queued in long lines to get the pennies, which can be picked up at auction for $25 to $50, but be prepared to spend upwards of a $1,000 for a piece of political history from the Golden City.

Alternatively Produced in turbulent times, the 1832 Classic Head half cent features Lady Liberty surrounded by the 13 stars of the original US colonies. A limited run of 51,000 coins makes it collectible, but within a budget of a hundred dollars or so.

1955 Lincoln Cent Doubled Die Obverse

1955 Lincoln Cent. Doubled Die Obverse. MS-61 BN.

1955 Lincoln Cent. Doubled Die Obverse. MS-61 BN. Sold for $2,600 via Stack’s Bowers Galleries (October 2023).

Errors aren’t dismissed in coin collecting. In fact they’re treasured, as is the case with perhaps one of the most famous examples of a double die in US coinage. The 1955 Lincoln penny made itself a prize for collectors during one night shift at the Philadelphia Mint, when an obverse die was misaligned. It created an estimated 40,000 coins, of which around 20,000 to 24,000 copies were introduced into circulation following the error.

Alternatively Another die doubling nearly 20 years later made the 1972 Lincoln Cent struck in Philadelphia a modern collectible.

1937 Buffalo Nickel 3-Legged

Admired by many as the classic Buffalo nickel, the three legged buffalo was created by an over-polished die during minting in 1937 and 1938. Mystery surrounds the error, with it suggested that the die pair was severely worn at the time, resulting in erosion lines in the hind legs and in the Indian’s neck. Its collectability is beyond doubt though.

Alternatively Marking the first time George Washington appeared on the quarter, the 1932 Washington Quarter was intended as a commemorative edition and only 436,800 coins were minted in Denver. It’s stayed on the quarter ever since and made a collectible of its first edition.

1938-D Walking Liberty Half Dollar

One of the most beautiful designs to grace a US coin, the same image is still used for the American Silver Eagle bullion coin. But, despite its low mintage and that collectors of the day hungrily collected this issue, the 1938-D Walking Liberty Half Dollar can be found at auction for under three figures. And it’s because of its status as a 1930s collectible that it has remained accessible, despite its near 100 year old age. Slow commerce during 1937 and 1938 resulted in its low mintage, and because it was so keenly collected it has remained in circulation. Had it been minted 15 or 20 years earlier, before the monthly mint reports published, then it would likely be considerably rarer, with the 1938-D halves scarce in relation to other dates.

Alternatively The high relief of the 1921 Peace Dollar led its withdrawal as it was inconvenient for everyday use, but the appeal of its artistic design has endured.

Pre-1933 US gold coins

The Great Depression changed the course of coin collection when President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 6102, requiring US citizens to hand in their gold, including gold bars and coins, with an exception for collectible coins. Prior to 1933, gold coins consisted of 90% gold and attracted collectors and gold investors alike. These coins have a universal appeal as much less knowledge is needed to trade gold bullion, compared to trading historic coins. The choice is broad, with the 20 Dollar Double Eagle the pinnacle of the collection, but more on that later. Other more accessible opportunities include the 1866–1906-S $5 Gold Liberty, the 1908-1929 $2.50 Gold Indian, and the 1866–1908 $5 Gold Liberty Head, which can be found under $1,000.

Rarer Coins

1933 Saint-Gaudens Double Eagle

The 1933 Double Eagle

The 1933 Double Eagle. Sold for $7,590,000 via Sotheby’s (July 2002).

The rarest of the rare and the most valuable coin in the world, the 1933 Saint-Gaudens Double Eagle is the golden goose of coin collection. Despite its relatively healthy mintage of 445,500 pieces, Roosevelt’s Executive Order 6102 banned the private ownership of most gold bullion, which required the melting of the entire stock of these coins. Only two were officially spared for inclusion in the Smithsonian collection, but around a dozen mysteriously escaped, with only one currently legally in private ownership. Once owned by Egypt’s King Farouk, a 2002 sale yielded a then-record price of $7,590,020, before it achieved $18,872,250 in June 2021. As for the other 11 coins…

1793 Chain AMERI cent

1793 Flowing Hair Cent.

1793 Flowing Hair Cent. Sold for $60,000 via Stack’s Bowers Galleries (November 2023).

A coin with an achievable price tag that doesn’t match its significance in US history, the 1793 chain cent was the first circulating coin officially produced by the US Mint. Following the Fugio cent of 1787 (known as the Franklin cent) approximately 36,103 were produced, but only 1,000 coins are known to exist today. They sell for thousands of dollars, but at a fraction of the price of other coins from the era. Perhaps this is due to the Liberty Head’s depiction, which one newspaper of the day said appeared to be “in a fright”!

1794 Flowing Hair Dollar

The Flowing Hair Dollar’s significance is confirmed by the fact it helped establish the national mint. How’s that for an impact on history! In his third State of the Union address, President George Washington urged the creation of a mint, which was recognized by the Coinage Act of 1792. The 90% silver coins weren’t meant for the general public, and were instead distributed to dignitaries as souvenirs. In 2013, the finest example was sold at auction for a then record breaking $10,016,875. Between 120 and 130 are estimated to have survived, making it a highly coveted national treasure.

1933 Great Britain Penny

The smallest coin in British currency has gained notoriety among collectors for a quirky convention surprisingly related to construction. Following the Great Depression, banks possessed large stocks of pennies so none were scheduled to be struck in 1933. However, a convention of the era saw complete sets of coins of the current year buried beneath new buildings. As a result, three sets of 1933 pennies were minted for burial under buildings that year, along with a small number held by the British Museum and the Royal Mint Museum. Mystery followed as thieves stole a set of 1933 pennies from beneath a church in Leeds in August 1970. As a result, a bishop of a neighboring church ordered the second set be exhumed and they were sold in a 1972 Sotheby’s auction. The final set, however, is safe in the foundations of the University of London.

1943 Lincoln Head copper penny

WWII made a star of the 1943 Lincoln Head copper penny and turned it into one of the most sought–after coins in American numismatics. The vast majority of circulating pennies were struck in zinc–coated steel, as copper and nickel were needed for the Allied war effort. However, an apparent accident during minting left copper–alloy in the press hopper, bringing approximately 40 1943 copper–alloy cents into existence, much to the delight of collectors.

What to Look Out For

However your take your first steps in coin collecting, understanding the comprehensive grading scale will help you infer the prices demanded for each coin. Taking into consideration how well the coin was made, its wear, and its luster, a coin is described as poor, good, very fine, or mint state and assigned a number between 1 and 70. For example, the grade is listed as “MS-70” or “F-15”.

Invaluable resources like the Official ANA Grading Standards for United States Coins will help you understand coin grading to know the value of a coin and to verify grades given by others. But getting started only requires a hunger to learn more and a coin case.

Sources: USMint.gov | RoyalMint.com | Money.org | GainesvilleCoins.com | USACoinBook.com | NGCCoin.com | JMBullion.com | CoinSite.com | PCGS.com | AtlantaGoldandCoin.com | CoinWorld.com | RoyalMintMuseum.org.uk