Invaluable Guide to Buying Coins

As early as the time when scholars and state treasuries began collecting and cataloguing coins, the general public also gained an interest in collecting them along with paper money, both for historical and artistic reasons.

Where to Buy Coins

As early as the time when scholars and state treasuries began collecting and cataloguing coins, the general public also gained an interest in collecting them, both for historical and artistic reasons.

While buying coins is often characterized as a hobby, there is room to invest. The estimated annual market for rare coins in the United States overall is around $3 billion.

“Certain areas today seem to be holding their own, such as coins and foreign paper money, possibly due to maturing collectors who have financial ability to buy and spend more either through retail or auction purchases,” says Dr. Robert Schwartz, President of Archives International Auctions.

As a worldwide industry, there is a wide variety of coins that originates from around the globe. This introduces many possibilities of collecting specialties, and makes it more likely for there to be something out there for everyone.

Recommended Places to Buy Coins

In the U.S. alone, there are roughly five thousand coin companies, including Heritage Auctions, which alone accounts for annual coin sales of $500,000,000. The Professional Numismatic Guild is made up of 300 or so members, many of whom hold annual sales of coins, paper money, and other numismatic items.

It is worthwhile developing a relationship with a trusted coin dealer that specializes in your area of collecting. National coin shows such as the ANA Worlds Fair of Money are a good place to begin your search. If you approach a dealer, it is worth finding out if they subscribe to a code of ethics, such as the American Numismatic Association or the Professional Numismatists Guild.

Tips for Buying Coins

There are a number of ways to begin a collection of coins that you will enjoy for a lifetime. Coin collectors have a lot in common, including a love and respect for history. The industry requires that you invest in the proper supplies, such as coin holders for storing and displaying.

Why Collect Coins?

If you’re thinking of starting a collection, it helps to decide what most interests you about coins and start from there. Is it a certain period of history and you would like to find coins from that era? Collectors often like to work hunt down special-edition coins, which are released to mark events and anniversaries.

Ideas for collecting include the following specializations:

  • Date
  • Mint mark
  • Country
  • Different designs
  • Year set, or one coin from each year within a series
  • Theme (e.g., Presidents, historic buildings and monuments, etc.)

Circulated coins are graded on the following scale:

  • Good— The date should be fully readable. Rims nearly full with slight wear at the tops of the letters. Design is fully outlined.
  • Very Good— Rim is completely defined with full legends and all lettering and numerals distinct. Detail in the design of the coin will be visible.
  • Fine— Moderate wear is evident while the date is bold and letters and legends are clear.
  • Very Fine— Roughly two-thirds of the design is visible. Date, letters and major elements are crisp and sharp.
  • Extra Fine— All design elements are clearly visible. High points of design are still slightly worn.
  • About Uncirculated— Mint luster is abundant. Any wear is isolated to the highest points of the design, or the points that extend highest above the surface.

Learning to Grade Coins

Learning the basics on coin grading will help you use your education to protect yourself about dishonest sales and descriptions.

Mint marks, which are letters, symbols, or inscriptions on a coin that denote the mint where the coin was made, are often a major factor in the price of a coin. For example, in 1950, the Jefferson nickel was produced at two different mints: Philadelphia, with no mint mark, or Denver with a D” mint mark beside Monticello on the reverse side. While the 1950-nickel is not as difficult to find, the 1950-D was made in very small numbers, making it scarce today.

Mint State grades most commonly refer to the condition of a coin. A coin is given a grade from 60 to 70, with 70 being perfect with no visible blemishes. The grade can hugely affect the price, even from an MS-60 coin to an MS-66 coin.

What Coins are Worth Buying?

The coins that you buy will depend on everything from availability to budget. Interesting coins do not have to be expensive but do consult an expert coin collector for guidance if you’re thinking of making a large investment. First, though, do your homework, find a coin fair – and remember to have fun!

Types of American Coins

In the United States specifically, coins are separated into the following categories:

First Coinage

  • New England, 1652: These first coins were round with NE at the top and either a value or numbers on the reverse, featuring no dates.
  • Willow Tree, 1653–1660: During this time, the law demanded that coins have double rings, MASATHVSETS in between, with a tree in the center.
  • Oak Tree, 1660–1667: These coins were the same as the Willow Tree, but with an oak tree at the center.
  • Pine Tree, 1667–1682: The Pine Tree illustration was the last of these first four coins made by John Hull.

Obsolete Coins

Issues including half cents, two-cent pieces, three-cent pieces, half dimes, and 20-cent pieces are examples of obsolete coins, as well as coins with a limited period of issue and mintage quantity, those that are more than 120 years old, and that are scarce today.

Large Cents, 1793–1857

All large cents were coined at the Philadelphia Mint and were quite heavy, made with twice as much copper as the half cent. They became too expensive to make and were eventually replaced by the small cent in 1857.

Types of large cents include:

    • Flowing Hair with chain reverse (1793)
    • Flowing Hair with wreath reverse (1793)
    • Liberty Cap (1793-1796)
    • Draped Bust (1796-1807)
    • Classic Head (1808-1814)
    • Coronet (1816-1857)

Small Cents, 1856–Present

Small cents were created as a more economical solution to the bulky large cents. The first small cent, the Flying Eagle, was nicknamed the “white cent,” given that it was made with 88 percent copper. The Lincoln cent was the first coin to feature a president, circulated in 1909.

Types of small cents include:

    • Flying Eagle (1856-1858)
    • Indian Head (1859-1909)
    • Lincoln (1909-Present)
    • Wheat Ears Reverse (1909-1958)
    • Memorial Reverse (1959-2008)
    • Birthplace (2009)
    • Formative Years (2009)
    • Professional Life (2009)
    • Presidency (2009)
    • Shield Reverse (2010-Present)

Nickels, 1866Present

The United States’ first five-cent coin of non-precious metal was made in 1866. In the years that followed, a number of versions were released, some more popular and longer-running than others.

Types of nickels include:

    • Shield (1866-1883)
    • Liberty Head “V” (1883-1913)
    • Buffalo (1913-1938)
    • Jefferson Obverse (1938-2004)
    • Jefferson Obverse (2005)
    • Peace Medal (2004)
    • Keelboat (2004)
    • Bison (2005)
    • Ocean in View (2005)
    • Return to Monticello (2006-Present)

Dimes, 1796Present

Ten-cent coins are similar in design to the half dime. In 1964, the production of silver coins came to an end. Dimes in higher grades are scarce and more expensive, but many early dimes are still available in what’s known as “circulated” condition at affordable prices.

Types of Dimes include:

    • Draped Bust (1796-1807)
    • Capped Bust (1809-1837)
    • Liberty Seated (1837-1891)
    • Barber (1892-1916)
    • Mercury (1916-1945)
    • Roosevelt (1946-Present)

Quarters, 1796–Present

This coin was large in size until 1964 and has been popular throughout history, for both collectors and non-collectors. A number of designs have been circulated since 1796, and many collectors try to get their hands on at least one coin of each kind of quarter made.

Types of quarters include:

    • Draped Bust Quarters (1796-1807)
    • Capped Bust Quarters (1815-1838)
    • Liberty Seated Quarters (1838-1891)
    • Barber Quarters (1892-1916)
    • Standing Liberty Quarters (1916-1930)
    • Washington Quarters (1932-Present) 

Half Dollars, 1794Present

While the half dollar isn’t used today, it was once the most popular and valuable silver coin available, adding up to more than a day’s worth of wages. Because of its rarity, it is highly sought after.

Types of half dollars include:

    • Flowing Hair (1794-1795)
    • Draped Bust (1796-1807)
    • Capped Bust (1807-1839)
    • Liberty Seated (1839-1891)
    • Barber (1892-1915)
    • Liberty Walking (1916-1947)
    • Franklin (1948-1963)
    • Kennedy (1964-Present)

Dollars, 1794Present

Early silver dollars represent the time in U.S. history when the colonies united. Dollar coins of the late 19th century to now, such as Trade, Morgan, Peace and Eisenhower dollars, are some of the most desirable. Some limited-edition issues, such as Presidential dollars, were intended for collectors.

Types of dollars include:

    • Flowing Hair (1794-1795)
    • Draped Bust (1795-1804)
    • Gobrecht (1836-1839)
    • Liberty Seated (1840-1873)
    • Trade (1873-1885)
    • Morgan (1878-1921)
    • Peace (1921-1935)
    • Eisenhower (1971-1978)
    • Susan B. Anthony (1979-1981, 1999)
    • American Eagle (1986-Present)
    • Sacagawea (2000-2008)
    • Presidential (2007-Present)
    • Native American (2009-Present)
    • Agriculture (2009)
    • Government (2010)
    • Diplomacy (2011)
    • Trade Routes (2012)

Gold Coins, 1795–1933

Before the early 1930s, the U.S. Mint produced gold coins in the denominations of $1, $2.50, $3, $5, $10, $20, and some very rare $4 pattern pieces. Since mintages were small and a number of them have been melted down, these gold coins are quite rare and highly sought after today. Because of their beauty and international appeal, gold coins are some of the most popular coins to collect.

Types of gold coins include:

    • Liberty Head $1 (1849-1854)
    • Indian Head $2.50 (1908-1929)
    • Liberty Head $5 (1839-1908)
    • Indian Head $10 (1907-1933)
    • Saint-Gaudens $20 (1907-1933)

Types of World Coins 

The following are examples of coins from around the world:

  • South Africa Gold Krugerrand – Made in 1967, this was the world’s first bullion coin, with Paul Kruger, a South African politician, pictured.
  • Mexico Silver Libertad– Displaying “El Angel,” the Winged Angel of Victory, this coin was released in 1984, two years after it was first struck.
  • China Silver Panda– Released in 1983, this silver coin features the Temple of Heaven and a panda.
  • Russia Gold Roubles– Rouble coinage has been around since the Middle Ages. The 10 Roubles shows Russia’s last tsar, Nicholas II, and the other side features the double-headed eagle of Russia.
  • Romania Copper Bani– Made in 1867, this Old World coin features the coat of arms on one side and the denomination on the other.
  • Germany Reichsmarks– The largest silver coin of the Third Reich, this coin features the heraldic eagle of Germany on the obverse and the Potsdam Garrison Church on the reverse.
  • East Africa Bronze Coins– Pre-1960, Kenya, Tanganyika, Zanzibar, and Uganda were known as East Africa, sharing this common coinage. The hole in the center is thought to bring good luck.
  • Europe Euro – Each European nation converted to the Euro in 2002, but each country’s Euro has one unique side and one side that is universal.


Whether you’re keen to discover more about world history or simply like hunting for rare coins from a bygone era, coin collecting can be a fun and profitable hobby, whether you’re collecting coins from a particular era or that have been made at a specific mint. It is worth spending time to educate yourself so you always know how to identify rare coins and verify that they are the real deal.

Staying Informed

It’s a good idea to keep up with the latest news regarding the buying and selling of coins. Subscribe to reputable coin periodicals to keep up with what’s in demand and new coin releases, such as  Coin World and Numismatic News.

Additional Resources

Littleton Coin Company
U.S. Coin Values
Guide to Collecting Coins

Written by Alexis Culotta View all posts by this author →

Alexis holds a PhD in art history and has enjoyed professional roles across gallery, museum, and academic settings. Thanks to these myriad experiences, Alexis holds a wealth of knowledge across the fields of fine and decorative arts and enjoys every opportunity to share these insights along with the stories of these makers and objects with Invaluable collectors.