Invaluable Guide to Buying Coins & Money

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.

While collecting money 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. 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.

“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.

“China has a very strong philatelic and numismatic collector base that often involves the whole family,” adds Dr. Schwartz. “My experience with Hong Kong sales were that entire families were collectors with passion for the material, rather than serious investors.”

As worldwide industries, there are a wide variety of coins and paper money that originate from around the globe. This introduces seemingly endless possibilities of collecting specialties, and makes it more likely for there something out there for everyone.

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 four first coins made by John Hull.

Obsolete Coins

Issues including half cents, two-cent pieces, three-cent pieces, half dimes, and twenty-cent pieces are examples of obsolete coins – coins with a limited period of issue and mintage quantity, age of over 120 years old, and that are scarce and rarely come across 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. It became too expensive to make and was 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, 1866–Present

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, 1796–Present

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, 1794–Present

While the half dollar isn’t used today, it used to be 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, 1794–Present

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 sought-after. 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, 17951933

Prior to 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

European coins from the Romanian Åke
Lindén Collection
, 1800-1900s, Baldwin’s

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 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.

Types of U.S. Paper Money

U.S. history includes the making of large and small-size currency that falls under the following categories:

  • Legal Tender Notes – The Legal Tender is the longest-running type of U.S. paper money; it was released in 1862 and lasted until 1969.
  • Silver Certificates – Released in 1878, this is the second longest-running American paper money. It can no longer be traded for silver coins or bullion.
  • Gold Certificates – Once redeemable for gold coins, gold certificates are accepted at banks and of high interest to collectors.
  • Federal Reserve Bank Notes – Now out of date, this has been replaced with the Federal Reserve Note, which is what we use today.

Pro Tip: The Friedberg Numbering System provides a method for identifying a particular currency note based on its design, series, and signatures. For example, the 1934A $10 Silver Certificate with Julian-Morgenthau signature would be represented as Friedberg #1702.

Why Collect Coins & Paper Money?

Rarity and Scarcity

With coins and paper money, if there are more available of an early series or coin than there are of a later series or coin, the later series or coin may be more valuable. Collectors also prize certain coin varieties because of rarity and prominence and the fact that the coin may be the key to completing a particular series.

In scripophily, some collectors appreciate old stocks and bonds for their beauty, and others for their historical significance, as there are thousands of old companies that issued stocks and bonds over the last 300 years. The highest price paid for a U.S. stock or bond certificate was in 2013 at the Wall Street Coin, Currency, Scripophily and Collectibles show held at the Museum of American Finance during an Archives International Auctions sale. It was a U.S. Federal bond from 1792 that was issued to and signed by then President George Washington on the back, and sold to a collector for $265,000.


As is the case for most items, condition is one of the most important factors in determining an object’s value. With coins and paper money, an uncirculated note or coin may be worth a lot more than a typical circulated piece of the same series and denomination because of condition.

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. There may be abundant mint luster.

Bank notes are graded, or evaluated, on the following condition scale:

  • Uncirculated — Color is bright and there is no handling damage (e.g., folds, creases, cuts, stains, rounded corners, etc.)
  • About Uncirculated — The money is still bright, but there is minimal handling damage, such as a centerfold, but no creases or rounded corners.
  • Extremely Fine — There is one crease or a maximum of three light folds. The paper is still bright, and slight wear to the corners may be present.
  • Very Fine — Some dirt and smudging may be on the note, and there may be several horizontal and/or vertical folds. There aren’t any tears, but slight wear to edges and corners is possible.
  • Fine — Paper is becoming softer, and there is considerable folding. There may be minor tears that don’t touch the design. There is fading, but the note is still clear. There may also be staple holes.
  • Very Good — Quite a bit of wear with limp paper, and tears may extend into the design. Staining and discoloration are both possible. There may be a hole at the center caused by folding, but the note is still visually presentable.
  • Good — There is even more wear than very good, and graffiti is also possible. Pieces of the money may be missing.
  • Fair — Relative to Good; even larger pieces of the note may be missing.
  • Poor — Damage is severe and caused by wear, staining, missing pieces, graffiti, and holes. The note may be taped together.

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.


Because of elements such as personal preferences, value, rarity, etc., there are some kinds of paper money that are more highly sought after than others, such as large-size Silver Certificates and Legal Tender Notes. Since more collectors will seek these notes, their prices will rise.

Mint Marks

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 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. The “Mint State” refers to a coin’s condition.

Buying Coins & Money Online

Starting a Collection

There are a number of ways to begin a collection of coins or paper money 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. Ideas for collecting include the following specializations:

  • Date
  • Mint mark
  • Country
  • Type (e.g. $1 notes), or assembling coins or notes of different designs
  • Year set, or one coin from each year within a series
  • Theme (e.g., Presidents, historic buildings and monuments, etc.)

Learning to Grade

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

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