Numismatic Coins: A Comprehensive Guide
By Erin Fischer
The world of rare and numismatic coins can sometimes be a tricky one to navigate if you don’t know what to look for. Before we get into that, however, let’s define numismatic coins. When we say “coins” we’re referring to collectibles with numismatic value over their face and melt value. These coins are numismatically interesting, rare, have nice eye appeal, or come with fascinating stories. They aren’t the coins in your change jar.
As such, these are coins that are valued for their rarity and their precious metal content, and they’re typically not minted anymore, so the supply is limited. The cut-off for numismatic coins is generally 1933, the year in which President Franklin Delano Roosevelt banned gold ownership and production of these coins ceased permanently.
Furthermore, these coins are collectible and typically have historic value. For a coin to be numismatic, its retail price must be double the value of its metal content. When purchasing these coins, we suggest holding onto them for at least five years for you to get the most out of your investment. As the name implies, there’s a great deal of variety among numismatic coins. There are several ways to invest in these coins, including by date, denomination, grade, mintmark, type set, and so forth.
When selecting the type of numismatic coin to purchase, investors have a host of options. While there are a plethora of rare world coins, for the purposes of this article, we will be focusing on rare U.S. coins. In fact, there are 36 major U.S. gold types alone! These include the following:
- Type I Gold Dollar, 1849-1854
- Type II Gold Dollar, 1854-1856
- Type III Gold Dollar, 1856-1889
- $2.5 Capped Bust Right “No Stars” Obverse Quarter Eagle, 1796 only
- $2.5 Capped Bust Right “With Stars” Quarter Eagle, 1796-1807
- $2.5 Capped Bust Left Quarter Eagle, 1808 only
- $2.5 Capped Head Left Large Size Quarter Eagle, 1821-1827
- $2.5 Capped Head Left Reduced Size Quarter Eagle, 1829-1834
- $2.5 Classic Head Quarter Eagle, 1834-1838
- $2.5 Liberty Quarter Eagle, 1840-1907
- $2.5 Indian Quarter Eagle, 1908-1929
- $3 Gold Piece, 1854-1889
- $4 Gold Piece (Stella), 1879-1880
- $5 Capped Bust Right Half Eagle, Small Eagle Reverse, 1795-1798
- $5 Capped Bust Right Half Eagle, Heraldic Eagle Reverse, 1795-1807
- $5 Capped Bust Left Half Eagle, 1807-1812
- $5 Capped Head Left Large Size Half Eagle, 1813-1829
- $5 Capped Head Left Small Size Half Eagle, 1829-1834
- $5 Classic Head Half Eagle, 1834-1839
- “No Motto” (Obverse Mintmark) $5 Liberty Half Eagle, 1839 only
- “No Motto” (Reverse Mintmark) $5 Liberty Half Eagle, 1839-1866
- “With Motto” $5 Liberty Half Eagle, 1866-1908
- $5 Indian Half Eagle, 1908-1929
- $10 Capped Bust Right Small Eagle, 1795-1797
- $10 Capped Bust Right Large Eagle, 1797-1804
- “No Motto” Covered Ear $10 Liberty Eagle, 1838-1839
- “No Motto” $10 Liberty Eagle, 1839-1866
- “With Motto” $10 Liberty Eagle, 1866-1907
- “No Motto” $10 Indian Eagle, 1907-1908
- “With Motto” $10 Indian Eagle, 1908-1933
- Type I $20 Liberty Double Eagle, 1850-1866
- Type II $20 Liberty Double Eagle, 1866-1876
- Type III $20 Liberty Double Eagle, 1877-1907
- High Relief $20 Saint-Gaudens Double Eagle, 1907
- “No Motto” $20 Saint-Gaudens Double Eagle, 1907-1908
- “With Motto” $20 Saint-Gaudens Double Eagle, 1908-1933
In addition to rare U.S. gold coins, there are also two commonly collected rare U.S. silver coins: the Morgan Dollar (1878-1904, 1921) and the Peace Dollar (1921-1928, 1934-1935). Altogether, these numismatic coins run the gamut when it comes to rarity and condition, which brings us to our next topic: grading.
Does Your Coin Make the Mark?
Numismatic coins are graded on a wide scale reflecting their eye appeal and condition. Coins are graded by both adjectives and a numeric 1 to 70 scale. Those graded on the lower end are in poor condition, and those on the upper end are the best quality. As is implied, the higher the grade, the higher the price tag. Below is an overview of each grade:
- Poor (PO1)
- Fair (FR2)
- About Good (AG3)
- Good (G4, G6)
- Very Good (VG8, VG10)
- Fine (F12, F15)
- Very Fine (VF20, VF25, VF30, VF35)
- Extremely Fine (XF40, XF45)
- About Uncirculated (AU50, AU53, AU55, AU58)
- Uncirculated, Mint State (MS60 through MS62)
- Select Uncirculated, Mint State (MS63)
- Choice Uncirculated, Mint State (MS64)
- Gem Uncirculated, Mint State (MS65, MS66)
- Superb Gem Uncirculated, Mint State (MS67 through MS69)
- Perfect Uncirculated, Mint State (MS70)
Where Did It Come From?
Another distinguishing factor among numismatic coins is mintmark, or the location where the coin was minted. There are seven U.S. branch mints that produced numismatic coins prior to FDR’s gold ban in 1933, some of which are still in operation today. Coins were commonly struck with a mintmark indicating the mint at which they were produced. These mints, their corresponding mintmarks, and years of operation are as follows:
- Philadelphia, P or none, 1793 to present
- Charlotte, C, 1838 to 1861
- Dahlonega, Georgia, D, 1838 to 1861
- New Orleans, O, 1838 to 1909
- Carson City, Nevada, CC, 1870 to 1893
- San Francisco, S or none, 1854 to present
- Denver, D, 1906 to present
A coin’s rarity is also influenced by the location at which it was minted. Coins from some branch mints are oftentimes rarer or more popular than others due to historical significance, number of coins produced at the specific mint, and the duration of the mint’s operation, among other factors. For example, San Francisco and Dahlonega gold coins are typically the most popular due to their connection to gold rushes. Moreover, Carson City gold is often rarer than gold produced at other mints, as this location produced mostly silver, thanks to an outpouring of silver from the Comstock Lode.
I’ll Take One of Everything, Please!
Lastly, no discussion of numismatics is complete without a mention of collecting by type. It is common practice among numismatists to invest in rare coins by type set. There are several ways to collect by type, but there are four common approaches that are typically more fruitful. These are as follows:
- The Basic 8-Coin Set: Easy to assemble and reasonably affordable, contains the four Liberty designs (Quarter Eagle, Half Eagle, Eagle, and Double Eagle), the three Indian designs (Quarter Eagle, Half Eagle, and Eagle), and the Saint-Gaudens Double Eagle.
- The 12-Coin Set: The basic 8-coin set plus the three designs of gold dollars.
- The 14-Coin Set: The 12-coin set plus the “No Motto” $5 Liberty Half Eagle and $10 Liberty Eagle.
- The 36-Coin Set: This is the ultimate set and contains all major types struck from 1795 to 1933.
The More You Know…
When it comes to investing in rare and numismatic coins, there’s a lot to consider before making a purchase. Like any investment, it’s generally better to go in with a plan and know the value of your investment. With so much variety in the numismatic marketplace, you need to be informed. If you’re interested in receiving exclusive Coin of the Week offers or early access to our monthly Spotlight offers, please subscribe to our Numismatic Navigator newsletter to be the first to hear about special numismatic offers. As always, please don’t hesitate to give us a call at 800-831-0007 or email us if you have any questions about investing in numismatic coins.