What Is Numismatics?

The study of the physical embodiment of various payment media (i.e. currencies). The study of numismatics as it applies to coins is often in the research of the production and use of the coins to determine their rarity. Numismatics has many subfields, including but not limited to:

  • Notaphily - the study of paper money (i.e. bank notes)
  • Exonumia - the study of coin-like items such as medals used in place of currency
  • Scripophily - the study of securities (i.e. stocks and bonds)

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Key Takeaways

  • Numismatics is the study of coins and other currency units and is usually associated with the appraisal and collection of rare coins.
  • Numismatists study the physical properties, production technology, and historical context of specimens of currency.
  • Rare and collectible coins may trade at well above their nominal face value or commodity melt value and are often withdrawn from circulation and viewed as investments rather than actual money. 
  • Numerous clubs, societies, and other organizations have been established to support the study of numismatics. 

Understanding Numismatics

Numismatics differs from historical and economic studies of money. Numismatists study the physical attributes of the payment media rather than the use and function in an economy. The term numismatics is often used interchangeably with the coin collection, though it connotes more intensive study than just simply collecting coins. It could be said that all numismatists are coin collectors, but not all coin collectors are numismatists. It is widely believed that numismatics began during the early European Renaissance, as part of an effort to re-discover all things classical.

The first English usage of the word “numismatics” was in 1829, stemming from the word adjective numismatic, which translates to "of coins”, and stemmed from the French word “numismatiques”, which itself derived from the Latin word “numismatis”.

Numismatists study the physical technology and historical context of coinage and money. Coins or other tokens that are rare or unique or that have some special history that can be documented are considered most interesting for study and valuable as collectibles. Specimens that show errors from their production process of striking the coins or printing the notes are especially notable.

Because of their properties and value as collectibles, rare units of currency can trade at well above their face value or the commodity value of their physical substance. For example, some 20th century U.S. silver quarters, with a face value of 25 cents and a silver melt value of a few dollars, can trade for tens of thousands of dollars apiece. 

Rather than spend these as money at their face value, collectors withdraw them from circulation to use as collectibles or investments. This is similar to the operation of what economists call “Gresham’s Law”, which states that under legal tender laws, bad (less valuable) money drives good (more valuable) money out of circulation in the market. In the case of rare and collectible coins or other monetary tokens, Gresham’s Law operates to an even greater extreme; the coins are not only withdrawn for circulation but actually cease to be money in an economic sense. 

Numismatic Organizations

There are numerous societies dedicated to the study, research, and advancement of numismatics sciences. For example, The American Numismatic Society, founded in New York City in 1858, was created to foster public appreciation of coins, medals, and currencies, and has since cultivated more than 800,000 objects dating from 650 BCE, and boasts a numismatic library, with some 100,000 books and artifacts. Other numismatic organizations include:

  • Ancient Coins Collectors Guild
  • Archaeological Institute of America
  • The Canadian Numismatic Association
  • The Czech Numismatic Society
  • International Numismatic Commission/Commission Internationale de Numismatique
  • The Israel Numismatic Society
  • Oriental Numismatic Society
  • The Professional Numismatists Guild
  • The Royal Numismatic Society
  • The Numismatic Association of Australia
  • The Royal Numismatic Society of New Zealand

Numismatic Fun Facts

  • Florence, Italy, was the first world city to mint its own gold coins, in the year 1252.
  • Although collecting old coins is a global hobby practiced by the masses, in ancient times, it was deemed a royal hobby, solely enjoyed by kings and queens.
  • The United States Secret Service, established in 1865, was originally created to fight counterfeit money, during a time when one-third of federally issued paper money was thought to be fake. It wasn't until 1902 that the Secret Service shifted its responsibility to protecting president, following the assassination of President William McKinley.