Numismatics

What Is Numismatics?

Numismatics is 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.

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  • Rare and collectible coins may trade at well above their nominal face value or commodity melt value and are often withdrawn from circulation and viewed as investments rather than actual money.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. 
  • The qualification for becoming a numismatist in the U.S. include successfully completing specialized courses and passing a 200-question exam.

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.

Currency Value

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 numismatic 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

History of Numismatics

Numismatics refers to the study and analysis of how people use money, as well as the collection of various types of money, coins, and other forms of consideration. The history of numismatics dates back centuries. However, coin collecting likely began at the time currency was invented.

Before the 19th century, coin collecting was an individual hobby—one most often enjoyed by nobles, the religious elite, and rulers. During the Roman Empire, emperors like Caesar Augustus collected coins from various places to use as leverage in trade negotiations and to gift to guests.

Guillaume Budé's De Asse et Partibus, written in the 16th century, was the first book on coins and the first to mention numismatics.

During the Renaissance era, there was a coin-collecting explosion, with Europeans fascinated with the materials and collections of prior civilizations. Of great interest were the coins with engraved images of animals, mythical gods and goddesses, and rulers. Italian scholar and poet, Francesco Petrarca, or Petrarch, is regarded as the first Renaissance collector of coins and as the catalyst to the numismatic boom of the 14th century.

Over time, numismatics increasingly became popular. In the 1800s, coin-collecting organizations, such as the New York-based American Numismatics Society, formed across the globe.

With the advent of the Internet, coin collecting has gained traction, attracting a broader audience of enthusiasts. Potential and skilled numismatics have access to endless information, tools, and numismatic communities.

Fields of Study

Because there are many types of currency, coins, and notes, the field of numismatics has been segmented into various subfields. Each subfield focuses on a specific type of numismatic collectible. Some of the most common are notaphily, exonumia, and scripophily.

Notaphily is the study and collection of paper money. Notaphily is a combination of the Latin word "nota", meaning "paper money", and the Greek word phily, meaning "love". Notaphilists collect paper money, including banknotes.

Exonumia is the study and collection of coins, including tokens, medals, and other like objects. Exonumia is a combination of the Greek word exo, meaning "out of", and "nummus", meaning "coin." These items are used in place of currency or used to commemorate events and accomplishments. Exonumia is largely focused on commemorative military medals, awarded for contributions in war and military expeditions.

Scripophily is the study of securities, such as stocks and bond certificates. Scripophily combines the Greek word for love and the English word, "scrip", for ownership. Scripophilists generally collect these instruments for their beauty, rarity, and historical significance. Because the issuance of stock certificates is largely an antiquated practice, this hobby is much harder to engage in than the others subfields.

How to Become a Numismatist

A numismatist, also known as a coin grader, is a professional who collects, analysis, and assesses the quality of collectible coins, currency, and other like objects. In the United States, prospective numismatists must join the American Numismatic Association (ANA), complete prescribed courses, and pass an exam.

The numismatist program consists of six courses, each focusing on different topics. Upon completion of the courses, the candidate must pass a 200 question exam. Once the requirements are fulfilled, the candidate receives a diploma confirming their proficiency in the field of numismatics.

Additional training may be needed to solidify the knowledge and training. The ANA and other professional organizations provide additional tools and resources.

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 the president, following the assassination of President William McKinley.
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What Is Numismatic Gold?

Numismatic gold refers to collectible gold coins that hold more value than the spot or current market price of gold. The increased value is largely due to rarity, age, and other factors.

What Does Numismatic Value Mean?

Numismatic value is the value a seller receives for the sale of a collectible coin. This value is determined by the coin's quality, rarity, and demand.

Who Has the Biggest Coin Collection?

The Smithsonian Collection is revered as the biggest coin collection in the United States and one of the largest in the world, with more than 1.6 objects in its collection.

Article Sources
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  1. The Spruce Crafts. "Numismatics."

  2. Guinness World Records. "Largest collection of coins from the same year."

  3. Mintage World. "What Is Notaphily?"

  4. First Class Coins. "What Is Exonumia?"

  5. Chron. "How to Become a Certified Coin Grader."

  6. Modern Coin Mart. "Famous Coin Collectors."

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