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What is Numismatics?

C. Putnam
C. Putnam

Numismatics is the collection and study of money. While numismatics is most closely associated with coin collecting, it actually encompasses all forms of currency including paper, coins, tokens, and other items such as wampum and beads that have been used as money. Any commodity used by any culture at any time in history as a means of exchange can be found in numismatics collections. The collection and study of commemorative medals also is considered part of numismatics.

Most numismatists specialize in a subset of numismatics. Coin numismatics is the most common since coins are durable, often made of valuable materials, are widely available, and are frequently beautiful. Many coins are stamped with images of leaders, important buildings, gods, or the plants and animals of the issuing country. The study of coins typically can tell a great deal about what is valued by a culture.

Stack of coins.
Stack of coins.

Items in a collection can be grouped by time periods with categories such as Ancient Greek and Roman, Medieval, colonial American, or modern. Modern numismatic collections typically include machine-stamped coins as well as checks and ATM devices. Generally, the modern period is considered all currency created since the mid-seventeenth century. Other numismatic collections are geographically based.

Rare Greek silver coins.
Rare Greek silver coins.

Some travelers collect currency of all the countries that they visit. Other numismatists intensely collect one country or region. Specializing in odd denominations is another option. For example, the two-penny coin and the valuable double eagle – a 20-dollar gold piece – are prized items in museum collections. Although the 1933 double eagle has a face value of $20 US Dollars (USD), its collector value is more than $7 million USD.

Beads are sometimes used as currency.
Beads are sometimes used as currency.

The collecting of tokens and medals is called Exonumia, and constitutes the smallest subset of numismatics. Tokens are objects which have a value but are not standard currency. Some frequently collected tokens include wooden nickels and transit tokens. Wooden nickels were issued by banks or stores and could be redeemed for specified items. Some stores, especially those owned by trading companies in colonial America, issued wooden nickels that only could be spent in the company store.

Front and back of a US penny.
Front and back of a US penny.

Railroads and subway systems often sold packages of small metal tokens which could be used to pay for a journey. Medals were not used as currency but rather commemorated an individual, an event, or a place. While most forms of currency collected has fairly well known market values, the value of tokens and medals is much less fixed and often is based on what a buyer will pay.

Discussion Comments


@wavy58 - I am very interested in coins. My father collected them, and so did his father. A long time ago, they told me about the 1933 double eagle.

In the year 1933, the United States stopped using gold as money. They passed the Gold Reserve Act a year later, outlawing possession and use of U.S. gold coins, except as part of a collection. This act said that people had to exchange their gold coins for a different kind of money.

Most of the double eagle coins were melted down. Some were stolen, but these were later recovered.


I have a fantasy of one day finding one of those $7 million double eagle coins in my back yard. I know it’s not likely, but it’s good to dream.

If my grandparents were still alive, they might actually have had one or two of them. They all were born before 1920, so it is possible. I believe that my parents gave all their things away when they died, though.

Does anyone know why the double eagle coins are so valuable? I can’t imagine a coin that was only worth $20 now being worth several million without a very good reason.


I have seen numismatists at large flea markets selling collections of coins. Some coins are sold as single units, but most are placed in transparent boxes with round beds that are fit to the individual pieces.

Lots of the items in their collections are affordable. I saw a set of five old coins for $20. I have no idea whether that was a good deal or not, because I have no knowledge of numismatics.

Anyone looking to buy coins should get some sort of guide to numismatics before making a large purchase. People are always attempting to sell things for more than what they are worth, so knowledge is invaluable.

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    • Stack of coins.
      Stack of coins.
    • Rare Greek silver coins.
      By: Ancient Art
      Rare Greek silver coins.
    • Beads are sometimes used as currency.
      By: deviantART
      Beads are sometimes used as currency.
    • Front and back of a US penny.
      By: Sascha Burkard
      Front and back of a US penny.