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Inspector Collector's Coin Course

Three:  Set Up Your Collection

Enough About History;  Let's Talk About YOU!

Here's the question we'll talk about in lesson three:  Hundreds and hundreds of coins from all the world and all of history...which ones should you collect?  Tough question!  But one of the best things about collecting is, it's all up to you.  You get to pick!

You can collect coins that other people value, or coins that you like...different coins or similar coins...whatever makes you glad!

Maybe you've already thought about what kind of coins you like most.  If you want to enjoy your hobby, you should collect coins that interest you!  But if you're not sure, keep reading.  This chapter is the place to get some ideas.

Kinds of Coins

There are many kinds of coins to collect.  Some you can find in your pocket change, while others are made just for collectors.  Here's a quick and easy guide.

Image of some circulating coins
  • Circulating coins:  Notice how much the word "circulating" is like the word "circle"?  That's because these coins go around—from pay to person to pocket to purse....  These are the coins that were made to spend, like those you find in your pocket.
  • Uncirculated coins:  Some circulating coins are made with extra care and put into special packages right off the coin press.  Without being touched by human hands, two coins from each mint branch (Philadelphia and Denver make circulating coins) are packaged in the sets.  These "mint sets" could be spent, but usually collectors buy them for their collections, where they can be kept in great condition.  Uncirculated coins sometimes look like proof coins, but that's only because they're so new—they're not made by the same process.
Image of some uncirculated coin sets
Image of some proof coins
  • Proof coins: Proof coins use a special process that gives them a shiny, mirror-like background and a "frosted" relief.  Proof sets are made every year for all of our circulating coins.  Like uncirculated coins, proof coins are not meant to be spent...and they sure look cool in a collection!  The San Francisco Mint specializes in making modern proof coins.
  • Commemorative coins:  Maybe you noticed the root of the word "memory" in the word "commemorative."  That's no accident.  Commemorative coins are made to remind us of important people, places, and events.  Usually, their designs are more creative than those of circulating coins, and fewer of them are made.  One example is the half dollar made in 1926 to commemorate the Oregon Trail and the pioneers who used it to move west across America.  But here's an exception:  the quarters in the 50 States Quarters® Program are commemorative coins that also circulate!
Obverse: 1926 Oregon Trail Commemorative Half Dollar
Image of some commemorative coins

These days, the Mint can make only two special commemorative coins per year by law.  Ideas for these coins are submitted to Congress, which votes on the subject to commemorate.  Sometimes a qualified organization or project will receive some of the money made from selling the coin. Many people might take part in the design process, but the Secretary of the Treasury is the one who picks the final design.

  • Bullion coins:  The value of bullion coins depends on the amount of silver, gold, or platinum they contain.  Many countries make their own, but ours are called American Eagle bullion coins.
Image of some bullion coins
Coins of the World
You can see plenty of foreign coins in our "Coins of the World" cartoon!
  • Foreign coins:  Many coin dealers carry coins made in other countries.  Foreign coins are often interesting, but like all coins, they're not always rare and valuable.  If you know any people who have traveled abroad, you might ask them whether they have any foreign coins to show you.
  • Ancient coins:  Talk about history!  Ancient coins are full of it.  Because the coins were struck by hand, each one is different.  And some of them are quite affordable because there are many of them around.  But you won't find them in your'll have to see a dealer or other collectors.
Image of ancient coins
Image courtesy of the
American Numismatic Association
Medal Mania
You can see some great medals in the "Medal Mania" workshop!
  • Medals and badges:  Like commemorative coins, medals often commemorate special people, places, or events, but medals aren't coins—they don't show a denomination and can't be spent.  They are usually given to the people who were part of the event and are made of precious metals, but sometimes versions made of lesser metals are sold.  And because medals aren't coins, they can have more creative and unusual designs and legends than coins have.  Military medals and badges are popular to collect.

Kinds of Collections

If you want to know what others have chosen, the most popular kinds of collections are types, dates, and themes.

Organize the Collection

Activity Time

Here's a matching game to see if you really know your stuff.  Just click on the case icon.

Finding Coins

Once you've picked a kind of coin to collect, the next step is to find coins you like that are in the best condition you can find.  Let's look at where to find coins, how to judge their condition, and how to organize them.

A good coin detective learns about the best places to look for his or her favorite kinds.  And the search is half the fun!  See if you can figure out which of these places would be most likely to have the kind of coins you're looking for.  Just move your mouse over the picture and descriptions will pop up.

Town with each of the sites listed glowing or animated Mailbox Desk through window Attic window Phone and computer in house Neighbor's house Expo Center Soda machine Young people in street Bank Dealer Antique store Auction house Beaches

Activity Time

See if you can guess where Plinky found her coins.  Click the case icon.

Finders Keepers

Checking the Change

Once you settle on a type of collection (more about that later), you need to be diligent in your search.  If you don't check your change every day, some valuable coins might slip right through your fingers—literally!

Here are some tips on how to do that.  Have a separate pocket or purse compartment where you put new change.  At the end of the day, go through all the coins, keeping the ones you don't have and the ones that are in better condition that the ones you do have.  Upgrading an old coin is almost as much fun as finding a new one!

Coin Costs

Most young collectors don't have a lot to spend at first.  Later on, you'll find that some coins can be quite expensive.  Would you believe that someone would pay a million dollars for a nickel?  A Liberty Head nickel from 1913 is that kind of coin.  But don't worry if you can't afford that much—most collectors can't.

Besides, there are so few of those rare coins that they're hardly ever for sale, even for a million dollars!  Many have a permanent home in museums like the Smithsonian in Washington, DC, and the American Numismatic Association Museum in Colorado.  If you live near a museum like that, go by and check out the collection! the Eye of the Beholder

If you find a coin that you think might be a treasure but you're not sure, you might want to have at least one professional look at it.  I say "at least one" because grading and valuing coins is not an exact science, so different experts may see the coin differently.  You can find dealers and collectors in the phone book under "Coins," "Coin Dealers," or "Hobbies."


Generally, coins tend to be worth more to collectors when they're old, rare, in excellent condition, and made of precious metals like gold.  But sometimes a coin's value is surprising.  For example, some ancient coins may sell for just a few dollars while some worn-out 1909 wheat pennies sell for a whole lot more!  So the law of supply and demand applies to collecting as much as a coin's age, rarity, and beauty do.  Click the dictionary to learn about the law of supply and demand.

Judging by Appearances...

They say "you can't judge a book by its cover," but with coins, the outside is all you usually get to see.  The "cover" tells pretty much the whole story.

Judge the design—whether it's pretty, or interesting—and the finish—it should have a bright luster (shine) unless it's very old.  It should be free of scratches, nicks, and dents, and its pictures and letters should be clear.

If you find a coin that hasn't been struck correctly, don't throw it out!  Most error coins and misstrikes are found before they ever leave the United States Mint—that makes them rare.  The few that do make it out are often cool additions to a collection.  Mistakes that have been found include impressions that are off-center, coins that were stamped twice, and coins that have the front and back stamped on the same side.

When Shine is Bad

When a coin is shiny, find out why!  If it's uncirculated, then shine is good.  But coins can also be made shiny by being buffed or whizzed, and that's not good.

A coin is buffed through polishing—people buff coins to make them look like uncirculated or proof coins, hoping they'll be worth more.  They whiz them by using a wire brush or burnishing wheel to create the shine.  That poor coin!  Both buffing and whizzing wear down the coin's surface, which a good detective can see.  Instead of making the coin more valuable, buffing and whizzing can actually make it less valuable.

So you want to be sure about a coin's condition before you collect or buy it—or even sell it.  Judging a coin's condition is an important part of judging its value, so dealers and collectors have come up with a system for judging a coin's condition.  That system is called "grading."

But you know a lot about grading—you probably have taken many tests in school that were graded!  You know how teachers do it; here's how collectors do it.


To pass the test, coins are inspected for wear and tear.  When U.S. coins are graded, a scale is used that was created by the American Numismatic Association (ANA).  Keeping this standard is one of the reasons that Congress picked (chartered) this nonprofit group in 1912.

This grading scale uses numbers from 0 to 70.  It also uses terms to describe how a coin looks:


Every valuable coin has been copied—sometimes for study but sometimes to cheat people.  As a good detective, you want to be able to spot a phony.  Sometimes that's not easy to do, but sometimes it's very easy.

Image of blanks

Some private companies make "unofficial" issues called "rounds" or "proofs."  These aren't spendable because they're not made by the United States Mint.  The "Hobby Protection Act" of 1973 says that all copies must be marked as copies.  If your coin has the words "replica" or "copy" or the letters "R" or "C," it's a copy and has no value for spending or, probably, collecting.  You and your parent or guardian can find out more at the consumer awareness pages of the United States Mint's Web site (

Another clue will call for your trusty magnifying glass.  If the surface is pitted, especially around the edges, it usually means that the coin was poured from molten metal into a mold, at the wrong temperature.  If it has a seam around the edge, that means the poured sides were fused together.  Real coins don't have a seam because they are cut out of a single piece of metal.  The cut-out piece is called a "blank" and, after its rim is raised, it's called a "planchet."

What's Wrong?

Activity Time

Do you think you know what coins look like?  Find out by clicking on the case icon.


Image of a pile of miscellaneous coins

You may be surprised how big your collection gets after just a little searching, inquiring, and buying.  Now, what do you do with it?

A big pile of metal doesn't look like much of a collection—and the coins rubbing against each other is not good for them anyway.  Neither is storing them in a big glass jar.

What we need here is some organizing!

Before you store your coins, you should organize them.  As we learned in Lesson Two, coins have many parts, different features or characteristics.  Most collectors pick one or two characteristics and organize their collections by them.

For instance, if you pick the date as your characteristic, you would organize them by date.  If they were all Jefferson nickels, you could be finished organizing—or you could pick the mint mark as a secondary characteristic and organize them by mint within each year.  If you have nickels and dimes, you might want to separate them.  Hey, now you have two collections!


You'll be surprised how quickly you forget your coins' history.  So, as soon as you get a new coin, write it down!  Keep a notebook for notes on each piece.  Describe the coin, where you got it and from whom, how much you paid for it, and the date it joined your collection.

If you sell or trade one, update your notes with the new information.  These notes are the coins' "documentation." You can also put these notes on cards or labels that stay with the coins they describe.

The Collection Inspection

Activity Time

Help the Inspector figure out what kind of collections he has.  Click to solve case 1.

Moving On

Now, once you collect a high-grade coin, you'll want it to keep getting a good grade, right?  That means treating it right.  How do you do that?  Find out in Lesson Four, where I'll gladly explain about handling, cleaning, showing, and storing your precious prizes.

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