The History of Coin Collecting

Coins begin to appear in the archaeological record about 650 BC. Scholars disagree on exactly where the first coins were minted, but the ancient civilizations in Anatolia (modern day Turkey), Greece, India and China are all likely candidates. Prior to the appearance of coins, precious metals were commonly used as the basis for trade, but needed to be carefully weighed at each transaction and the purity of the metal verified. The development of minted coinage in which the weight and metal composition were certified by a government represented a significant advance in the development of commerce.

From the first days of coin production, coins were hoarded as an accumulation of wealth. Beyond that obvious notion, there are many indications that the collecting of coins beyond simple hoarding dates back to the Roman era if not earlier. Caesar Augustus, the first emperor of Rome is frequently cited as one of the first coin collectors. Augustus ruled from 27 BC to 14 AD and is known to have accumulated coins and given them as gifts.

It was in the 14th century that modern day appreciation and collection of coins began and an active coin market developed. At that time coin collecting was an interest only of the privileged class and in fact it was called the “Hobby of Kings.” The most famous coin collector of the 14th century was Petrarch, an Italian poet and scholar. Other distinguished coin collectors were Emperor Maximilian, Pope Boniface VIII of the Roman Empire, Ferdinand I, Louis XIV and Henry IV of France, and from Branderburg, Elector Joachim II, who established the Berlin Coin Cabinet. In these early days, coin collecting was very much associated with art collecting. Coins were valued as much or more for attractive or interesting imagery, as they were for scarcity or historic significance.

It was in the 17th and 18th centuries that numismatics (the study of coins) appears as an academic discipline. Collectors became notably more systematic in their approach to building collections, and study of the intricacies of history and coin manufacture became more formalized. Scholars started to publish extensive numismatic studies and large public and private collections were amassed. It is also at about this time that coin collecting spread to the emerging middle class. More than a simple hobby, coin collecting was a mark of sophistication and wealth.

Coin collecting continued to develop over time. In the 19th century collectors broadened their horizons to include not only ancient coins but exotic coins and foreign currencies as well. Books on collecting were published, making the research accumulated in prior centuries available to the general public. Collecting societies emerged in Europe and North America. These societies cultivated not only the trade of coins, but the exchange of information, bringing collectors together and publishing journals.

Perhaps the most notable aspect of modern coin collecting is the depth of the marketplace. Throughout the 20th century collecting became more and more systematized. Coin conventions and shows began to appear, and a network of professional dealers emerged. Identification and price guides became available and a formal system of coin grading emerged allowing coins to be bought and sold much like commodities. With the high valuations achieved, and the permutations of precious metals markets, coins naturally came to be viewed as an investment vehicle and an entire class of dealer and collector grew with a focus on that investment potential.

Despite this vigorous market, modern coin collecting has been and continues to be a very accessible hobby. Generations of young collectors have grown up collecting pennies, storing them in jelly jars and inexpensive cardboard folders. Mints of the world produce a great variety of circulating coins with collectible themes and special sets for collectors at truly modest prices.

As with all aspects of modern life, the advent of the Internet has transformed coin collecting. Today’s collectors have access to resources that would have been unimaginable just a few decades ago. Dealer inventories from across the globe are now available to everyone, everywhere. More importantly, the online community has provided a robust platform for collector-to-collector sales and trades, and the exchange of information.