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First Steps In Coin Collecting

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There are many ways in which people become interested in coin collecting. Possibly you have been given an unusual coin in change, seen a friend's collection, or perhaps some interesting coin has caught your eye. Perhaps for some reason-possibly not entirely clear even to yourself-you have made your first purchase. Whatever the reason for your interest, certain facts must be borne in mind when you consider forming a collection.

First, perhaps the most difficult question of all-what to collect? It is impossible to over-emphasize the need for some basic plan; it is quite pointless to collect anything and everything that comes to hand. This only results in an accumulation of uninteresting pieces, most of which are in poor condition, and are, therefore, practically valueless. If possible, decide what to collect before you actually begin collecting, and build your collection in an intelligent, orderly manner. You will then not waste time and money on coins that later do not interest you, and it will prevent your ending up with a large quantity of coins that you will want to dispose of--coins which, in all probability, no one will want.

Many people begin collecting coins of their own country that they find in circulation or only those foreign coins available through friends or the foreign coin exchange section of banks. They can only decide on what to collect after obtaining a large quantity of specimens, finally finding that one denomination or one particular country interests them more than the others. If this is the case, at least try to collect only those specimens that are in extremely fine condition. Prepare a list of the coins that have been struck and check them off against this list as you acquire them.

A few words should be said at this point about the various ways in which you can collect coins. By far the most popular way is to specialize in one particular country or period of that country. Many collectors of American coins collect every issue of the modern series (about 1900 on). In this kind of collection, called `series collecting', the goal is to find one coin of each date, from each different mint for the denomination you are interested in. One specimen of each issue constitutes a full set for any given series. Another popular method of collecting is gathering a `type set' in which one coin serves to represent all the different issues of the same design or style, that is to say, of the same `type'. This is an inexpensive way to collect the older issues since a type collector normally chooses one of the commoner dates of a series to represent the type and purchases it for a fraction of the price of the rarities.

Much the same is true for coins of other countries. Many collectors of English series collect all coins from Charles II to the present day, known as milled coins. The reign of Charles II is an important period in English numismatics since it was after the restoration of the monarchy that coins finally ceased to be made by hand, the new milled or machine-made coins replacing them. Others prefer to limit themselves to collecting only one denomination. Restricting the collection to this is, perhaps, one of the most convenient ways for the beginner to build up his collection as it is only a limited series, does not grow too quickly, and can be as complete as one cares to make it, depending on the amount of money available. As with American coins, if the money to be spent is only small, the collection can be restricted to only one coin of each main type, or if the amount is greater, one of each date.

To endeavour to collect one coin of each denomination of each date is a formidable task for all but a handful of the newest nations. Often a type set of pennies or comparable small denomination coin will give a representative picture of a nation's coinage. A collection of English pennies from Anglo-Saxon times to the present day provides examples of the early hand-made series with its highly individual style as well as the later more stylized coins of the milled series.

Specialization, however, does not necessarily mean that you have to collect only the coins of your own country or, say, English shillings from Charles II to the present day; why not coins with animals on them? Many coins show animals on them and a collection of these would run into several hundreds and could cost you as much, or as little, as you liked. A collection in which the coins are related to one another solely on the basis of design is known as a `topical' collection. Weapons and coats of arms is another subject that lends itself to the coin collector; most types of arms can be found depicted on some coin or other, whether it be the chain mail that was used so extensively during the eleventh and twelfth centuries or the heavy `Maximilian' plate so called because Maximilian, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, designed it: he is shown wearing an example on his coins. There are many other subjects, of course, that can be used as the theme of a topical collection.

Most coins, of course, have a portrait on the obverse (this is the side which has the most important design, the opposite being called the reverse) and if you are artistically minded a collection of pieces illustrating the various periods of art would be a most fascinating series to collect. Few people who have something of an eye for beauty can fail to be moved by some of the Greek coins, especially those struck circa 400 a.c. which is generally considered to be the finest period of Greek art. The coin illustrated on PLATE I, 4 is an excellent example of the heights to which Greek art soared and the crown of George V illustrated on PLATE ix, 5, compares but unfavourably with it. The two coins are poles apart when compared artistically and between them there are many coins illustrating, for example, the glories of the Italian Renaissance or the overcrowded and very ornate coins of the baroque period of German art.

Purchasing coins

Let us assume now that you are interested in American coins and that you have decided to limit yourself to collecting centsone example of each type to begin with-from 1793 to the present day. How do you go about obtaining them? You could, of course find the Lincoln head types and possibly an Indian head in circulation but you could not obtain more than these from this source if you are only going to collect coins in extremely fine condition. It is certainly not worth collecting any but the very earliest types in anything less than this. Condition is all-important in numismatics and later on we will consider the intricacies of this, but meanwhile, where do you obtain your coins if not from circulation? The answer is, of course, from a firm of coin dealers or numismatists.

There is a very definite advantage in obtaining coins from these dealers as all their coins are guaranteed to be genuine and a reputable concern will unhesitatingly take back any piece should there be the slightest doubt cast upon its authenticity. Another advantage in working with a dealer is that you will not be overcharged. Too often the beginner buys a coin from a general antique dealer or jeweller who, being unaware of the true value of the coin he sells, thinks that because it is perhaps a hundred years old and in good condition, it must be worth a lot-and charges much more than it is really worth. Of course, it is possible to pick up a bargain but generally speaking it is better not to press your luck too far until you know what you are about. The names and addresses of the professional numismatists can be found in the classified telephone directory (yellow pages) under `Coin Dealers'. All dealers, here and abroad, welcome inquiries and will be only too pleased to deal with your orders either through the mail or in their shops. A word of warning, however, is in order.

Most dealers have many thousands of coins and cannot show you everything. Do not go into a shop and say `I would like to see some coins'. It is best to have some specific section in mind such as early date large cents or German talers before 1800, and then coin dealers will be only too pleased to show you what they have. Department store coin centres and coin shops usually have extensive displays of coins on view that are very interesting and instructive to the new collector. Coin dealers can be of assistance in many ways other than selling coins and are usually glad to offer helpful and knowledgeable suggestions regarding your collecting plans.

Coins can also be purchased at auction sales. In the United States, an auction sale is usually held in conjunction with conventions (of the American Numismatic Association, and others) and many club meetings. The larger of these have a printed catalogue available in advance from the auctioneer and bids can be entered by mail or from the floor. In England, most auctions are held by Messrs Glendinings in their rooms in Blenheim Street, London, but occasionally both Christie's and Sotheby's (London) also have coin sales. The items are usually on view before the sale and (in England) it is possible to leave your bid with the auctioneer who will execute your bids without charge or, if you prefer, one of the dealers will act on your behalf for a five per cent commission. If required the dealer will give you his opinion on authenticity and also suggest a valuation; no extra charge is made for this.

Many European coin dealers also hold auction sales and gladly accept mail bids. In some countries there is a sales tax that has to be paid in addition to the actual price realized; this varies between five and twelve and a half per cent. If you intend to bid personally at an auction sale, whether in this country or abroad, it is worth remembering that if you purchase the wrong lot by mistake, or bid higher than you intend, you are bound to accept it, and that in most cases you will be expected to collect your purchases and pay for them in full within at least two days of the conclusion of the sale.

State of preservation

As mentioned earlier, condition is an all-important factor in numismatics and since the price that you will be asked for a coin depends very largely upon its condition or state of preservation, it is necessary to appreciate fully the intricacies of this rather difficult subject. There is a very definite standard by which coins are judged and the terms used to describe condition are as follows:

Gem Uncirculated (or FDC-Fleur de coin): Perfect mint state.

Uncirculated (Unc.) : In new condition but may show very slight signs of handling though not of wear.

Extremely fine (EF): Nearly as good as uncirculated. No definite signs of wear but the very highest points of the design may show the slightest signs of rubbing.

Very fine (VF) : A definitely used coin but only the very slightest wear on high parts of the design.

Fine (F): Perceptible signs of wear, particularly on fine detail.

Very good (VG) : Shows an appreciable amount of wear. A coin in this condition should be free of serious gouges or mutilations but may be somewhat scratched up from use.

Good (G): Shows a considerable amount of wear. Major portions of the design distinguishable still.

Fair: A very worn piece. May be bent or corroded as well. Poor: An excessively worn and highly undesirable piece unless it is of the greatest rarity, in which case it may serve as a temporary space-filler.

The difference between FDC and Uncirculated is often confusing to the layman, but can be explained as follows: FDC, meaning perfect mint state, is a term which can only be applied to a coin that is in absolutely perfect condition, without any wear or scratches on it whatsoever. Owing to modern methods of minting, where coins move along conveyor belts, slide down chutes and are packed into bags, it is almost impossible to obtain a modern coin that has been subjected to this sort of treatment in anything like FDC condition. The term `uncirculated' more accurately describes the condition of new, modern coins. This may sound confusing but you will learn by experience the finer points in grading coins and the cliche, `practice makes perfect', has never been more true than in this case. A point worth remembering is that it is always better to under-describe a coin than to over-describe it.

The standards for rating coins are those in use by American collectors. English ratings of used coins tend to differ by a whole category, the standards for each grade being not quite so high. Thus a coin rated only `fine' by an American collector might be judged `very fine' by his English counterpart.

Rarity and prices

The second factor that has bearing on the value of a coin is its degree of rarity. Here again, there are two methods of classifying coins, the most usual being R = rare: RR = very rare: RRR = extremely rare: RRRR = highest rarity. The descriptions in continental catalogues sometimes do not abbreviate the terms but simply catalogue the item as `sehr selten' or `molto raro', when the English equivalent would read `very rare'. The custom of using up to four R's is a well-tried system and is universally understood, but it does not, however, cater for the finer points of rarity. In consequence some reference books use a single R with a small number following it, indicating the degree of rarity. For example, some catalogues use R' for the rarest coins, while others may use Rl0 so if this method is encountered, it is necessary to look up the number used to indicate the rarest coins and thereby gain some idea of how the other numbers stand in relation to it.

The value of a coin, as indicated above, depends not on its age but on the state of preservation and in some instances in the case of Greek coins, the style of execution. Apart from these factors, the law of supply and demand also applies. Naturally if there were, say, five hundred specimens of a particular type coin struck and only five hundred collectors wanted them the value of the coin would be small but when the number increases and five thousand collectors want the same coin the price could be multiplied by at least ten times. Generally speaking, the `very fine' price is double that of the `fine', and the `extremely fine' double that of the `very fine': if the coin is really FDC with a lovely `tone' on it, the price is at least double that of the `extremely fine'. Certain coins, however, normally occur in very poor condition and pieces in exceptional state of preservation command a much higher price than the examples given above.

Cleaning coins

The toning or tarnishing of coins is an occurrence that often bothers collectors who are new to numismatics. As a rule, a coin that has an attractive tone on it is generally reckoned to be worth more than the coin that has not, and to attempt to remove this tone would almost certainly reduce the value of the coin. The shade of the tone is dependent upon the chemical composition of the atmosphere to which it has been exposed. Coins stored in industrial areas are more liable to tarnish than others, due no doubt to the high concentration of chemicals in the air. In many cases the tone appears on silver coins only around the lettering or the design, leaving the field (that part of the coin that has no design) quite free. This seems to indicate that the part of the coin that has been subject to the greatest stress in striking is more liable to tarnish than that which has not.

Silver coins tone the most readily while gold and copper are very much more reluctant. Gold coins, if they do tone, usually do so in various shades of red while some ancient copper coins, particularly Roman sestertii, take on a lovely green patina. On no account try to remove this as the coin would certainly be ruined during the process. There are some liquid coin cleaners on the market under various trade names that are fairly satisfactory for removing tarnish from modern, uncirculated copper coins. They work by chemical action and it is only necessary to dip the coin in the liquid and wash it off as per the manufacturer's instructions. For used copper coins, a little olive oil on a soft cloth can be used to remove most of the scum picked up in circulation.

All silver coins, particularly FDC or uncirculated pieces, tarnish in time-regardless of the steps you may take to prevent it. Modern silver coins respond to cleaning quite well and there are various brands of liquid cleaner as for the copper coins. On used silver coins, a paste of baking soda and water will effectively remove tarnish. Beware of too much rubbing as you do not want your coins to look obviously cleaned. Actually, the short answer to anyone who says `How can I clean my coins?' is `Don't.' The purpose of any cleaning should be to restore a coin as nearly as possible to its original appearance. Before attempting to clean a prized coin, it is best to practise on some coin that you do not value too highly.

After the preceding suggestions for removing the unsightly tarnish from coins a simple suggestion as to how to darken the coin down again might not come amiss. The easiest way is to leave the offending coin on the mantelpiece over a coal, or better still, a log fire for a few days; this should tone the coin down again to a more or less presentable shade.

Although the above suggestions for cleaning coins are successful in some cases I would repeat the warning given earlier: unless you know what you are about, don't do it. There is an adage in the coin business that is unfortunately only too true: more good coins have been ruined by cleaning than have been improved by it.