Questions and Answers 1

I sometimes get coin collecting questions from customers, friends, or I run across them on the Web. I wanted to take some time to discuss a couple of recent questions that I think will benefit others who are getting into coin collecting.

What are the 2 sides of a coin called?

Most people know the 2 sides of a coin as “front” and “back”, or “heads” and “tails”. But the proper numismatic terms for the 2 sides of a coin are obverse (heads/front) and reverse (tails/back).

Venezuela obverse (left) and
reverse (right)

Telling the obverse from the reverse isn’t always easy, though. In some countries, such as the United States, Great Britain (along with Canada, Australia, New Zealand, etc.), and Venezuela, there is a person on the obverse (which is why we often call it the “heads” side). Some countries put a national symbol or seal on the obverse, such as Russia, Ukraine, and India. In contrast, on the Euro it is the reverses which mostly look the same (except that the denomination changes), and some countries (like Italy and Austria) have a completely different picture for each obverse.

Singapore – which side is the “front”?

For some other countries, it isn’t easy to tell which side should be considered the obverse, and which the reverse. Older coins from Singapore, for example, had the denomination on one side and a picture (animal or plant) on the other. There was no common picture or symbol to offer a good clue as to which side should be considered the “front”. In those cases, I usually consider the side that has the country’s name on it to be the obverse.

I’ve not yet run across a situation where it mattered which side of the coin was the obverse, so I wouldn’t be too worried if you can’t decide which side is which. When displaying coins in a collection, I prefer to put the side I like better in the front – it doesn’t matter if it’s the obverse or the reverse.

How should I organize my coin collection so I can easily add to it?

One option is to keep your collection in coin boxes which are specially made to hold 2-inch-by-2-inch flips upright (like files in a filing cabinet). This makes it easy to add new coins anywhere you want.  But coin boxes aren’t as nice a way to display your coins as binder pages, and it isn’t as easy to flip through your collection looking for specific coins.

Keeping your collection in binder pages definitely makes it harder to add coins if you are trying to keep the coins organized. If a new coin needs to go in between 2 coins, you have to remove each coin and move it one square forward to make room for your new coin. Here are some tricks that I use to help reduce the amount of coin shuffling that I need to do when I have a new coin to add to my binder pages:

Leaving empty space at the
end of each country
  • Start each country on its own row. Binder pages (standard, 2×2 size) are made up of 5 rows with 4 coin pockets in each row, to hold a total of 20 coins per page. I start each country on a new row of the page. This lets me add coins to a country by only moving the coins in that country (at least until I have too many and they run into the country on the next row). You can also take this to the extreme and start each country on its own page – so even if you only have 3 coins from Bulgaria, you’ve got 17 more spots to fill in with more Bulgarian coins in the future.
  • Leave strategic empty spaces. One of the reasons that starting each country on its own row helps is because that usually leaves you a few spaces on the end to grow into. If you have 5 coins from Chile, they take up 4 spots on one row and 1 spot on the next – leaving you 3 more spots to add coins from Chile. Even if you want to add a new coin to the front, you only have to move the 5 coins you already have, not every coin on the whole page. If you have 4 or 8 coins, leave the entire next row empty to grow into.You can also leave empty space at the beginning of a country, so that coins can be shifted either forward or backward, and even in the middle of a country (especially if you know that there is a coin you don’t have, such as a 5-Euro-cent coin from Ireland, that could go in that spot). Yes, leaving empty spaces in your collection means that you’ll use more pages than are absolutely necessary, but you’ll save yourself a lot of time shifting coins later on.
  • Don’t be afraid to start a new page. If you have 3 Saudi Arabia coins on the last row of a page, and you get 2 new ones you need to add, it is sometimes easier to start a whole new page (and maybe move all the Saudi Arabia coins to it) instead of shifting everything on the next page to make room for one new coin. It requires less coin shifting, and leaves you with strategic empty spaces to grow into.
  • Use binder pages with thumb cutouts. All binder pocket pages should have openings in the top (or sometimes on the side) to slide your flips into. Some also have a small cutout (sometimes called a “thumb-cut”) on the opposite side of each pocket. This cutout is used for pushing a flip out of a pocket so that it is easier to grasp and remove, and it is a definite time- and finger-saver when you need to shift coins around in your pages. If your binder pages don’t have thumb-cuts, you can add your own with a sharp knife or scissors by cutting a small rectangle or triangle out of the bottom of each pocket (but please be careful – this should be done by adults only).
  • Wait until you have several coins to add. Because it takes time to shift coins around in binder pages, you might want to wait until you have several coins that need to be added before tackling the job. For example if you wait until you have 3 coins from Japan to add, you only have to do the shifting once.
Even with these tricks, it’s still a time-consuming process to add new coins to binder pages. I like the way the binder pages display coins, so I’m willing to put in the time to keep it organized.
Is it better to collect older or newer coins for a specific KM number?
 

KM numbers are a coin numbering standard created by the Standard Catalog of World Coins, where each different coin for each country gets a number. For example, the 3-pence coin from Great Britain from 1937 to 1948 has a KM number of 849. In 1949, the 3-pence coin was changed (the obverse, reverse, and even the edge changed), so in the catalog it has a new KM number (873). KM numbers allow coin collectors to refer to a specific coin with more precision than just country, year, and denomination might allow. When collecting, you may only want to collect one of each KM number – the 1940 and 1941 3-pence coins are identical, except for the year, so do you really need to have both of them in your collection?

(Note that when using KM numbers, you need to specify the country – KM# 849 for Germany is different than KM# 849 for Great Britain.)

Since KM numbers can span multiple years, the question becomes: of the coins with the same KM number for a country, is it better to have an older coin or a newer coin? For Great Britain KM# 849, which is the 3-pence coin from 1937 to 1948, would it be better to have one closer to 1937 or to 1948?
There is no consistent rule that says that it is always better to have an older or a newer coin in this situation. Let’s say that you have a 1937 and a 1948 3-pence coin, and you’re trying to decide which to keep and which to trade.  In addition to the coins’ age, you also want to consider:

  • Condition. Having a coin that is in better condition is usually more important than having one that’s a few years older. If there is a significant difference in the quality of the 2 coins, the better-looking coin is probably the one you should keep. If the age difference is large (20 or more years), then the older coin, even though it is in worse condition, is probably better.
  • Mintage. Mintage is the number of coins that were made in a particular year. This information can usually be found in the Standard Catalog of World Coins and some online coin collecting sites. A coin from a year with a lower mintage can be slightly more valuable than from a year with a higher mintage because it means there were fewer of those coins made. For our example coins, the mintage for the 1937 3-pence coin was 45 million and for the 1948 is only 5 million, so there are 1/9th as many 1948s as 1937s. In reviewing the mintage information in the Standard Catalog of World Coins, it’s been my experience that the first year of a new design – in our example, the 1937 3-pence coin – often has a very high mintage compared to the years after, so it is often less desirable to have the first coin of a new design. If you have a way of reviewing mintage numbers, then for a particular KM it’s usually better to collect the year that has the smallest mintage – but keep in mind that low mintage doesn’t always mean higher value.
  • Value. If you have access to a coin catalog like the Standard Catalog of World Coins, then you should also consider the coin’s estimated value when determining which coin you should keep. According to my 2004 catalog, the most valuable year for Great Britain KM# 849 is1946. Of the 1937 and 1948 we’re trying to decide between, the 1948 coin has the higher estimated value. Even though the values given by the catalog are from 2004, it still lets you compare the relative value between coins – if one coin is estimated to be more valuable than another, it will probably stay that way.

If you don’t have easy access to the mintage or value estimates for your coins, then my suggestion is to aim to collect better-looking coins instead of older coins for the same KM number.

Using Paper Coin Flips

What are Paper Coin Flips?

Inside (left) and outside (right)

Paper flips (also known as cardboard flips) are flat, rectangular pieces of thin cardboard lined with a clear plastic film on one side. The flip folds in half, forming a square, with the plastic on the inside. Each half of the flip has a hole, or window, in the cardboard (but not in the plastic), and they line up so that when folded in half, you can see all the way through the flip. If you put a coin in the folded flip, it can be seen from both sides but will be covered, and protected, by the plastic film.

Flips perform several important jobs for your coins:

  • They protect coins from exposure to dust, moisture, and fingerprints
  • They protect coins from scratches
  • They allow coins to be labeled
  • They allow coins to be stored in a pocket page in a binder without falling out

I like paper flips because they are inexpensive (usually less than 10 cents each), and because I can write directly on the flip. However, they do have a couple of drawbacks compared to other storage methods (such as plastic flips):

  • They can’t be re-used
  • You can’t reposition or rotate the coin once the flip is sealed

Properly Using Paper Flips

Paper flips are very easy to use, but using them correctly requires a little practice. I’m going to guide you through the process so that you’ll be better prepared when you start putting your own coins in flips.

Picking a Flip Size

Flips are usually available in 3 different sizes – 1.5×1.5, 2×2, or 2.5×2.5. These represent the width and height, in inches, of the flip when it is folded (remember, they start as a rectangle, but you fold them in half to store a coin). A 1.5×1.5 flip will fold into a square that is 1.5 inches wide and 1.5 inches tall.

The size of the flip should match how you are going to store your flips once you have put coins in them. If you are going to put them in a binder with pocket pages, then get flips that are the same size as the page pockets (the binder page should say – the pockets will either be 1.5×1.5, 2×2, or 2.5×2.5). A 1.5×1.5 flip will of course fit in a 2×2 page pocket, but it will not be held as securely as a 2×2 flip would be – it is best to get the same size flip as your binder page pockets.

In my experience, 2×2 flips and pocket pages are the most common. So if you’re not sure what you should get, start with 2×2 flips and pages.

Picking a Window Size

On the left, the window is too small for the coin.
On the right, the window is too big.

In addition to picking the size of the flip itself, you need to pick the size of the window, or hole, that is in the center of each half of the flip. You want the window to be slightly bigger (1/8 to 1/4 inch) than the coin you want to store. If the window is too small, then the edge of the coin will be hidden under the cardboard. If the window is too big, then the coin will move around once the flip has been sealed.

In the US, flips are usually sold according to the size of US coin that the window can correctly hold. From smallest to biggest, these are: dime, penny, nickel, quarter, small dollar (Presidential and Native American dollars), half-dollar, and large dollar (old “silver” dollars).

Small window (left) vs. large window (right)

World coins come in a lot of different sizes, so you should have flips with a couple of different window sizes on hand to pick from when you’re putting new coins in your collection. That way you can pick the flip that has the appropriate size window for each coin. But you don’t have to have every size of flip listed above (for example, any coin that would fit in a dime-sized flip would fit just as well in a penny-sized flip). I find that most of the world coins I collect will fit correctly in either a quarter-sized flip or a half-dollar-sized flip. The rest are either very small and should use a penny-sized flip, or are larger and need a large dollar-sized flip.

For very thick coins (such as the pound from Great Britain), the window should be a bit bigger than you’d normally pick. This is because the thickness of the coin could cause the plastic to stretch and break if you choose a window size that is just big enough for the coin.

Sealing a Coin in a Flip

Once you’ve picked a flip with the correct window size, you’re ready to seal a coin inside it. Flips have 2 sides – the outside is usually white, and the inside is usually brown/grey (the color of cardboard) and has the plastic film on it.

Placing a coin

Place the “outside” face down on a flat surface, so that one hole is above the other (not to its side).

Pick which side of the coin you want to be on the “front” of the flip. The “front” is the side of the flip you are going to label, so it will be the side that is seen more often (you’ll still be able to see both sides). You may want to pick the “heads” side of the coin, or the side with the most interesting picture. Place the coin in the center of the bottom window of the flip so that the side you’ve picked to be in the front is facing you and is right-side up.

Folded flip, folded edge
is on top

Fold the top half of the flip down so that it covers the coin.  The 2 window holes should line up exactly, and the coin should now be covered both front and back by the thin plastic.

Pick the flip up while holding it closed, and place your fingers on the window so that the coin can’t move. The coin is protected by the plastic, so your finger oil is not touching the coin.

Sealed flip (3 staples)

Use tape or a stapler to close the bottom, left, and right sides of the flip. The 4th side (the top) is already sealed because that is where the flip folded in half. If you’re using staples, staple with the “front” side of the coin facing up, so that the main bar of the staple will be visible on the side of the coin you prefer.

The coin is now sealed and protected inside its flip.

Tape or Staples?

Should you seal your flips with tape or with staples? I prefer staples because they allow the flip to be sealed closer to the coin. If you use tape, the crimped point of the flip – the spot where the flip is being held together – is way out at the edge of the flip. That means that the flip is not as tight on the coin as it would be if you used properly-placed staples (discussed below), and so a coin in a properly-sized flip could still move around.

Tape does have one advantage over staples – if you need to open a flip, you can cut the tape and then seal it shut again with a new piece.

Three or Four Staples?

Flip sealed with 4 staples

When you fold a flip in half, it is unsecured on 3 sides – the fourth side has the fold, and is already sealed shut. You need to staple, at a minimum, the three unsecured sides so that they won’t come open and will better seal out air, dust, and even moisture. The fourth side, with the fold, doesn’t require a staple to stay closed, but without one that fourth side will be less tight than the other three and your coin may tend to slide toward that side. Even so, I prefer to use 3 staples so that the folded edge has maximum room to write.

Staple Placement

Don’t staple too near the edge of the flip – it won’t hold the coin as tightly, and if you get too close to the edge the staple might come loose. Also, don’t staple too near the window – it could grip the coin too tightly and tear the protective plastic, or you might put a hole in the window plastic and allow air and dust to get inside. Usually you can aim for halfway between the flip’s edge and the window. If the coin is thick, or just barely fits in the window, staple closer to the edge. If the coin is significantly smaller than the window, staple closer to the window so that the plastic is tighter against the coin.

Labeling Flips

Once your coin is sealed, it’s time to label it. Putting what you know about the coin on the flip saves you from needing to look it up again later, and paper flips are great for writing on.

The most common information to put on a flip is:

  • Country (what country is the coin from?)
  • Year (what year was it made – what year is written on it?)
  • Denomination (what kind of money is the coin for – cents, pesos, francs, euros, yen, etc.)
  • Amount (how many of the denomination is it – 5 cents, 10 francs, 100 yen, etc.)

You may not know all of this right now about the coin, and that’s fine – write down what you know and leave room to fill in the other information later.

Other information you could write on the flip, if you know it or can look it up:

  • Mint mark (if the coin exists with different mint marks, write down which mint mark is on this coin)
  • Grade (the quality of the coin – poor, good, very good, uncirculated, etc.)
  • Composition (what the coin is made of)
  • The date you acquired the coin
  • KM number (each different coin is given a different number in the Standard Catalog of World Coins, and this is the KM number; it is frequently used by collectors to quickly identify a particular coin)

Labeled flip

Using a pen or pencil (pen will last longer and fade less), write the coin’s information on the “front” side (the side of the coin that you decided was the best looking) of the flip. If you’ve used 3 staples instead of 4, the unstapled side should have ample room for keeping track of your most important information (country, year, denomination, and amount). If the coin has a mint mark, include that with the year, like “1995 B”. Information like the grade, composition, and KM number can be at the bottom or on the back of the flip – this is information that you’ll probably use less often, so it is OK if it is not prominently displayed.

When you label your flips, be consistent – always write everything in the same place on each flip. This will make it easier to look through your coins later.

Store Your Flips

Now your flip is ready to be stored in either a binder page or a coin storage box.

Once your coins are secured into flips and labeled, you’ll find your collection is much easier to organize, and you won’t have to worry as much about further damaging your coins.

Cleaning Coins

Everyone would love to have a collection of perfect, shiny coins in their binder. Because we’re working with circulated coins, however, we’re going to end up with scratched, dirty, or otherwise imperfect specimens. You may find coins that have actual dirt/grime on them, have been written on, or have tarnish or blemishes from being handled by the dozens of people whose pockets the coin went through before coming into your possession.

Don’t Clean Valuable Coins

Though your first reaction might be to clean and scrub every coin in your collection until it looks brand new, you should generally avoid cleaning coins unless:

  • You know for certain that the coins are not valuable, or
  • You don’t care if the coins are valuable

Like all collectibles, cleaning anything that may potentially be valuable is best left to professionals. Cleaning to preserve value and avoid further damage takes great care and an understanding of the type of metal in the coin and the type of stain/blemish/coating that is affecting it. If you have coins that you would like to get professionally cleaned, talk to a local coin shop and see if they offer cleaning services or can recommend a local, respectable cleaning service (they may have one they use for the coins in their shop).

Cleaning Up Your Non-Valuable Coins

You could write a book on all the different ways to clean different types of coin problems. I’m going to cover a couple of different cleaning methods I’ve used, but they are by no means the only ways to deal with dirty coins. Do not use any of these cleaning methods on valuable coins, or coins made of silver or gold!

For a mild cleansing to remove loose dirt and surface oil, you can start with simple soap and water. Fill a bowl with water, add a squirt of liquid hand soap and mix it together. Take one or two handfuls of coins and swish them around in the bowl for about a minute. Take them out, rinse them with plain water, and immediately dry them with a towel – if any water drops are left to dry on the coins themselves, they could create new stains. Repeat with the rest of your coins.

If there is stuck-on dirt or grime, you can try to scrape it off with a pencil eraser or toothpick. You don’t want to use anything that’s harder than the metal you’re cleaning, or you could cause new scratches. Toothpicks are especially handy for clearing dirt out of corners, letters, or other small designs in a coin.

Before (left) and after (right)

To give a coin more of a scrub/polish, you can try rubbing the coin with toothpaste. You can either use a soft-bristled brush (not the brush you use yourself) or apply toothpaste to a washcloth, and gently rub/scrub the coin on both sides. Most toothpastes include a mild abrasive, which on the coin will scrub away the outer-most layer of metal and reduce the appearance of stains or tarnish. Rinse the coin well with water when you’re done, and then immediately dry it.

Before (left) and after (right)

Some tarnish, oil, and dirt can be removed by soaking the coin in an acidic liquid like vinegar. Put some vinegar in a glass container and drop the coin in. Let it lay for 5 minutes on one side, then flip it over so that the other side gets exposure to the liquid and soak for 5 more minutes. Remove it, rinse well with water, and then dry.

There are many different cleaning solutions that you can buy online or from a coin shop that are designed for cleaning coins. Ask your coin shop for a product that they recommend, or do some searches online to see what other coin collectors like or don’t like.

After Cleaning

Once you’ve cleaned your coins, you need to handle them as little as possible to keep them clean. Hold cleaned coins only by the edges so that your fingers don’t touch the front or back. You can use soft cotton gloves to handle coins once they’ve been cleaned (and it’s not a bad idea to use them anytime you handle coins) to avoid transferring finger oil onto the coins. Seal your coins in paper or plastic flips so that they won’t be exposed to more fingerprints or dust, and then store them in your chosen container (see my earlier post about starting a coin collection for more information about flips, albums, and boxes).

To Clean or Not To Clean?

Unless you are preparing coins for a gift or display, I feel that you’re usually better off not cleaning your coins. The benefit you get from cleaning is very small, and you run the risk of reducing whatever value the coin might have. There is no doubt that a good cleaning can make a coin look significantly better, but authenticity often trumps appearance for collectibles – leaving your coins unaltered is usually the safest choice.

What to Do with Duplicate Coins

When you first start acquiring coins, you should find that most can go straight into your collection. As your collection grows, though, you’re going to get coins that you already have. Maybe someone brought you back a handful of coins from their trip, and there are several of the same coin. Or you bought a bag of mixed coins at a coin shop and ended up with some that are already in your collection. Since you probably don’t want to keep all these extra coins in your collection, what should you do with these duplicates?

Is it a Duplicate?

Would you consider these duplicates?

First you should make sure that it truly is a duplicate, and that’s going to depend on what you’re collecting. If you are collecting one coin from every country, then another coin from the same country, no matter how it’s different, would be a duplicate. If you’re collecting the many different denominations and styles from each country, then a duplicate coin would be from the same country, have the same denomination (amount, like “25 cents”), and would probably have the same or a similar year.

Some coins, such as those from Switzerland or the United States, change very infrequently. A coin from 30 years ago might be exactly the same as a coin today. Other coins may change as frequently as every year (or even many times a year, like the State Quarters from the United States) due to government or ruler changes, monetary changes, or to celebrate or commemorate a person or event. So the coins from 1995 and 1996 may be significantly different – and you may want them both in your collection.

If you’re keeping track of your collection in a list or spreadsheet, then checking a new coin’s country, denomination, and year against your list is a good first step. If you have the same coin from the same year, then it is almost certainly a duplicate (the exception being sets like the State Quarters, where there are several different styles in a single year).  But if the new coin is a few years away from the coin in your collection, you may want to compare it to the actual coin in your collection to see if they are truly the same. This is where a Web site like Numista can be helpful, because you can quickly look up the coin in your collection and compare it to the new coin.

Which Coin to Keep?

If you’ve determined that the new coin really is a duplicate of one in your collection, you next need to decide which one to keep. Compare the new coin to the one in your collection and see which one is in better condition (shinier, cleaner, fewer scratches, more detail visible). If they appear to be in similar condition, you may want to keep the older coin. If you like the new coin better than the one in your collection, don’t be afraid to replace it.

Dealing with Duplicates

Once you’ve decided which coin to keep, you’re still left with one that you don’t need. Here are some ideas for what you can do with your duplicates.

Save them for trading. If you don’t have anyone to trade with now, you will probably find someone sooner or later. So keep your duplicates in a bag or box so that when the time comes, you have some coins to trade. Without your duplicates, you’d have to trade coins in your collection – and they’re in your collection because you want to keep them, not trade them for other coins.

Give them away. You can use your duplicate coins to get someone else – a friend, a relative, a co-worker – interested in collecting world coins.  Give them a set of 5 to 10 different coins from your duplicates and see if they start their own collection. Then you’ll have someone you can trade your duplicates with (once they start getting their own coins).

Trade online. Web sites like Numista and World Coin Gallery help collectors trade their duplicate coins with other collectors by letting members see what they have to trade. You’ll have to pay postage to mail your coins to someone else, but if you don’t have any collectors nearby that you can trade with this can be a good way to both get rid of your duplicates and acquire some new coins in the process.

What to Collect

Sometimes starting a new collection can be intimidating simply because of the number of different items that are available. Most collectibles can be collected by some kind of theme within the collectible space – baseball cards can be collected by team or year, rocks can be collected by color or type, toy cars can be collected by manufacturer or type of vehicle – and world coins are no exception. Because of the large variety of coins that exist, it’s easy to pick one (or more) themes to collect instead of trying to collect anything and everything. A themed collection can also be more interesting to display, because the coins are connected to each other. Children especially may enjoy building a themed collection because it’s easier to know what to look for.

Picture Themes

A collection based around the pictures on the coins requires no reading and allows the collector to make decisions about whether to include or exclude a certain coin.  Some good picture themes are animals, plants, people, buildings, or transportation (boats, cars, airplanes, etc.). You can narrow down the theme even further (only birds, only flowers, only boats) but I think you’ll find this will seriously limit the size of your collection. Still, for a child’s collection, or a collection for a very specific purpose (to frame and hang in a boat, for example), a very small, very specific theme can be a great way to start.

Date Themes

For a collection with personal significance, you could collect only coins from a certain year (your birth, child’s birth, wedding, etc.). The coins in a collection like this would be quite varied, and the number of coins available to collect would be larger than with a picture theme.

Coin Property Themes

Beyond collecting based what’s on the coins themselves, you can form a collection based on the physical properties of the coins.

For a visually striking collection, you can collect coins that aren’t round. I believe that non-round coins are less common now than they have been over the past 50 years, but you can find square coins, octagonal (and other multi-sided) coins, and scalloped coins (with a wavy edge).

Several countries over the last 50 years have produced coins with holes, including Spain and Denmark. Japan’s 5-yen coin has had with a hole in the center for many years (it’s the only coin I can think of that is still in circulation). Between 1900 and 1950, more countries had coins with holes (including Belgium and France).

You can also create a collection around the color of the coins. A large percentage of all coins are silver in color (though very few are made of actual silver), so it can be fun to collect only the other colors – copper or bronze (brownish) or gold-colored (you’re very unlikely to find any coins made of actual gold). Older coins that look black are probably made of zinc, which looks silvery when it’s fresh but can tarnish to black.

Location Themes

Because coins come from specific areas of the world, you can build a collection based on where the coins are from. They could be based on specific countries (coins from countries you’ve visited; coins from where your family comes from) or specific continents (Europe, Asia, Africa, South America) if you have a particular affinity for some part of the world.

For children, it can be fun to try to collect one coin from every country. You can have a map of the world that can either be colored in or marked with pins as each country is collected, which can also help get children introduced to world geography.

Beyond Themes

Even if you start with a theme, you eventually may expand your collection and start trying to collect every different world coin. The question then becomes – what constitutes a “different” coin? As a collector, you will have to make decisions about what kinds of changes you care about collecting and which you will pass up. While major changes (coin size, color, or picture) more obviously deserve to be in your collection, there are some less-obvious changes that you may or may not want to include.

Mint marks – Some countries (including the US) put a different letter or symbol on coins to indicate where they were made. Except for the mint mark, the coins are usually identical.

Language differences – Pre-Euro Belgium coins came in 2 varieties each year – one with Belgium written in Flemish (Belgie) and one with Belgium written in French (Belgique). The rest of the coins are identical.

Font changes – From one year to another, the font (letter or number style) used to write on the coin may change, even if the rest of the coin (picture, denomination, etc.) is the same. This can be hard to spot unless you compare 2 coins side-by-side, or use a reference guide that mentions these changes.

Minor design changes – Sometimes a coin’s picture may undergo a slight change – made a little bigger, a little smaller, or simply re-done so that it is slightly different than it was before. These can be very hard to spot.

Alignment changes – I noticed recently that Switzerland’s coin alignment (see my earlier post about terminology) changed from coin to medal in the 1980s. Except for the alignment, the coin design (pictures and etc.) look the same.

For these kinds of small changes, it is up to you to decide if it is worth having each variety in your collection or not (they very rarely affect the value of a coin).

Coin Collecting Terminology

Coin collecting has its own lexicon that you’ll find it helpful to become familiar with. These words help collectors accurately discuss coins. If you spend much time around other collectors, looking at coins, reading about coins, or even shopping for coins, you’ve probably run into a few of these. If you haven’t, then learning about them ahead of time will prepare you for when they do come up. This is just a starting list; in future posts, I’ll explain more coin vocabulary.

The collecting or study of money is called numismatics (pronounced “noo-miz-ma-ticks”). Coin collecting does not have its own word, so numismatics can mean someone who studies money, someone who collects currency (paper money), someone who collects tokens, someone who collects coins, etc. The most common meaning, however, is the collecting of money or money-like items (tokens, medals). In a library catalog, searching for “numismatics” is going to take you directly to money and coin related items. It’s good to be familiar with this term so that if you see things like the “American Numismatic Association” or a magazine called “Numismatic News”, you’ll have a better idea what they are.

Someone who collects or studies money is called a numismatist (pronounced “noo-miz-ma-tist”). If you’ve started your own world collection, you are now a numismatist. That sure sounds fancier than calling yourself a “coin collector”.

The parts of a coin are important to know for both describing coins and understanding what other people are saying about them. A coin has 2 sides, or faces. Most people just call these “front” and “back”, or “heads” and “tails”, but the correct terms are obverse (front/heads) and reverse (back/tails). For most coins the obverse is the “heads” side – the side with a picture of a person, or animal, or coat-of-arms – and the reverse is the “tails” side. For coins that don’t have an obvious obverse or reverse, I’m unsure how you pick which is the “front” and which is the “back”. A coin also has an edge, which is the (usually) flat part that runs around the circumference of the coin. Sometimes the edge of a coin can be as distinctive as its obverse or reverse – keep an eye out for coins that have words, symbols, or a design on their edge (like the United States’ Presidential $1 coins).

A coin’s alignment means how the obverse and reverse are lined up with each other. Each side of a coin has its own “up” direction, where the picture or writing is right-side up. Sometimes this “up” direction is the same on both sides, and sometimes it is opposite. Hold a coin so that one side is right-side up and flip it left-to-right (horizontally) to view the back. If the back is still right-side up, then the coin has medal alignment.  If the back is now upside-down, then the coin has coin alignment (if you flip the coin top-to-bottom, or vertically, then the back appears right-side-up). On modern coins, any alignment besides these 2 is usually an error. If you have trouble remembering the difference between coin and medal alignment, think about a large medal hanging from a ribbon around someone’s neck.  To view the back, you would turn it side-to-side – and the back would still be still right-side up so you could read it. That’s medal alignment.

High-grade (left) vs low-grade (right)

A coin’s condition or grade is an indication of how good (or bad) it is.  A coin with a high grade would be clean and shiny, with few scratches and very little wearing.  A coin with a low grade might be dirty or stained, have a lot of scratches or nicks/cuts, and/or be worn down (so that the original intricate details of the coin are gone). In the United States, we usually use a grading scale that goes from Poor (P) to Brilliant Uncirculated (BU):

  • Poor (P)
  • Fair (F)
  • Almost Good (AG)
  • Good (G)
  • Very Good (VG)
  • Fine (F)
  • Very Fine (VF)
  • Extra Fine (EF or XF)
  • Almost Uncirculated (AU)
  • Uncirculated (U or Unc.)
  • Brilliant Uncirculated (BU)

Picking the correct grade for a coin is subjective unless the grading is done by a professional. Wikipedia has a basic overview of the coin grading scale that may help you grade your own coins.

A possible cull quality coin

You may occasionally see the word cull in association with coins. A cull coin is usually a coin that is so damaged as to be non-collectible. It may have nearly all the design worn off, it may have a large cut or gash, it may be missing part of the coin, or it may have one or more holes drilled into it (such as to hang it from a necklace). If you are shopping online, you generally don’t want cull coins.

A coin’s composition is the metal (or metals) it is made of. Coins can be made out of many different metals – aluminum, bronze, stainless steel, zinc, copper, etc. – and are sometimes a mixture of 2 or more metals (such as United States pennies, which have a zinc core with a copper coating). Composition may be given in percentages (“92.5% silver, 7.5% copper” or “.9250 silver”) or just the metal (“zinc-copper”). Sometimes the composition of a coin will change (due to changes in metal prices) from one year to the next, without the coin’s design changing.

Starting a World Coin Collection

An important factor in the enjoyment of many activities is having the tools to do it properly, and collecting coins is no exception.  The right tools allow you to get started sooner, reduce frustration, and have more success with whatever it is you’re trying to do.  I’m going to share what I’ve found to be the essential tools for a world coin collection, so that you or someone you know can start enjoying this hobby more quickly and easily.

Coin “Flips”

Flips store and protect individual coins, and allow them to be labeled.  The most common size is a 2-inch by 2-inch square, made of either plastic-lined cardboard (called “cardboard flips” or “paper flips”), or clear plastic (generally called just “flips” and made of vinyl or a non-vinyl plastic).  Cardboard flips have a circular window which allows the coin to be viewed from both sides while still sealing it in.  Clear plastic flips are a clear pocket which holds the coin (also allowing viewing from both sides).

I prefer cardboard flips.  They are less expensive, you can write directly onto the flip, and they keep the coin from sliding around in its holder.  Clear plastic flips are more expensive, but they can be re-used (they do not have to be sealed with tape or staples).  Instead of writing directly on the flip, you label the coin with a slip of paper that is inserted into the flip.  Plastic flips can be used with any size coin (as long as it’s less than 2 inches in diameter), but with cardboard flips you should try to match the window size to the coin (though I’ve found that 2 sizes – quarter and half-dollar – are sufficient for 90% of world coins).

Stapler or Tape

If you are using cardboard flips, you need a stapler or clear tape to seal the flips shut.  There are self-adhesive flips you can buy, but they are considerably more expensive.

Binder with Pocket Pages

Once coins are individually stored in flips, they can be stored in pocket pages inside a 3-ring binder.  This type of storage allows the coins to be easily seen or displayed, but has the disadvantage of being more expensive than box-type storage (discussed below).

Any standard 3-ring binder will do (check office-supply stores or even thrift stores like Goodwill).  A 3-inch binder (where the rings have a diameter of 3 inches) can hold between 15 and 20 filled pocket pages.  I’ve found that binders with D-style rings are easier to use than standard circular rings.  The D-style rings allow all the pages to lay flat when the binder is open, and it is easier to add or remove pages when the binder is nearly full.  When the binder is closed, none of the pages are on the ring seams so the pages are not likely to fall out.

Pocket page with coins in paper flips

Pocket pages go inside the binder and hold 20 coins (in flips) per page.  Be sure to look for 20-pocket pages if you are using 2-inch-square flips.  Pocket pages can hold coins that aren’t in flips, but the coins will fall out very easily if the binder is put on its side or turned upside down.  I prefer pocket pages that have a cutout at the bottom of each pocket (sometimes called a “thumb-cut”).  The cutout makes it easier to remove coins when you need to rearrange them – which, unfortunately, you have to do when you want to put a new coin in between two coins already in a page.

Boxes

Instead of using a 3-ring binder and pocket pages, you can store your coins (in flips) in special 2-inch-square coin boxes.  These are long, thin boxes that can hold closed flips standing up, like files in a filing cabinet.  This is a much less expensive type of storage because boxes are cheaper than binders and you don’t have to buy pocket pages.  Using coin boxes also makes it easier to organize your collection because you can add a coin in between any other two coins.  With pocket pages, you need to take coins out and move them around in order to make room for a new coin (if you want to keep the coins organized).  However, using coin boxes makes it harder to view or display your collection – it is much less impressive to flip through a box full of coin flips than to browse through pages of coins in a binder.  I prefer using binders and pages for that reason – I like to look at my coins.

Magnification

Some coins are small, which makes the details on them (country name, year, etc.) hard to see.  You’ll frequently find yourself using a magnifying glass to examine a coin.  A 4x magnifier should be sufficient for looking at coin dates or other writing.  If you want to be able to look for coin errors (double-strikes, or double-date coins) or looking at mint marks, a loupe offers much greater magnification than a magnifying glass.  When I need this level of magnification, I use a 30x loupe with a light.

Coin Identification

Part of the fun of collecting world coins is figuring out what country a coin is from.  But this is a very frustrating process without some help.  Web sites like World Coin Gallery and my own Portland Coins have information to help identify world coins using words or pictures that can be found on the coin.  Books like the Standard Catalog of World Coins also have guides to help identify coins, but online resources are just as good (and they’re free).

Keeping Track of Coins

Once a collection has more than 10 to 20 coins, it becomes difficult to remember what you have and what you don’t have.  The bigger the collection, the more important it is to keep track of what coins you have (so that you know which coins you don’t need).

For a collection of 50 coins or fewer, a written list of coins can be sufficient.  On a piece of paper, write down the country, year, denomination (type and amount of money, like “2 dollars”, “5 francs” or “50 yen”), and the quality (“poor”, “good”, and “great” are enough to get started with) of each coin in your collection.  If you have room, organize them by country so that you can find them more easily.  Keep the paper with your collection so that you don’t lose it.

Once you get more than about 50 or 60 coins in your collection, you’re going to want to keep track of your coins electronically.  This allows you to more easily search your collection, order them by country, and add new coins (your piece of paper will get pretty crowded if you keep adding to it).  You can use a spreadsheet program like Microsoft Excel to keep track of the same information – country, year, denomination, and quality – in different columns.  (Google Docs and Open Office are free and have spreadsheet programs.)  Several free Web sites (NumistaWorld Coin Gallery, and Colnect are a few) allow you to keep track of your collection from any computer.  These sites usually let you see pictures of the coins in your collection, and can help you see which coins you don’t yet have.

Where to Get Supplies

Flips, binder pages, coin boxes, and usually even world coins can be found at a local coin shop, where you’ll be supporting local businesses and your local economy.  If you don’t have a coin shop handy, or they don’t carry the supplies that you need, then coin collecting supplies can be purchased online at dozens of different stores (always shop carefully online), or of course from us at Portland Coins.

Putting Together a Collecting Kit

To make a collecting starter kit for someone (or even for yourself), here is a summary of what I think should be included:

  • A 3-ring binder (preferably with D-style rings)
  • 3 or more 20-pocket binder pages
  • 50 or more cardboard coin flips, half with a quarter-size window and the rest with a half-dollar-size window
  • A magnifying glass
  • A tape dispenser or small stapler (optional, since most households have one or both of these)
  • Blank paper for keeping track of coins
  • 10 or more world coins (all different if possible) to have something to put into the collection right away
  • Coin identification Web addresses to help the new collector figure out what they have
This should be enough to get anyone started with their own world coin collection, and to have the right tools to make it a success.

Why collect world coins?

One of the most common questions I get about collecting world coins is simply “Why?”. Why collect world or foreign coins?  In answering this question, I’m going to discuss what I’ve found to be the best aspects of a world coin collection so that you can decide for yourself if it’s something you might like to try.

As its foundation, a collection should interest you.  If you’re not interested in what you are collecting, you’re not going to keep at it.  At various times in my life, I’ve collected: rocks, stickers, baseball cards, toy cars, Star Wars figurines, Pez dispensers, stamps, shells, US coins, world coins, Smurf figurines, posters, bus schedules, comic books, and bottle caps.  And those are just the ones I can remember.  Each of those held my interest for long enough to start a collection, but I eventually grew bored or frustrated with most.  I think that’s normal.  Your interests and your interest level changes over time.  What you find interesting or exciting at age 10 doesn’t have to be the same as when you’re 15, or 20, or 40.  My coins are the collection that I’ve come back to time and time again – they interest me, and I get excited about them, so I want to maintain my collection.  My bottle caps, on the other hand, were discarded long ago.

I think that coins, and especially world coins, have many features that make them a good collectible.

Coins are small and easy to store.  A simple 3-ring binder with pocket pages can hold hundreds of coins, and takes up about as much room as a Harry Potter novel.  A collection of hundreds of toy cars would take up an entire toy box.

Coins are durable.  They’re made of metal, so they can last a long time.  I’m talking hundreds or even thousands of years.  Archaeologists routinely find ancient Roman, Greek, or Chinese coins that are more than 1000 years old.  That means that as a collectible, you don’t have to worry so much about being extremely careful.  Coins can get wet.  Coins can be dropped.  Coins can be stacked and handled and looked at.  They don’t have to have sharp corners like baseball cards or forever remain in their packaging like toys.  And as a collector, it isn’t hard to find coins that are 25, 50, or even 100 years old.  (Even though coins are durable, you should still take care of them.  The fewer times they get wet, or dropped, or stacked, the better condition they will stay in.  But compared to many other collectibles, coins are more resilient to wear.)

World coins are diverse.   They come in many different colors, some with 2 colors on the same coin.  There are round coins, square coins, multi-sided coins, scalloped coins, and coins with holes in them.  They have pictures of animals, plants, people, buildings, kings, queens, presidents, and more.  There are so many different kinds that you can focus on a specific type of coin, such as coins with animals or coins from South America.  (I collect everything, but my favorites are 2-color coins and square coins.  I haven’t found a 2-color square coin yet.)  Check out Portland Coins’ coin identification picture gallery to get an idea of the variety that world coins have.

Coins are inexpensive.  Coins and coin-collecting supplies don’t cost a lot, so it is easy to start and maintain a collection without spending much money.  As you become a more advanced collector, you may want to splurge on more expensive rare or valuable coins, but you don’t have to in order to enjoy collecting.

Coins are everywhere.  There are more than 190 different countries in the world today, most with their own coinage and many years of previous coin styles that can be collected.  That means you’ll never run out of coins to put in your collection.

These are the main reasons that I enjoy collecting world coins.  If this sounds interesting, think about starting your own collection, or getting someone else (a child or friend) started.  In my next post, I’ll discuss the tools and supplies you’d need to start a world coin collection.

Introduction

When I was 9 years old, my uncle gave me a handful of coins from Australia.  I had never seen money from another country before, and up to that point it hadn’t even occurred to me that everyone doesn’t use the dollars and cents I was used to.  I kept the coins in my desk, curiosities that were too interesting to just throw away but not yet interesting enough to store properly.  When I was 11, I found a Mexico 5-peso coin in the dirt, and was convinced that I had found treasure.  My father took me to a coin shop, where I found out that the coin was neither rare nor valuable.  In the drawer it went.  It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I found the coin shop at the town mall, with its “junk” box of foreign coins – 10 for a dollar.

From that point on, I was a collector of world coins.  I found out about coin folders (“flips”) and binder pages, and started storing my coins properly, labeling each with a pencil I reserved only for that purpose.  I found out about the Standard Catalog of World Coins, which could help me identify my coins (this was before the Internet) and give me ideas of their value.  I found out about coins made of silver and other precious metals, and how just because a coin is gold in color doesn’t mean that it is made of gold.  But mostly I found out about coins and their countries – how Australia’s coins have animals on them; how Japan has a coin with a hole in it; how Great Britain puts a picture of their current king or queen on their coins (unlike the United States, which only uses older presidents on coins); how countries may come and go, but their coins can still be found in the backs of junk drawers or the bottoms of chests.

Now, as an adult, I want to help others not only get started with coin collecting, but to enjoy it.  I created Portland Coins as a site that both informs the beginning or casual collector, and also sells the kinds of products I wished were available when I was young.  In this related blog, I will be sharing tips, stories, and news to help new collectors, or even non-collectors, get more out of this fun hobby.