Just Starting Out

Seven Questions About Coins

Published May 10, 2024 | 5 min read

By Kellen Hoard

An infamous numismatist once remarked that to fully understand the history surrounding a coin, one needed only to answer seven questions: “Why this design, with these devices and inscriptions, in this denomination, in this metal, at this weight, at this time, and not others?” If each of these questions can be answered, a collector will not only understand the object they are holding but also the society that produced it. These questions allow numismatists to learn history, art, politics, economics, science, or any other subject from their coin—in other words, to unlock the “history in their hands.” It is, therefore, essential for collectors to understand how they might approach answering each question.

Why this design?

Why these devices and inscriptions?

These questions go hand in hand. The elements of a coin, token, medal, or bank note’s design, as well as its devices and inscriptions, are foundational to its symbolic and practical purpose. Consequently, a numismatist who wishes to understand the historical circumstances behind any such object must understand not only what those design elements are but also what they meant to the society that produced the object. The online platform Numista is particularly useful in identifying the obverse and reverse designs and inscriptions of coins, bank notes, and exonumia. Cornelius Vermeule’s Numismatic Art in America also offers excellent information on the design aesthetics of U.S. numismatic objects and their symbolic significance. 

Furthermore, if a collector is aware of a specific niche they would like to learn more about, print or digital resources specific to that niche are readily available. Collectors interested in George Washington, for example, may look to Neil Musante’s Medallic Washington for information on numismatic designs in that field. The ANA Library is a valuable tool for identifying what resources exist for any given series. Even Google is useful in this regard; once you recognize the design elements, you can find extensive information about the significance of those elements on all types of websites. Collectors new to French coinage, for example, will find a greater understanding of French numismatic objects when they research the fleur-de-lis, which appear in many of their designs.

Why this denomination?

Why this metal? 

Why this weight?

Why at this time?

These questions are fundamental. What do coin denominations indicate about the society that produced them? Why does a civilization choose between silver, copper, aluminum, or gold? Why does a country decide its coins should be a certain weight or change weights? Why does a government choose at some specific point in time to introduce the antoninianus or switch to Federal Reserve notes? The various answers to these questions are central to the story of money across history and depend on various anthropological factors.

Innumerable resources are also useful for answering these questions. For United States coins, many books by Q. David Bowers and Walter Breen provide good series-specific information and historical context, as do various specialty books (many of which are listed here and here). The Newman Numismatic Portal provides free access to tens of thousands of books, periodicals, auction catalogs, and ephemera that may also answer some of those questions. The Art and Craft of Coinmaking by Denis Cooper also provides excellent mechanical information on these subjects.

Why not others?

Not only must a collector seek to answer why a numismatic object is the way that it is—they should also justify why that object isn’t different. Why should some Transnistria coins be plastic and not the more typical metal? Why should certain Yemeni fractional coins from 1947 to 1961 be pentagonal in shape, and not circular? Why should Indian coins for nearly a century feature a British monarch, and not a different bust or design? Faced with a coin, token, medal, or bank note, a collector must not simply accept that its characteristics were inevitable. Numismatic objects are the functions of decisions; those decisions, in turn, were functions of the norms, rules, expectations, realities, demands, aspirations, and knowledge of various societies throughout history. Consequently, those who seek to understand those societies need to understand these objects, and to understand these objects numismatists need to ask these seven foundational questions.