The Complete Guide to Starting a Coin Collection

Blog Written by Pamela Siegel
Written by: Pamela Siegel
December 7, 2022 Updated 01:06 PM
December 7, 2022 Updated 01:06 PM
Array of collectible coins

by Pamela Siegel

Many coin collectors get started picking through pocket change or poring through a cache of old coins left to them by a relative. If you’re contemplating learning about a stash of coins like this, you’re on your way to becoming a numismatist – a fancy word for those who collect, appreciate, and study coins. Once you get your feet wet, adding to your collection is the next step. 


Map for collecting state quarters

As you delve into the hobby, you’ll find that coin collecting is open to all age groups and encompasses a wide array of interests. From ancient coins to modern collectible quarters, there is literally a collecting category for everyone interested in coins. There are also examples available in every price range from Lincoln cents worth literally pennies to gold rarities that sell in the tens of thousands. Newly minted commemorative sets in varying price ranges appeal to many collectors, while others prefer to fill folders designed for hobbyists with coins of different denominations. And one of the best parts about coin collecting is that kids and adults can enjoy the hobby together.

Are you ready to become a numismatist? Here are some suggestions to set you on the right path.

How to Get Started

Coin collecting for beginners starts with tapping some good resources. The American Numismatic Association (ANA) offers a wealth of information to help collectors of all ages learn about growing coin collections, so visiting their website is a great point of departure. One of the fundamentals covered there is the importance of having reference materials on hand and learning the basics of grading coins, which go hand in hand.


Among the resources recommended by pros is a reference nicknamed “The Red Book” by collectors. The official name is “A Guide Book of United States Coins” by Jeff Garrett, Kenneth Bressett, and R.S. Yoeman, which is updated annually. The “Standard Catalog of World Coins” by Colin R. Bruce is a counterpart reference for coins from other parts of the world. In these books, you’ll get an eye-opening introduction to the wide world of coin collecting while learning about grading using the Sheldon Scale.

Developed by Dr. William Sheldon in 1949 for grading early copper examples called large cents, the Sheldon Scale has expanded to include all types of coins. Becoming familiar with the scale, which starts at “Poor” (P-1) and tops out at “Mint State” (with MS-70 being the highest), is the first part of the equation. The other is practice.

Over time you can learn to distinguish a collection-worthy example from one that deserves a hard pass. This is one of the most important aspects of the hobby since proper grading impacts the value of every single coin in your stash. A useful internet tool is PCGS Photograde Online, which shows different grades of the same coins side by side. If you have an opportunity to attend coin shows or coin shops in your area, the vendors there can also provide some helpful mentoring.


Graded error coin in slab

As with trading cards and comic books, there are grading services to help coin collectors with this task, too. The most highly regarded of these companies are Professional Coin Grading Service (PSGS) and Numismatic Guaranty Company (NGC). When you submit a coin to one of these services for grading, it is returned to you in a plastic holder called a “slab” with a label denoting the type of coin, the grade, and a serial number that is entered into a database. Because there is a fee involved, professional grading is usually reserved for coins with a value greater than the charge, but any coin can be graded and slabbed. Keep this in mind when picking up coins for your collection. Not everything in a slab is worth more than the plastic holding it.

Once you’ve got a feel for how your coins stack up in terms of grading, then you can move on to valuing them.

How to Value a Coin Collection

There are several steps to follow in valuing coins. If you haven’t organized your collection yet, Atlanta Gold & Coin Buyers suggests that as a good place to start.

The first step is separating them by type, such as Mercury dimes and Buffalo nickels. Then you’ll want to catalog them, denoting the date, mint mark (a tiny letter somewhere on the coin that identifies which mint made the coin), and grade if they’ve been professionally graded.


Example of a coin with toning

If they haven’t been graded, do your best to determine the condition and estimate a grade after closely examining each coin with a magnifying glass. Also, denote any out-of-the-ordinary features such as errors or toning (colored patina that comes with age and can add value to a coin). Wearing cotton gloves is recommended when handling coins that are not enclosed in some type of protective holder. Protective supplies vary from air-tight plastic disks to cardboard holders that staple shut, with the latter being the most economical.

After you’ve got all the basics identified on each coin, you can start researching values. You’ll find prices in The Red Book, but there are also resources online to help you figure out the value of coins. One to visit is the NGC Coin Explorer, which features everything from colonial coins to commemoratives. Some coin dealers will also provide the amounts they’re willing to pay if you furnish a cataloged list of graded coins to them. These amounts will usually be lower than what you’ll get for selling a coin directly to another collector.


Commemorative coin set

Should You Clean Your Collectible Coins?

There is an abundance of information online, both articles and videos, about how to clean coins without devaluing them. Even so, many newbies wisely question whether they should attempt this task. Avid collectors chiming in on ANA’s online forums wholeheartedly agree on an answer: don’t do it.

While it can be hard to determine the grade of a coin when it’s not clean, the best thing to do is leave it as found. This is especially true for beginners. The risk of ruining a rare coin by removing the patina is too great. When you think a coin may be valuable, sending it to NGC or PCGS for grading and letting them handle it is a best practice solution, regardless of how grungy it looks.

Exploring the World of Rare, High-dollar Coins

While most beginning coin collectors are busy focusing on honing interests and establishing objectives so they can build meaningful collections, it’s still fun to explore the upper echelon of the hobby. After all, the rarities and super valuable examples waiting to be found add to the treasure-hunting appeal of coin collecting.


1928 St. Gaudens $20 gold piece sold for $4,600 on AuctionNinja in December, 2022

One of the costliest coins ever changing hands is the 1933 St. Gaudens gold Double Eagle, which sold for close to $7.6 million in 2002. More than 400,000 of these coins were minted. The majority, however, were melted down when The United States Gold Reserve Act was passed prohibiting the public from owning gold, as noted in an ANA online feature titled Six of the World’s Most Valuable Coins. Before you get your sights set on finding another, the example featured in the article is the only one that is legal to hold in a private collection. You can, however, find St. Gaudens examples worth far less to add to your collection. 

While you might think all the most valuable coins would be made of gold, that’s not always the case. A rare Liberty Head nickel dating to 1913, valuable because only a few were made, sold for $4.5 million in 2018. An 1804 Bust dollar sold for $4.1 million in 1999. These are just a couple of examples of rare silver coins selling for huge sums. 

It's fun to dream about these high-dollar coins, but few exist so you probably won’t ever run across them. With some diligence and education, though, there’s certainly the possibility of finding a diamond in the rough worth thousands. If you buy smartly the coins in your collection may also increase in value over time.

Ready to delve into coin collecting? Browse our coin auctions on AuctionNinja.com.


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