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How to Start Collecting Coins

Young kids in a rare coin store shopping

Everyone has to start somewhere, so here are some tips and suggestions on how to begin your collection.

One of the questions people frequently ask me is, "How do you get started collecting coins?" This question was posed to me a few weeks ago when a local TV station was doing a story about the "Great Kentucky Hoard." Almost every day I field questions from collectors and dealers looking for advice on complicated numismatic questions. I seldom have the chance to cover the basics with someone who has just discovered the hobby.

My interest in coin collecting began like millions of others in the 1960s and 1970s. In the early 1970s, there were still lots of wheat back cents in circulation. A family friend gave me a Whitman folder for collecting cents from 1941 to date. I was able to find a majority of the coins in short order. Each week, I would take my money earned from mowing lawns to the bank and purchase rolls of Lincoln Cents. The process was repeated each week over the summer until the folder was nearly filled.

There was one problem, however. I lived in Florida at the time, and it was very difficult to locate the San Francisco issues. Those darn "S" mint holes were driving me crazy. I had fallen victim to one of the greatest marketing tools ever invented for coin collecting: people hate those empty holes in their folders, and I was no different!

Later that summer, I made my first rare coin purchase. I ordered a few of those elusive "S" mint cents from Littleton Rare Coin Company. Finally, my mission was complete. I then moved on to the first folder of Lincoln Cents and then to Jefferson Nickels. Now, 50 years later, I still love the thrill of the chase. My tastes and financial ability to collect have both grown over the years, but like everyone, I had to start somewhere.

How to Get Started

One of the most exciting aspects of numismatics is the tremendous variety of collecting themes available to today’s numismatists. The following are a few of the more popular approaches to coin collecting.

Collecting by Type: A type collection consists of one example of each major change in the design or metal used. For example, a type collection of nickels would include the Shield Nickel (1866-1883), the Liberty Head Nickel (1883-1913), the Buffalo Nickel (1913-1938) and the Jefferson Nickels (1938-present). Collectors may choose to specialize further with variations of certain types as well. This would include two types of Shield Nickels: the With Rays (1866-1867) and the No Rays (1867-1883). Some collectors have been known to further concentrate on type coins from the first year of issue. Type coins are also an ideal sort of numismatic diversification, due to the wide variety of designs and long time span represented by the collection. My book, United States Coinage: A Study by Type, is an excellent road map to this style of collecting.

5c Shield Nickel Coin5c Shield Nickel Coin

1869 Shield Nickel

Buffalo NickelBuffalo Nickel

1913 Buffalo Nickel

Collecting by Series: With a focus on one design type, the goal is to assemble one example of each date and mintmark for the series. As an example, a Morgan Dollar collection would include one coin from each year (1878–1921) and from each of the five mints that struck the coins (Philadelphia, San Francisco, Carson City, New Orleans and Denver). This sort of collecting style can be modified to fit one’s budget. A circulated set of Morgan Dollars is well within reach of most serious numismatists, for example, whereas a Mint State collection requires a serious investment, and a Gem set would cost millions. In recent years, it has become very fashionable to assemble sets that would rank high on the Registry lists assembled by NGC. The competition for such coins can sometimes seem to defy logic. If you are around coins long enough, you will probably witness the fever of a passionate collector. The "coin bug" is hard to shake.

1878 Morgan Dollar1878 Morgan Dollar

1878 Morgan Dollar

1921 Morgan Dollar1921 Morgan Dollar

1921 Morgan Dollar

Collecting Commemoratives: Commemoratives were struck to mark special anniversaries or occasions. The "classic" series of commemorative coins was struck from 1892 to 1954. Many modern issues have been produced in recent years as well. The US Mint continues to strike coins yearly to honor people or events from the past. A collection of every coin struck since 1982 (when modern commemoratives were first issued) would require thousands of dollars and lots of storage space.

1933 Oregon1933 Oregon

1933 Oregon Trail Commemorative Half Dollar

2019 Apollo Coin2019 Apollo Coin

2019 Apollo 11 50th Anniversary Commemorative Silver Dollar

As general advice, whatever collecting strategy you choose, it usually pays off to purchase the best coins you can afford. As even the newest collector soon finds out, quality is the key to the value of most coins. There will always be a demand for the best of the best.

How to Buy Rare Coins

Once you have decided what to collect, you can then figure out the best venue for buying. There are several great sources for purchasing rare coins. Each source has its advantages, but much depends on the experience of the collector and the type of material desired.

Local Coin Dealers: A local coin shop can be an excellent place to get started in the field of numismatics. There is usually a large assortment of books and supplies available. Coins can be examined in-person and questions about the hobby answered. Try to find an experienced dealer who has the knowledge to be an adviser and mentor in your collecting pursuits. Hopefully, you can also find someone who will spend the time to help you learn more about the wonderful world of numismatics.

The Internet: Over the last 25 years, the amount of rare-coin business conducted on the internet has exploded. Nearly every major rare-coin dealer (and many small ones) now has full-service websites. Auctions are conducted almost daily on many of the dealer sites, and the ability to utilize search engines has made locating many hard-to-find items much easier. It is safe to say that the internet has had a greater impact on the demand for rare coins than any other innovation. Qualified buyers can participate in auctions and peruse online catalogs to locate coins. There is also a tremendous amount of information about rare coins that can be found on the web. Caution must be utilized, however, as there is the possibility of fraud when buying online. It is usually advisable to buy rare coins only from dealers who back their material with guarantees of authenticity.

Coin Shows: It may be fun to surf the web looking for that perfect coin for your collection, but nothing beats going to a large coin show. There are literally millions of dollars’ worth of rare coins at any given venue. Coin shows are held locally, regionally and nationally almost every week in some part of the country. Almost every sort of coin can be found at large coin shows. There are dealers who carry only Indian Head Cents; there are dealers with nothing but Morgan Dollars. Ancient and world coins are also well represented at most coin shows. The largest show each year is the annual summer convention of the American Numismatic Association (ANA).

Rare Coin Auctions: When very large collections are sold, the owners or their heirs often call on the larger numismatic auction firms. Auction firms accept consignments and sell them at public auctions or, more frequently now, online-only sales. Many of the rarest and most expensive coins are sold in this manner. These sales provide an excellent opportunity to purchase hard-to-find numismatic items.

Coin Clubs: There is no better way for beginners to enjoy the hobby of numismatics than to join a coin club. If you are lucky enough to have a coin club in your area, you should definitely join. Most clubs meet monthly and feature a guest speaker and a live auction. Many of the clubs have a good mix of beginning and advanced collectors. Nearly all serious numismatists enjoy sharing their passion with fellow enthusiasts. If you have young children, most clubs make an effort to serve their needs as well. Coin collecting is a fantastic hobby for young people, and we guarantee that someday their coins will be worth more than their video games! Another option is to join the ANA. There are also specialty clubs for collectors of every kind.

NGC: New collectors should also visit The website has lots of information for new collectors about getting started. The website has a tremendous amount of valuable content for new and advanced collectors. Third-party certification is a cornerstone of the hobby, and is a great place to learn about grading and authentication.

Many coin professionals take for granted that there are customers for their merchandise. You can attend any regional or national coin show and there will be hundreds, if not thousands, of eager buyers looking for rare coins. It is sometimes easy to forget that collectors are created and rarely just decide one day to start buying rare coins.

Regardless of how you got started, remember that everyone has to start somewhere, and they should be encouraged. It is in the best interest of anyone who collects or deals in rare coins to see the hobby grow. The next time someone asks about your collection, think about how you can get them started on a path to collecting rare coins!

Jeff Garrett


Jeff Garrett began his coin collecting the all-American way, with Lincoln cents. In 1969, a family friend gave him a Lincoln cent board. From that time, coins became the focus of his life.


While growing up in the Tampa Bay area in Clearwater, Florida, Jeff became very active in several local clubs, serving as a junior officer of the Clearwater Coin Club in the 1970s. He was mentored at an early age by many of the area dealers, among them Ed French and Jeff Means. Jeff Garrett attended his first American Numismatic Association (ANA) convention at the 1974 Miami convention with Ed French and has not missed one since.


He has been a member of the ANA for over 35 years with life membership number 3124. At the age of 17, Garrett was offered a position with Florida Coin Exchange, one of the dominant firms of the day.