Four Key Watersheds in the History of Coin Collecting

In my dual role as both a collector and dealer of coins, I often pause to contemplate the remarkable 2,500+ year history of “Numismatics”, and the evolution of coinage from utilitarian instrument of commerce to aesthetic historical collectible and work of medallic art. Indeed, CoinWeek author Geoffrey Cope perhaps best summed it up, when he wrote:

Art in the form of coins is not only what we study but the emotion when we hold a piece of history.

Rather than focus on the motivations for collecting, however, I put pen to paper here in support of my own hypothesis that there are four key revolutions/watersheds that fundamentally shaped the origins and growth of coin collecting as we know it today.

1. The Invention of Coinage

It goes without saying that we would have no coin dealers without the Numismatic “big bang” of approximately the 7th century B.C., when the concept of metal currency appears to have arose somewhat simultaneously in three different regions, each with their own unique characteristics. The Kingdom of Lydia (modern day Turkey) saw the first use of Electrum, a naturally-occurring alloy of Gold & Silver. Meanwhile, in the Indus Valley (Pakistan), Silver Bars became a medium of exchange. And, finally, China saw the emergence of practical bronze “Spade” and “Knife” money. Cultural and intrinsic differences aside, all three forms of currency shared a common revolutionary function – the compact representation of value that previously necessitated the actual physical transport and exchange of material goods (i.e., livestock and/or agricultural surplus).

The first “Western” coins were later introduced by Alexander the Great in 4th century B.C., and both the art and fine-tuned function of coinage reached new heights in the Greek and Roman empires. Not only a transformative medium of exchange, coins were also used as a medium to convey Political, Religious and Military propaganda messages. Indeed, some of the only conceptual portraits that exist today of ancient rulers derive from the surviving coinage of the day.

2. The Renaissance (1350-1525) – rebirth of interest in the Art, Literature, Science and Numismatics of Antiquity

Widely-considered to herald in the birth of a serious interest in coin collecting, the Renaissance also saw the beginning of “Royal” coin collections assembled by European Monarchs. The development of the first Coin Cabinets facilitated the storage and presser vation of these new collections. Additionally, a fascinating series of larger-than-life “Paduan” bronze coins became popular, essentially copies of the finest Roman bronze coins that helped to fill increased demand for the originals.

Coins continued to be struck by hand, although the first milled coins were produced in England in 1561, using a horse-powered screw press by a French Mint master. Another notable development during this period – the 13th century report by Marco Polo of Chinese “Paper Money”, later replaced by the world’s first widely-successful notes of the Ming Dynasty.

In summary, although firmly entrenched as a “hobby”, coin collecting in the Renaissance generally remained the domain of the wealthy – and the tradition of the wooden European coin cabinet remains with us today among traditional collectors.

3. The Whitman Coin Folders (c.1938) – bringing Coin Collecting “to the masses”

Example of a Whitman Coin Folder

Example of a Whitman Coin Folder from the Whitman Coin website

The introduction of the [now] familiar blue Whitman Coin Folder was, in my opinion, the single transformative event in the evolution of coin collecting in the 20th century. Above all else, for the first time an inexpensive coin storage system was finally available to everyone. In addition to organization, the folders fostered a sense of “completeness” for the beginning collector, and further spurned the growth of a mail-order coin industry. Perhaps most importantly, however, was that fact that these new folders detailed both dates and mintages of all coins! Thus, for the first time, scarcity became properly associated with mintage. These folders became a staple in the childhoods of virtually every American and Canadian youngster, and spawned many other coin collecting supplies and references during the grown of the Whitman empire. Though initially very U.S.-centric, the folders soon expanded to cover both the Canadian and British coinage series.

Two other key events during this period include the development of the first numerical Grading System in 1949, together with the founding of the Canadian Numismatic Association in 1950 (now the Royal Canadian Numismatic Association).

4. The introduction of ICCS/PCGS Grading Services (c.1986)

The introduction of “Certified Grading” had profound implications in both the selling and collecting of coins. With the 1985 founding of PCGS (Professional Coin Grading Service) in California, and in 1986 of ICCS (the International Coin Certification Service) in Toronto, collectors could now submit their coins for third-party grading and authentication. This solved two critical issues facing the average collector:

  1. was his/her coin authentic?, and
  2. what was the actual technical grade of the coin?

Not only were both issues beyond the expertise of the average collector, but making an error on either front could have (and often did have) dire financial consequences. Now, however, with the introduction of these certification services, coins would be returned to their owners in sealed protective holders, and the often contentious issues of grade and authenticity were made academic. Now, regardless of any expertise imbalance between buyer and seller, the only key topic for negotiation remained selling/purchase price. Sure, subjective issues such as eye-appeal and toning might still cause hesitation in “sight-unseen” transactions, but at least an inexperienced collector could now purchase certified coins for his/her collection or portfolio, and be reasonably certain of getting reasonable value for their money.

In addition to the increased flow of good collectible coinage in the marketplace, these certification companies also facilitated a somewhat unexpected though no-less-profound contribution to numismatics, through the eventual publication of Population Reports. These [mainly] annual statistical reports, which detailed the number and nature of coins certified to date, yielded highly important data on two fronts:

  1. It allowed for increasingly realistic estimates of the surviving populations of many coins, both common and rare, and
  2. Revealed to the hobby that mintage figures did not always determine surviving populations

This last revelation was very significant, as previous to the compilation of certified population stats, we had mainly mintage figures to reflect on the relative scarcity of a given coin. True, this often provided an accurate reflection of rarity – for example, with a total mintage of just 3 pieces, it is obvious that the 1911 Canadian Silver Dollar will always be the most extreme of rarities. With a comparable mintage of approximately 200,000 pieces, however, one would expect the 1921 Half Dollar to be quite common. In reality, however, this fabled “King of Canadian Coins” is also extremely rare, with a surviving population of less than 100 pieces. Yes, we are to expect this, with knowledge of the great melting that occurred at the Canadian branch of the Royal Mint after the striking of the 1921 halves, however the ICCS population report clearly confirms this with currently more than 25 years of compiled certification data. With many other issues, however, population stats have been truly enlightening, often revealing that – for whatever reason – certain years and/or grades of decimal coins have proven to be considerably scarcer in our current market than these mintage figures would suggest.

On one final note – the advent of coin certification services has also generated a keen demand for “Finest-Known” coinage, in other words those specific examples at the top (or at least among the top 10) of the grading charts for a given year and denomination. This, in turn, has pushed up prices for these “condition-census” coins, which then brings fresh material into the market as owners/collectors look to take advantage of heated demand and competition. Perhaps the most brilliant manifestation of this is the PCGS Set Registry, which allows collectors to post their collections online – all in mandatory PCGS holders, of course – and be ranked against other sets within the same competitive category. At time of writing, a whopping 71,369 individual sets have been entered into the registry, representing every conceivable theme from typical United States and Canadian date-sets, to registry sets of Fiji, Peru and Sarawak. Even a partial change in grade of a single coin can alter the “ranking” of such sets, and if such statistics were available, one would no doubt connect a notable increase in the overall business performance of PCGS with the super-keen competitive tendencies of the Registry’s participants.

In summary, there are an almost endless number of innovations and evolutions to note in both the history and collecting of coinage – these particular four watersheds are my own perceived highlights, while each and every collector will have his or her own thoughts on the matter. Artistic aesthetics, historical allure, or intrinsic appreciation – whatever grabs you, just run with it, and the hobby of numismatics will never let you down.

Note: This article was adapted from my presentation to an Algonquin College Museum Technology class, c. 2002. Copyright Sean Isaacs.

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