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Reading coin books, coin magazines, looking at coin websites, and joining in online coin forums, you probably feel like you’re having to learn a whole new language just to find out more about coins.
If you’re feeling alone, don’t.
When I first started collecting coins almost 20 years ago, I felt the same way.
Believe it or not, you’ll learn these coin terms in no time and soon know plenty about this second language!
Important Coin Terms You Need To Know
OK, let me blunt — you’ll need to know plenty more than just these 10 coin terms to really understand what you’ll need to know about coin collecting.
However, these are 10 coin terms and phrases I think you really need to master early on.
They’re vital to your grasping some key coin concepts, will help you avoid making some major mistakes, and you can build on your knowledge of these coin terms as you go along in the hobby.
OK, let’s start with that first term you’re curious about. Numismatics and numismatist. What are they? Well, you’re a numismatist. Somebody who studies coins and money. Numismatics is the study of coins and money.
There’s sometimes a bit of debate as to who really is a numismatist. Some suggest you have to be more than a casual coin collector to really be a numismatist (somebody who devotes time to really learning more about coins and money, as opposed to just collecting them). Others say anybody who is interested in coins or money — collecting them, studying them, whatever — is a numismatist.
Here’s the next term you’re going to need to pick up on quickly. Coin grading is the act of evaluating a coin’s state of preservation based on how much (or how little) wear it has. There are several coin grading terms to know, and understanding each one will help be a more astute coin buyer and coin collector.
Coins are normally traded, bought, and sold primarily on the basis of their grade. Therefore, you’re going to need to know what coins in different grades look like so you don’t get ripped off when buying or selling coins. Knowing a coin’s grade is also important in developing your appreciation of coins in general.
While it can take many years to really be able to grade coins with a good degree of accuracy by eye alone, there are plenty of coin grading books and guides available to help you grade your coins and find out more about the coin grading process.
Brilliant Uncirculated (BU)
BU, which stands for brilliant uncirculated, is probably one of the most frequently encountered coin grades. BU refers to a coin with no wear and good to superb surfaces.
While BU is a desirable coin grade, it’s important to remember two things:
- Many coins advertised as ‘BU’ actually are cleaned coins with light amounts of wear.
- Many other ‘BU’ coins that have no wear may have been dipped or cleaned to remove toning.
Yes, there are scores of genuine, unadulterated ‘BU’ coins on the market. You just have to know what to look for when avoiding coins that have been worn, dipped in a brightening solution, or otherwise altered.
You’ll be hearing a lot about the Redbook. What is it? It’s formal title is A Guide Book of United States Coins, written by Kenneth Bressett and R.S. Yeoman. It’s been an annual publication since 1947 and is probably the best overall coin book you can buy. In fact, if you ever buy only one coin book, this is the one to buy.
It contains price lists, grading charts, coin information, and hundreds of color photos for practically every coin made in the United States going back to Colonial times.
Admittedly, the price guides aren’t always accurate because, being published just once a year, they don’t necessarily reflect current trends. But look beyond that. This book has practically everything any beginning coin collector needs to know about United States coins.
Third-Party Graders (TPG)
Third-party grading companies are firms that will, for a fee, evaluate your coins. There are hundreds out there, but only a handful that are longstanding, truly legitimate, respected, and consistent with how they grade their coins.
Normally, you have to send your coins away to the company to have them graded. If the coin has no damage, it’ll be sent back to you in a slab (see below). Most times, damaged coins are sent back ungraded. However, there are some third-party grading companies (like PCGS) that’ll still slab a damaged coin, mark it as genuine, but not give it an actual grade.
A slabbed coin is one that has been authenticated and graded by a third-party grading company. The slab refers to the hard, sonically sealed, tamper-evident holder that the slabbed coin has been placed into.
Slabbed coins are valued by coin collectors for a number of reasons:
- They are proof that the coin contained within is deemed authentic according to experts
- The coin contained inside has been graded and evaluated by professionals
- The plastic slab does a good job of protecting coins in a nearly airtight environment for a long time
However, as mentioned earlier, not all slabbed coins are regarded with respect. There are several companies (like PCGS, ANACS, NGC, ICG, PCI, and SEGS) which are generally viewed with esteem by leading numismatists. However, there are literally dozens of other companies that slab coins but have yet to gain any respectable standing in the numismatic arena.
Coin collectors are a discriminating bunch. We don’t much like coins that have been cleaned, bent, holed, or are otherwise damaged. But one person’s trash is another’s treasure. That’s why many coin collectors who don’t have much to work with for a budget love cull coins.
Cull coins are those that don’t meet up to the typical standards of coins collected by most numismatists. These coins may have any array of problems… Many are problem-free but just so worn down that most coin collectors wouldn’t want them for their coin collections.
That’s where the coin collector on a shoestring budget can come in and swoop away some coins at a discount price that maybe would be unaffordable in higher grades.
When you go to a coin dealer, ask about their cull coins — you might just find a
deal or two that you can’t leave without taking advantage of!
Eye appeal refers to the overall level of surface quality a coin has. Regardless of how high or low a coin’s grade is, some simply are stunning and others are only so-so. Eye appeal refers to how nice a coin looks.
A coin with good or high eye appeal may be a piece that not only looks decent for its grade but may also be especially devoid of a number of problems typically associated with such pieces, like scratches, nicks, or poor color. Coins with particularly nice eye appeal may even merit a higher price than for other coins in exactly the same grade but with less attractive surfaces.
As you become a more discerning coin collector, you’re going to start picking out which coins look nicest in a bunch.
You’ve probably seen plenty of gold-plated Kennedy half dollars advertised on TV, might remember those President Barack Obama coins that were popular a few years ago, or perhaps have seen Lincoln pennies with little designs of President Kennedy.
Those are examples of novelty coins. Many are real, legal tender coins that have been somehow altered. Novelty coins like this really don’t have any numismatic value, but there are some coin collectors place their efforts on collecting specifically novelty coins.
Proof coins are specially manufactured coins that have been struck on polished coin blanks and struck with specially prepared dies (the machine that stamps the design on coins). Modern proof coins have mirror-like surfaces and highly detailed, frosted designs and lettering. Older proof coins may have a number of other characteristics, including matte surfaces.
Always remember that proof is not a grade — it simply refers to a method of coin manufacturing.
My love for coins began when I was 11 years old. I primarily collect and study U.S. coins produced during the 20th century. I'm a member of the American Numismatic Association (ANA) and the Numismatic Literary Guild (NLG) and have won multiple awards from the NLG for my work as a coin journalist. I'm also the editor at CDN Publishing (a trusted source for the price of U.S. rare coins), editor at the Florida United Numismatists Club (FUN Topics magazine), and author of Images of America: The United States Mint in Philadelphia (a book that explores the colorful history of the Philadelphia Mint). I've contributed hundreds of articles for various coin publications including COINage, The Numismatist, Numismatic News, Coin Dealer Newsletter, Coin Values, and CoinWeek. I've also authored nearly 1,000 articles here at The Fun Times Guide to Coins — and I welcome your coin questions in the comments below!