A Brief History of Coins and Coin Collecting
Very few things tell more about a country in fewer words than the coins it produces. Coins hold a wealth of information on their small faces, from the year of their birth to the language spoken at the time, from the metals a country holds valuable to the cultural influences and historical figures that its people hold valuable. Coins can also be strikingly beautiful in their own right, with the top designers of a nation striving to have their motif chosen for immortality on the face of a coin. With so much information and beauty contained in so small a package, it is no surprise that coin collecting has been a hobby nearly as long as the concept of coins themselves. An understanding of the long history of coin collecting, once known as “the hobby of kings,” will make this pastime even more enjoyable.
The Origin of Coins and Coin Collecting
The hobby of coin collecting began nearly as soon as the first coins were minted in Asia Minor, around 650 B.C. Before that time, gold and silver ingots were the most common form of legal tender. Because there was no standard, however, each trade necessitated a careful weighing and examination of the precious metals being offered, and it was easy for unscrupulous merchants to pass off a lesser quality of gold in trade. Coins, which were printed on standardized weights of precious metals and stamped with a government guarantee of value, was the answer to this unwieldy, easily sabotaged trading process. Within one hundred years, the concept of coins had been adopted by all of the major trading cities in the civilized world.
At the beginning, coin collecting had a very practical reason – there were no banks in which to store money. People hoarded coins as a way of safeguarding their wealth. Those coins that were especially beautiful were hoarded the longest, often being passed down within families.
Coin Collection in Renaissance Times
Modern coin collecting, where the coins are viewed as a work of art as well as a collection of valuable legal tender, is widely thought to have begun with Francesco Petrarca, or Petrarch, who is often called the father of the Renaissance. Although there is reason to believe that Roman emperors and citizens paid prices higher than face value for coins that were no longer in circulation, Petrarch was known to be an avid collector, and often spoke of his collection in his writing. During the Renaissance, popes and nobility began collecting coins for their artistic and historical value, and the name “the hobby of kings” was born. So popular was the pursuit and trade of ancient Greek and Roman coins in this time period, that a brisk business in high-quality counterfeits sprang into being. Today, these counterfeits even have a high value, due to their age, quality, and historical significance.
Coin Collecting in Modern Times
Coin collecting has been a favorite pastime of many people with a reverence for history, including U.S. Presidents Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. The development of two large coin organizations in the mid-to-late 1800s, the American Numismatic Society (ANS) and the American Numismatic Association (ANA), helped spark American interest in building and maintaining a coin collection. Today, there has been an explosion in American interest in coin collecting, in large part due to the ease and availability of obtaining interesting coins. The U.S. Mint has successfully increased interest in starting a coin collection through the minting of specialty coins, such as the bicentennial half dollars released in 1976 and the current release of quarters commemorating each of the fifty states.
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