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Brief History of Coins

It is almost within living memory of man, even in Western civilization, that direct barter was the primary means of trade. Goods were traded between two parties and that was that. But finding someone who wanted to trade eggs for bread or shoes for butter was a lengthy and drawn out procedure that resulted in many spoiled loaves.

Introducing a third party that has eggs and will accept shoes he doesn't need because he knows someone who will trade them for butter he does want is a step in the right direction. Keep going down that road and sooner or later something is going to evolve as the standard medium of exchange.

The first coins were made of electrum, which is an alloy that occurs naturally in gold and silver. Copper and a few other commodities in various places were also used. Paper, until just a few decades ago, was nothing more than a marker for these commodities. As a result, coins made from those metals were produced.

Historians largely agree that the first coins were struck during the 7th century in Lydia, an Iron Age Kingdom of Asia Minor, which is these days, is a part of modern Turkey. ‘Struck' is an appropriate term since putting a blank piece of metal between two die and striking the top with a hammer made them.

These early die often had the likenesses of kings, since they were the ones who declared laws forbidding anyone else to produce currency. It was both a way to enforce their rule and guarantee the authenticity of the money. He who has the gold makes the rules.

As civilizations and technological know-how developed, metal coins came into wider use. During the 14th century coins came to be valued not only for their function in commerce, but as works of art in themselves. Francesco Petrarch, the fourteenth century Italian scholar and poet, is reported to have had a substantial collection of ancient coins.

During the late 18th and 19th centuries coin production technology evolved to the point that hand minting was surpassed by machine-made methods. Coin collecting at this stage took a radical turn.

Hand-made coins, even when they are carefully alloyed and weighed, differ visibly. Even the most painstaking artisan can never produce two exactly alike. As a result, what once qualified as an error, making a coin more rare, had an entirely different meaning in the earlier era.

Machines, on the other hand, can mass-produce coins of uniform alloy and shape. Subtle, and sometimes, not so subtle mistakes can still happen. Double-striking, incorrect plates used, wrong dates and any number of human errors can cause machine made coins to differ from the standard.

Because of their rarity, those ‘bad' coins can have substantial value in coin collecting. Rarity, after all, even when the intrinsic value might otherwise be low, is a key element in the value of a collectible coin.

By the mid-20th century – August 15, 1962 to be exact – saw the debut of the first international coin collecting convention in the United States. Sponsored by the American Numismatic Association and the Royal Canadian Numismatic Association, this event kick started the modern era of coin collecting.

Today, there are numerous organizations around the world and millions of collectors devoted to the art and science of coin collecting. Shoulder-to-shoulder with their cousins in numismatics (the study of currency), they trade actively in shops and websites all over the world.

Yet the desire is unquestionably comparable seven centuries after Petrarch: the delight that comes from finding and sharing the excitement of that rare treasure.

Iain Gall is a coin collecting enthusiast. For a great coin collecting guide be sure to visit http://www.coincollectingknowhow.com.

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