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Glossary of Numismatics I: General Considerations

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Glossary of Numismatics I: General Considerations

Part 1: “General and Generic Considerations"

It is our pleasure to introduce the first installment of our new handy and informative glossary for anyone who is curious about numismatics, recently started collecting, is a long-term currency enthusiast, or…well just about anyone else really!

Before freediving headfirst into the depths of numismatics, let’s kick off this first installment with the basic equipment we’ll need for our adventure and explore a few general terms before tackling more specialized terminology in the future. To continue with the metaphor, let’s start by checking our oxygen tanks before donning our wet suits.

If we’re not well prepared now, we won’t be able to make head(s) nor tail(s) of it all later (get it?).

Knowledge is the key to being a good collector, so here are 15 indispensable definitions in alphabetical order, as every glossary worth its salt should be.


Letter A

Ancient coins

As the name suggests, ancient coins date from ancient times.

A coin dating from after the 5th century is therefore no longer considered ancient as it does not predate the fall of the Roman Empire (476 AD according to the generally accepted consensus, although opinions differ on the exact date), which is when the Middle Ages began.

Coin Lydia

1/3 Stater, Before 546 BC, Sardes, "Collection Docteur F."

It is thought that the first ancient coins were minted in Lydia (an ancient kingdom in Asia Minor). That’s the most likely explanation, as its most famous king was called Croesus and the Pactolus river wound its way through the heart of the capital, Sardis.

From a more pragmatic perspective, the kingdom had considerable mining resources at its disposal as well as a geostrategic position which lent itself to the imposing of customs duties.

Consequently, Greek, Roman, Byzantine and even Gaulish coins are notably classified as ancient coins.

Each has its own special characteristics. In Ancient Greece, for example, each city adopted an emblem, which featured on its money: an owl for Athens or a quadriga (a chariot drawn by four horses) for Syracuse.

Coin Attica

Athens, Tetradrachm, 490-407 BC, Athens, AU(50-53), Silver


Letter C


A group of objects gathered together and organized based on a range of established criteria – established by the collector of course. You may find many ideas and examples in our Inspirations series. 


Commemorative money

Why carve a date into a stone ever again when you can engrave it in metal or print it on paper money?

Commemorative money serves to mark a special event or occasion for the state which issues it.

It often features an original design and is minted as a limited edition with only a finite number produced.

Commemorative money is rarely used in day-to-day transactions, but always a firm favorite with collectors. The term can refer to coins, medals and even banknotes.

Here, for example, we see a commemorative medal from Poland:

Poland Medal

Commemorative Medal, 1918-1958, AU(50-53), Bronze


Letter D

Demonetized currency

If you go to France and try to buy a baguette with francs, you’ll experience the exact meaning of this definition. Demonetized money is currency which has been taken out of circulation and is no longer legal tender.



The name of the money in question.

Let’s be franc and call a spade a spade and a Napoléon a Napoléon. There’s no need to make such a drachma of it all!

Banknote Greece

1000 Drachmai, 1970, 1970-11-01, AU(55-58)


Letter E

Emergency coinage

Coin Germany

25 Pfennig, 1920

Emergency coinage is the term employed when items of currency are issued as an emergency measure outside of the standard legal currency system for exceptional reasons.

For example, when there is not sufficient money in circulation for whatever reason: a siege, a shortage of precious metals, etc...


Letter F

Facial value

The face value of the money is the value specified on it and established by convention at the time of its issue.

Banknote France

1000 Francs, 1940, 1941-02-06, EF(40-45), Fayette:39.4, KM:96b


Letter M

Medieval coins

This relatively general term covers all money issued from the end of antiquity until roughly the Fall of Constantinople in 1453.

Here we see an Italian Gros from the XIVth century:


Gros, Pierre-Chatel, EF(40-45), Silver


Letter N


In this case, we have a neologism applied to an activity with a considerably longer history: the art of collecting banknotes and paper money.

"It is believed that people have been collecting paper money for as long as it has been in use. While people began collecting paper currency more systematically in the 1940s, the turning point occurred in the 1970s when notaphily was established as a separate area by collectors. The term was devised in this decade by a group of employees working for the collectors and investments firm Stanley Gibbons, in a successful attempt to formalize and encourage interest in the area.

At the same time, some developed countries such as the USA, Germany and France began publishing their respective national catalogs of paper money, which represented major points of reference literature."

Source: Wikipedia

Banknote United States

Five Dollars, 1914, VF(20-25)

Banknotes themselves are by no means a modern invention.

The Chinese were already printing numbered bills on mulberry bark as early as the 8th century. They made it to Europe, Sweden to be more precise, in the 12th century with the appearance of the first watermarks.



This term derives from the Latin “numisma” and Greek “νυμισμα”.

It might not necessarily be evident at first glance, but numismatics is a science.

This science deals with the history of coins, medals, tokens and méreaux (a special type of token with a function similar to emergency coinage). It also deals with the description of these forms of currency and establishes a precise, dated classification of them.

Beyond collectors, the science is also an incredibly useful source of information for historians, geographers, iconographers, economists, and archaeologists looking to date their finds in particular.

It is difficult to say exactly when coinage was invented, but current thinking places its origins (in the form of a metallic object) around the 7th century BC in the East and West. Before that, an intermediate phase between bartering and coinage seems to have established the exchange of “symbolic” objects (for example the cowry shells which served as currency as of approximately the 13th century BC).

Italy Medal

Venezia, Cristoforo Moro, Doge LXVII, History, 1462-1471

Medals themselves are much more “recent” and only began to be minted in Italy towards the end of the 14th century, around the same time as the first banks appeared.



Here we have a double definition.

Effectively, the term numismatist can refer to a collector and a scientist equally.

The former collects, the latter studies. Both are passionate about the field and both spend their days pouring over coins, medals and other types of currency.

Don’t forget that although essentially a science, collecting is in fact an art…


Letter O


No point tossing a coin – the obverse is always heads

The name says it all: The heads side of a coin is the one displaying the portrait. For example, an image of the king or queen.

If the coin does not feature a portrait, as in this case, the obverse will be the side indicating the name of the issuer. For example, Louis XIV or the French Republic (RF = République Française).

Coin France

Louis XIV, 1/2 Écu à la mèche longue, 1/2 Ecu, 1652, Paris


Letter R


Now this is a definition you definitely won’t want to back away from if you’re interested in numismatics.

The reverse of a coin is the side which is referred to in everyday English as “tails” and its only defining feature is basically that it is the opposite of the other face, the obverse (see above).

In other words, you can determine which is the reverse of the coin by defining its obverse.

But be careful, there are traps! Take this coin minted by the Monnaie de Paris. Obverse, reverse… double reverse.

Coin France

JT, Monnaie de Paris, Paris, ESSAI, AU(50-53), Nickel


Letter S

Sheldon scale

The only weighing-up done here is the objective evaluation of a coin based on two principles: its rarity and its condition.

The grading scale was first presented in 1949 by Mr. William Henry Sheldon, also an American scientist, but with no affiliation to the Big Bang theory as far as we know.

The scale for the condition ranges from 1 to 70, with 70 being the best possible score (in other words: impeccable).

The scale for the rarity ranges from R1 to R8. R1 is for coins where more than 10,000 examples were issued (common currency, if I may be so bold), whereas R8 is reserved for the kind of finds worthy of displaying in a museum (1 to 3 known examples). One can begin to refer to a coin as rare as of grade R5.

Glossary of Numismatics I: General Considerations

That said, it is extremely difficult to assess in the case of certain coins (just pay Alexander the Great a visit to ask how many drachmas he had minted and then come back and let us know).

To discover some of our latest rare items available, see you there.


Letter T


For a first attempt, it’s a true masterpiece! All jokes aside, these are usually coins which never enter general circulation, being used instead to test a concept or a technique. They may also be runner-up designs for the final selection of a new type of money.

How can you spot them?

It’s easy: It’s written – or rather engraved/embossed – right there on them!

For example, take this copper 300 Brazilian cruzeiro coin from 1972:

That’s all for today, folks!

We hope you’ll join us for the next installment when we’ll begin shining a light on the vocabulary for the different parts of the coins in the truest sense of the word. How does the old saying go? As shiny as a new penny?

In the meantime, why not start or expand your collection now?

Selection published on 14/12/2017

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