Written by: Tyler Rusnak
Being a coin collector can be like sitting down to a buffet; there are so many choices, how can one know where to start? You might start with a serving of sautéed buffalo nickel or baked wheat cent. Maybe you'll venture into a side of silver dollars. Then you might help yourself to some vegetarian wreath cent salad. Or you can indulge in an early American copper soufflé with some prime gold coin sauce. If you take it all in at once, however, you may get a stomachache! No diner wants that, and the starting collector can be just as daunted upon entering his first coin show, like a true kid in a candy store. So what is the secret to developing successful, rewarding collecting habits? In short, specializing.
There are many specialties that numismatists routinely engage in collecting. Often we choose to collect a favorite series such as buffalo nickels or Morgan silver dollars. Such a focus allows you to put together a comprehensive set of dates and mintmarks or just dates, if one prefers. For certain early coins, like draped bust half dollars, collectors garner smaller differences in die variety. Yet more possibilities are present if you wish to find a broader stance in the hobby. You can collect by denomination, such as cents, nickels and dollars; by century, including 20th and 19th century sets; or by metal, like silver, copper and gold coins. But even so, there are lots of options to choose from. So how can you find your niche?
Here I sojourn into a personal lesson about what it took to find my calling. I, like many new collectors, went a little haywire at first, jumping from one series to the next getting much too excited every time I learned about a new coin. After starting at least seven sets and acquiring a potpourri of random coins, I had everything from modern day mint sets to 18th century coppers to silver dollars to paper money errors. I went all out at the buffet, and my pockets are still a little achy from the ordeal. However, it was quite a valuable learning experience for me since I learned what not to do from my mistakes. Additionally, it eventually led to where I am now; collecting Early American Coppers in addition to some coins from Cyprus and a 19th and 20th century U.S. type set as side projects. So for those new collectors who want to avoid repeating my painful experience, here is what I learned about specializing:
If you have ever heard the expression "buy the book before the coin," heed it well. Simply learning about your collecting options and possible interests before diving head first into it can help you decide whether that set is right for you. Many books are available that cover virtually every area of interest, and articles in club publications are also very helpful sources of information. Clubs themselves can aid in research for the prospective numismatist. There are clubs to fit every collector's needs and they are always eager to serve new members. In my case, I found the Early American Copper Society (EACS), which has greatly helped improve my set of early coppers. Had I had the resources at my disposal that I do now when I started, I could have saved a lot of time and money avoiding coins I later regretted buying.
Second, because it is impossible to keep your enthusiasm entirely contained, purchase some coins that catch your attention. Buying new coins that are unfamiliar can be wonderful learning opportunities and such discoveries are what fuel the fire of collecting. Be tentative though. Take only small servings from each dish and do not bite off more than you can chew. The main reason I decided to put together a type set was so that I could get a taste of all the exotic flavors numismatics has to offer. I'm just making sure to carefully study each coin before buying it to make sure I get the best value for my dollar. Doing so can help a new hobbyist to further discover his or her personal tastes.
Finally, once settling on a set, make sure that its scope is representative of your budget and desires. I would love to assemble a complete set of chain cents, but that would not be a reasonable scope because, on my budget, I'll be lucky if I can even afford one! On the other hand, while I would not want to limit myself to only one station at the buffet, I also would not want to commit to collecting every single copper coin. Such a wide scope would make it equally impossible to finish a set and would just make collecting frustrating. Rather, I advise choosing a series that is challenging and broad enough to be interesting but not so much so as to be budget straining. It's all about finding the right mix!
Numismatics can be anything the collector makes it out to be, so keep in mind that you must be well informed and open to a little bit of exploring before finding your perfect match. But when you do find your calling it will be so sweet!