Identifying Coins, A Brief Guide to Help Identify Coins

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Identifying Coins, A Brief Guide to Help Identify Coins
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Identifying Coins
About 100,000 people per year visit our web site for information about valuing or identifying their coins, 5,000 to 10,000 per year phone us for the same purpose. Our purpose in providing this page is to try to help you find the best way to identify your coin. This page only deals with the problem of identification, see the links at the end of this page for advice about values.

The Wrong Way
It might sound rather negative to start by telling you the wrong way to identify your coin, but so many people do it even after reading our advice, that we thought it better to include it near the top of the page rather than at the end. Please don't phone us to describe your coin or e-mail it to us, especially as a large scan. There are many reasons why not, which will become clear as you read on. This advice also applies to phoning or e-mailing other dealers for the same reason.

The Right Way
Most coins are or were designed to be easy for people to recognise and identify when used in transactions. The snag is that this applies to people in the country of origin, and for the foreseeable lifetime after the time of issue. This means that foreign coins and old coins can be difficult to identify. To be able to identify any coin completely, you will need to know most if not all of the following:-


    * Country of Origin
    * Metal
    * Denomination or Face Value
    * Date
    * Genuine, Original, Restrike, or Forgery
    * Coin or Medallion
    * Design or Variety
    * Exact Type, Proof or Normal

Other Characteristics
In addition, to help you work out which your coin is, you may find it helpful to determine each of the following:-

    * Language
    * Diameter
    * Weight
    * Colour
    * Magnetism
    * Thickness (rarely)

Where to Start
Start with what you already know! This may sound fairly obvious, but it's very easy to overlook simple clues. Do you know the country? If not, how about the language, any of the words, the images, the date.

Catalogues and Books
A good coin catalogue will help to identify most coins. Obviously the difficult part is to know which catalogue to start searching first. For world coins, the Krause series of World Coin catalogues are excellent. There are now four main catalogues, each covering a different century, starting with the 20th, and working back to the 17th. Each of these contains approximately 2,000 pages, 40,000 to 50,000 illustrations, and 200,000 coin listings with prices. If you already know the country, you may be best using a specialised catalogue for that country. Good catalogues do cost money, but are worth the investment. If you only have a small number of coins to identify, borrow one from your local library.

The Country
If you can tell which country the coin is from, you are already about half way to identifying it, especially if you have taken our advice and acquired a catalogue. Whether or not you have identified which country it's from, it will help to read the inscriptions (they are sometimes referred to as legends). What language are they in?

The inscriptions on many coins are in the native language of the issuing country, however there are some important exceptions. There are some languages which are almost universal. Many coins have Latin inscriptions, English and British coins for example, in fact it's almost correct to say that if the main inscriptions on a coin are in English, the coin is almost certainly not English! They could be American, Canadian, Australian, Indian, New Zealand, or from one of many African or Asian countries. Latin was used on most European coins until the last few centuries, including Austria, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Mexico, Netherlands, Peru, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom (Great Britain). Some countries still use Latin. A quick Latin course will work wonders!
Coins with French inscriptions may be Belgian, Canadian, or from a former French colony. Those with Spanish inscriptions could be from one of the South American Countries, and Portuguese could indicate Brazil.

Alphabet & Lettering
If a coin uses the English alphabet or western lettering it should be easy enough to read. It's when the writing systems are indecipherable that things start to get difficult, and you may need to do more research, usually this means looking at photographs of typical coins from many countries. It need not take long to start to recognise the character set used, and this will narrow the search down to a few countries usually with close geographical or historical links.
Most lettering and writing systems fall into one of a fairly small number of groups or families. We are indebted to Krause for listing Cyrillic, Greek, Amharic, Hebrew, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Tibetan, Vietnamese, Persian, Arabic, and the Indian class of languages. Comparing with illustrations in a catalogue will usually help.

Dates & Numerals
If you can read the date, it makes identification much easier. When the lettering of the inscription appears completely alien, the numerals including the date may be easier to read, but again you may need a conversion chart. The Krause catalogues have excellent tables of numerals in all eastern languages. You may need to convert the date from the local calendar to the western system, again Krause can help. Knowing the date can help to decide which catalogue to use, and combined with other clues from the inscription, such as the monarch's name, can help to decide the correct country.

Metal & Colour
Several millenia ago, it was easy to tell the metal a coin was composed of. A silver colour indicated silver, while a gold colour indicated gold, and a red or brown colour indicated copper, bronze or brass. The only real confusion could be caused by brass which looks yellow. Fortunately, the ancients were not stupid, and they knew the difference between gold and brass. Its yellow hue is not as warm or rich as gold's, its also relatively light, and tarnishes more easily. Sadly modern man has lost touch with the art of distinguishing between them. Almost daily for example we get phone calls and e-mails from people who have found a gold £2 coin dated between 1986 and 1996. They seem to have forgotten that these were made of nickel-brass, and are quite incapable of telling brass from gold. Strangely enough, they don't assume that the £1 coins in their pockets are gold, and they are made from the same nickel-brass alloy as the £2 coins.
In modern times, most silvery coloured coins will not be silver, but cupro-nickel, an alloy of copper and nickel, most yellow coins will be nickel-brass, usually an alloy of copper, nickel and zinc. Lightweight silvery coins will be aluminium, other silvery coins could be made of steel. Red and brown coins were until recently usually made of bronze, but most people call them coppers. In the last decade, many countries have switched to using copper plated steel. When the plating wears off these, or is removed chemically, people then assume their coins are silver!
Some collectors coins are made from other exotic metals such as platinum or palladium.

If you can weigh the coin accurately, this may help. Many coin catalogues, but not all, list the weight of coins, usually in grams. Another aspect of weight, is that it can help to identify the metal. A yellow coin which feels surprisingly heavy may be gold, but if it feels light then it is more likely to be brass. Similarly a lightweight silvery coin may be made of aluminium.

If a coin is strongly attracted to a magnet, it is probably made of steel, but may be plated with another metal such as copper. Many modern "copper" coins are actually made of copper plated steel.

One of the hardest things for the beginner to determine is whether their coin is genuine or a fake. This is not quick or easy to learn, it usually requires considerable experience, familiarity with the genuine article, and time spent studying the difference between the genuine and the counterfeit. Of course some fakes are very easy to tell.

Coin or Medallion
If the "coin" has its face value inscribed on it, then it usually will in fact be a coin. Some coins do not have their face value written on them, but if they have a king's or emperor's head, and the name of the country then they are also usually coins. Medallions however do not usually carry a mark of value, as they are not coins. You will be probably be wasting your time looking in any coin catalogue if what have have is a medallion and not a coin.

Heads - Portraits
If your coin has a person's portrait on it, there is a fair chance that the portrait is the ruler or leader of the country. The inscription will usually help to clarify this. Many commemorative coins have the portrait of famous people, and again the inscriptions will help to resolve this, and both give a clue as to the country of origin. Some famous personalities however end up on the coins of a large number of countries. In some republics and the USA, the coins will never carry the head of a living person, originally for anti-monarchy, democratic or socialistic reasons.

Diameter & Thickness
The diameter of a coin is easy to measure, and is a very reliable tool in helping to identify a coin. The best advice is to measure it with a ruler, preferably in millimetres. It's astounding how many people try to compare with an existing coin. This assumes that the person who you are asking knows the dimensions of the other coin. The thickness is harder to measure, and generally a less useful guide, but it won't do any harm to know.

Look at all the other design features of the coin. Although we have left this until the end, it is an important step in identification. Most countries have national symbols, rather like trade marks. Often these include the coats-of-arms of their ruling families, sometimes they picture native flora and fauna. Once again Krause contains about 170 photographs of insignia or symbols on coins. It calls this section its "Instant Identifier".
Other important symbols are the "Toughras" used on many coins of Islamic or Ottoman influence, Although most toughras look rather similar, they are all different, because a toughra is a monogram of the rulers name and titles.

Getting Help
As we have already stated, a coin catalogue will help, but is you feel the need to call in outside help, there are a few simple simple things to remember. Do you expect an expert to help you for nothing? How do you think he makes a living, or does he just do it for fun. It is doubtful that you provide your labour free of charge, but even if you do, don't forget most people have to work for their living, and not everyone has the time or patience to answer your questions for free. Of course, if you visit your local museum, you may find that the curators are paid to try to provide a public service, and your local lending or reference library will usually help too.
Most experts can identify coins between 100 and 1,000 times faster by sight that by description. There is no substitute for seeing the coin in 3D, and being able to handle it, so don't expect to scan and e-mail pictures of your coins to dealers. Try taking your coin to a local coin dealer and asking him nicely if he can help you identify it. Don't expect him to be able to do it by phone or e-mail.

Some coin magazines, and possibly archaeological and historical ones offer identification services, but this is often only for more unusual coins, most of the scans and rubbings which get sent to magazines are probably 80% the same ones time after time.

Internet Search Engines
Perhaps that's how you found this page of our site, but you will get very mixed results using the internet to identify coins. The Krause catalogues must contain about a million listings, and they only go back four centuries, with this diversity of coins, it is unlikely that information about every single coin ever made will be available on the web. If you know how to use search engines, they can often pinpoint what you want, but you do have to take a little time and effort to learn how to use them. One very successful way is to enter the inscription of the coin into a search engine, do this in its entirety and with quotation marks around it. Not all search engines support this feature, Alta Vista does. The chances are that there will be a page about a coin similar to yours in the first few results found, if not there may be a clue as to its country of origin, or whose portrait is on the coin. Make sure you use a good search engine! eBay do not like us to mention the names of other web sites!

Internet Limits
Some day, coin catalogues may be available on the internet, although it may take some time for various reasons. Firstly, any catalogue requires a tremendous amount of work, and because authors and publishers don't work for nothing, they will need to charge for use of their online catalogues. Secondly, one of the easiest ways to identify coins is to find pictures of similar coins. Good quality image files take time and bandwidth to download, so even if a website existed with images of every coin ever minted, if would take an eternity to load, even with a very fast connection. It would also take a long time to scan through. For an example of this, you could look at our World Coin Photo Gallery, it's far from complete, containing photographs (one of each side) of only one coin per country, and we have only added about half the number of countries. It will take about half an hour to load using a 56K modem, later we may add a version of the same page with smaller images, but this takes time, and nobody pays us for providing this page. Because of this, it's best to do a little detective work on the inscriptions as we have described above, to narrow the search before looking for coins from the right country or period of time. Since writing this page, we have split the world coins photo's page into 26 separate alphabetical pages.

We hope this has helped. There is more...

About the Author
Lawrence Chard is a director of Chard Coins of Blackpool, England, and has over 42 years experience in numismatic and bullion coins.
Chard have maintained a dealing service for both collectors and investors in bullion and numismatic coins. During the period from 1965 to 1971, we were one of only a small number of dealers who were granted a dealers licence.

All our images and text are copyright.

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