US Coin Encyclopedia
Our encyclopedia includes general information and valuable statistics about the US coin mints, famous designers and engravers, and some basics regarding coin grading. We will add more information and articles here in the future. If you could not find what you were looking for, please check out our non-commercial coin and numismatic resources page for additional websites and resources which contain comprehensive and specialized information collected by other experts in the field over a period of many years.
The United States Coin Mints
One of the first major priorities after the ratification of the Constitution was the build a US Mint as a way to establish a national identity and provide a solid US currency system. The mint was created with the passing of the Coinage Act into law on April 2 of 1792. President George Washington himself appointed David Rittenhouse to become the first Director of the Mint. The Philadelphia Mint was also the first mint created by this law and the first coin was minted 5 months later when the building was built. This mint is still the most popular mint in modern times and is running strong.
There were 8 major branch mints created throughout the US history. The second mint was built in New Orleans because of strategic commercial location and nearby gold rushes. In fact, the New Orleans mint along with Charlotte and Dahlonega were established at the same time by President Andrew Jackson in 1837. Charlotte and Dahlonega were exclusive and small mints for gold coins due to nearby gold rushes in North Carolina and Georgia but New Orleans was a major mint and they produced silver coins as well. All three were taken over by the Confederates in the Civil War and the New Orleans Mint was the only one that was re-established after the War but was later decommissioned.
Denver and San Francisco mints were also created because of the western gold rushes and are still used today. Denver is the second most popular mint producing coins for general circulation while San Francisco mints proof coins and special collectable coins for sets. One of the most modern mints is the West Point mint near the West Point Military Academy which was nicknamed the "Fort Knox of Silver". West Point was built in 1933 but officially became a mint in 1988 and almost exclusively mints Gold, Silver and Platinum American Eagle coins along with many commemorative coins as well. Browse the links below to read about the history and other information about each major mint:
- Philadelphia Mint
- Denver Mint
- San Francisco Mint
- Carson City Mint
- New Orleans Mint
- West Point Mint
- Charlotte Mint
- Dahlonega Mint
Famous Coin Designers and Engravers
Below is a list of the major US coin designers responsible for designing, sculpting, modeling and engraving our common US coinage. Our coin encyclopedia would not be complete if we did not write about the history and the people reponsible for designing the coins that we love. These are also some of the most prominent artists and sculptors in America during their times and some were appointed by the US Preident to become Chief Engraver and Sculptor of the US Mint, a post held by only 12 people in US history. For the full list, click here to view the biographies of the coin designers, engravers and people of the US Mint.
- Joseph Wright
- Robert Scot
- John Reich
- Christian Gobrecht
- Henry Voigt
- James B Longacre
- William Kneass
- William Barber
- Charles E Barber
- George T Morgan
- Augustus Saint Gaudens
- Bela Lyon Pratt
- Victor D Brenner
- James Earle Fraser
- Adolph A Weinman
- Hermon A MacNeil
- Anthony de Francisci
- John Flanagan
- Felix Schlag
- John R Sinnock
- Frank Gasparro
- Gilroy Roberts
- Jack L Ahr
- Seth G Huntington
- Dennis R Williams
- John M Mercanti
- William Cousins
- Glenna Goodacre
- Don Everhart
US Coin Series, Programs, Collections and Sets
There are a few major commemorative coin programs released by the US Mint in recent years. Some of these include the 50 State Quarters program, Presidential Dollars, Westward Journey Nickels and many more. We've been compiling an encyclopedic guide dedicated to each coin series and program. These guides include information about how each program got started, which coins and designs were minted and detailed, very high quality pictures and images of each of the designs in each program. These programs are modern and you may have heard of them before as they've produced a whole new generation of coin collectors. Below is an ever-growing list of US commemorative coin series and programs:
- 50 State Quarters
- District of Columbia and US Territories Quarters - (2009 extension of the 50 State Quarters Program)
- America the Beautiful Quarters
- Presidential Dollar Coins
- Sacagawea Native American Dollar Coins
- First Spouse Gold Coins
- Westward Journey Nickels
- Bicentennial Lincoln Pennies (Cents)
- American Platinum Eagle Coins
Grading Coins and Numismatics - Coin Conditions
Coin grading is a very important aspect of coin collecting and can be done by experience collectors or professional numismatists. The most common standard for measuring the grade or condition of a coin is through the Sheldon Scale, a system that ranges from the number 1, the poorest condition to the number 70, the flawless perfect coin. The higher the number is, the better condition your coin is in. This is especially important for valuing coins. In fact, the difference between a Choice uncirculated MS-65 coin and a regular MS-60 Uncirculated coin can mean the difference between $100,000 or even $1 million depending on the coin.
There are two major categories of the Sheldon coin grading scale that need to be addressed. The PR system deals only with Proof coins and also ranges from 1 to 70. The MS stands for the "Mint State" and it used to grade regular circulated and uncirculated coins. The MS system also ranges from 60 to 70 for grading uncirculated mint state coins. The regularly circulated coins are given grades between 1, being poor and 59, which is about uncirculated. These conditions are indicated by using letters and numbers such as: (G - 4) for Good, or (F - 12) for Fine coins and so on as shown in the list below. Any of the MS-60 through MS-70 coins along with Proof coins are usually graded by visual appeal and sometimes with the use of a microscope or magnifier of up to 8x scaled. Graders look at factors such as luster, toning, contact marks, hairlines and quality for making decisions.
How to Grade Coins and Conditions
Pretty much anyone can grade circulated coins once they are exposed to coins and get a good reference to which grade corresponds with what. Unless you are an expert or know enough about coins, you should only worry about trying to grade circulated coins. Most uncirculated coins, especially old ones should be submitted to professional coin grading agencies such as PCGS or NGC for precise grading. It may cost some additional money but it is usually worth it for older coins or coins that you suspect of being near perfect conditions since the highest grade coins can easily be worth thousands of dollars, even modern perfect coins.
For the average or novice collector, the first step is to start working on some regular circulated coins containing old ones and common pocket change. It is also advised to have uncirculated mint state coins at hand to use as a reference and compare your coins with. Many of these kinds of coins are easy to obtain anyways. The first thing you need to start grading coins is a good bright light source. If you are serious and really want to get good at it, you should pick up a magnifier with up to 8x zoom. You do not need anything more powerful than 8x since this is the standard limit that the professionals would use. The magnifier is also best used for fine details or determining a specific coin grade, especially with uncirculated coins mostly, but it is a good tool to have on hand.
If you have a big pile of coins, the best thing to do is look at each coin with the naked eye and separate according to how well they look. Many people put the worst coins on the left and the best looking coins on the right, up next to the uncirculated reference coin (that you probably should have in a plastic holder of sorts!). If you have a coin that looks much like the uncirculated coin, then this must be in "About Uncirculated" condition since it is nearly uncirculated but you know it is circulated since you are touching it. View the references below to choose if your "AU" coin is a low grade one with lots of contact marks or if it is highly visually appealing.
Look at all the coins next to each other from poorest condition to best condition. You can start to get an idea of how you can classify each coin, especially if you have a large number of coins in a wide variety of conditions. Many modern coins will never have conditions below Very Fine in some cases so you might need some older coins like Buffalo Nickels, Indian Head Pennies and Mercury Dimes to work with. These are usually great coins for learning coin grading techniques since their conditions vary widely from heavily worn to very nice looking. Once you get good at grading coins, you can start to safely put them in cardboard coin flips like the one shown on the left or the really nice ones in the Air-Tite plastic holders, and then mark their grade on them. This is how many coin dealers do it and how you can milk a little extra profit or get the best deals just by having good coin grading knowledge.
- Poor or Basal (P - 1) - This is the worst condition of coin. The coin must be identifiable, have a mintmark and a date, otherwise the coin is pretty much worthless. Usually the coin is just barely identifiable or has a lot of damage which make them poor or basal.
- Fair (FR - 2) - Fair coins are usually very smooth like poor coins but do not contain heavy damage.
- About Good (AG - 3) - About good is slightly better than fair coins and the date is hard to read but even the major details are worn down or nearly removed from the coin due to wear.
- Good (G - 4) - Good coins have heavy wear but you can still see the date. Usually the date is worn down or merges with the rim of the coin. The major details are also smoothed out or mostly gone.
- Very Good (VG - 8) - Coins in very good condition have heavy wear on them but the major details are more visible. The central details are still worn down and barely existing.
- Fine (F - 12) - Fine coins still contain a lot of wear but the overall design is bold and clear. Also, the rims of the coins are nearly separated as well.
- Very Fine (VF - 20) - A Very Fine coin grade indicates that the rims are clear and much of the wording is clear. There is moderate wear to the coin and the finer details are beginning to appear.
- Extremely (Extra) Fine (EF - 40) - A grade of Extra Fine or Extremely Fine is given to a coin with very little wear and much of the major and minor details are clear and bold.
- About Uncirculated (AU - 50) - A coin that is about or nearly uncirculated has very little wear but may have contact marks or scratches from other coins that came in contact or from the machines. AU-50 is not a very appealing coin but it is still nearly uncirculated.
- Very Choice About Uncirculated (AU - 58) - A Choice About Uncirculated coin is much like the AU-50 variety but has almost no contact marks, there almost full luster and the coin is visually appealing.
- Uncirculated - Mint State Basal (MS - 60) - These coins are uncirculated but usually have a lot of ugly contact marks and scratches usually resulting from wear and tear of flowing through the machines at the mint. There is almost no luster and the coin is not visually appealing, but it is still uncirculated.
- Choice Brilliant Gem Uncirculated (MS - 65) - A choice brilliant uncirculated is a coin with nearly full luster, almost no contact marks and is highly appealing with a great strike at the mint.
- Premium Quality Mint State Uncirculated (MS - 68) - These are highly attractive coins with a sharp strike. Premium Quality coins have a perfect luster and there are no visual contact marks to the naked eye.
- All But Perfect Mint State Uncirculated (MS - 69) - An all-but-perfect coin is highly appealing visual and has a perfect luster and perfect strike. The only thing that makes this coin not perfect is that there are microscopic flaws in the magnitude 8x range that include either contact marks or flaws in the planchet that the coin was struck on.
- Perfect (MS - 70) - A Perfect coin of the mint state uncirculated type is totally flawless even on the microscopic scale up to a magnification of 8x. The coin is also perfectly centered with full, highly appealing original luster. A perfect coin is also struck sharply on a flawless planchet. These are some of the most valuable and sought-after coins for collectors and numismatists.
- Proof (PR - 65) - The PR scale is used for proof coins and runs from 1 to 70 just like the normal MS scale. A Proof 65 coins is just like a Choice Brilliant Gem Uncirculated MS-65 coin except the coin is a proof. Proof coins are those with mirror-like surfaces which are specially struck longer and with greater pressure with thicker planchets. Typically, these special coins are meant only for collectors and are found in cases or sets.
How to Use our Numismatic Price Charts
If you are new to numismatics, this guide should get you on the right track on how to read our numismatic pricing tables and charts. Here is a small sample of the table from our Lincoln Wheat Cents, which shows all the data on how much any wheat penny is worth. I will explain each part of it below:
|1955 P||Doubled-Die Obverse||N/A||378||652||943||1213||1325||1507||2755||11565||-||0|
Year - In the Year column, you will see the date that this coin was minted in along with it's mint mark, which shows where the coin was minted. In the example above, the coin you are looking at was minted in the year 1955 and the "P" means that the coin was minted in Philadelphia. There are 8 different mints, which are described at the top of the page: US Mint Locations. The year and mintmark will be in the form of a hyperlink. If you click that, you can view the specific page on that one specific coin.
Details - This column shows various details of the coins if there are any. If this cell is blank, then this is just a plain standard coin. In the above example table, the first coin of the first row has a blank "details" cell, meaning this was just the normal minted coin. The second row shows "Doubled-Die Obverse". This describes a variation of the normal coin. Usually, these are worth more and are rarer.
Mintage - The mintage column tells you how many coins were minted of this particular type, mint mark and year. The smaller the number, the rarer the coin is. If you see "N/A", this means the mintage is unknown in that no one knows exactly how many coins were minted of a particular type, which is typical for variations and error coins. "N/A" is also used in our table when we do not have the mintage data at hand, which is typical for the most recent coins in which the data is not yet available to us.
G (4) through PR (65) - This consists of 9 columns which describe the numismatic grade or condition of the coin. "G" stands for "Good" condition. "VG" stands for "Very Good" condition and so on. We explain what all of these mean just above this guide in: How to Grade Coins. When it comes to MS65 and PR65 grades, some tables will have MS63 and PR65 or even PR68 instead. We selected the most popular numbers on the Sheldon Scale (usually MS63 for older coins and MS65 for newer coins) for a particular type of coin, so the tables can differ for different coins.
Underneath these numismatic grade condition headers, there are numbers which show how much the coin is worth. For instance, for the first coin, a coin in "F (12)" or Fine condition is worth $0.05. This same coin is worth $0.14 in About Uncirculated "AU (50)" condition. As you can see for the second coin with the Doubled Die Obverse variety, a coin in "G (4)" Good condition is worth $378 and a coin in uncirculated mint condition "MS (60)" is worth $2,755. This same coin is worth $11,565 if it is in Brilliant uncirculated condition "MS (65)". This is why we recommend getting your good uncirculated coins certified by a grading agency and they can tell you exactly which mint state number and condition your coin is in.
A dash "-" means either the pricing information is not available or unknown, which is common for rare coins or very old coins where coins in uncirculated condition may not exist. This is also common for dates or mint marks in which proof coins were never minted. In other cases such as with heavy silver or gold coins, we omitted the pricing figures below a certain grade as the coin becomes as valuable as the metal it is made of. With modern common coins (1965+ usually), a dash would indicate that the coin is worth face value, which is typical unless the coin is uncirculated.
For Sale - The last column shows how many coins of a particular type are for sale by other members or dealers. A "0" means no one is selling the coin. At the top of our charts, there are 4 tabs for coins up for auction, for sale, on a wish list or in personal collection. Depending on which tab you select, this last column will change accordingly so you can see how many coins may be on someone's wish list or in another member's coin collection. You can buy and sell coins in the "Auctions" or "For Sale" tabs. You can also respond to a member's wish list and offer them the coin they are searching for in the "Wish List" tab and browse through other people's collection in the "Personal Collections" tab.
If the number is not "0", the whole row will be color-coded to make it more noticeable that a coin is for sale. In this case, it will be blue when a coin is for sale, grey if a coin is for auction, green if a coin is on the wish list and gold if a coin is in a personal collection (if you clicked on one of the 4 tabs described in the previous paragraph). This number will also be in the form of a hyperlink, so you can click that to view all the coins of that type for sale. The link in the "Year" column will also bring you to the same place as well.