Collecting coins can be both a hobby and a science.
Private coin collectors pursue their hobby for all kinds of reasons, simply for the pleasure of having a complete collection, or as an investment. Many museums around the world which are devoted to numismatics compile major coin collections, thus preserving significant witnesses to history. Because coins always also reflect the most important events of their time, whether by portraying the ruler or honouring contemporary or topical events; or because of the applied minting technology, or the material or weight of the coin. Serious numismatists who do not just collect for the sake of collecting also take an interest in these contextual, historical aspects of coins.
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The history of numismatics
Coin-collecting was previously the reserve mainly of secular rulers and ecclesiastical dignitaries. In contrast to the “common folk” they had the financial means and contacts that were needed to compile any sizeable collection in the first place. Luckily, that is no longer the case today. We know from Roman historians that Roman emperors were collecting coins as long as 2,000 years ago. This they probably did not do for any scientific reason – out of an interest in the history of money as such – but rather for the sake of collecting per se, and perhaps also to display their wealth and power.
Numismatics as a science
The first known attempts to approach coins from a scientific point of view were undertaken in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Coins form an important basis for historical research because, viewed in the context of all the known coins of the same period, the portraits they bear provide clues as to the life, economy and politics of the time when they were struck. With antique coins, pursuing numismatics as a science means first and foremost identifying the coins – finding out where they come from, who minted them and when, and then cataloguing them. With modern coins, a simple glance at the obverse and reverse allows you to read all the relevant information, such as the year in which it was minted and the issuing country. However, in earlier times this information was not struck on the coins and so often only experienced numismatists will succeed in identifying them. Knowing where they were found can be helpful, although even that is not always the case. For example, as a result of early trade antique coins may be found far from their place of origin. On the other hand, the place where they were found can provide clues as to the economic history of that period, such as what long-distance trade relations already existed.
The significance of numismatics today and in the future
Although largely unfamiliar to the general public, numismatics is a crucial science for art historians and archaeologists. While coin-collecting has always been driven by the simple joy of collecting, of building up as complete a collection as possible, at the same time each and every coin collector makes his or her contribution to the conservation of valuable witnesses to human history.
We can probably say without any exaggeration that the history of mankind since the seventh century BC is immortalised, at least in part, on coins. Without coins and the scientific study of them, our knowledge of mankind's past would be less complete than it is today.
And the modern coins of today are the antique treasures of the future!
Numismatic methods, research and teaching
Nowadays, numismatics is a typical museum science. Thanks to the numerous, broad-ranging numismatic research studies that have already been undertaken, we now have virtually complete databases and catalogues of the coins most frequently used anywhere in the world from their beginnings to the present. Nevertheless, isolated coins or hoards are always being found which have to be identified and classified.
Numismatists research into individual coins on the one hand and into their place in the history of money on the other. Key methods include style analysis and typology in order to determine the contemporaneity of coins and coin types.
Modern metal analysis provides clues as to the origin and fineness of the coinage metal used. That enables changes over longer periods, such as deterioration in fineness to be observed. This kind of devaluation allowed earlier rulers to continually lower the fineness of silver and gold coins, for example to fund wars. One very interesting method is contextual numismatics, which deduces the geographical spread of coins and coin types from coin finds and the place where they were found. This also gives an insight into trade relations and routes. Interpretation is made difficult by the fact that, according to current estimates, only one coin in every thousand has been conserved at all.
Numismatics – research and teaching
MCollecting and researching into coins are a numismatist’s principal tasks. In universities, numismatics is regarded primarily as an ancillary discipline to history and a part of classical studies. It is also strongly linked to archaeology and Roman history.
Numismatics are usually not an independent subject of study, but can be studied as a minor subject. Numismatic research is not only done at universities. In mostGerman-speaking countries especially, research is carried out in large, and numerous smaller, scientific institutes and museums. Even learned, often highly specialised private collectors make frequently important contributions thanks to their detailed knowledge. Besides the research into coins and coin finds per se, written sources from historical archives are also a source of numismatic information.