How to identify a coin

When using a reference work to pin down a coin then it is a relatively easy task if you already have some idea of what it is. For example, if you know a coin is a Henry VI penny then you look it up in the section of a book covering that king, or in a specialised publication on the reign. However, if you have no idea what it might be then a number of different stages need to be gone through in order to reach a final conclusion. The stages are set out below.

Stages of identifying a coin

1: Is it a coin?  Or, is it a token, jetton, medal or something else?

2: Is it gold, silver, copper, other?

3: Is it cast, hammered or milled?

4: Is it English, British or foreign?

5: If English is it Anglo-Saxon, Norman, medieval or later?

6: If it belongs to a reign or period then which one?

7: What is the denomination (penny, sixpence, etc.)?

8: What is the type/class/variety?

9: What is the mint and/or the moneyer (if both are named) and/or the date?

In the case of some coins, milled gold and silver, for instance, it can be quite easy to work through all but the last stage in the above list.

Gaining experience in identifying a coin

Other coins can prove to be much more difficult and those with little or no experience in identifying coins might get no further than stage 4. I always tell detectorists (and numismatists) that the best way to become more familiar with coins is to see and handle as many as they can. Most major museums have collections on view. Individual detectorists and numismatists are usually willing to let others see their coins. Also, there is a huge range of reference works filled with tens of thousands of illustrations.

Use your eyes

“Use your eyes” I always say, “and see what they can tell you.” Look only at what is there, not what might be there or what you’d like to be there. For example, if the legend on a groat starts with EDWARD then it can’t have been struck for one of the kings named Henry. Of course not, I hear you say. Yet I have seen coins listed as being struck for one king when the name of another – an earlier or later one – stood out clearly on the obverse. So, use your eyes. In doing so you may not always get things right but you will at least avoid some glaring errors.

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