Coin Collecting – Collecting World Gold Coins 1850-1933
By: Michael Joffre – mtltimes.ca
For those with a slightly enhanced budget, collecting older circulating gold coins is a fun challenge. From around 500 BCE to around 1933, gold coins were an important part of commerce in most western civilizations.
In ancient times gold, being scarce, hard to copy, easily meltable, and stampable, made it an ideal thing to use as money. At first designs and animals were put on lumps of round metal, and this evolved to flat coins as we know today, often with a kings portrait or another national symbol.
During a period of roughly 1850 to 1933, gold coinage was produced in very large numbers by wealthy nations. USA, England, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, and others often minted millions of coins each year. These coins were usually on a “gold standard”. USA, France, Italy, and others would produce their coins .900 fine. A French Franc would be equal to .29g of pure gold. A US Dollar would have about 1.50g of pure gold. So the exchange between USA and France would be fixed at around 5.2 Francs to the Dollar, and not changing like today. This made international commerce much simpler. Some other countries were producing gold coins .916 fine purity. These included England, and others in the British empire. One British “pound” was equal to about 7.32g of pure gold…so the ratio of USA Dollars to Pounds was fixed at about 4.86.
Besides commerce, the other advantage this gold system, was one where governments could only spend what they had, or could borrow. They could not “print” money that was not backed up by either metal or loans from others. However when World War I came around, many needed to spend money on defences that was beyond their reserves, or tax base, and therefore this gold standard disappeared. By the time of the Great Depression in the 1930’s, the USA and other nations faced the possibility of economic collapse, and so a new system that was not backed by metal needed to be adopted. Thus, using gold coins as money came to an end in 1933 when the USA government made owning gold in quantity a crime, and melted all of that years coinage (creating the ultra-rare $20 1933…the worlds most expensive coin).
The great news is that a lot of coins from the 1850-1933 period were saved. Most coins can be purchased at, or close to, the actual gold value. Popular coins from this period include the gold sovereign from England, 20 Franc coins from France, Belgium, Italy, and Switzerland, and of course the extensively collected USA $, 2 ½, $5, $10, & $20 gold coins.
My advice would be to first look online, and check out how much gold is in the coin you want to buy. Since many of these coins are available at only modest premiums to the melt value, try to find ones that are in the best shape possible…often you will not need to pay much extra. Of course like in everything there are some rare type and or dates that will cost much more.
The best reference book for collecting gold coins by type, and certainly the most complete, as it starts with ancient Greek, and Roman, is “Gold Coins of the World From Ancient Times to Present” by Friedberg. Currently in its 8th edition. It is a bit hard to find, but will give you a basic idea of what is possible to collect, relative pricing, and basic historical information.