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numismatics (no͞oˌmĭzmătˈĭks, –mĭs–), collection and study of coins, medals, and related objects as works of art and as sources of information. The coin and the medal preserve old forms of writing, portraits of eminent persons, and reproductions of lost works of art; they also assist in the study of early customs, in ascertaining dates, in clarifying economic status and trade relations, and in tracing changes in political attitudes. In the past many valuable coin collections were assembled by individuals; in the 20th cent. and since, however, public museums have been responsible for building the largest collections. The largest coin market in the world is in London.


See J. A. MacKay, Value in Coins and Medals (1968); J. Porteous, Coins in History (1969); B. Hobson and R. Obojski, Illustrated Encyclopedia of World Coins (1970); C. J. Andrews, Fell's International Coin Book (5th ed. 1973); C. French, American Guide to U.S. Coins (annual ed.).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



a subsidiary historical discipline that deals with the history of minted coins and monetary circulation. Numismatists study coins, ingots, and other materials (for example, dies and various documents). Numismatics traditionally includes the study of paper money, medals, tokens, plaques, orders, and badges. The study of coins as money, as state documents, as works of art, and as written sources (epigraphs) is closely associated with the investigation of other historical sources, such as documentary and archaeological evidence. Before the appearance of metal coins, the function of money was fulfilled by such commodities as livestock, ornaments, metal tools, and metal ingots. Ingots were often used as a monetary equivalent, sometimes in quite highly developed societies (for example, the silver ingots known as grivens, which were used in ancient Rus’ in the 12th and 13th centuries).

Coins are issued as means of payment only in those societies whose economic development gives rise to a need for monetary circulation and whose social development leads to the emergence of an authority with the power to mint coins. Thus, the very fact that coins are minted and used in a particular society is evidence that the society has achieved a certain level of socioeconomic and political development. The right to mint coins usually belongs to the state. The first coins appeared in the late eighth or early seventh centuries B.C. in Lydia (Asia Minor) and on the island of Aegina (Greece).

A distinction is made between the face, or obverse, and the back, or reverse, of a coin. By the sixth century B.C., both surfaces were usually covered by designs, which are called types by numismatists. The obverse is usually the side with the most important types, which generally praise the government or the official religion. Ancient Greek and Roman republican coins depicted gods, and the coins of the Roman Empire and the feudal states of Western Europe normally bore a portrait of the ruler or a representation of his seal. Oriental coins frequently were decorated with religious texts, and modern coins depict the monarch or the state seal. Inscriptions, or legends, appear on both the obverse and reverse. They usually include the name of the country or governmental body that minted the coin, the name and title of the monarch, the name of the mint, the name of the person responsible for striking the coin, the date, and the coin’s value.

Coins usually have a specified weight. Throughout the history of various countries, different coin weight systems have been used, which may or may not coincide with the measures of weight used in commerce. The systems of standard units, that is, the basic monetary units and their multiples and parts, are closely linked to the weight system. Studying the weight of ancient and medieval coins greatly helps to determine the coin weight systems and the systems of monetary standards used in a particular state and to identify monetary reforms.

The first coins struck in Greece and Asia Minor were made from silver and electrum, whereas the first Chinese coins were cast from copper. Subsequently, the principal materials for coins were silver, gold, copper, and such alloys as bronze, brass, and billon. In recent times, nickel, aluminum, and similar materials have been used. Coins are rarely made from iron or lead. A certain amount of copper is ordinarily added to precious metals to give them strength. This admixture is often called the hardener. The percentage of precious metal in the coin, which is called the standard, is established by the government. Some governments, however, practiced debasement, that is, striking a coin with a lower standard and reduced weight but with the former nominal value. This practice was among the most common means by which the state received income, particularly during the Middle Ages.

The inscriptions and the form of a coin enable us to make judgments about such matters as a society’s type of government, the succession of reigns, dynastic chronology, the occurrence of coups d’etat, and the relationship between vassals and suzerains. The types and inscriptions often reflect events from political and social life: wars, conquests, internal struggles, or state or religious reforms. Sometimes a special coin dedicated to a certain event is issued (commemorative coin). The information revealed by coins makes them a valuable source for the study of political history.

Coins are a unique source in the study of the history of the ideology, religion, and political thought of a society. Numismatic materials are important in analyzing the economic history of a society, because they can be used to trace the ebb and flow of coinage, a change in the weight system, and the introduction of different metals into circulation. As articles of artistic craft, coins are a source for studying the history of both technology and art. In some cases, coins are masterpieces of graphic art. The inscriptions on coins are important in paleography. Coins discovered during archaeological excavations are important for use in dating various remains.

Numismatics deals not only with individual coins but also with groups of coins, particularly treasures. Because they generally consist of coins taken out of circulation, treasures are important in determining the composition of the standard money commodity as a whole. (Treasures are dated by the most recent coin.) Numismatic topography, the mapping of finds of treasures and individual coins, is a key means of tracing changes in the distribution of certain coin series, determining the system of trade routes, and identifying the place where particular coins were minted.

Numismatics as a science should be distinguished from coin collecting. Coin collectors generally are not interested in the historical significance of a coin; rather, they are concerned with its rarity and artistic merit. Coin collecting, which began in Italy in the 14th and 15th centuries, spread rapidly to the other European countries. In the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries, hundreds of private collections, primarily of ancient coins, were established. These collections later became part of larger collections owned by kings and emperors. In the late 18th century the following major collections were formed: the Münzkabinett in Vienna, the medals office in Paris, the collections of the British Museum in London and the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, and the Münzkabinett in Berlin. In the scholarly works of the period, coins were usually considered as art objects on a level with cameos and sculpture. In the second half of the 18th century, scientific numismatics emerged. The Viennese numismatist J. H. Eckhel is considered the father of the field.

In Soviet historiography it is customary to divide numismatics into several areas of study: ancient, Byzantine, Oriental (the coins of the countries of Asia and Africa, including medieval coins of Middle Asia, the Caucasus, the Crimea, and the Volga Region), Western (medieval coins and coins of modern times from Western Europe, as well as the coins of the United States, Canada, and Latin America), and Russian (including Soviet). Modern Asian and African coins with legends in Western European languages constitute a special division.

Numismatics began with the study of ancient coins, primarily their representations and legends. Interest in the metrology of coins and their role in economic and cultural history arose only in the late 19th century. Such Russian antiquarian-numismatists as G. K. E. Keller, B. V. Kene, P. O. Burachkov, A. L. Bert’e-Delagard, A. V. Oreshnikov, and A. N. Zograf primarily studied the coinage of the states of the Northern Black Sea coast. Byzantine numismatics emerged as a separate branch of the science in the second half of the 19th century, with Russian numismatists (I. I. Tolstoi) making significant contributions. The Russian Orientalist Kh. D. Fren was the founder of Oriental numismatics. A large role in the study of Oriental coins was played by P. S. Savel’ev, V. V. Grigor’ev, V. G. Tizengauzen, A. K. Markov, and R. R. Fasmer. The study of Western European coinage developed little in Russia; finds of Western European coins on Russian territory were the primary object of study (B. V. Kene and, in modern times, N. P. Bauer). The study of Russian coins, which was begun in the late 18th century, was pursued by A. D. Chertkov, E. K. Gutten-Chapskii, I. I. Tolstoi, A. V. Oreshnikov, and A. A. Il’in.

In the USSR, research in numismatics has been concentrated at those museums having the largest coin collections (the Hermitage in Leningrad and the Historical Museum in Moscow—both with more than 1 million coins; the A. S. Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow; museums in Kiev, Tbilisi, and other cities), at the historical and archaeological institutes of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR and the academies of sciences of the Union republics, and at certain universities. Soviet numismatics sets as its task the comprehensive study of coins, above all the study of numismatic materials as a factor in the economic development of society and the history of commodity-money relations.

The most important present-day Soviet and foreign periodicals dealing with numismatics are Numizmatika i epigrafika (Numismatics and Epigraphy; Moscow, since 1960), Numizmatika i sfragistika (Numismatics and Sphragistics; Kiev, since 1963), Numismatic Chronicle (London, since 1838), Revue de la Numismatique (Paris, since 1838), and Numismatic Notes and Monographs (New York, since 1920).


Spasskii, I. G., and V. L. Ianin. “Sovetskaia numizmatika. Bibliografich. ukazatel’: 1917–1960.” In Numizmatika i epigrafika [nos.] 2–3. Moscow, 1960–62.
Severova, M. B. “Sovetskaia numizmatika: Bibliografich. ukazatel’, 1961–1965 g.” In Numizmatika i epigrafika [no.] 9. Moscow, 1963.
Fedorov-Davydov, G. A. Monety rasskazyvaiut (Numizmatika). Moscow, 1971.
Zograf, A. N. Antichnye monety. Moscow-Leningrad, 1951. (With bibliography.)
Tolstoi, I. I. Vizantiiskie monety [nos. 1–9]. St. Petersburg, 1912–14.
Markov, A. Topografiia kladov vostochnykh monet. St. Petersburg, 1910.
Davidovich, E. A. Istoriia monetnogo dela Srednei Azii XVII–XVIII vv. Dushanbe, 1964.
Pakhomov, E. A. Monety Gruzii. Tbilisi, 1970.
Bykov, A. A. Monety Kitaia. Leningrad, 1969.
Oreshnikov, A. Russkie monety do 1547 g. Moscow, 1896.
Il’in, A. A. Topografiia kladov drevnikh russkikh monet X–Xl v. i monet udel’nogo perioda. Leningrad, 1924.
Ianin, V. L. Denezhno-vesovye sistemy russkogo srednevekov’ia: Domongol’skii period. Moscow, 1956.
Spasskii, I. G. Russkaia monetnaia sistema, 4th ed. Leningrad, 1970.
Shorin, P. A. Monety SSSR: Al’bom-katalog. Moscow, 1971.
Halke, H. Einleitung in das Studium der Numismatik, 3rd ed. Berlin, 1905.
Friedensburg, F. Die Münze in der Kulturgeschichte, 2nd ed. Berlin, 1926.
Luschin Ebengreuth, A. von. Allgemeine Münzkunde und Geldgeschichte…, 2nd ed. Munich, 1926.
Einzig, P. Primitive Money in Its Ethnological, Historical and Economic Aspects. London [1949].
Quiggin, A. H. A Survey of Primitive Money. Strand, 1963.
Suhle, A. Die Münze [3rd ed.]. Leipzig, 1971.
Wörterbuch der Münzkunde. Berlin-Leipzig, 1930.
Clain-Stefanelli, E. E. Select Numismatic Bibliography. New York, 1965.
Seltman, C. T. Greek Coins. London [I960]. (With bibliography.)
Mattingly, H. Roman Coins, 3rd ed. London, 1962.
Hill, G. F. Ancient Greek and Roman Coins. Chicago, 1964.
Sabatier, J. Description générale des monnaies byzantines [2nd ed.], vols. 1–2. Paris, 1955.
Catalogue of Oriental Coins in the British Museum, vols. 1–[11]. London, 1875–91.
Engel, A., and R. Serrure. Traité de numismatique du moyen âge, [vols.] 1–3. Bologna, 1964.
Engel, A., and R. Serrure. Traité de numismatique moderne et contemporaine, parts 1–2. Paris, 1897–99.
Porteous, J. Coins in History. London, 1969.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


the study or collection of coins, medals, etc.
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
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