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When is a numismatist not a numismatist?

Written by Beulah | 28th May 2019

What is a numismatist? While some dictionaries may tell us that a numismatist is someone who studies coins, decades of debate suggest that it is not such an easy question to answer. Are they coin collectors? Are they scientists? Are they academics? Coin expert Helder Silva is here to talk us through this tricky topic.

Where did this confusion and animosity come from?

“It is understandable the lack of clarity and general definition given by the dictionary to the numismatist since there is no consensus of what the numismatist really is,” coin expert Helder Silva explains. “In the numismatic medium, many people confuse the numismatist with the collector, and worse still; confuse the coin collector with the numismatist.”

So what is the difference? And where does the confusion come from? “Numismatists do not only dwell on the explicit details in the metal, but also make efforts in studies and research that lead them to understand, in addition to the technical details, the historical contexts and social implications that transform the status of coins, from only metal and methods of payment, into priceless rarities… It is for these reasons that we consider numismatics to be a science. The science of studying coins.”

Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as designating certain coin-related activities as belonging to numismatists, and others as belonging to collectors. A certain amount of antipathy has always been part of the numismatist vs. collectors debate.


Bronze Roman Sestertius coin of Emperor Nero CE 54-68

“There is a certain rivalry, incomprehension and mutual prejudice between numismatists and collectors,” says Helder. “On the one hand, some numismatists think that collectors are superficial people, especially when they affirm untruths or create theories to value the pieces of their collection. It is not uncommon to see numismatists laughing at comments from collectors, especially with names that give certain "anomalies" of pieces.”

On the other hand,” Helder continues. “Some collectors think that numismatists are arrogant beings who [act like they] are the owners of knowledge. It is not uncommon to see collectors commenting that a certain numismatist is thick or does not consider what the numismatist X or Y says."

Numismatist or collector, it’s all about attitude and aptitude

The most effective way to distinguish between the numismatist and the collector appears to be by focusing on their attitude towards coins. As Helder explains: “The numismatist wants more [than superficial knowledge], they go after every detail of the coin; the numismatic value for it is not what is in the price-catalogues, it is what the coin represents or represented for the history of the place where it circulated.”

In contrast, collectors tend to be driven by emotional, rather than empirical, concerns: “[A collector] often begins by simply finding an interesting coin, and keeping it. During a spring clean they might find old coins… often they simply want to keep coins that were from a grandfather or close relative, usually because there is some emotional factor involved in possession.”

This is not to suggest that coin collectors don’t value knowledge, they simply come to it via a different, less academic route. “After a while, the collector will begin to obtain knowledge through literature specialized in numismatics, conversations with other collectors… The collector begins to position themselves differently; they acquire numismatic accessories to better store their coins, they begin to understand some numismatic terms, they can differentiate common pieces from sparse pieces and the latter from rare pieces.”


Tools of the trade, but which trade?

The crossover point, when someone moves from collection to numismatics, is a fascinating evolution: “When a collector begins to give a north to their collection, when they choose, for example, to collect "only copper coins", "only silver coins" or "only coins of a particular country", we realize that they are in a period of transition, on the way to becoming a numismatist.”

“There is nothing wrong with being a collector for several years, the numismatists at this stage are excited; at every gathering of collectors they want to take all coins home, on visits to houses of older people they want to know stories of money, they ask if their hosts have any old coins and relish the treasures they uncover.”

The fully-fledged numismatist, meanwhile: “Knows several areas of numismatics, but acknowledges that science is very comprehensive and chooses a specific area to focus on their studies. There are numismatists, for example, who focus on coins of a certain period of a country or on a particular type of coins, for example, the 960 reis. The numismatist will study this subject until it is exhausted and will have copies of coins that represent this subject well. You will look for as much literature as you can about it."

Helder has a word of warning for those who would try to pigeonhole numismatists as academics and collectors as amateurs: “Authors of numismatic book or catalogues do not have to be numismatists themselves. Sometimes we see literature written by great collectors.”

The future of the debate

“It is a fact that these barriers must be imploded! On the one hand, collectors need to hear more and understand that sometimes the numismatist gets tired of so many atrocities that are said in the numismatic medium and with that their answers seem to be arrogant.”

“On the other hand, the numismatists need to remember that they were collectors one day, they also had their doubts and in the heat of the moment, they could also have affirmed things or created theories that today would feel shame if they listened to themselves. It's all about patience and respect. If we achieve this, numismatics will grow greatly and consciousness will grow.”

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