During the ancient times that predate modern coinage, there were thousands of different types of items people bartered for things of value. Many of these were "found" items, such as shells, but some were handicrafts, like beads. No fixed value was attributed to any of these items, and they were exchanged for food, textiles, and other commodities by haggling directly with individuals who had items to trade. In the seventh century, however, coins began to appear and become more standardized, and numismatics, the study of currency, began to take shape as well.
In practice, it's hard to study coins and paper bills without collecting them. The first people to pursue numismatics were aristocrats and royals, leading to the name it retains to the present day, "the hobby of kings." Prior to the Renaissance, only the wealthiest and most well-connected people could possibly hope to collect the ancient coins that offered insight into the life and times of places such as imperial Rome, ancient Greece, and Persia. However, it was not until the grand proliferation of standardized currency in the Renaissance that it became "big business."
Throughout the Renaissance, larger and larger groups of aristocrats, both men and women, had their agents scour the globe in search of ancient coins. Ancient coins were in such demand that artists were commissioned to create replicas of the portraits and architectural art on old coins, not for monetary use or as forgeries but simply so that a collection would seem more complete. It took more than a century before numismatics grew into an academic research topic; up until the 1700s, researchers simply couldn't get their hands on the most important coins!
In the 1800s, numismatics began to evolve into the hobby we know today, complete with a variety of handbooks to help with identification of rare and valuable coins and bills. By the 1900s, amateur coin-collecting societies began to emerge throughout the world. There are now hundreds of thousands of rare and unusual coins and bills sought by collectors. Professional dealers support the hobbyist market through their rigorous training in identifying authentic items. Top-tier professionals are as knowledgeable as any art critic or other antique appraiser.
Numismatics is a fun and exciting hobby because there's always more to discover. You can hold a piece of history in your hands and learn all about it, and some collections grow so big and so comprehensive that they even have investment value. Even if investment isn't your goal, a diligent collector can amass a hoard that will serve as a treasured keepsake for generations. It's easy to get started, but you may need a few basic items of equipment to organize things. That includes a coin album for holding your finds, a magnifying glass, and a reference guide.
As with stamps, some of the most valuable currency items you can collect are those with unusual, minor flaws. That's one reason why it's important to closely examine every coin or bill you get. You don't need special coins to get started, though: You can begin with your own pocket change, with foreign coins from a trip, or with a few commemorative coins approved by the U.S. Mint. Connecting with other numismatists is vital, but you'll learn more if you master coin vocabulary first. For example, a coin's "head" is called the obverse; "tails" is the reverse.
No matter where you are in the United States or around the world, odds are good that there is a society of numismatists you can join. Likewise, major museums that study ancient history will sometimes give seminars about numismatics. There's no shortage of intriguing coins and bills to collect, so most people find numismatics is a life-long pursuit. Any time that currency changes anywhere in the world, there's potential for your collection to grow, so the best way to establish a terrific collection is to get started right away. Who knows what you might find?
To learn more about the exciting world of numismatics, consult these resources: