A numismatist or a collector - is there a difference?

Numismatist vs Collector
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The word "numismatics" is not often heard outside the banknote and coin collecting community. Mention the word "numismatics" to anyone you meet on the street, you will almost certainly to get the "excuse me?" kind of reaction, as if it was some foreign language! In fact that kind of reaction is quite "normal" for a "numismatist". Worse if you tell people that you are a numismatist, they'll go "what?".

Like any other field of study or job specialization, such terminologies or "buzzwords" as they are commonly referred to, often sound unfamiliar. Take the medical profession for example, I am sure all of you know what a doctors are and what they do. But have you heard of cardiologist, gastroenterologist, oncologist, pathologist and radiologist ? No? I am not surprised. All of these are specialists professions for the heart, gut, cancer, lab tests and X-ray/imaging, They are your garden variety medical practitioners which are commonly found in your local hospital.

So it follows that a numismatist is a person who specializes in numismatics.

Now lets examine the root word "numismatics" and what it means. I have compiled several definitions from various sources. Let's start with the most obvious one from Wikipedia :

"Numismatics is the study or collection of currency, including coins, tokens, paper money, and related objects. While numismatists are often characterized as students or collectors of coins, the discipline also includes the broader study of money and other payment media used to resolve debts and the exchange of goods."

Oxford Learners Dictionary has a more succinct version :

"the study of coins and medals"

This is Merriam-Webster's dictionary go at it :

"the study or collection of coins, tokens, and paper money and sometimes related objects (as medals)"

In comparison, this is the American Numismatic Society (ANS) definition :

"study of coins and money, of coins and coin-like objects"

It interesting to note that the word "numismatics", like most English words, has its origins from other languages; in this case it is the French word numimsatique, which in turn can be traced to the Greek word νόμισμα (nomisma) which means "current coin/custom" and eventually traced to νέμω (nemō), meaning "I dispense, divide, assign, keep, hold", which is what we actually do with money.

Speaking of foreign languages, in Han Chinese, it is "錢幣學", pronounced Qiánbì xué or written as 钱币学 in Simplified Chinese; which literally means "study of money and currency". In other Asian languages such as Hindi, it is मुद्राशास्त्र, pronounced as "mudrashastr"

Whatever the language, one thing is consistent - the use of key word "STUDY"; and if you look that up on Google, here's what it says :

1. the devotion of time and attention to acquiring knowledge on an academic subject, especially by means of books.

2. a detailed investigation and analysis of a subject or situation.

So when you put all of that together, numismatics is about spending time in acquiring knowledge about coins and currency, including investigation and analysis.

And what about collecting? If you have noticed, all the definitions for numismatics above seems to place less emphasis on collecting. To "collect" is to

"bring or gather together (things, typically when scattered or widespread)"

Wikipedia provides further insight into the term collecting, which it elaborates :

"The hobby of collecting includes seeking, locating, acquiring, organizing, cataloging, displaying, storing, and maintaining whatever items are of interest to the individual collector. The scope of collecting is unlimited: "If something exists, somebody somewhere collects them."

Essentially collecting is to assemble something or another of the same category in one place or under one ownership. Collecting is indeed a form of hobby or addiction (which can be classified as hoarding) that has been around for as long as mankind's existence. People have collected anything from sea shells, stamps, toys, Nutcrackers, dolls, books and whatever you can think of! It is estimated that one third of all of adults have collected one thing or another at some point of their lives.

Now collecting is just the act of accumulating, it may or MAY NOT include studying the artifacts or subject matter itself. Most people collect out of curiosity, some out of admiration, nostalgia and/or out of what psychologist would call the act of "extending oneself".

At this point, it is obvious that there is the DIFFERENCE between collecting and studying.

Those who collect may not necessarily study it and those who study it may not necessarily collect them. So a collector may or may not be a numismatist. A numismatist may or may not be a collector.

Just as the in real world, I personally know people who collect for the purpose of investment i.e. making money. While some people collect out of their passion for the historical significance of the object in question and they study the object and its background, the time it was made, how they were made, its history, cultural impact etc. And at the other end of the spectrum are those who study them just for the research and do not personally collect them - museum and university research staff is one good example for this category; they do exist but they are quite rare.

Fig 1. Numismatist vs. Collector
Fig 1. Numismatist vs. Collector
There is nothing wrong with being either one or both of them. One is free to do whatever pleases him or her, thru whatever means. For myself, I fall into the second category i.e. studying it more for the interest and passion of it, and I also happen to collect so that I can refer to them as and when I can. I also do borrow items from fellow collectors from time to time to study and document them, especially the counterfeits and altered ones.

From my many encounters with people within the hobby there seems to be some confusion from time to time when these two words numismatist & collector are used interchangeably and very often I get asked questions like the one on the title of this blog entry. Hence the response.

Now I certainly hope this blog has helped in some way in clarifying this matter!

In the meantime, HAPPY COLLECTING .... and / or HAPPY STUDYING, whichever you may be.

Update : 10:45am 14 Oct 1015

P.S. Since this blog entry was posted there were some additional questions about the matter. I think the issue is not so much about having the official qualifications, there are many enthusiast who actually know more than the experts. The main thing is the drive to learn more and understand the subject matter that makes the difference. If you want to really learn something, you will spend time reading, thinking, asking questions and look for the answers, doesn't really matter if you have the formal qualifications or not. I decided to get a formal qualification because I want to be a grader and to be able to do a proper job of it and formal qualification is essential.


  1. A Collector does not a numismatist make and a Numismatist does not a collector make, but the true collector is more likely to become a numismatist.
    The dealer is often called a numismatist but how much does he /she really study apart from the bank balance.
    As you say often a numismatist will use other's items for study and comparison. after all only the extremely wealthy could hope to obtain everything they want of their collecting/ field of study.