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Coin Collecting 101: Understanding the Features, Images, and Inscriptions on a Coin

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Penny that is a collectible coin from Atlantas Gold & Coin Buyers in Atlanta < GATo most people, U.S. coins display two very distinct features: the denomination and a portrait of a past president (or other images representing America). But to coin enthusiasts, collectors, and silver coin dealers, coins have a rather complex anatomy. Here’s what those most obvious features, images, and inscriptions mean.

Devices and Fields

“Devices” and “fields” are the most basic anatomical features of a coin. Devices are the design elements, including the portrait and images, as well as the mint date and other inscriptions. The field is the smooth background surface of the coin onto which the devices are placed. Sometimes the devices are impressed onto the coin’s surface (called “incuse”), and other times they’re raised above the field (called “relief”). The “rim” is the raised edge around each side of the coin. It protects the design from wear over time.

Inscriptions and Mint Marks

That portrait or principal inscription actually has a name: it’s the “legend.” The country name and inspirational sayings, called “mottos,” are also devices inscribed onto the coin; think “E Pluribus Unum” and “In God We Trust.” The “mintmark” is another important device. Small letters indicate which U.S. Mint produced the coin: Denver (D), Philadelphia (P), San Francisco (S), or West Point (W). The coin is also inscribed with the year it was minted and the denomination.

Three Sides of a Coin

Believe it or not, there are proper names for the “heads” and “tails” sides of a coin! The front is called “obverse,” while the back side is called “reverse.” But while most people only see two sides to a coin, gold coin dealers and collectors actually see three sides: that outer border of the coin is considered to be the third side, called the “edge.” The edge could be plain, reeded, lettered, or decorated in some way.

Evaluate Your Collection Today

Of course, there is much more to understand about the anatomy of a coin than just its basic features and inscriptions, including its size, weight, shape, metallic composition, finish, and security features. Whether you’re a lifelong coin collector or you’re thinking of selling an inherited collection, Atlanta Gold & Coin Buyers can help you understand what your coins are worth. Call us at 404-236-9744 to schedule an appraisal appointment with our gold coin dealers, or check out our automated selling tool.

Tony Davis
Tony Davis
Tony Davis is the owner of Atlanta Gold & Coin Buyers, a full service Atlanta based coin and bullion dealer specializing in buying, selling and appraising coins and coin collections of all types and sizes. Tony frequently writes on various economic and numismatic related topics affecting the coin and bullion markets and has been published on some of the industry’s leading websites, including Coin Week, the American Numismatic Association, Coin Collector, Coinflation, and Coin Auctions Help, just to name a few. Visit Atlanta Gold & Coin’s website at to obtain additional information on the products, services and educational resources offered by his company. Tony can be reached at or at 404-236-9744

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