by Ron Guth
Reprinted from the June 1996 issue of THE NUMISMATIST, the official publication of the American Numismatic Association
German issues represent one of the most popular areas of world coin collecting. Not only does the series enjoy a strong collector base in its home country, but American collectors, many of German descent, continue to enjoy the variety and challenge they represent. Krause Publications’ 1994 release of the “Standard Catalog of German Coins, 1601 to Present”, a 952 page reference, confirms their popularity.
At first glance, German coins appear daunting. These pieces have been issued for hundreds of years by a variety of rulers representing numerous cities, states, regions and periods. Commemorative issues seem to be the rule rather than the exception, and the wide variety of individual coin types can seem overwhelming. Nevertheless, if you are seeking a lifetime of collecting pleasure, you will enjoy the challenge these fascinating coins offer. The numismatist will find German coins a fertile field, virtually in its infancy compared to United States coins.
For newcomers to the series, I offer several collecting suggestions. Simply throwing money at this series most often results in a meaningless collection. Because it is so large, it is nearly impossible to collect every piece, even if you have unlimited funds.
Specialists with a long-range plan and well-defined goals will obtain the greatest satisfaction and build the most meaningful collections. The suggestions offered here are not meant to be all-inclusive or inflexible, since ultimately each individual controls the destiny of his or her own collection. Using these ideas as a basis, you will develop collecting goals to meet your individual needs.
Many American families already have an accumulation of German coins, most of which were brought to the United States by servicemen returning from World War II. These coins can be the basis of a lifelong journey into the interesting world of German coin collecting. By implementing or adapting the methods outlined here, your journey will be easier and more enjoyable.
Prior to 1807, Germany was made up of a large number of “states”, many of which issued their own coins, tokens and medals. Germany changed constantly throughout its history, with cities joining cities, and regions absorbing regions.
Many collectors attempt to obtain a numismatic item from each location. Some states, like Prussia, are represented by numerous types and denominations; others, like Wallmoden-Gimborn, are represented by only a few coins, most of which are expensive. Collecting by location can be made even more challenging by extending the scope of the collection to earlier periods.
An interesting sideline is colonial issues, from the breathtaking “Bird of Paradise” pieces of German New Guinea to the crude brass and copper 20 Heller coins of German East Africa (Tanzania).
2. Collect by Denomination:
Prior to the formation of the German Empire by Bismarck in 1871, various regions issued numerous denominations, particularly in base metals. A quick look at German States coinages of the 1800s reveals different uses of hellers, groschens, guldens, vereinsthalers and marks, plus fractional and multiple denominations. A collection by denomination illustrates the economic and governmental diversity that is a rich part of German history.
3. Collect by Type:
Depending on the time period it covers, a collection of German type coins might be completed easily – or it might take a lifetime. If you focus on the modern era, it is fairly simple and not too expensive. On the other hand, collecting all types of coins issued by the German States in the 1800s is not a simple goal. Adding periods and/or gold issues increases dramatically the time, patience and money required to achieve your goal.
4. Collect by Series:
Certain series have enjoyed relatively long lives with few design changes. For instance, the national 1-mark series, first struck in 1873, has only six design changes. The design type issued from 1891-1916 parallels the United States’ Barber quarter series, yet the 1 mark sells for as little as $10 in uncirculated condition.
5. Collect by Mintmark:
As you might expect, there are a variety of issuing mints and mintmarks. However, the mints outnumber the mintmarks, because several mints used the same mintmark (this is similar to a “D” mintmark representing both Denver and Dahlonega on U.S. coins). On German coins, a “D” might represent Aurich, Duesseldorf or Munich, depending on the time period. There is no correlation between the mintmark and the name of the mint. Thus, “A” mintmarks are found on coins struck at Berlin, “HK” on coins of Rostock, and “S” on coins of Dresden. On the other hand, one mint may have used more than one mintmark. For example, Dresden (in Saxony) used “H” from 1804-1812, “S” from 1813-1832 and “G” from 1833-1844.
6. Collect by Ruler:
The German States had a variety of rulers, some unique to their region or locality, others who ruled one or more cities or regions. The German coin series is replete with dukes, princes and kings.
7. Collect Proofs:
German collectors prefer high-grade circulated and mint-state business strikes to proofs, thus many values abound in all series, from the German States to the low-mintage issues of West Germany. Although certain proof issues are expensive, American collectors who are accustomed to the high prices of U.S. proof coins will find many relative values in the German series.
8. Collect Patterns:
Like proofs, patterns receive little attention from German collectors. If German proofs are undervalued when compared to their American counterparts, then German patterns are even more so, although they are just as rare as U.S. patterns. Curiously, German numismatic reference books list some major errors with patterns.
9. Collect by Time Period:
Many collectors like to focus on defined time periods, and German coins lend themselves well to this method of collecting.
17th Century. While popular, this period requires advanced numismatic skills because information is difficult to find. References tend to be highly specialized and localized, and accurate pricing and rarity information is almost nonexistent. The recent release of Standard Catalog of German Coins, 1601 to Present should increase collector interest dramatically.
1700-1871. A wide variety of towns, regions and states issued many interesting denominations and obscure emissions during this period. It was a time of gute-groschens, fractional and double thalers, kreuzers and schillings issued by places like Anhalt-Bernberg, East Friesland, Hohenzollern-Hechingen, Munster and Reuss-Schleiz. Information is readily available, and items are not difficult to locate. Most collectors acquire examples of each type, although the more ambitious attempt to acquire one of everything. At least one numismatist (this writer) is attempting to record die varieties for the Bavarian “Madonna” thalers of the mid to late 1700s. Surprisingly, many coins that catalog for less than $25 are as difficult to locate as some of the much more expensive rarities. Some purists limit themselves to coins dated in the 1700s, while others restrict their collecting to 1800-71.
1871-1918 (Empire). A more systematic series of coins was produced during the Empire period. Silver coins, many of which were commemoratives, were issued by cities, regions and states in 2-, 3-, and 5-mark denominations. Denominations of 1 mark and smaller were standardized and issued nationwide by a variety of mints.
1919-1933 (Weimar Republic). This period is noted for the introduction of the short-lived Rentenpfennig and its multiple versions; the lovely series of silver 3- and 5-mark commemoratives; and the inflationary denominations of 200 and 500 mark.
1933-1945 (Third Reich). This series is a real challenge because its zinc issues are difficult to locate in nice, uncorroded condition. Most collectors include the Allied Occupation issues of 1945-48.
1948-1990 (German Democratic Republic – East Germany). This series is noted for numerous 5-, 10-, and 20-mark commemoratives in copper-nickel and silver, most with historical (and several with Communist) themes. Minor coins, struck primarily in aluminum, generally were disregarded by collectors, who only recently started to recognize their rarity.
1948-date (Federal Republic of Germany – West Germany and Germany). From 1948 to 1990, this series consists of West German issues; after 1990 and the unification of East and West Germany, the East German coinage system was abandoned and that of West Germany adopted as the national coinage. Commemorative issues begin in 1952 with the rare and popular Nurnberg Museum issue. One or more commemorative issues have appeared annually since 1966, with the 10 mark replacing the 5 mark in 1987.